Relight the fire

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179

Alan Gow first took charge of the BTCC as it hit its Super Touring stride. Second time round, he’s manufacturing a different success story
By Paul Fearnley

Twenty years ago at Silverstone, the late Will Hoy, bless his fireproof socks, won the opening round of a new-look British Touring Car Championship. Saloonatics of all shapes and capacities had been door-handling since 1958; the difference this time was that the long-standing yet always confusing class system – each division usually dominated by a single make and model – had been swept away in favour of a straightforward first-past-the-post format.

That much was sensible and palatable. Harder to swallow was the swap from flame-spitting 500bhp Ford Sierra Cosworths to a grid full of buzzboxes. BMW’s M3 had a racing pedigree, but even that had been emasculated: 2-litre instead of 2.3. Its opposition was a liverish all-sorts of Carinas, Cavaliers and Primeras: front-wheel-drive, four-door frumps. Harrumph. The news was not received with much enthusiasm.

But if you looked beyond the be-winged Fords, the BTCC’s future was not as bleak as feared. The 2-litres had begun racing in 1990 as an addendum to the Cossies – and it wasn’t half bad. Tyro John Cleland spanked his Cav to terrier-ise Frank Sytner’s Beemer to the extent that the latter’s scalp steamed and stout marshals had to separate them after a tangle at the Birmingham Superprix. Hey, this mattered. Within four years, 10 manufacturer-backed teams were slugging it out in their Class 2 repmobiles. Super Touring, as the FIA rechristened it in 1995, went global, and Renault deemed it sufficiently important to employ Williams, then the dominant force of Formula 1, to run its Lagunas in the BTCC.

*

Riding this wave, guiding it where and when he could, was an Australian who had reinforced the stereotype by popping over to visit the Poms for a few months and staying for 20 years – and counting. Melbourne’s Alan Gow had a background in touring cars through his management of a team for Peter ‘Perfect’ Brock – bless his fireproof socks, too. He knew how prestigious a national tin-top championship could become if it remained faithful to its markets. He knew, too, that the teams would have to take control if this were to happen. What occurred, however, was not the result of a carefully devised scheme. Right place, right time – right, mate?

“I was working with Andy Rouse in 1990 and ’91,” says Gow. “We had previously bought a couple of Sierras from him and he came to Australia to race with us at Bathurst. He had always admired our ‘Peter Brock’ road cars for Holden and wanted to do something similar with his Sierras. I was helping that to happen. I had no plans for the BTCC.

“The 2-litre regs had been laid down in 1989 by Andy, David Richards of Prodrive, and team bosses Dave Cook and Vic Lee. I agreed with the one-class system, but it wasn’t my idea. The same guys also persuaded the RACMSA, as it was then known, to solely adopt the formula by 1991. What was my idea was TOCA. I had done the same thing in Oz, where I was a founder member of TEGA, the association of teams that took over the promotion of the ATCC from CAMS, the governing body. Motor racing is full of smart-arses who think they can do better. I’m one of them.”

By his own admission a ‘Harry Nobody’, it was the credibility provided by the prominent names behind him that convinced the RACMSA to listen to Gow’s proposal. Organisers rather than promoters, the thought of income without the aggro was appealing and a deal was done. TOCA, an acronym of nothing in particular, was in charge of the BTCC by 1992. The timing was perfect. Group A, an expensive homologatory cul-de-sac, was on its way out, leaving the door open for a new international formula for touring cars.

“Class 2 was a hard sell to begin with,” admits Gow. “I myself was used to big V8 tourers; a Sierra Cosworth was a piddling four-cylinder as far as we Aussies were concerned. But that all stopped when the racing started. The appeal around the world was huge because it was a great TV spectacle. How big an engine a car had was academic.”

The formula spread from America to Japan via South Africa – and Paris: “Yeah, we were all wary when the FIA got fully involved [in 1995]. It was a double-edged sword. Adopting 2-litre worldwide opened up a huge market for us and drew in new manufacturers but, as we feared it might, it ramped up the costs.”

