The British Touring Car Championship will see two of its heroes re-emerge into the spotlight for the eagerly-anticipated 2014 season in Alain Menu and Fabrizio Giovanardi, so we take a look back at just a few of the big name comebacks in the sport…
With less than a month to go before a new BTCC season roars into life at Brands Hatch on 29/30 March, fans already swoon over the prospect of seven champions now jostling for honours among 32 entrants for the coming campaign.
Among those, double champions Menu (1997 & 2000) and Giovanardi (2007-08), racing for BMR Racing and Motorbase Performance respectively, offer the most nostalgia.
Colin Turkington was last season’s king of the BTCC comebacks, the 2009 champion returning 12 months ago with the West Surrey Racing squad he has remained loyal to during his career, and doing so with style, claiming five wins to make it feel as though the Northern Irishman had never been away.
Turkington stole the headlines in pre-season last year before performing to his best in 2013, so with that in mind, we take a look back at some more of the championship’s famous reappearances as Menu and Giovanardi prepare to match the hype their returns have already created…
When deciphering some of Britain’s finest touring car drivers of the modern era, James Thompson is a name that will feature in many people’s script, and his two comebacks in the championship both proved that in spades.
Back in 1995, the bright-eyed Yorkshire youngster stepped up to join John Cleland at Vauxhall’s works team at the tender age of just 20, and stunned the paddock by becoming the youngest BTCC race winner at Thruxton later that year to set him on the route to stardom that ran up until the conclusion of 2004.
Entertaining during a mixed spell for Honda in an Accord between 1997-2000, Thompson switched to Vauxhall for 2001, a change that brought his finest hours. He claimed a total of 18 wins in that period, clinching the formerly elusive BTCC crown in both 2002 and 2004 during fierce duels with Yvan Muller, before leaving for the World Touring Car Championship stage in 2005.
Comeback one: 2006 (SEAT)
Having left to contest the 2005 World Touring Car Championship where he took a victory on the opening weekend with Alfa Romeo, Thompson agreed to return to BTCC a year later on a part-time rota, sharing a second SEAT Leon with fellow Brit, Darren Turner.
Thompson raced five of the 10 weekends with the Spanish manufacturer in 2006 alongside his full-time WTCC programme in a bid to help Plato and, more importantly, help the brand on their way towards what became their first major title success in the British championship – SEAT being his WTCC stable at the time also.
He couldn’t have started the new Leon model’s life much smarter, as a fine performance in the opening race of the season at Brands Hatch saw Thompson make a winning return by forcing his way past Tom Chilton to win, Thompson even leading the series after those first three races.
After claiming another podium at Mondello and two top-four finishes at Oulton Park, he returned at Croft in a stellar weekend that saw him graciously gift the win to his team-mate Plato on the final lap of race one, only to dominate the final race of the day for a second and final win in 2006.
Three second places at Snetterton were the final party piece of his part-time season that saw him finish a superb sixth in the points, a crash and two fifth places at the Silverstone season finale wrapping up his year before returning his full focus to the WTCC.
Comeback two: 2009 (Honda, Dynamics)
Thompson then found himself making another shock comeback from WTCC when Gordon Shedden was bizarrely left without a drive following a trying time for Team Dynamics at the start of the year after their main sponsor at the time – Halfords – departed.
Thompson came in and immediately got to grips with the Honda Civic at Thruxton for a race three podium before shocking the system at a wet Donington Park. His wet-weather ability shone through as he took victory in only the fourth race of his second return, before calmly resisting pressure from Matt Neal in a dry second race to make it a double.
In the third race he gambled on slick tyres on a drying track to attempt the second ever BTCC treble, but ran out of laps when the decision was paying off in the final half of the race as shown by he recovery through the pack from last to sixth.
One more win followed at the reverse-grid race at Oulton Park as he notched up 10 top-six finishes in 18 races contested, Thompson leaving the series after Knockhill where he was replaced by former F1 star Johnny Herbert for the remainder of the season.
In fact, Thompson was still not done as he made another one-off appearance at the final round of 2011, racing with Motorbase in a third Ford Focus.
During the late 70s and throughout the 80s, Winston ‘Win’ Percy was a star performer in touring cars. Having joined the late Tom Walkinshaw’s Mazda squad in 1980, he instantly showed his class in saloon car racing by claiming the title in ’80 and ’81 for the TWR team.
