Mike Conway truly arrived in IndyCar racing last Sunday by scoring a convincing win for Andretti Autosport in the Long Beach Grand Prix. The former British F3 champion and Macau GP winner took the lead during the final round of pitstops and drove away from Ryan Briscoe and Dario Franchitti to record his first IndyCar Series victory, beating Briscoe by six seconds. Will Power led the opening laps but was punted into a spin by Penske team-mate Hélio Castroneves. Power recovered to 10th but lost the championship lead to reigning champion Franchitti.
Mike Conway wins at Long Beach
How did those BTCC repmobiles become such a roaring success? Marcus Simmons finds out
Somewhere in the busy, cramped, higgledy-piggledy paddock at Knockhill, that acrobatic and rustic little bullring track in the Fife hills, British Touring Car Championship star Will Hoy is inhaling from an oxygen supply. He's just driven his heart out in the first of two races being run more or less back to back, and knows that it's not long before he has to step back into his Toyota Carina to do it all over again. Elsewhere in the Toyota awning his younger team-mate Julian Bailey, ex-Formula One driver and recent BTCC recruit, is inhaling from a Marlboro. Less than an hour later Bailey is on top of the podium after taking his first win in the series. For Hoy there's always next time.
And for Hoy there was last time as well, in other words the preceding round, supporting the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Will was leading, with Bailey on his tail, before the new boy tried an ambitious move into the complex. It ended with Hoy on his roof, Bailey also out of the race. A major embarrassment, especially as it presented Nissan with an unexpected 1-2 result. Such an embarrassment that Toyota considered dropping Bailey over the affair, only to relent before the next round at Knockhill.
For the packed BTCC crowds it was just the latest high-profile incident in what was becoming the success story of British motorsport since the new 2-litre rules had been phased in over 1990 and had taken over entirely for '91. When the regulations were formulated in '89, no one could have predicted that this would be the catalyst for what would become the biggest and most competitive domestic championship the UK has ever seen. By '93, Britain's ageing venues were bursting at the seams with crowds regularly at the 30,000 mark. And Hoy, John Cleland, Tim Harvey, Steve Soper and Smokin' Jo Winkelhock were becoming household names.
Four years earlier the series' leading players had been worried. Up to the end of 1989 the BTCC had a complicated four-class structure running to FISA's existing Group A rules. At the front were the spectacular Ford Sierra RS500s, running with virtually no opposition in Class A, but the homologation of the RS500 was due to run out. FISA was thought likely to replace Group A by '92 at the earliest, but the BTCC's leading players wanted to make a change while the series was numerically strong.
They were going out on a limb, but something had to be done. The RAC MSA's Jonathan Ashman worked with the teams, spearheaded by Andy Rouse Engineering and Prodrive, to devise the new rules and, perhaps surprisingly, opted for mid-range family saloons. "They looked at a broader view," remembers Alan Gow, who was working at the time for Rouse but would rise to take overall charge of the BTCC by '93 (we'll get to that later). "People like David Richards of Prodrive were instrumental that we didn't go down the hot-hatch route. The cars were the big-selling cars — the Mondeo, the Cavalier — the bread-and-butter cars for the manufacturers. And if you'd wanted hot-hatch it would have knocked out BMW. It was a commercial decision."
But there were doubters, on at least two fronts. Some claimed that the BTCC was making a mistake, risking alienation from worldwide touring car racing by making up its own rules. "Wait for FISA to decide and follow them," they said, though Richards intuitively said in '89: "You never can tell. FISA may follow us."
The second wave of criticism came from those who loved the 500-plus bhp of the flame-spitting Sierras, and felt a move to 285bhp buzzboxes (regulated by a rev limiter at 8500rpm) was a retrograde one. "If you want to see slow, close racing there's already the Metro Challenge, Renault 5s etc," said leading Sierra exponent Tim Harvey. "There are a lot of commercial pressures involved in it all and I can't really see anyone but BMW and General Motors getting involved."
Sixteen years later, Harvey laughs when reminded of his words. In common with many top professional drivers, he made good money out of the 2-litre era, which would level out for some years in the mid-90s with eight to 10 manufacturers. Harvey won the 1992 title in a Vic Lee-run works BMW and would go on to drive for Renault, Volvo and Peugeot. But he stands firm on the "slow, close racing" remark. "Recently I was reunited with my old Labatts RS500," he says. "I drove it for a video shoot and it just reminded me how bloody brilliant and exciting they were. The whole 2-litre era was a technical exercise, if you like. Through working at the regulations we achieved an exciting spectacle, but very little pleasure from a driver's point of view. Pleasure in racing? Yes, but not driving. I still believe we should've had more powerful engines."
