Lean on me



The British Touring Car Championship’s rough and tumble season continues. The thorny question of driving standards has risen again. Where does one draw the line?

The cognoscenti are beginning to grumble. So are some of the drivers. “If it carries on like this something is going to have to be done about it,” explained one of BTCC’s newest recruits after the support race at the British Grand Prix. However, according to some observers and track rivals, the speaker gave as good as he got. “Stock cars” mutter the cognoscenti (and a returning Andy Rouse), a phrase guaranteed to make every BTCC pilot bristle with indignation. Britain’s premier racing series has a problem. Its success has undoubtedly brought the sport new fans, who greedily soak up the panel-bending, paint-swapping antics of their heroes. But has it gone too far?

There is very little give and take in the BTCC at the moment, even between teammates; witness the Silverstone antics of Vauxhall’s John Cleland and Ieff Allam, and, more spectacularly, the Toyota Carinas of Will Hoy and Julian Bailey. Yet the race provided thrill-a-minute action as the colourful train bobbed, weaved, bumped and bored its way around the track. It was impossible not to be swept along by the excitement, and it was only as I sat in the traffic leaving the circuit that any reflection was possible. Were there too many incidents? Hoy and Bailey, Cleland and Allam, Alain Menu and Tiff Needell, Needell and Tim Harvey, Harvey and Alex Portman. Is there a problem? What can be done about it?

Exciting, wasn’t it? Howsoever this issue is tackled by the organisers, be it by fines, stop-n-go penal ties, a licence points system, or sin bin, the only people who can truly deal with it are the drivers. For it is they who make the split second decisions, it is they who decide if they are being held up unfairly. However, although they have the best view of the incidents in question, they make for bad witnesses. It’s not that they lie, it’s just that they think they are in the right, indubitably. The number of drivers who have owned up to an accident-causing mistake this season can be counted on one hand. But if you were of the kind who admitted to fault all the time, you wouldn’t have wanted to be a racing driver.

If you are not prepared to stand your corner in the BTCC you will be eaten alive, swamped. If you pass Cleland during a race you just know that he will be coming right back at you. The drivers know what’s going on: “You can race with him”, “he never looks in his mirrors”, “he can’t set a car up to save his life”. The pressures are high, the cars are equally matched, overtaking is difficult, but to see a driver’s face after a closely fought, but fair, dice clarifies that it is this which still gives them the buzz, not the crash ’em, smash ’em antics. Indeed, to concentrate on the incidents detracts from the classic doorhandling battles that have brought the crowds flocking in. The Hoy/Cleland dice at Donington was sensational. Steve Soper went to such lengths to avoid running into Kieth O’dor’s winning Nissan Primera, at Silverstone, that he eventually wore through a Yokohama canvas because of his wheel locking moments and retired because of it.

At Knockhill Cleland and Bailey sat it out into the braking area of a very tricky corner at this narrow track and yet emerged unscathed, each complimenting the other on his behaviour. This is what it needs. More trust something sadly lacking in the higher echelons of Formula One. If Ayrton Senna draws alongside and you give him the inch he requires you are not thanked, rather you are marked down in his book as a mug, some body who can be bullied. Alain Prost fights by the old rules; if another driver is able to get alongside and claim the corner you give him room, confident in the knowledge that if the positions were reversed he would do the same for you.

The likes of Senna broke this chain, he being a true talent rather than one of the inept or bloody-minded who cause ire to be raised momentarily by wandering into people’s paths or refusing to give way; it needed one of the greats truly to bring this house of cards tumbling down. It reminds me of the Monty Python block of flats that existed only in its occupants’ minds all was fine until somebody questioned it . . . In stark contrast to Formula One, the atmosphere in the BTCC is relaxed. It’s a serious business, but the drivers are approachable. Generally, they are satisfied with their lot for this is as far as they want to go. They have reached their goal.

They are not a bunch of up-and-corners with chips on their shoulders. Consequently, an atmosphere of trust should be easier to build up. However, one problem may be the increasing number of single-seater men turning to touring cars for employment. In their previous arena it was black and white; the slightest contact was too much. This is a much greyer area for the saloons, and door-to-door contact is not to be confused with a hearty shove in the rear quarter. It’s obvious really, but once you start to analyse it the problem appears to intensify. Leave it to the drivers. A good pilot is a good pilot. Bailey’s mistake at Silverstone could be put down to inexperience; for a split second he was back in a F1 car, complete with its mind-bending brakes. Yet two weeks later he scored his first touring car win thanks to a commanding performance in Scotland.

So how should this “problem” be policed? To be fair, the drivers have mooted the idea of establishing a clear set of rules for overtaking, which should be in place by the time you read this. But when the flag drops . . . At the end of the day, a perceived gap is still a gap.

Attitudes may change overnight if the manufacturers tire of seeing their cars circulate with panel damage. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you. How does a luxury car maker such as BMW view one of its cars trailing a bumper around the track? But then how does it view its status symbol being beaten by Vauxhall’s ultimate repmobile? The championship has almost reached the stage whereby a manufacturer cannot afford not to be in it.

Hypothesis, hypothesis. Ten deep all around Oulton Park, 25,000 at Snetterton. There can’t be much wrong with it. Enjoy it. Exciting, isn’t it? P T F