He then became one of only three drivers – Bill McGovern and Andy Rouse the other contingents – to claim a hat-trick of titles in succession after moving to Toyota for his 1982 triumph in a Carolla, owed to by a pre-season misunderstanding enforced from Walkinshaw’s somewhat off-beat sense of humour, before continuing with TWR into WTCC.
The Comeback: 1987 – Silverstone
A touring car gentleman and legacy, Percy was not done from BTCC yet however, as in 1987, Andy Rouse passed the duties of his trusty Ford Sierra RS500 into the hands of Percy at the Silverstone round to make a one-off BTCC return.
He adapted to the Sierra better than expected and was over a second quicker than the opposition in practice, and in qualifying showed them what they would be dealing with by claiming pole position. However, as the lights went out, disaster struck as he stalled the car from pole position, eventually getting the RS500 rolling at the tail of the field while cars streamed by him.
Percy then set about a scintillating comeback from the rear of the field, carving through the lower class traffic before picking off his faster rivals one by one – including the likes of Tim Harvey’s Rover Vitesse – to claw his way into the lead of the 15-lap race in a flash with the quick disposal of Dave Brodie and Frank Sytner.
Percy went on to win, before the script was finally complete when the Sierra’s tyres popped on the cool-down lap, such had been the nature of how hard he pushed the machine that afternoon. Sometimes a little bit of good fortune is all you need…
HERE’S a slice of footage of the race itself.
Having entered the series in 1997 with the Williams-run Renault Laguna squad alongside fellow returnee Menu, Jason Plato has since toppled the tally for most BTCC wins of all time as he approaches his 16th season in the sport, although he too disappeared for a two-year sabbatical during his experienced tenure…
After four wins in three seasons at Renault he moved to Vauxhall in 2000, beating Muller in a bitter 2001 squabble for supremacy between the Astra team-mates to become BTCC champion for the first occasion during a tension-fuelled Brands Hatch finale that left fingernails a sorry state for all involved.
Plato then decided to change paths, joining the stock car scene in 2002 with NASCAR on his radar. He finished third in the British ASCAR series, but Plato’s mind soon wandered back to touring cars, which set up an amazing comeback story to begin the 2004 season…
The Comeback: 2004 (SEAT)
Plato was employed by SEAT in 2003 to aid their driver development, and leaped at the opportunity to return to touring cars when the Spanish manufacturer decided to launch an assault on the BTCC with a pair of Toledos for the following year. Plato was the natural option for them, partnered by SEAT Cupra champion and future World Touring Car Championship title winner, Rob Huff.
It was almost as though Plato had never taken the sabbatical when the new season came around, as he ran competitively inside the top 10 for the season’s first race at Thruxton along with his young team-mate, where he first implemented a tactic he would exploit all season as he dropped back towards the 10th place in a bid to start the reverse-grid race from the front.
It worked at the Hampshire venue as he grabbed the early lead, and fans were treated to a vintage Plato performance as he locked horns with his arch nemesis Muller – still at Vauxhall – for the entire race. Plato produced an almost Scalextric-like drive to keep the Frenchman behind him for the second half of the race, and win SEAT’s first BTCC race for a popular victory.
From there the rest is history; Plato finished the year third in the championship with seven wins, while Huff took two of his own for the team on their dream debut year.
Plato has since been an iconic character of the BTCC, and his success on the track has since grown from his comeback year, narrowly missing out on the 2007 title during his five-year tenure at SEAT at which he clinched 32 race victories with the marque.
A move to Chevrolet was the savior in 2009 following SEAT’s manufacturer backing exiting during the winter season, and the second ever hat-trick (besides Dan Eaves at Thruxton, 2005) came his way at the seaosn finale at Brands Hatch, before revenge was sweet a year later when Plato notched up his second title in 2010 with the Chevrolet Cruze under the Silverline team.
Plato has since been a title contender each season since, and will enter 2014 as a favourite once again with the MG KX Momentum Racing squad.
Ford – Returning to winning ways
Ford are a manufacturer that have been with the BTCC since its beginning, winning class C races with Jeff Uren in a Ford Zephyr against eventual 1958 champion Jack Sears and since becoming famous through many unique, popular and beautiful machines to grace Britain’s premier saloon car series, many of which were also very, very quick.
From Sears hurling a beefy and powerful NASCAR-style Ford Galaxy around the British circuits, Andy Rouse and Gordon Spice‘s famous duels as Ford Capri team-mates, all the way up to the favorable battles between the almighty Ford Sierra RS500 machines – the blue oval were a strong part of the championship.
