This year's competition will be better than the 'Super Touring' glory days, according to those who should know

"We have fantastic racing, talented drivers, packed grids, a non-stop race-day timetable, big crowds and live television coverage – what more do you want?” Alan Gow, the no-nonsense boss of the British Touring Car Championship, glowers back when asked if the nation’s premier racing series really is as good as it used to be, back when I was a lad in the 1990s. 

Time to take off the rose-tinted spectacles, it seems. “Last year, at two of the races, 29 cars were covered by less than a second in qualifying; you want closer than that?” he continues. “The rules are set so that the drivers make the difference; in 30 races last year, we had 17 different winners. Spectators get brilliant access to the drivers before the action begins, then three races plus support events – or they can watch it all on television. It’s a brilliant day out.” 

Don’t just take his word for it. Triple BTCC champion Matt Neal has experienced the BTCC in different eras since 1991, seeing it from many different angles. He has successfully played the role of plucky privateer upstart with his family-run Team Dynamics squad, as well as having carried Honda’s works-backed hopes in more recent years. “If you want to hunt trophies, then you’ll race anywhere but the BTCC,” Neal says. “Back in the 1990s, there was always one – or maybe two – dominant teams. Now anyone can be on top.”

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Double BTCC champion Jason Plato has also been there and done that in Britain’s premier motor racing series since 1997, when he famously forced his way into the Williams-run Renault squad. Having experienced everything from cars created by F1 minds to the current generation of machinery, which use largely off-the-shelf technology in order to keep costs down but ensure the cars remain challenging to drive, he holds similar, if more mixed, views."

"The Super Touring era was special,” he says. “The cars were so pure, so finely honed as racing cars that they were wonderful to drive. But the problem was while the drivers loved them, and the engineers loved having so much resource to throw at them, it didn’t always make for the best racing. What we have today is much more entertaining for the fans. If you’re one-tenth of a second off, it can cost you 10 grid positions. If you find that tenth, or the guys ahead are held back by success ballast, you’ll be blasting back past them.” 

Gow, unsurprisingly, concurs: “You can park any ideas you might have about it being better in the Super Touring era, because what we’ve built up is better for everyone – bar, perhaps, the handful of drivers who used to earn big bucks off the back of the manufacturer involvement,” he says. “The aerodynamic trickery on those late Super Touring cars was off the scale. They were so sensitive to airflow that they couldn’t follow each other. Today, we have a dozen cars nose-to-tail, scrapping wheel to wheel at any given time.” 

That brings its own pressures, as last year’s BTCC champion and triple title winner Colin Turkington eloquently explains. “The level of competition is through the roof,” he says. “The success ballast, reverse grids and sometimes even engine boost tweaking ensure that nobody can run away with it. If you do well, you get pegged back. The margins are so fine, there is a constant pressure to maximise what you can get – but without risking too much if it all goes wrong. It’s like walking a tightrope. 

At the end of last year, I was broken. Completely broken in every sense – physically and mentally. I had to be on top of it from March to October, with the pressure ramping up again in the run-in to the end of the season. There were 17 different race winners – and I only won one race.

“It was mentally tough trying to tread the fine line between acquiring points and going for broke. After I won the title at Brands Hatch, I barely had the energy to celebrate. It actually took a few days before I could enjoy what I achieved.” 

Neal relates to that, too. Asked how he feels ahead of the season, he chooses his words with care. “Optimistic is the best way to describe it,” he says. “It’s no good saying you’re confident, because it’s too close for that: we can’t all be confident. The truth is that over 30 races as close as we’ll have, you’ll have to gamble all the time – ‘Do I go for that move or not? Will I gain from it or lose from it?’ – and the championship will probably come down to how many of those rolls of the dice go your way.” 

The key, says Gow, is the current era of regulations, which have been tweaked and improved over the years (this year, for instance, the maximum success ballast for winners has been reduced) but also remain stable. A control tyre from Dunlop removes another potential performance variable, too. In basic terms, teams can swap bodyshells but use the same running gear year after year, helping keep annual budgets to around £250,000-£500,000 per car and ensuring that teams can build up their knowledge base over time. In racing terms, that’s good value, and the ITV4 television package and spectator numbers are clearly strong enough to attract blue-chip sponsors. 

“The critics say that what we have isn’t pure – that we artificially ensure that we get great racing,” says Gow. “But if you want pure racing, then go and watch Formula 1. It’s a technical pinnacle, but it’s not always great Sunday afternoon viewing. What we have is rules designed to entertain, and I’m not apologising for that. They are the same for every competitor and the evidence suggests they work well enough for a lot of our ideas to now appear in other championships around the world.” 

Plato, while a huge fan of the modern era of the BTCC, fears that last year’s raft of winners show the balancing of performance has gone too far. “It doesn’t sit comfortably with me that there are 17 drivers and teams out there good enough to win races,” he says, while acknowledging his view is coloured by the fact that he wasn’t one of them. 

“I just don’t buy it and I don’t like the idea of someone being crowned champion with just one win. The racer in me thinks the champion should be leading from the front. And the risk is that we devalue the championship, because the best teams won’t be able to get the funding if sponsors can see they can get their name on a winning car for a tenth of the cost. 

