Podcast: Norbert Singer, Porsche's winning formula
The architect of Porsche's sports car racing triumphs for 40 years, Norbert Singer joins us for a podcast to explore the company's remarkable record of success
Our final Motor Sport podcast of 2016, in association with Mercedes-Benz, and we sat down with British Touring Car Championship boss Alan Gow.
We chat Peter Brock, the past, present and future of the BTCC and even the possibility of a night race…
To download the podcast go to our Soundcloud page.
Ed Foster: Hello everyone and welcome to the final Motor Sport podcast of 2016 in association with Mercedes Benz.
I’m Ed Foster and I’m the Online Editor of Motor Sport Magazine.
We have saved the best till last and today we have persuaded British Touring Car Championship boss Alan Gow to come in and talk to us. Alan, thank you so much for sparing some of your time.
Alan Gow: Thank you for asking me, I’m looking forward to it.
EF: Also with me today, Features Editor Simon Arron and the only professional on the team, Alan Hyde, who tries his very best to make us all sound like Terry Wogan. Alan, as always, thank you very much.
Alan Gow, I mentioned just then we managed to persuade you to come in. It wasn’t a case of putting a gun to your head, but I put together some of the things you do on a daily basis. You’re best known for being the Series Director of the BTCC. For those who don’t know, you’re also the chairman of the Motor Sports Association, president of the FIA Touring Car Commission, Chairman of International Motorsports Limited which is the commercial arm of the MSA and organises the British Grand Prix and Wales Rally GB, Committee Member of the Motorsport Industry Association, Board Director and Trustee of both the FIA Foundation and the FIA Institute and the Manager of Champion Australian driver James Courtney and as of a few months ago, a board member of the Royal Automobile Club.
Do you have a big problem with saying no?
AG: I have a big problem with saying no to ones that I actually want to do. But more to the point is my wife encourages me greatly to go and do these things because I drive her mad when I’m around the house.
EF: That’s fair enough. Today we have loads of reader’s questions, especially about the BTCC. I wouldn’t say it’s wrong for me, but I think lots of fans are saying this as well, it is a golden era at the moment in terms of the competitiveness, the names in there. Is that how you see it at the moment?
AG: Yes it is, everyone looks back at the 90s as the golden era and it was a golden era of the BTCC and it went through a slump and all series go through the highs and lows and we’re back into the high again. It is another golden era that we’re going through and one of those eras that people will look back on fondly in 10, 20, 30 years’ time.
Simon Arron: Which era do you consider Messrs Plato and Neal belong to, because they transcend several, they have 44-45 years between them. It’s quite a lot.
AG: Actually Mat belongs to those eras more, because he started in the BTCC than Jason, I think Matt was there in ’91, Jason started in ’97 – I’ll be corrected – please during this whole podcast, my whole memory on dates is horrible, so I’ll probably gets some dates wrong.
EF: Do what I say: sometime in the early 90s, that’s what I usually use.
AG: I’m lucky to get decades right let alone years.
Jason joined later than Matt, so Matts done more races, so he’s probably been part of the BTCC more than Jason, but yes, they transcend both eras and they were both there largely for the fallow times too.
EF: Obviously you started your time in Australia, what did you do over there?
AG: In as much as I was born there!
EF: How did you go from being born in Australia to the BTCC? Where did the motorsport interest start and where does that all link up?
AG: I’ve always been a petrol head. In Australia… I won’t go through my potted history of jobs, but I got involved in motorsport in Australia at a very early age at about 16. I joined a local car club which is how all people should do, and started helping out at events and got involved with some drivers and teams and helping them out.
I progressed through the sport, eventually becoming a partner with Peter Brock, who is obviously the most famous Australian driver, in his race team and car manufacturing business. I was a partner in that and at that time we, as a group of race team owners put together a thing called TEGA, which is the Touring Car Entrants Group, and that was the forerunner of what your see now with the Australian Supercars Championship. It put together the commercial aspects and the technical regulations and everything which has now become Australian Supercars Championship.
Then, in 1989 myself and Peter sold the business, I’d got divorced, so for the first time in a long time I was sort of free, I didn’t have any ties, I didn’t have a business, I didn’t have a marriage, so I used it as the opportunity like most people do, like most Australians do, and that’s to come over to England and have a look around for 12 months and use this place as a bit of a springboard to do other things. I came here in January 1990 with no plans to do anything other than the fact I had one suitcase which I thought would last me six or nine months…
EF: You should talk to my wife. You need to talk to my wife. One suitcase lasts a day I think!
AG: I was in a lot of trouble, I can tell you that I kept on getting suitcases sent over. I came here with the intention of staying about 12 months, I arrived here on New Year’s Day 1990, and I’d known Andy Rouse because we had bought a couple of cars off him. He’d come out to Bathurst and raced for us, so I knew Andy and Andy knew the business we had in Australia with building block road cars, HTD cars, so he said “come and have a talk to me.” So I went and had a talk to him and we decided to do something together, so that’s the start of me staying in the UK.