The 'technical exercise' Harvey refers to really took off in 1994, when Alfa Romeo arrived with its aero kits and moved the category onto another level. At the same time TWR entered the scene with Volvo, a year later Williams was running the Renaults, and 12 months further on Audi arrived in the BTCC with its four-wheel-drive A4 Quattros. Suddenly, with its international star drivers and Formula One-level teams, the BTCC was a World Touring Car Championship in all but name and venues. But we're focusing here on the pre-Alfa era, when the foundations were being laid, the cars still handled more like saloons than single-seaters, and the series still had a mix between professionals and highly able amateurs.
For its first year, in 1990, 2-litre was effectively just BMW versus GM, and ran as a B-class while the overall title was fought out for the last time by the R5500s. The rules were written so that front-wheel-drive cars could run at 50kg below the rear-driven machines. It looked as though they were spot on, as John Cleland's Cavalier GSi 'puller' routinely outqualified the BMW M3 'pushers', but would fall back to them in races as his front Dunlops wilted. Vauxhall did build a rear-wheel-drive Cavalier. "We tested it at Silverstone," says John Cleland. "It was a beautifully balanced car, but the trouble was it was before the days of good technology for differentials and gearboxes, and you could feel them dragging all the power out of it. Then there were always arguments over weight and you never knew if BMW were sandbagging."
Prodrive's BMW M3 junior team driver, Kelvin Burt, took the very first win of the new era at Oulton Park, but the laid-back Midlander was rotating his drive with the fiery Kurt Luby and earnest Tim Sugden. In the sister car, controversial veteran Frank Sytner beat Cleland to the title, though not without an incident at the end of the Birmingham street race. It was reckoned to be Sytner's fault, but because Cleland squared up to the BMW man — "I was gonna pull Frank's Adam's apple out of his neck!" — he was the one fined by the organisers.
Meanwhile, Vic Lee Motorsport had bought an ex-Bigazzi BMW M3, procured a supply of Yokohama tyres and signed Jeff Allam, a touring car ace of the past decade who had dropped off the BTCC radar. Allam put in some great performances and this laid the foundation for great things from VLM in 1991.
Allam was snapped up by Vauxhall to partner Cleland, but Lee's team returned with no fewer than four new M3s. Ray Bellm was instrumental in this. He brought the Listerine backing to add to the Securicor money Lee had acquired for the season and would partner Hoy in VLM's 'lead' team. Amateur driver Laurence Bristow brought his Labatts cash and Harvey over from the Andy Rouse Sierra squad to run in a 'back-up' effort.
Crucial in VLM's armoury were the Yokohamas. While Prodrive, as a works BMW team, had to run Pirelli rubber, Lee's boys could go their own way. This was extended to engines, which were built by the private Eurotech company in Coventry, and gearboxes: Lee got slick-shifting Hollinger units from Australia. And Hoy did the rest. He won the first two races, and from there on he defended his lead by stealth. Cleland was his main opponent, but his Dunlops were still falling short on durability. "Unfortunately I told poor old Tony Gilhome from Dunlop to stick his tyres up his arse and that I would never ever run on Dunlops again," chuckles Cleland. "We lost that championship because there were a couple of times when the tyres just fell apart."
Vauxhall switched to Yokohama for 1992, but would return to Dunlop in '94, at which point Cleland was taken quietly aside: "I had to apologise to Tony and say I hadn't literally meant to stick them up his arse! I had to sign a document saying I'd never slate their tyres again." Vauxhall's Mike Nicholson adds: "I don't remember it as being a problem. A lot of people knew Cleland would always say things. Drivers can be bloody good, but a liability at times!"
After a year patiently plugging away in the VLM 'number two' team in 1991, Harvey came good for '92. Hoy joined the Rouse-run Toyota team and Harvey was elevated to team leader, with the added benefit of touring car talisman Soper as a team-mate in the races which didn't clash with his German commitments. Lee now had works blessing, but kept his Yokohama tyres (while Prodrive still stayed on the uncompetitive Pirellis) and took the engine build in-house. Both VLM and Prodrive now had a new BMW to develop, the 318is Coupé, complete with ABS. It was inherently superior to the M3, but in the early days both teams found the rear suspension extremely tricky to sort.
