Martyn Bell and Geoff Steel Racing are both preparing for their return to the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC). The team have been absent since 2007, when Bell acted as driver. Bell himself took a season out of the series last year while recovering from a cracked hip.
This year sees Steel and Bell reunited. Steel – himself a one-time driver, entering the BTCC back in 1994 – taking care of the engineering aspects of the team, Bell managing the BTCC effort, bringing his more recent knowledge of the championship to the task.
He initially jokes that the entry was a “last minute” affair. However as Bell details the chain of events that went before last week's announcement it becomes clear that the plan has been in place for some time.
“We always planned on doing something,” he tells thecheckeredflag.co.uk “I wanted to be back with BMW for passionate reasons more than anything and we, Geoff and I, we decided we were going to get back together. I've had thirteen years – ten, twelve, thirteen years with him under the BMW banner and we won four championships in the [Kuhmo BMW Championship].”
“Geoff over the years is a fantastic engineer and he's been like a second dad to me over the years. So we decided in the middle of last year that we would be going back together and doing something with me managing the commercial and driver side where as he would sort the engineering side out.”
The planning and thought behind the team is further evidenced when Bell tells of flying to and from Venice in a day to visit Roberto Ravaglia's team in search of BMWs to purchase for this season. Ultimately, the decision was made to buy the cars used by Motorbase Performance last year. Bell explains; “the decision went with the Motorbase team really on the data we could get because we'd be left with a blank sheet of paper with the Italian cars.”
“Dave [Bartrum] has so much data and his cars are very, very cleverly BTCC friendly,” he adds referencing the development that has been done on the cars, which he describes as “impressive”. “Let's face it this is last year's race winning car – it is a race winning with a race winning set up. It's not old hat – [but]people are writing this car off.”
Bell confirms to thecheckeredflag.co.uk that, as the team stands, the cars will run with the same S2000 engine package as last year for at least the March 24 media day and the opening races at Brands Hatch. However, he says that negotiations about using a NGTC turbocharged engine are ongoing, with the potential to begin running with the new engine by mid-season. Bell compares the act of fitting the series' new engine into the BMW to fitting a “square peg into a round hole” and is also mindful of upsetting the BMW’s good balance and negating much of the data which made the Motorbase cars so appealing.
In fact Bell sees potential unknowns for the NGTC powered cars as an opportunity of Geoff Steel Racing's drivers to pick up early points.
“The times aren't as good as you'd expect,” says Bell of the test performances of the turbo cars. “There's a lot of these turbo car, we don't know how they're going to manage their tyres.”
“I think the first half of the season there might be some cheap points and cheap results to have if we have our house in order.”
At the time of speaking to TCF Martyn is able to confirm the team has signed one driver, to be named in the coming weeks, while a second is working to secure the budget necessary for the season. He describes the pair as “definitely top ten” drivers, ruling out a return to driving himself just yet as the hip injury continues to heal.
‘Passionate’ is certainly a word that springs to mind talking to Martyn about the BTCC, a series he glowingly commends as “arguably the premier tin top series in Europe let alone in Britain and to be fair the BTCC's the place to be” and his passion is no clearer than when he addresses – in a way which hints at the frustration felt by many privateer teams and drivers – the struggles of gathering a budget to go racing.
“Nightmare,” he begins blankly. “I sympathise with so many of the drivers, you've got so many talented drivers out there that get a budget and that can't be right. Colin Turkington, Paul O'Neill – these boys are at the top of their game and the BTCC has to have them – they have to have the budget.”
“It's a struggle, it's nearly a full time job just getting people to part with money in this economic climate and it's a fabulous advertising platform. You go to a football match and you pay all that money to advertise at a football stadium and you get 90 minutes. You go to the BTCC you get a full day and you get to meet the players as well, the drivers. It's such a fabulous spectacle and once you get the people there to witness it they back you and advertise with you – it's such a difficult thing and unless you know someone in the right positions.”
“Although the TOCA team are a marvellous organisation and they're doing a fabulous job we just need to get the people who sign the cheques there and see the spectacle – it's second to none. From the lorries parking up to the checkered flag it's absolute value for money and we've got to get that over to these commercial people.”
“It's so difficult to get money in, we're lucky – we're doing alright but it's only because of the effort. If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail. The effort we're putting in the team – it's still not enough. We can run, and we can run OK but we want to run fantastic and to run fantastic we need more, we need more. We always need more.”