EF: How did it start with setting up TOCA and the British Touring Cars, because chatting to Andy Rouse and ending up with the BTCC is not a small step?
AG: No it isn’t. I then got involved with Andy and we started building some special edition Rouse road cars and Andy had seen what we’d done in Australia both with the road car business and the way we’d organised the Touring Car Championship in Australia. So I started doing along to the BTCC events here and thinking “you could do so much more with this,” because at that time it was run by the RACMSA in those days. It was just a series for them and made a little bit of money for them.
I looked at it and thought “we can do so much better and commercialise this so much better,” so I went along to meet a chap called Jonathan Ashman who’s a commercial manager at the MSA at that stage and I said to him “are you interested in leasing out the rights to the BTCC?” To be fair to him he said “yeah we would be. We’re the governing body, we’re not the promoter, so if someone can come to us with a better deal and a good way of promoting the championship and securing our rights we’d certainly look at it. But who are you?” I’m just a Johnny Come Lately on the scene and they wouldn’t have done it with me. We collected a group of us together, David Richards, Andy Rouse, a guy called Dave Cook and Vic Lee and that gave the credibility of going back to the MSA and saying “ok, there’s four of us who’ll form this association and this company and we’ll take it over” and that’s how we did it. They were comfortable then because they were dealing with people they knew and so we took over the rights to the championship going forward.
However all of those people were competitors in the championship, so it was very clear from day one that they couldn’t have any involvement in the running of the championship. Quite clearly they were all major competitors in the championship, so while they were part owners in the company they didn’t have any decision making abilities in the way the championship was conducted because obviously it was a massive conflict of interest and the manufacturers and the other teams wouldn’t have put up with it. That’s how it started.
EF: What was Peter Brock like? He’s such a big name in motorsport and you must have known him very well.
AG: I knew him incredibly well. I’d known Peter for decades, as a friend. He then got into financial problems and with General Motors, or Holden, so there was a divorce happened and Peter reached out to me and aid “could you help?” because he is a business dyslexic. He just hasn’t got a clue how business… quite honestly he knew. He wasn’t even a signature to a checking account because he had no idea what he was doing, he just left it to others. He didn’t even have a key to the factory.
So I came and at this stage I was doing property development and a car dealership so I had some time on my hands to do this, so I went in there and ran the business and tried to get him as much as he could, which we did successfully and that year was the most tumultuous year because it was the year Holden withdrew all their support so we’d lost all their support, they stopped us from buying everything, we couldn’t even buy spark plugs from them, they just wanted us to go away.
We went to Bathurst that year and Bathurst that year was a round of the World Touring Car Championship and the Eggenberger Sierras came down and a few other BMWs came down as it was part of the WTCC. We went there with two old knackered cars. One was less knackered than the other to be honest, but they had old bits in it, we didn’t have any parts. On the Saturday night after qualifying we were going round buying fan belts and hoses and things off other team’s and exchanging them for what we call slabs of beer, because one of our sponsors was a brewery. Our team manager Graham would be walking round with a dozen bottles of beer, exchanging these for the car parts we needed for the next day, for brake pads and brake discs and stuff.
I’ve got to tell you it’s the best form of currency you could ever get in a paddock, because if you gave them a cheque they’d go “no thank you” but if you offered them beer “here, have what you want.”
We then equipped all our cars with what we could do, and then during the race the Eggenberger Sierras walked away with it and we came third and at the end of the race or subsequent to that they got thrown out on a technicality – cheating German bastards…
SA: Were they cheating Swiss bastards to be technically correct?
AG: That’s quite true, but they’re on the Swiss/German border! So they got thrown out for an irregularity and we got the win. That win did so much for us, not only for the public profile but it saved our bacon for another 12 months because of the prize money. That prize money paid off all our debts, our credit cards were full, we were absolutely brassic, so that win came at such a good time, not only for Peter’s profile but financially it saved us.
SA: I didn’t know Peter personally, I’d seen him race several times, but I had the privilege of watching motor racing in Australia many times and merchandising stalls in Oz, several years after his death, you’d still get loads and loads of Peter Brock memorabilia the same way you can get Senna memorabilia in Brazil. It’s almost the same scale isn’t it?
AG: He was a genuine household name and I know we use that name freely, but there wouldn’t be a person in Australia, I promise you, that didn’t know the name Peter Brock and not just because he was a racing driver. He came from there but he did all sorts of other major things, charity events, he was on all sorts of shows, he was by far the highest profile sportsman in Australia, not just in motorsport.
SA: Superseding cricket, rugby everything?