"Vic had his eye on the ball from an engineering point of view," says Harvey. "The three factors that helped were Yokohamas, Steve being a better development driver than the guys at Prodrive and Vic's attention to detail. That gave us the advantage. The rear suspension was flexing, affecting the geometry and making it very hard to drive. It was our engineer Dave Potter who sorted it out."
The BMWs were further helped by a mid-season reduction in the weight penalty for rear-wheel-drive cars. This had gone out to 100kg, but was reined in to 75kg. Cleland maintains to this day that prior to this Harvey and co may have been sandbagging. "I was offered that drive before Harvey was," claims the Scot. "Vic wanted me and Soper in his two BMWs. But Steve was the BMW man and I thought I wouldn't get a fair crack of the whip, and that I'd be too far away up here to see what Steve was up to."
Harvey denies the sandbagging claim, but admits that ABS (outlawed for 1993) was a help: "It helped us gain a bit back from what we were losing on the straights."
With the new suspension tweaks and the lower weight, Harvey went on a late-season winning spree and sensationally grabbed the title at the final round from under the noses of Cleland and Hoy. And Cleland was fuming, after contact with Harvey's team-mate Soper had sent him smashing off the road. "In all the pictures you see of me getting out of the car at that race I look like an American football player," says Cleland. "I'd been testing at Donington. A Formula Ford pulled across me in the Craner Curves and I got on the grass avoiding him. We were testing ABS, and I couldn't lock the wheels to spin around because the ABS wouldn't let me. So I hit the wall and broke my back and my sternum. I spent a few nights in hospital in Nottingham and was jabbed up by a doctor for Donington, and then Silverstone was after that. I was full of padding to protect my sternum. Adrenalin takes over at times like that and I tell you what, after Soper had hit me I didn't feel any pain!"
Hoy, meanwhile, had lost the title thanks to a couple of run-ins with team-mate and team boss Rouse, notably a famous crash on the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit which put both Carinas out of the race. Even in the Silverstone finale, where Rouse could have dropped back into the pack to aid Hoy's title quest, he stayed up front to take the 60th and final win of a glittering BTCC career. Toyota had had enough though, and the lost crown gave the company the perfect excuse to shift the programme to its in-house British motorsports base at TOM'S GB for 1993.
At this point Rouse got back in bed with Ford to develop the Mondeo for '93. As a rear-wheel drive purist, he attempted to go down this route before relenting and hastily putting together front-driven V6 machines for their midsummer debut. Rouse had signed single-seater battler Paul Radisich — some claim because he thought the Kiwi would be a nice number two. But Radisich overshadowed Rouse to become the BTCC's new star, his spectacular kerb-grabbing, left-foot braking style doing much to change touring car driving technique. On the technical side, the Mondeo was the first competitive BTCC car to run on Michelins, heralding an almost complete takeover by the French company in the mid-90s. Radisich won the first Touring Car World Cup at Monza in October, and then came the TOCA Shoot-Out at Donington, complete with Nigel Mansell on board at Ford.
But who was TOCA and what was this about a World Cup? For 1992, David Richards's '89 prophesy was fulfilled when FISA adopted the BTCC rules as its replacement for Group A. Dubbed Class 2 (then Super Touring from '95), it spawned BTCC imitators in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Central Europe, then Australia, Japan, Sweden and the Americas. That same year, a new company named TOCA negotiated with the RAC MSA to take over the running of the series.
"I started a teams' association," says Gow, "a loose ragbag of guys who had no reason to be in it or not be in it. But we knew the championship needed to be taken forwards and the MSA had limited resources, knowledge and expertise. When I first approached them it was 'Who are you? Some bloody Australian making a bit of noise?' Clearly they were more comfortable with people who had a lot more credibility than myself, so I got together Andy Rouse, Dave Cook (Vauxhall team boss), David Richards and Vic Lee as partners in TOCA. The MSA were then confident about doing the deal. They gave us the rights and received an income for it, with us effectively buying a licence and having technical and sporting jurisdiction."
For 1993 TOCA also brought the 'junior' championships promoted by Vauxhall, Ford and Renault under their wing to create an unprecedented package of high-profile British motorsport, effectively on tour around the country. It made the whole thing very attractive to manufacturers, as Nicholson explains: "They were good days. The BTCC was easier to sell to Vauxhall because the TV coverage was so good. It leant itself to us taking a lot of guests and that made it much easier to sell than rallying. TOCA put everything on the map, with TV and promotion. It was all we could ask for at the time."
