BTCC: Discussing Driving Standards

The subject of driving standards in the British Touring Car Championship has always been a controversial one, but after a particularly bruising encounter at Snetterton last weekend, people are once again questioning whether things have got out of hand.

Perhaps the most contentious of incidents befell 2009 champion, Colin Turkington. He had been doing a great job in both race two and race three, defending beautifully from faster cars. Despite this, he was biffed out of the lead by Andrew Jordan, and later, Gordon Shedden.

Thanks to their rather ambitious overtakes, we, as fans, were robbed of exciting ends to both races.

That is before you ever begin to go through many of the other incidents from the weekend, which culminated in Jason Plato suffering a scary looking roll over in race three.

But the first point of discussion must be whether driving standards have improved, or deteriorated over the years.

There is the argument of course, that touring car racing is all about close quarters action. It is about drivers not being afraid to swap paint, or bang door mirrors. It is undoubtedly this type of racing that has made the British Touring Car Championship the hit that it is with fans today.

The ever increasing rise of viewing figures, plus the number of people at the track on both Saturday and Sunday shows that while this might not be for everyone, it certainly is getting towards the revered Super Touring era in terms of interest. It perhaps produces the best touring car racing, along with the Australian V8 Supercars series, anywhere in the world.

But, you could also argue that the absence of manufacturers these days has seen driving standards deteriorate since the halcyon days of the mid to late nineties. The majority of the current grid are privateer entrants and there are very few full time professional racing drivers at all. Indeed, while it is good to see the likes of Jeff Smith and others living the dream of being a touring car driver at weekends, to put it bluntly, their inexperience sometimes shines through.

Additionally, the “crash, bang, wallop” style of racing the BTCC produces has been the way that series ringmaster Alan Gow has tried to market the series. Perhaps that is why the BTCC has been reluctant in the past to stamp down on some of the bad driving.

The thing is though, that while we don’t want the BTCC to turn into F1, with drivers being penalised for even daring to go wheel-to-wheel with each other, nobody likes to see expensive cars damaged either.

As already outlined, the days of numerous big budget manufacturers in the BTCC are long gone, and with many of the current teams running on a tight budget, it is not nice to see cars being damaged, week in, week out, particularly if the driver has been the innocent party in any skirmishes that take place.

Likewise, nobody likes to see people get hurt. Already this year in the racing world, we have seen numerous reminders of just how dangerous this sport can still be, not just for drivers, but for volunteer marshals too. At times, the BTCC has been lucky that several incidents have not been more serious.

The question is what should be done? Unfortunately, along with many other forms of racing, the stewarding in the BTCC is incredibly inconsistent.

You may remember that several years ago, Jonny Adam was stripped of victory at Brands Hatch for hitting Jason Plato at Paddock Hill bend. Following this weekend’s antics, Andrew Jordan received a grid penalty, while Gordon Shedden escaped with just a fine.

You have to wonder why there is such variety in the penalties, for three very similar incidents. Nobody likes to see a race result decided in the steward’s room, and fans should go home from a race knowing the result will not change, but it wouldn’t be difficult to start punishing bad driving with drive through penalties.

That way, the instigator gets a justified penalty, and the crowd gets to see somebody else win on the road, rather than inherit the win courtesy of somebody being disqualified post-race.  

I want to make it clear that I am not criticising all drivers in the championship for the hell of it. Certainly, there are many good drivers in the BTCC who know how to race cleanly and fairly. It is just a shame that there is a minority (many of whom are repeat offenders and should know better) have to resort to banger racing tactics.

The problem the BTCC has if it doesn’t get a grip of the situation, is that is encourages bad driving in the support races. Youngsters see what Matt Neal or Jason Plato has been doing for years and getting away with it, and emulate it.

That’s when the problems really start, because perhaps the most startling of incidents at the weekend came from a support race. The sight of the Ginetta GT Supercup field barely reducing in speed even when the red flags came out showed clear disregard for the marshals’ safety, and indeed the rules of racing.

And after all, unless it has changed since the last time I checked, motorsport is a non-contact sport. Besides, anyone can overtake by smashing a rival out the way, but it takes real skill to pass cleanly and fairly when someone is defending as well as Turkington was.

Feel free to let us know what your thoughts on the driving standards in the BTCC are by leaving a comment below.