AG: Everything, he was by far the highest profile individual sportsman in Australia for many years. To work for Peter was just astounding and as a guy he was such a great bloke. He had lots of faults, as we all do, some more than others, don’t they Alan?! As a guy he was undoubtedly the most naturally talented driver I’ve ever seen. If you look at his records people pigeonhole him as a touring car driver – and he was a great touring car driver, won nine Bathursts, three championships – but he won the round Australia rally, he won the Australia Rallycross Championship, he won Australia Sportscar Championship, he competed in open wheelers, he competed at Le Mans, he was the most rounded driver you could ever get. It’s such a shame nowadays the drivers aren’t allowed to do that sort of thing as they did before.
SA: Is it an added frustration for an Australian and a patron of Australian sportsmen and women that it is so difficult or seems to be – there are a few Kiwis: Brendan Hartley from New Zealand is racing with Porsche at the moment, Mark Webber had a great career in Formula 1 and subsequently with Porsche – but it does seem for a few of your guys they come over, tinker around with Formula Ford, Formula 3 a bit, realise there is a financial ceiling and then back they go to V8 Supercars.
AG: Isn’t that the same with every country in the world including the UK? How many British kids go through Formula Ford and want to be a World Champion and realise they haven’t got the money and go back and do sportscars and touring cars.
I don’t subscribe to the fact that we live on the other wide of the world that it’s any harder for a talented driver to make his place in the world. All the really talented Australian drivers have made it. People like Mark Webber, Daniel Ricciardo, Alan Jones, Larry Perkins, there’s a whole list of names you can give. Just because we live on the other side of the world only means that it takes us a little bit longer to get here. But when we get here we face the same challenges as every person from every other country so I don’t subscribe to the fact that we need special consideration because we come from the other side of the world.
EF: Having said at the start that we’d mostly be talking about BTCC we’ve just spent ages talking about lots of other stuff which is great! Let’s talk a bit about the Super Touring era. There’s quite a lot of questions here, in the fans eyes it was such a wonderful time and mad cars. There’s one here wanting to know what your memories are of the Super Touring era, good and bad, and in hindsight could anything have been done to ensure it lasted a bit longer and more manufacturers could have stayed?
AG: In hindsight the Super Touring era was fantastic, everything is fantastic when there’s that amount of money involved, because nothing was ever a problem, the cars were fantastic, the drivers made a lot of money, the teams made a lot of money, everyone made a lot of money in that era. Quite clearly it couldn’t last at that sort of level. My only regret about it is those regulations, once they got taken over by the FIA saw the increase in costs and development that saw the demise of it eventually.
Every formula in touring cars has a lifespan. Super Touring had its lifespan, it went for 10 years, it did well, but it wasn’t appropriate going forwards because the level of technical knowhow needed to design and build those cars was way beyond what it should be and I’m a great believer of the fact that touring cars shouldn’t be a technical masturbation exercise. They shouldn’t be. The 40,000 people on the hill don’t actually care what type of gearbox its running, what type of engines its running, they don’t care about the finite technical elements of the car. Touring car racing is a different animal to Formula 1 and World Endurance and all that sort of stuff. It’s there because it’s good, close, hard racing. People don’t understand what’s under the bonnet and actually don’t care and that’s one of the beauties of where we are at the moment. We have a great set of regulations that make all the cars pretty much equal, the rest is down to the driver and engineer and everyone else and the racing is fantastic and at the end of the day that’s all touring car racing has ever wanted to be.
SA: It’s quite striking nowadays the Super Tourers are a popular feature at historic meetings and sometimes great grids of 25/30 cars. It amuses me trying to make the things run on Windows 95 computers and all of the complications that as you say, you don’t want.
AG: I feel sorry for the people that have bought those cars because going forward I don’t know how they’re going to run those cards, because at the moment they’re living off equipment that’s lying around. In another 10 or 20 years that equipment won’t be useable. I don’t know how they run it. I read the other day I think they’re going through the same problem as Formula 1 now, the current cars will never be able to be run in the future, historically.
SA: Because of the software.
AG: Absolutely, it’s the same as these old cars. They were great cars, they sounded good, they handled well, they are an incredibly impressive piece of kit, but by hell they are expensive. When you have manufacturers spending each about £10m in a national championship is outrageous and understandably why it didn’t last.
EF: I’ve got a question here from Ben Johnson about Super Touring…
AG: What? The Ben Johnson? The runner?
EF: Well it’s either him or I think there’s a Times journalist called Ben Johnson. It could be either. I’ll go runner.
AG: Is he drug free now?
EF: I don’t know but he’s taken time out of his busy schedule to ask this question!
Without naming names could Alan elaborate on the rule bending that went on during the Super Touring era? Stories like non-production cylinder heads, roofs that had been lowered, four-wheel-drive body shells, etc.
AG: Well they’re the least of them! When you have such amount of money and talent involved in designing and building those cars you just couldn’t keep up with it. That was the problem. When you’ve got a company like Williams building a Renault Touring Car, they’re going to stretch every rule they can think of and it’s very hard for us to catch up with it, so there’s undoubtedly things going on we weren’t aware of and subsequently are now of course, because people become very honest once the series has finished.
