Great BTCC Cars – The BMW 3-Series

Frank Sytner | Photo Credit: Unknown

This is the first of a series of articles highlighting different cars that have competed in, won, occasionally dominated and even more occasionally shaped the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) over the last few decades.

And what better way to start that to look at a car, or rather a series of cars, that neatly straddles this time – the BMW 3-Series.

They young amongst you, or those who have only recently happened across the BTCC, may think that Colin Turkington’s 2009 title win is the first, or even a rare triumph for the German brand on these shores. In fact Turkington was only the latest of five drivers who have taken titles in the 3-Series, and Team RAC the fourth different outfit to run the cars to that accolade.

To find the first of the five you have to delve deep into the late eighties. Running under the FIA’s Group A rules the BTCC saw up to four classes, decided on engine size, competing at once. Under these rules points for each class was awarded points on the same scale – the winner of Class B, C or D was awarded the same points as the Group A (and overall) winner – allowing drivers in the lower classes to compete for the overall championship. Class A was the domain of the Ford Sierra Cosworths, but Class B was increasingly the domain of the BMW M3 E30.

Historically the M3 was a relatively new race car. Though the regular 3-Series was a common choice for independent teams in Group A series, BMW’s Schnitzer works team remained with the bigger 6-Series until 1987 when the M-Sport version of the car emerged.

Step forward Frank Sytner, a successful BMW dealer from Liverpool. After a handful of outings in the new car in 1987 he and the Prodrive team ran full time in Class B in 1988. The M3s dominated the class and Sytner dominated the M3s, ending the season with 110 points, giving him a 12 point cushion in the overall standings – by way of comparison Andy Rouse, who finished third with 95 points won nine of the twelve races.

The M3 class domination continued in ’89, though John Cleland’s Class C Astra took the overall title, before 1990 saw the first of the 3-Series’ many metaphases in the BTCC. Faced with spiralling costs and RS500 domination, Group A cars were being phased out in favour of a single class for 2-litre engine cars. That year saw the BTCC run two classes, one for the last surviving Group A beasts, mostly Sierras, and one for the first of the 2-litre cars, led by works efforts by BMW and Vauxhall.

Sytner would take the class title comfortably, beating Cleland’s Cavalier (though he was beaten by Robb Gravett’s Group A Sierra to the overall title).

Will Hoy | Photo Credit: Unknown
Will Hoy | Photo Credit: Unknown

1991 saw the 2-litre rules run alone, and arguably the beginning of the 3-Series’ finest years. The season saw three works teams, with Prodrive returning alongside four cars (two sponsored by Listerine and two in the familiar Labatts livery) run by Vic Lee Motorsport. This was as well as a raft of independent teams which saw the model dominate the grid.

Given this numerical advantage it is, perhaps, hardly surprising that the car that the car took eight of the twelve race victories ahead of their Vauxhall and Toyota competition, with each of the three works squads taking a win during the season. Come the finale at Silverstone it would be Will Hoy, driving for the VLM Listerine team who was champion ahead of Cleland and Rouse.

It would be the last championship for the M3.

With the road going equivalent out of production by 1992 the following season saw BMW, still with Prodrive and VLM, move to the 318is based on the E36 design, though the M3 continued as the mainstay of the independent teams.

The new car lost the BMW teams the five years of development on the M3. The opening of the season saw the Vauxhalls and Toyota dominate as Rouse, Cleland and Hoy (now driving a Toyota) shared the opening six races between them.

The 318’s first win finally came in round seven, when Tim Harvey won at Donington, and never looked back. In the next seven races (including a now distant sounding BTCC round at Pembrey) Harvey won five races in his VLM run car, and set up a three way battle for the title at the final round at Silverstone.

The final laps of 1992 are something of BTCC folklore.

Tim Harvey | Photo credit:
Tim Harvey | Photo credit:

Harvey’s teammate Steve Soper charging though the field after first lap clash with David Leslie and Robb Gravett saw him last with the rear of his car severely damaged, the title contenders – Hoy, Cleland and Harvey – a handful fo points between them racing each other on track with Soper gaining on them.

As the laps wound down Harvey forced Hoy’s Carina off after Copse, the Toyota dropping back, while Harvey saw Cleland and Soper go past. Through Club Soper dived past the Vauxhall, and by the time the trio dropped into Bridge to begin the complex both Vic Lee cars were climbing all over (metaphorically (for now)) the Vauxhall, Harvey passing both his teammate and rival through the right-hander.

Then Cleland lunged up the inside of Soper into Brooklands, the Cavalier rising onto two wheels and into the side of the BMW, both cars shedding trim as they slewed across the track. At Luffield Cleland had the place but Soper was (to quote Murray Walker’s commentary) “up over the curb and the grass” and slammed into the side of the Vauxhall, taking them both out, securing Harvey the title and prompting Cleland to label his aggressor “an animal”.

It was all change for 1993.

Joachim Winklehock
Joachim Winklehock | Photo Credit:

Champion Harvey departed for the new Renault team, Prodrive departed for the WRC and Vic Lee departed for prison for drug trafficking. In came Schnitzer and Joachim “Smokin’ Jo” Winkelhock to form something of BMW dream team.

Domination was predictable, and commanding.

Soper and Winkelhock won more than half the races, their only reliable competition arrived in June when Ford debuted the Mondeo. Ford driver Paul Radisich coming third in the championship despite only running half the season illustrates just how good the BMWs were (or how far ahead of the comparatively small efforts of the other manufacturers they were).

Winkelhock would win the title from Soper, rounding off a hattrick of titles for the 3-Series.

Despite Schnitzer staying that run would be ended by a new era of the BTCC in 1994, though mid-season changes saw the team take five wins, but it proved to be too little too late. The full works outfit would continue for 1995 and 96, with Winkelhock taking a clutch of wins in 96, but for the first time in nearly a decade there was no works BMW team in 1997, with only a few remaining cars in the hands of privateers.

While the BTCC would be BMW free for a decade the new S2000 rules saw a BMW resurgence in Europe. Andy Priaulx would take the European championship, before taking the newly formed World Touring Car Championship in its first three seasons. The BMW pedigree was showing, and so it was only a matter of time before the new 320i car made regular competitive BTCC appearances. That appearance when West Surrey Racing (as Team RAC) switched from MG to the BMW.

Colin Turkington battles with Jason Plato | Photo Credit:
Colin Turkington battles with Jason Plato | Photo Credit:

The team would take the independent teams’ title in both 2007 and 2008 before 2009 saw them able to revisit history in a three way fight for the title, once more with Vauxhalls in opposition. The finale that saw Turkington take the title involved tactics and driving that would make even Steve Soper blush, but it was just one more race weekend in the long and varied career of the BMW 3-Series.

No other car has taken so many titles against such strong opposition. But the BMW is not just a car of champions – though the list of drivers to pedal one on the BTCC reads like a role of honour – Johnny Cecotto, Roland Ratzenburger, Jonathan Palmer, David Brabham and David Leslie plus the champions it created – it was also for several years the choice of the privateer, attracting names that are no so familiar – Nick Whale, Ian Forrest, Nettan Lindgren, Geoff Steel. At times it seemed to be (to steal the name of a German rival) the peoples’ car.

And maybe, with Forster Motorsport planning to run two 320i models in 2010, it still is.