BTCC budgets, already on the increase from £200,000, rocketed to £7-8 million for the biggest teams. It wasn’t sustainable in the long term. In the short term, it was fantastic. In 1994, more than 40,000 people crammed into Oulton Park to watch a 16-lapper. (Quite why double-headers didn’t become the norm until ’95 is beyond us – and Gow.) Race footage would then be slickly post-produced – onboard cameras, Murray’s trousers on fire – by Barrie Hinchcliffe Productions and distributed to TV stations worldwide. For a time the BTCC was third in motor sport’s viewing pecking order behind F1 and the World Rally Championship. It was a national championship with international reach.

The Beeb took note of this growth and asked to show some rounds live. Gow, worried about the negative effect of a processional race in front of a stay-at-home crowd, was reluctant – until he was asked to name another sport adversely affected by such coverage. He couldn’t. And it didn’t.

Super Touring even stormed the citadel: Bathurst, from 1997-98. ‘Turncoat’ Gow stresses that the host broadcaster invited him over after its spat with the V8 teams, but he copped some serious flak nevertheless. It’s tribal Down Under – Ford or Holden – but for once blue and red were united in their contempt.

The Mountain proved to be Super Touring’s peak. Now for The Dipper. Nigel Mansell in a Mondeo, groundbreaking mandatory pitstops and night races could not stem the BTCC’s inevitable decline. Eight manufacturers in 1998 were whittled to six in ’99 and three by 2000. When American marketing giant Interpublic Group came calling in the guise of Octagon, Gow was ready to do business.

“I’d had enough,” he says. “I could see the writing on the wall. Octagon was buying up lots of things: Brands Hatch Leisure’s circuits, Silverstone’s lease, us. I didn’t think that they would do as badly as they did. But we shouldn’t complain, because they left a lot of money in the sport.”

Astutely retaining the rights to the successful TOCA video games, Gow went motor sport cold turkey bar his continued management of Aussie hotshoe James Courtney. He had left at the right time and had no intention to return.

In the entrance hall of MSA headquarters in Colnbrook, 100ft beneath Heathrow’s glide path, is an honours board listing past chairmen. It brims with gentry and Knights of the Realm. But scroll down to the most recent incumbent, and there he is: Alan J Gow, 2006-. He had been the most influential man in British national motor sport during the 1990s, too – it’s just that these days it’s more official, enshrined. He’s also president of the FIA Touring Car Commission and a member of the RAC Board.

“Poacher turned gamekeeper, hey?” he grins. “Although we didn’t always agree, I’ve always had a good relationship with the MSA. I was invited onto a couple of committees and became a bit of a squeaky wheel to them, I think. But they asked me to join the board – perhaps they hoped to institutionalise me! – and eventually I became chairman. There is a really good bunch of people here. It’s not perfect, no organisation is, but I’m pretty sure that it’s better than it’s ever been.

“I had no history of governance and some people no doubt chortled at my appointment. I don’t pretend to be universally popular, but I would like to think that I have at least earned the motor sport community’s respect.”

You have. But hang on, we’ve skipped a bit. It is from the tiller of the BTCC that Gow is able to hang these many hats. What persuaded him to grasp it again in the first place?

“Dennis Carter [the BARC’s chief executive] and Robert Fearnall [at Donington Park] kept banging on at me about their frustrations with the BTCC,” says Gow. “They could see that it needed a bit of a kick. Octagon approached me a couple of times and I ended up working with them – for a month. The deal was simple: give me a free rein within certain budget restrictions.”

Beleaguered Octagon relinquished control of the BTCC in 2003 and a new company was formed to take over its management: BARC (TOCA), of which Gow became managing director. He was back. It wasn’t long before he was wondering why.

“It’s been much harder than it was first time around,” he explains. “Then, I took over something that had already been introduced; I just built on it. This time, I took over in the middle of a season a championship that had become fragmented; there was a Production class to bolster the numbers. I took it back to where it had been in the early 1990s, with a one-class structure. First past the post is crucial. These are sprint races. No strategy. No need to complicate.

“The other problem was product: there wasn’t enough of it. The FIA’s Super 2000 regulations had just been introduced and I decided to include them alongside the standalone BTC-spec cars [the 2001 Super Touring replacements]. You didn’t have to be a genius to see what needed to be done.”

There was no flood of manufacturers this time and so recovery has been slow, but steady. As of 2011, there are 27 cars on the grid and viewing figures are higher than they were in the ’90s thanks to the most comprehensive TV broadcast arrangement in the BTCC’s history, with ITV. Enabled by this increasing security, Gow has taken the next big step.