We had no idea, because we weren’t that smart to be able to outsmart a Patrick Head. We were always catching up but there were some fantastically unique interpretations of the regulations and I probably shouldn’t outline each one.
SA: You must have a favourite surely!
AG: The famous one is the Alfa one, where they homologated a set of new spoilers for the front and rear of the car. So they homologated it and they made it standard on the amount of cars they had to make, I think it was 500 cars, but they were never bolted to the car.
SA: They came in the boot in a box kit!
AG: And what made it even worse is they had an option to extend the front spoiler or the lip back and forward and of course to make that adjustment they gave you a couple of extra screws! That came to a head at Oulton Park and we threw them out, we said “no, we’re not accepting it,” and so Alfa being very Italian threw their hands up in the air and did what I hear nearly every weekend, which is “if you don’t let us run we’ll walk away from the series.”
So I got the security guy to un-padlock the gate for the paddock, we opened the gates and said “please go,” and they didn’t believe for a minute we were going to do that because they were leading the championship and they were the big name and they did what every other big team does and that is always threaten to leave the series. It’s the most common thing everyone does and this time we called their bluff: “off you go.”
On Saturday night after qualifying their two transporters left and didn’t come back that weekend and I think after that it actually showed people we were actually serious about trying to make this cars as compliant as they should be.
SA: I presume that in the current era the NGTC – Next Generation Touring Cars – because there’s a lot of commonality beneath the skin I guess it’s much easier now to keep a handle on those things?
AG: It is, but it’s a bit like Formula 1, when the regulations are so tight they look for every little thing they can do. The major things we’re not afraid of, because we know that all the suspension, the gearbox… its all the little things we need to keep on checking, aerodynamics and everything else. By no means anywhere near the amount of latitude that they have for cheating or bending the rules that they had before.
The other problem was, we weren’t in control of those regulations in the Super Touring days. Once they got in the hands of the FIA we had to rely on the FIA’s interpretation of them. Whereas we could stand there at Snetterton and say “that car is wrong” the FIA interpretation would allow them to run it and that was incredibly frustrating for us because we devised the regulations, we knew it was wrong, the FIA wouldn’t support us because of their interpretation of it, politically or otherwise, those regulations were right. It was a very frustrating time.
EF: Never apologise about interrupting me. Most people wish they could do it on a daily basis!
During this era you had [Nigel] Mansell come in and do some Touring Car races. How did that come about? What a coup to get Mansell coming to race and he did the TOCA shootout as well.
AG: I can’t claim total victory for it. It was a combination of myself and Robert Fennell from Donington Park, the promoter of Donington Park. We had a thing called the TOCA shootout which is an event we had at the end of the year, a non-championship event, a great event. Robert saw an opportunity with Nigel having left the World Championship and gone to IndyCar. We realised Nigel had never shown himself in front of the public since becoming World Champion in the UK – he’d never performed in front of the public. We made an approach to him jointly, we got Ford on side because at that stage he was racing in IndyCar with Ford as the engine supplier, so they put a car up for him, and we had the most enormous event. They had 64,000 people, it was just huge. Actually if my memory serves me correct it was more people than they had for the Formula 1 event.
SA: I was at the F1 race that year and I think it was.
AG: Probably helped by the weather.
SA: The weather was rubbish at the F1 race.
AG: Nigel did everything you’d ever expect from him, he was fantastic with the public, signing, did all the right things, said all the right things, had a huge shunt, got carted off to hospital – he ticked every box! Then we got on the front page of all the newspapers the next day because “Nigel Mansell near death experience” – it ticked every box you could think of. During that race he got tipped off into the bridge by Tiff, and Tiff at that stage was a Top Gear presenter, it was a huge box ticking exercise that gave us everything we could have hoped for.
EF: There’s a question here on my list that asks: you’ve had some great names come in and race in the BTCC. Are there any you haven’t managed to get in that you’d love to get in or any that you came close to that didn’t quite make it?
AG: There probably are, if I could think about it for a bit longer there probably are.
EF: We’ll come back.
You stepped away from the BTCC in 2000 and then came back again in 2003. What promoted you stepping away and why, and did you keep in touch with it when you were off?
AG: Simple, the MSA in their wisdom decided… our contract with BTCC, TOCA’s contract ended at the end of 2000 and the MSA in their wisdom decided to award the contract to a company called Octagon, and Octagon at that stage owned the Brands Hatch group of circuits and took over the lease at Silverstone. They were an American organisation who came over here, decided they were going to make a lot of money in motorsport and took over that. They approached the MSA, the MSA were persuaded by them that they could do a better job of running the BTCC than we could, so they were given the contract to do so.