“The good news is that the championship is run from the top, and the rule tweaks should go some way to improving that.” 

In contrast, Turkington highlights the fact that drivers like him, Neal and Plato keep coming back as evidence of the quality and appeal of the championship. It all kicks off again at Brands Hatch this weekend, with live coverage across ITV4 throughout the season, and it promises to be another fire-cracker of a season. 

“There are opportunities to go elsewhere, and I guarantee we’ve all looked at them,” says Turkington. “The point is that we all find motivation to keep doing the BTCC. Matt and I each have three titles now – you might think that after all the stress to win them we’d have had enough. But, guess what, after a winter break I’m sat here thinking: ‘Well, if we’ve both got three titles, then I want four.’ I don’t just want to be the joint best. And I’ve got a new car with the BMW 3 Series. Wouldn’t it be something to win first time out in that car, in the toughest touring car championship in the world? When the racing is this good, it doesn’t take much to fire you up again.” 

Plato on 2019

He may not have been on the podium as much as he would have liked in recent years, but double champion Jason Plato arguably remains the biggest name in the BTCC. 

The question is whether he’ll stick around beyond this season. He admits the past years driving a Subaru without success have worn away at him, but says a change of team to drive a Power Maxed Racing-run Vauxhall Astra has already energised him. 

“The story of the past few years will come out eventually,” he says, coyly. “When the results don’t come, you start to question things and doubt yourself, but I have enough experience to know I haven’t lost it. Being back in a team that I trust – and they trust me – is a great feeling.” 

Plato, 51, won his first title in an Astra way back in 2001 and says he’ll think about his future towards the end of the season. “The right ingredients are there to have a wonderful year,” he says. “If it goes well, then I’ll relish it and won’t want to stop. In my mind today, I’m expecting to mix with the guys up front. 

“But if it’s not enjoyable and the car isn’t delivering, then I will have to question it. I am racing for the enjoyment.” Plato is also working on his autobiography, due out this autumn. As you’d expect, he’s not planning on pulling any punches. 

“It’s cathartic to work on,” he laughs. “It’s humorous, self-deprecating and, above all, honest. Sure, people will deny some of the stories, but in today’s world there are those trying to tell you that unicorns exist. I’m only telling the stories that I know are true.”

Headlines for the new season

New Toyota Corolla

Last year, Speedworks Motorsport’s Tom Ingram was a title challenger until the final race of the season; this year, team and driver go again with an all-new Corolla, developed with support from Toyota GB. If they can get the new car sorted quickly – and there’s no reason why they won’t – expect another title challenge.

New BMW 3 Series

Another car developed with manufacturer blessing, the new 3 Series has been entrusted to the crack West Surrey Racing squad, with its line-up led by reigning BTCC champion Colin Turkington. Much of the running gear is taken from the title-winning 1 Series, but the new 3 Series has new aero and a weight balance that need perfecting.

Mark Blundell

You could make the case that the British veteran’s talents at the wheel have long been under-appreciated; the ex-F1 racer, Le Mans and IndyCar winner is unfairly best known for his sometimes mangled F1 commentary career. The question is whether a return to racing in the rough and tumble of the BTCC at the age of 52 is going to change that.

Nic Hamilton

After a stint in the Renault Clio Cup, Lewis’s brother makes a full-time move into the BTCC (he drove four races in 2015, too). He’ll drive a Ford Focus RS run by the well-regarded Motorbase squad. “Whether I start the year finishing in P5 or P25, I will work with that and develop from there,” he says, realistically.

Read more

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New BMW 330i M Sport BTCC racer revealed​

BTCC ace Plato to race Vauxhall Astra in 2019​

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Comments
6

5 April 2019

Very much looking forward to this season.

There's a really strong grid of drivers aside from the main headlines: Cook, Goff, Morgan, Butcher, Tordoff and Chilton, plus Sutton is a star.

5 April 2019

I still enjoy the btcc but always loved the super tourer era, maybe because it was all manufacturer based? Dunno, but I always loved it.

5 April 2019

We need VXR to get BTCC back to the glory days.

5 April 2019

Apart from F1, the only motorsport I watch in its entirety is the BTCC and the support series - it's all great racing, and you get the opportunity to see the youngsters move up through the ranks (even to F1 :-).  Hats off to ITV for devoting so much air-time to the series.

5 April 2019

There are few things more annoying that being told what to like.  I hate this. 

 

There is more rule fiddling and result contriving in motor sport than all other types of sport combined.  Football matches are often boring, sometimes great.  But I don't recall a rule of the game being changed in my lifetime, and nobody has ever suggested a football player or team should somehow be impaired to give the others a chance.  And yet football seems to be quite popular.

 

There are few signs of insecurity more certain than saying 'stop going on about the past, now is amazing'.  It takes confidence in yourself to criticise.  

 

In my opinion, the WRC, BTCC, WSC and certainly F1 are shadows of their larger than life former selves. 

 

If more people are watching and enjoying them now than in the past, who cares what I think.  But I'm pretty sure they are not.  

289

5 April 2019

Totally agree eseaton, cant think of a more contrived formula than BTCC, and your comments around other formerly glorious branches of the sport are equally valid.

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