I’m over 40, so my memory is no longer what it was, but suffice to say that I cannot remember the last time I was at a British Touring Car Championship race.
It was, possibly, eight or nine years ago, and that’s a pretty sad admission for a man who spent the first decade of his working life covering all things racing and rallying for the likes of Motorsport News and Autosport.
By the time I switched to road cars with What Car? almost a decade ago I was no less obsessed with motorsport, but exhausted by it. To a degree, I’d been spoiled, arriving in the dream job in 1996, at a time of economic and sporting boom, when budgets were plentiful and British-born talent was at a high.
Across disciplines we had Damon Hill in an increasingly manufacturer-backed F1 and Colin McRae and Richard Burns in the WRC. Then, in domestic racing and rallying, there were manufacturer teams aplenty, with the very best drivers getting paid to compete in both, and the level of competition rising accordingly.
The economic downturn - and a shortage of homegrown talent in the right cars - did much to dampen my enthusiasm across the board. In particular, while the BTCC kept on running, the grids were sparse and, at times, the level of competition some way off what it had been.
So last weekend I went to Thruxton to watch the BTCC with some trepidation, and I’m delighted to say I came away re-enthused by the spectacle and intensity of the competition.
Now, before anyone asks, there was no fancy hospitality and - although Autocar is a media partner (hence the stickers on the cars) - I am not beholden to report anything other than what I saw. I stood on the banks at the Complex with my family, and enjoyed the weekend just as anyone who bought an entry ticket could.
There were many standout features. The timetable, for starters, was both busy and fast-paced. As one race ended, another was queued up. When there was a pause, it was well used by the expert commentary team to build up the intensity ahead of each of the three BTCC races. And you were never far from a big screen, meaning it was possible to follow all the action wherever you were.
Inevitably, there were duff, follow-my-leader periods of racing, but because the event kept flowing (because of the need to meet TV schedules, you’d guess) the spectators were swept along. I have a seven and five-year-old with attention spans typicalfor their ages and, despite arriving at nine in the morning, I had to drag them away midway through the last race in a bid to beat the traffic.
I did that because the crowd was so enormous. Not unpleasantly so, but big enough to fill the banking around the circuit and create a real atmosphere. It felt like an ‘event’ in every sense of the word, and the cheers and applause for every great drive, move or cock-up brought passion and humour throughout the day. And do you know what? I was wrong to leave early, as friends who stayed on reported that the traffic management was comfortably up to getting everyone out in good time.
On track, there was some serious talent on display, from the Lewis Hamilton wannabes in the MSA Formula single-seater championship, through the accident-prone ranks of the Ginetta Juniors (both expertly won by teenager Sophia Floersch, still sadly notable for being a girl in motorsport) and all the way up to the Renault Clio and top-line BTCC ranks.
Most notable of all was the depth of talent in the BTCC these days. Insiders say the modern breed of cars are especially difficult to drive at their absolute peak of performance, but reasonably easy to drive very well. As a result, the vast majority of the pack were covered by just a few tenths, and anyone looking to win had to be error-free for an entire race distance to get any kind of result. While former champions Gordon Shedden and Jason Plato were joined on the winner's rostrum by newcomer Adam Morgan, the level of talent was impressive throughout the field, and a testament to the fact it is pitched at an aspirational level for would-be tin-top racers. And, of course, the tightness of times led to many a nudge, bash and incident.
Perhaps the best conclusion to report from our day out is to say that we are determined to go and watch the BTCC again this season. It might not have the manufacturer support it once did, or the high-level television presence, but it is perfectly and delicately pitched at just the right level for both competitors and fans. Whether, like me, you haven’t been for a few years, or if you’ve never been, I’d defy you not to have a weekend to savour.