It wasn’t our choice. In hindsight it was really good timing but it wasn’t our choice. They took our business away from us, gave it to Octagon and then for the next three years I didn’t go to a race meeting, I went completely cold turkey on it, but I could see the thing was just going downhill, it was horrible to watch.
In about 2002 Octagon approached me and said “would you be interested in coming back and running the series for us?” and I said: “Yes, under certain conditions” and certain conditions were I would run the series without them meddling and run it the way I know how to run the series.
So I came back in 2003, which then coincided with them going out of British motorsport, they did a wholesale exit out of British motorsport having lost a lot of money, so they sold the Brands Hatch group of circuits to Jonathan Palmer, they handed back the lease to Silverstone and the Grand Prix to BRDC, who gave them a nice cheque, and the BARC then took over the rights of running the BTCC with myself, so that’s how I got back into running BTCC and it’s the same thing – I run the business in the only way I know how to run the business. I’m probably a one-trick pony but I know how to run the British Touring Car Championship. I have a great relationship with the BARC, they’ve got the rights from the MSA to run them championship, then hand over the running of the championship and the business to me, it’s a hands off deal, they don’t meddle, they’re fantastic and I just get on and do what I do.
SA: Around that time, early 2000s, the entry dropped down to 12-14 cars
AG: I doubt it was that high! It was really horrible.
EF: Even I might have got a spot on the grid!
AG: It was really horrible, I remember the first day I came back and I came back mid-season I think it was, and the first race I came back to was Donington and I stood on the back of the grid for the first race and there was only 11 cars in front of me and in fact our medical car, the Porsche Cayenne, sort of overshadowed the whole grid. I stood there thinking “what have I done? This is going to be difficult.” At that stage we only had one hour highlights a week later on some ITV regions. I think it was done by Meridian in those days, so you couldn’t even see it around the whole of the UK. We didn’t have much, we didn’t have a series sponsor of any note, we didn’t have good TV coverage, we didn’t have good grids, we had cars that were… we had a formula that wasn’t really popular – it was a bit of a mess.
EF: I might have quizzed Alan a little bit on some of the stories – this is Alan Hyde for everyone who’s listening – so any questions you don’t like blame him!
Apparently when there are issues on track they’re discussed in the bus. What on earth does that mean?
AG: In the bus we have a fairly sophisticated system where we can review incidents. At the end of each race when there’s an incident to be reviewed we pull the drivers up, we have an incredibly sophisticated on-board camera and logging system so we can play and show every movement of the car inside and from their data. We have a very good system where they can sit there, explain their point of view to the incident and we’ll make a decision as to what their penalty is. That’s the famous “come to the bus routine.” It’s not a star chamber or anything like that!
EF: I was intrigued!
AG: There are times where I don’t bother playing the electronic equipment and just give bollockings, that’s quite a common occurrence, where I don’t get involved in the technical aspects, I just see what I saw with my own eyes and give them a bollocking. But that’s how you run things.
SA: Obviously you want it to be a good show because otherwise you’re not going to get people to the gate, you’re not going to get people to watch on TV, and part of the good show is the close racing, is the rubbing and racing, using a NASCAR cliché. The punters like a bit of rough and tumble, it’s obvious. But at the same time you don’t want to condone poor driving standards. How do you decide where the line should be drawn?
AG: It’s really difficult and you can’t just give a blanket rule because everything is different, every incident is different, every corner is different and all the circumstances are different. It’s very easy for even myself and people watching on TV to look at an incident and say “that’s black and white, it’s clear that guy punted that guy off.” You don’t know until you look back at the footage, maybe the guy in front missed a gear, there’s things that are not obvious that you have to take into consideration.
Rubbing is racing and there is a line over which, once they go over that line we will chuck the book at them and were pretty good at chucking the book at them. Normally the rule of thumb is that if you take someone out of the race, we’ll take you out of the race, unless there are extenuating circumstances. If you spoil someone’s race we will spoil your race too, unless there are extenuating circumstances – someone’s missed a braking point or whatever.
But if it’s a straight punting up the back, speared them off, we’ll take action. There is a line and they know where that line is drawn, but a bit of side-by-side rubbing and stuff… when you’ve got racing as fraught as we have and cars as closely matched as we have, that’s an inevitable consequence of it.
SA: There have been some quite big accidents in 2016 BTCC, Snetterton start line for example, are you concerned that driving standards towards the back of the grid do need to be improved or do you think its reasonably well reigned in?
AG: Driving standards can always be improved and without naming drivers… with any formula in motorsport the further down the grid you get the less experienced drivers you’re going to have, so that’s where incidents come from. They never come from the sharp end of the grid. Major incidents come from middle of the grid backwards and that’s usually a result of compression and everything else, but yes we do come down pretty hard on them.