TOCA'S major coup of '93 was getting Mansell for that Shoot-Out. "A fantastic event," gloats Gow justifiably. "He wasn't cheap and it was a huge risk. He'd won the World Championship and then f***ed off to America for Indycars and hadn't done his victory showing in the UK. We sold it to Nigel that this was the way to thank his fans. It was mighty expensive, but we had 63,000 paying adults, much more than the Grand Prix. He did everything you expected: he battled, he groaned, he hit the bridge and got carted off to hospital. And then checked himself out an hour later. Until then he was fantastic — he spent hours and hours signing autographs, got to grips with the car and wasn't the prima donna everyone had led us to believe."
BMW had won the '93 title — yet again. But this time it was with Schnitzer and Winkelhock. Harvey's '92 crown, while fully merited as a driver, had been tarnished for the team by Vic Lee's imprisonment for his part in a cocaine-importing scandal. "It was the worst period of my life," says Harvey. "Having won the championship I thought I was on my way to a BMW factory contract. I went to Munich, but because of arguments over weight and ABS BMW pulled out. Renault were coming into the BTCC and offered me a good salary and it was hard to say no, but the worst thing is BMW sorted their differences with TOCA and Jo won in what should have been my car."
And the Renault 19, used for one year before the Laguna came in for '94, was a disaster: "It was a rally car — Jean Ragnotti was the test driver." Luckily for both Harvey and team-mate Alain Menu, wet conditions gave them each a win at Donington. By 1995 Renault's programme would be in-house at Williams, fighting Alfa, Volvo, Ford, Vauxhall, BMW, Peugeot, Toyota and Honda. But this was a new era for which 1990-93 had laid the foundations. The BTCC, and British motorsport, had changed forever from those seeds planted back in '89.
How to make a little go a long way
Multiple Scottish club racing champion lain Forrest estimates that his 1991 season, his third in the British Touring Car Championship, cost between £15-17,000 and that includes a £10,000 bank loan he won back in prize money and immediately repaid.
Racing an ex-Zakspeed BMW M3, Forrest won the 10k put up to the driver who, over the course of the season, made up the most places from his grid positions to his finishing places. Forrest was quick — he'd beaten Kelvin Burt's Prodrive M3 in a final-round battle at Silverstone in 1990 -- and his plan could have faltered when he found himself running in the top five in a wet qualifying session in '91 at the same venue, as he would clearly not make up many places from there in the race.
"I told my bank manager I'd win that prize and then cashed in my life-insurance policy to cover my championship registration fee. I was really struggling. I was half on the dole and signed on as a racing driver, and I had to keep on the dole because there was no way of getting employment. At Silverstone I just thought 'Stuff that' and had to park it!"
Contesting the BTCC effectively ruined his life for a while, but Forrest bounced back and is now operations manager of the Knockhill racing circuit. He still races at the track, in a Radical. "I'm 55 now, but when the lights go out I'm 18. You've got to do it with passion. After doing the BTCC I had to stay in a caravan at Knockhill and my marriage went down the tubes because of it. But I've picked myself up now I don't regret any of it."
Conway started racing Indycars two years ago but was sidelined by a back-breaking accident on the final lap of last year’s Indy 500. He was out of action for the rest of the year before being signed to drive one of Michael Andretti’s four cars. Conway is a man of few words but a fierce racer who showed his stuff at Long Beach with a great drive through the field following a poor first pitstop while running third. The Brit locked his brakes and slid into his pit, losing time with a tyre change.
“From there it was a case of trying to pass as many cars as I could,” he said. “It was tough but we came out on tyres the car liked. On restarts it was awesome. The rest of the guys were struggling for grip and we were just charging through. It was nice to fight for the lead with Ryan and Dario.
“At the beginning I was just controlling the gap between Ryan and Will and saving fuel, and once we dropped back in the pack it was a fight to stay where we were. The restarts and the strategy worked out for us and we were on fire at the end. We were able to push by the guys and before I knew it I was in the lead.”
Conway said he had been fully motivated to recover from his accident. “Initially when I saw the injuries I had I wasn’t sure when I’d get back. Things like that can definitely stop your career, but I was determined to get back to fitness and back in the car. To win in my third race back is awesome and I can’t thank Michael enough for believing in me and the team for doing such a great job.”
Andretti said he had no doubts Conway would produce results. “Mike showed signs of brilliance last year at the beginning of the season. There was no question in my mind that he’d come back. I felt he was going to be hungrier than ever. The first time he got in a car with us he was up to speed in about four or five laps.
“Not only is Mike a great talent but he fits in with the other three drivers. We have great chemistry between the drivers and because of that I feel really good about the rest of this year. I think we’re going to be strong.”