*

Next Generation Touring Cars are designed to be future-proof. The process of their creation, however, links them with the past. As happened in 1989, the teams have defined the parameters: 2-litre turbo – a generic unit supplied by TOCA if required – standardised track (1875mm) and wishbone suspension front and rear.

“Some base components are unsatisfactory for track use,” says Gow. “These regulations mean that you don’t have to go to the expense of homologation to be competitive. Our aim was to create more equal cars. We sat down a load of clever engineers and asked them to come up with a formula for a car that was cheaper, faster and better-looking. My only role after that was to keep them moving in the right direction; engineers tend to get carried away and forget about budgets. We’ve come up with a great spec. It’s different to the new WTCC cars [1.6 turbos], but there’s really no such thing as a one-size-fits-all touring car formula for the entire world. National championships have differing cost bases, differing relevance, different everything.”

Introduced this season, NGTCs are racing alongside Super 2000s – the Chevrolets and BMWs – and hybrids with S2000 chassis and NGTC engines. Capable of coping with more power than is currently available, they will, however, become the dominant force by 2013.

“The BTCC has always been about adjusting levels of performance,” says Gow. “In the mid-90s we had front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive and four-wheel drive; four, five and six cylinders. It’s a lot easier now; we reset the boost rather than just mess with base weights. But we can reset up as well as down. That’s part of the concept. As from 2013, we will start increasing the speed of the Next Generation cars.”

Providing competitors and sponsors with value for money, a level playing field and a broadening profile is easy – but only if you have the knack. It’s the same with timing. Gow possesses both. What he’s short of is time for reflection. It’s only fair, therefore, that we allow him a couple of minutes every 20 years or so: “I got a lot of satisfaction from the BTCC of the 1990s because we were kings of the world; we couldn’t do a thing wrong. My second stint has been very different in lots of ways, but just as satisfying.” Cue unprintable, self-deprecating Aussie vernacular. And back to work.

View from the cockpit
Was Super Touring better than today’s BTCC? Matt Neal’s not so sure…

A two-time BTCC champion, 6ft 6in Matt Neal from Stourbridge has seen it all. He made his debut in 1991 as a 24-year-old at the wheel of a BMW M3. Since then he has missed just one season and started more than 400 races. The bulk of those have been undertaken with his father Steve’s team, but he has also had works drives with Mazda, Peugeot (very briefly), Vauxhall and Honda. In 1999, he won £250,000 as the first Independent to win a race, and only Jason Plato and Andy Rouse can better his current tally of 41 victories.

What is the biggest difference between now and then?
The playing field is more level than it was in the Super Touring days. Back then, the Independents weren’t given the same tyres or engines as the works teams. You were two seconds a lap off the pace even before you’d turned a wheel. Ironically, I’m seeing the reverse of that now: I’m driving a manufacturer’s car [Honda Civic] and the cards are being stacked in favour of the Independents.

How have you maintained your motivation?
The buzz from driving fast is not what it was. And I don’t think I could go back to what I was doing in the ’90s, striving for a top 10 position. Working with a team is what I get off on, performing well in every race, not making mistakes, which is difficult given the physicality of the racing. Testing in the Super Touring era was unlimited; we were out every week. Now we’re only allowed four days once the season has started. That means that experience counts for a lot. I enjoy that.

Is the racing different?
The new cars have much less aero. The final Super Touring cars were pretty much formula cars in that you couldn’t run too close to the car in front because you’d lose your downforce, the balance would go and you’d ruin your tyres. You can run nose to tail with today’s cars, which is much better. They’re more robust, too. They were a bit too fragile by the end of the Super Touring era. The new turbo engine is also a step in the right direction.

Has the atmosphere changed?
I don’t think the racing has lost out. We’ve always had close battles with a lot of gamesmanship between the drivers. But I think we miss the rivalry between the major manufacturers, the cheering and the booing. Aggro is what puts bums on seats. I guess that’s what Jason [Plato] and I provide now.

Any regrets?
I would have liked to do more international stuff, but it’s easier to raise sponsorship for the BTCC because its promotion is so good. That said, although the total viewing figures are high, I think we suffer from not being on one of the main UK channels [it’s shown on ITV4]. TV makes the series, feeds the fans. We did well to hang on to it when the championship was at its lowest ebb.

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