At the end of the day they’re drivers, they don’t want to have their own race compromised by anything that they do because it costs them a fortune to get it fixed, it’s putting the team through a lot of time and expense and they don’t get a good race out of it. They’re not going to try and drive like prats either. We will give them some encouragement, there’s a lot of drivers this year we’ve sat down with and gone through the incidents slowly with them and shown them where you could have avoided that and everything else. We don’t just go in there and thump the desk…
SA: It’s not just bollockings?
AG: No, not at all. We’ve got such a sophisticated set up that we can show them exactly what their movements were and how to avoid that and everything else.
EF: We have a question here asking whether the circuits are going to change and take them to new ones, and another asking are you looking at the idea of a street race?
AG: The circuits we race on are the circuits that can actually take us, because it’s not just good enough to have a ribbon of tarmac, you’ve got to have the infrastructure to take everything we bring with us. We have 3,000 competitors: teams, personnel, for a start, the infrastructure we bring along is huge. Anglesey is a good example. Anglesey is a great little circuit, fantastic piece of tarmac, you could never bring our circus to it, because you wouldn’t get in there for a start, you’d never have hotels, you’d never be able to get out there. It hasn’t got the infrastructure to host us. Yes, we’re always looking to go to venues that can afford to take us and I don’t mean afford in the financial terms, but being able to take us, but there isn’t any that we don’t go to. We go to all the circuits at the moment that have the capacity to take us. We used to go to Pembrey, we outgrew them in the early 90s, we don’t go to Cadwell Park, that’s too small and too narrow and not appropriate for our sort of racing. Where else don’t we go to? All the major circuits we race at.
But if someone builds a new circuit or someone improves a circuit to the point where it has the capacity to take us and our support races absolutely we’ll be there.
SA: Traditionally British F3, British GT have had the odd continental race, Spa or whatever. Has that never been a temptation?
AG: No, that’s just a vanity exercise for the drivers, it does nothing for the championship. If I took a round out of the UK and went to Spa, the drivers would love it because they get to drive around Spa. There’ll be three men and a dog watching it, it’ll cost everyone a fortune to go and do it and it won’t actually do anything for the BTCC and it’ll take a round out of the UK because I wouldn’t increase the amount of races. So that’s a vanity exercise. Our popularity is built on the huge amount of spectators and support we have and the accessibility we have with those spectators. Start going away offshore? It does nothing for me.
SA: I have to say it is very noticeable at BTCC events like nothing else in the UK, maybe the grand prix, all the spectators are wearing team apparel and sometimes they’re wearing apparel from several different teams different hats and coats and what have you. There is a real connection there isn’t there?
AG: Absolutely. Our spectator base is second to none in this country. Its miles ahead of anything else. This last year we had 380,000 spectators come to our races. That’s Premier League football numbers and when you’re looking at an average spectator number over a weekend of 30,000 plus… at the last round at Brands Hatch it was 45,000. That’s a Premier League football match. People don’t realise the amount of people that follow our racing. Why would I take our racing away from them? Because if I went and did a race in Belgium or something like that who would come over and watch it? No. It’s the British Touring Car Championship and that’s where it’ll stay.
EF: What about the idea of a street circuit? Is that really cost…
AG: I’ll be there in a heartbeat but someone has to build one and pay for it. That’s a problem we’ve always had in this country, there’s no lack of desire from us or anyone else to race on a street circuit but someone has to build it and the cost of doing it is enormous.
EF: I’m going to move on to one circuit in particular. Judging by this question it’s health and safety–wise a complete disaster. This is a circuit where Alan Hyde was stung three times by a wasp by giving podium interviews! This is from a fan who always attends the races at Snetterton, however he says the conditions there are always uncomfortably hot for spectators in July.
AG: Can you imagine how uncomfortably hot it is for the drivers and everyone else?!
EF: The reason I’m asking is the second part of the question. What chances are there we could get some Saturday night racing back which you obviously had in the late 1990s, which was great to watch but I think was very expensive?
AG: It was very expensive and it’s increasingly expensive. We started in the late 90s and it was very successful. The problem you have is with the increasing dreaded term health and safety. You have to light up so many areas now, so if you’ve got that many spectators you’ve got to light up the car parking and the pathways, it’s not just about lighting up some parts of the track. Every area where people are walking you have to light up, so all the camping areas, all the paddock… the cost of doing that is out of control.
In the early days, in the 90s, I think it cost about £30,000 to bring in the lighting and the extra infrastructure you had to do. Now you could probably make it £100,000, it’s just incredibly expensive.
SA: Plus Snetterton, the version you race on is a lot longer than it was.
AG: It would be even more expensive! I’d do it, but its cost. So the answer to that is I love the night races because I’m the one that started them, so why wouldn’t I like them? They are good as a once-a-year sort of thing, but I can’t see it happening unless someone is prepared to go through the heartache of what you have to go through now to put them on, because life was a lot simpler in those days.
SA: What about a night time street race where the lighting is already in place?