The Supertouring era brought the Ford Mondeo to BTCC during the 90s, which was the tool that Nigel Mansell famously thundered into a bridge parapet in the TOCA Shootout and battled to the lead with at Donington in 1993 and 1998 respectively, and was present up until the 2000 season with budgets then higher than ever seen in BTCC.
But after Menu won the title in 2000, the Mondeo – and Ford as a works squad – disappeared from the top level of BTCC for almost a decade, with only production class Focuses seen on the grid in 2001…
The comeback: 2009-today
Arena Motosport brought the manufacturer back to BTCC in 2009, with Tom Chilton at the helm of the team ready for a new challenge with the Ford Focus built to the then S2000 regulations.
Partnered with Alan Morrison, Chilton eventually got the Ford Focus ST to the front of the field at the final round at Brands Hatch after a learning season for them, securing pole before suffering a heart-breaking last corner defeat to Plato, after a power steering problem made him run wide and lose out on their first win since 2000 by a tiny 0.015s.
That win – and more – came a season later however, as an updated turbocharged version of the car rocketed to a total of six poles and seven wins between Chilton and Tom Onslow-Cole, the latter finishing fourth in the 2010 standings.
A new car saw Chilton only manage one pole and two victories in 2011, while their old machine has since claimed seven victories – six in the hands of Mat Jackson and one in those of Aron Smith.
The newest in-house built Motorbase Focus, created for NGTC regulations, stormed to its first win in 2012 thanks to a sublime fightback from almost the rear of the field at Silverstone by Jackson, and will now be the weapon of choice for Giovanardi to make his return to the BTCC stage in 2014…
Gabriele Tarquini – Life in the old dog yet
Former WTCC champion and sometime Formula 1 refugee Gabriele Tarquini had once taken the BTCC by storm in the mid-90s, winning the 1994 title with Alfa Romeo on their debut before partaking in numerous touring car championships around the world following a split from the UK series after 1995.
The comeback – 1997 (Honda)
The Italian then made a return during the 1997 season with Honda, joining Thompson in two competitive Honda Accords, and it wasn’t long before Tarquini got back to winning ways as he took a hard-fought win at Thruxton. This was ultimately his only win in a promising – if not inconsistent – year that saw him finish a solid sixth in the championship.
After another year away, Tarquini returned with Honda for the rounds at Knockhill and Brands Hatch in a bid to aid Thompson’s fading title challenge, before returning full-time for the last year of the Super Touring era in 2000.
He finished sixth in the championship once again, but collected four poles during the competitive season, and three wins at Knockhill, Donington and Oulton Park in his final year of BTCC.
This paved the waved for a ETCC and WTCC career of wide success to follow for the Italian, who remains a threat on the world stage to this day having won the European championship with Alfa Romeo, plus the World Touring Car Championship title for SEAT in a hard-fought 2009 contest.
Fabrizio Giovanardi – One weekend of brilliance (that almost didn’t happen)
The spectacular Italian is well regarded in motorsport folklore as one of, if not the best touring car driver there is, with nine worldwide tin-top titles to his mantle around the world.
His visit to Blighty in 2006 immediately oozed class once he got into his stride, before becoming a fan favourite and quickly earning a place in BTCC memories with two championships heading his direction at Vauxhall in just four seasons.
24 race wins were notched up by Giovanardi during his time in the BTCC with the Triple Eight squad, although the final two of that tally weren’t predicted by anybody…
The comeback – 2010 – Thruxton
It was not so much a comeback you could argue because he had of course just missed out on becoming the fourth man to win three consecutive championships on the spin in 2009 (ironically to Turkington himself), although he was – just like Turkington – left inexplicably without a drive for 2010, following Vauxhall pulling the plug on their works backing in BTCC.
However, literally days before the season was about to get underway at Thruxton, Triple Eight worked hard to put together a late deal to field two Vectras for Giovanardi and former Clio Cup champion Phil Glew, and the fans trackside could not believe their luck when the black Vectras took to the track with the Italian’s name branded on one of them for the first round.
It became a fairytale story from then on that weekend when Giovanardi and Glew were both in the top 10, Giovanardi even sticking the #888 car on the front row. He then stunned even himself with a dominant display on Sunday, winning race one after a puncture for both Hondas of Matt Neal and Gordon Shedden, and then doubling up in race two.
He even lead the championship with a fifth place in race three, those three results enough to see him finish 14th by the season’s conclusion ahead of several drivers who had competed the full 2010 season…
Comeback two – 2014 – We’ll have to wait and see….