AG: Great! Who’s going to pay for it?!
EF: What are your thoughts on the TCR series? Isn’t this the future spreading so fast? I think we’re dealing with breaking news here because I saw a comment that it isn’t a threat to BTCC?
AG: The TCR series propping up around the world, but they’re for a much lower formula than BTCC. We’ve always had that, I don’t know why people are all of a sudden concentrating on TCR. Before TCR we used to have Super Production, Group N, we always had these more production-based series running around. If someone wants to start up a TCR-based series in the UK go right ahead. It wouldn’t even appear on my radar, because it’s just another race series for smaller lower-level cars.
EF: Another question: thank you for rebuilding the BTCC to what it is today. What can we expect from the BTCC in terms of regulations five years from now? Are there any particular trends you’re looking at, at the moment that you’d incorporate?
AG: That’s a good question. We’ve put our plans in place for the next five years. The current NGTC regulations have another five years to go. We’ve gone through the first five years, we’ve refreshed them for this year so they have five years to run, so all the teams know what their investment is.
Beyond the five years, I don’t know. I wouldn’t be inclined to go down a technical route at all and I think I said this earlier, this is not what touring cars is about. You can say “let’s do some hybrids” but that’s unbelievably expensive and it’s probably not the right arena to do it in. Formula 1 and WEC and all these sort of things is where you do those technical exercises. Touring Car racing isn’t, it’s the same as they don’t do it in rallycross or any of the other entertainment formulas if you like.
Going forward, our regulations should be not dissimilar, let’s forget about engine sizes and all that, but it should be a cost-effective formula that provides good, close racing. That’s it. Technically I can’t tell you what that looks like, but it wouldn’t be that far away from what we’ve got at the moment.
EF: Something you’ve had before but I would love to see return, but I think there are too many vested interests. BTCC runs to a certain set of regulations at the moment. Why can’t WTCC, other Touring Car championships across the world try and find some common ground so you could have the likes of a Formula Ford Festival but for touring cars?
AG: You’re now describing exactly what happened with the Super Touring formula in the 90s. That is exactly what happened. We had our own formula, it was going very well in this country, too well, the FIA adopted it and that’s what happened. Once you take a set of regulations out of your own control you’ve lost control obviously and see what happens.
If you have a look at all the major touring car championships around the world in major countries around the world, they’ve never run to common formula and the idea of a one-size-fits-all formula around the world just doesn’t happen. Australia? They have their own unique formula that doesn’t go anywhere else. We have our own unique formula that doesn’t go anywhere else. DTM has their own unique formula.
All the major touring car countries in the world have their own unique formula. The lesser countries that aren’t so embedded in touring car racing use TCR as a good example. TCR is used in those smaller countries that can’t devise their own formula. I wouldn’t want to see one formula for the entire world, that’s unachievable and a disaster as far as losing control of the costs.
EF: I’ll stick to writing about cars I think!
SA: How much of a boost is it for you and the championship, you look at NASCAR for example, most of the cars in NASCAR have got some everyday name on there: burger chains, paint suppliers… they’re all household products. In the UK we’ve had Halfords and now we’ve got Shredded Wheat. To have such a household name, three cars as well, that must be…
AG: What’s this Shredded Wheat thing, you can’t take three, you can’t eat three?
SA: My son suggested some of the Ginetta juniors should be sponsored by bitesized Shredded Wheat…
That’s a good marketing opportunity I suspect! That’s must be quite a boost?
AG: It’s good to have a household name on it, but more importantly it’s what they do with it, because whilst it gives us a nice warm fuzzy feeling to have well-known consumer brands on the side of cars, it’s how they leverage their environment is the most important thing to me. I’m told there’ll be pictures of the race cars on the packets of Shredded Wheat. The way it infiltrates into people’s homes is so important to the championship. Just putting Shredded Wheat on the side of the car is nice, but I’m actually more interested in wat they do with it too. If you talk about the sort of volumes they do, the amount of Shredded Wheat they sell, with the race car on the side of it advertising the BTCC, that’s such an enormous fillip for our series and of course I’d love to see other consumer brands doing it. Hopefully it’ll encourage others to do it.
EF: We only have about five or ten minutes left and I want to talk about the PlayStation / PC game that was so huge. I’ve been asked to ask you about the first time BTCC went to Knockhill and some of the stuff that went on there, specifically the “Mc” on the side of the cars and a boat trip?
AG: Knockhill is our Spa if you like! The first year we went there everyone had to have “Mc” on their names, so you had McPlato and everyone was dressed in kilts and everything else, so it was quite funny. We go there for a few more days so we have a bit more time to do things like mucking around in boats which is such a long story…
EF: When I said we have five or ten minutes it’s very loose! Do go into it!
AG: It was a boat trip that John Cleland organised that he thought we should all go out fishing one day. So we went to I can’t even think of the name of the harbour. We went there, got in the boat and he hadn’t figured out the times so we got there and sat there in the boat and the tide went out and we just sat there on the boat. That was our fishing trip! That’s the abridged version of it.
We do silly things like going and visiting factories and mini-golf championships, it’s quite a funny weekend for us.
EF: I’m a big fan of Knockhill because I was born and brought up about 20 minutes down the road.
AG: You’ve managed to get rid of the accent.
EF: I just about tried.
AG: We love Knockhill, it’s one of the ones everyone enjoys going to. They’re really friendly, they’re great people to deal with and we all spend another day or two going up there and just having a bit of a break doing it.
EF: I did some amateur racing when I was 18 and I think it took ten races before I had a dry race!
I mentioned I really wanted to talk about the TOCA game. How did this come about? When it was released it was huge, people would think of Gran Turismo and things like that but it was huge.
AG: It was. It came about by Codemasters who are the developers approaching me wanting to do a game and we did the original TOCA game, which morphed into four other games. It was huge, I think it was the third biggest selling driving or racing game in those days, it was before the days of Gran Turismo and everything else. I think there was TOCA, Colin McRae Rally and one other, I can’t think what it was. It might have been Formula 1. It was a huge selling game. The bottom line to why there isn’t one now is if you remember back to what I said to you before about how the MSA sold the rights to the Championship to Octagon, with that went the deal with Codemasters. Octagon in their own special way decided they knew better on how to go and do a game on the BTCC and have you ever seen one? No. But what it did is actually ended our contract with Codemasters so they couldn’t continue doing it and there’s a lot of money involved in designing and developing a game now and to go and start one now… We couldn’t have started one for those few years where the series was in a bit of a decline – we didn’t have the numbers to justify it. And now in 2015, ’16,’17 in this era to do it, games are totally different to what they were in the old days and they’re so expensive to do that there’s no business case for it any more. There would have been if we’d continued on with the previous platform.
EF: Never say never I guess?
AG: If a games producer came to me and aid “we want to produce a game and produce a great BTCC game” I’ll sign up, but the problem is they won’t at the moment because they’re do expensive to do. The other thing is, in the olden days the games were always designed around proper cars on proper racetracks, but now driving games are a largely cars on made up racetracks, so they’re not real racing games any more. Gran Turismo is you can get in a car and all the racetracks you race on, hardly any of them are real, so the real aspect of the championship has been taken out of it.
EF: I’ve been told Mondello Park is very special to you. Is there any particular reason for that?
EF: Oh thank god for that! I thought for a second there isn’t at all!
AG: It was my biggest race win in the northern hemisphere! I competed in a 24-hours race in Mondello in the 2CV’s for quite a few years. I came second once, third once and I won the last one in I think ’99, the last one they ever did at Mondello. That’s why it’s special to me.
EF: Let’s come back to that question: there’s been so many high-profile drivers in the BTCC, whether there’s anyone you wanted to get in that you didn’t?
AG: I would have loved to have got drivers over to do guest races. I would have loved to have Peter Brock come and do a guest race. We started a series in Australia for the Super Touring cars in the 90s and he raced in that and I would have loved him to come and done a couple of races in the UK.
There’s all sorts of other household names you’d like to have got in, Damon Hill and all that sort of stuff. I would have loved those guys to come a do a race at the end of their career, a bit like Nigel did.
As far as touring car drivers, we have great drivers in our series, both now and in the past. There’s no one I really think I’m missing that I think should have done our series.
EF: Jenson Button isn’t very busy anymore?
AG: I think Jenson might be little bit expensive!
What we did with Nigel was fantastic and I’m not suggesting everyone comes and puts themselves in the hospital, but to have those sort of guys come and do a swansong event, a bit of a fun event, I’d love to do it. If any drivers out there of that sort of calibre want to come and have a drive, call me and I’ll make it happen for you.
SA: And Jenson Button, there are some Honda teams involved.
AG: Absolutely, and I know they have been talking to him, but at the moment it isn’t on his radar. It’s such a shame that Formula 1 drivers, we see them only in open-wheelers, we see them do F1 then they disappear. Sometimes they go and do a couple of WEC races, but they sort of disappear off the scene and it would be good if they could do what they used to do in the old days and do some touring car races, rallycross etc.
EF: I thought it was great to see [Romain] Grosjean the other day doing ice racing.
AG: The punch-up at the end of the race too was fantastic!
EF: No one will remember he won, just there was a punch-up…
SA: Poor old Olivier Panis at age 50 chasing Patrick Tambay’s son around!
AG: It looked like a touring car race to me!
But yeah, those sort of things; I wish more drivers of that sort of calibre would do touring car races.
EF: Well for all of those listening you know who to call to make it happen!
Alan, thank you so much for coming in, Simon thank you, Alan behind the camera than you, a very Happy Christmas to everyone and a Happy New Year too. We’ll see you all next year.
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