The ‘silly season’ has produced several shocks to the system already in time for the 2015 Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship, so TCF look at some of the biggest pre-season driver changes that stole the headlines down the years…
Since Colin Turkington was crowned BTCC champion last October for the second time in his entertaining career to date, the fate of the Northern Irishman and his main 2014 rival, Jason Plato, was becoming a mystery for this season.
Turkington knows all about the disappointment of not being able to defend the title after budget restricted him from defending his 2009 crown with West Surrey Racing, but momentarily, it appeared lightning may even strike twice after title sponsors eBay parted company with the BMW squad.
Similarly, Plato departed the works Triple Eight MG team, which left the inexplicable scenario of last year’s top two hunting for a place on the grid for 2015.
Both have now found solitude thanks to Warren Scott‘s winter efforts at BMR Racing for the coming season, forming an unlikely partnership that will be one of the most feared alongside triple race winner Aron Smith and team boss Scott in the improving Volkswagen CC machines.
The question now, bluntly, is will the pair again be the drivers to beat in 2015?
The sport is no stranger to driver switches that keep fans guessing until the public announcement is heard, so we look at some of the biggest surprise swaps that have taken place down the years…
Jack Sears – Beating the Jags with Ford
The British Saloon Car Championship’s inaugural champion himself is who we kick off with, Jack Sears having driven a variety of cars and won a pair of BTCC titles including the sport’s introductory year, 1958.
“Gentleman Jack” had driven an Austin A105 and drawn level on points with Tommy Sopwith that season, one which was based on class points rather than who actually took the flag first on track. A subsequent pair of five-lap shoot-outs at Brands Hatch in two similar Marcus Chambers-owned Riley 1.5 works rally cars was the chosen solution, Sears edging it on aggregate times in the sodden conditions.
Sears then spent four years racing Jaguars in Class D and Over 1000c (1960) for the Equipe Endeavour squad, racing the likes of the British marque’s venerable Mk II which became both the machinery to beat and to be admired.
Sears soon made a dramatic switch for what would be his final BTCC season in 1963, one that ultimately landed him title number two. This was to Ford – driving for John Willment in no fewer than three different machines including a Ford Cortina GT, a Lotus Cortina late in the season and, most memorably, the mighty seven-litre Ford Galaxie for four races midway through the campaign.
The novelty for Sears was that the move pitched him into combat against the Jaguars he had driven over the previous handful of seasons. Sears recalls his first race in the Galaxie from Silverstone as a favourite of his, not expecting to beat the Jaguars in the sizeable American muscle car until he pulled away from his Mk II rivals on the opening lap of the race – one of three wins from four in the car.
Win Percy – Raced for, then against Walkinshaw
Venturing to the BTCC in 1975, the mercurial Winston “Win” Percy would soon go on to dominate the series over a three-year period from 1980-82 with a hat-trick of titles.
His first race would also be the first time he encountered the late Tom Walkinshaw, racing for Toyota where he even threatened Walkinshaw’s Ford Escort in the class above. A Walkinshaw-Percy partnership finally came together when the former offered Percy a drive in his team’s Mazda RX-7 for the 1980 season.
The partnership clicked instantly and the Dorset-born Percy dominated to become BTCC champion that season with TWR, repeating the feat the following year. The partnership took a strain at the latter season’s conclusion however, when Walkinshaw told Percy a seat was not available for him ahead of the following season.
Bumping into his old Toyota squad down the pitlane, Percy subsequently shook hands on a deal with the Hughes of Beaconsfield/Toyota GB outfit, only for Walkinshaw to invite his driver back for talks to finalise a deal to race one of his team’s Rover 3500 S machines for 1982.
Walkinshaw’s off-beat sense of humour had got the better of him, but the rapid team switch proved perfect for Percy. Although not to the liking of Walkinshaw, the move culminated in a dominant third consecutive BTCC crown for Percy after winning every race in Class C during 1982.
Such was the surprise of a Corolla keeping pace with works Rovers, that the latter rivals even went as far as lodging a failed protest against the Toyota’s oversized number plate – insisting it was an aerodynamic aid.
Tim Harvey – ’92 champion almost left out
One of the championship’s most respected voices, Tim Harvey is also known for clinching arguably the most memorable title win of them all in 1992 as he came through that frenetic finale unscathed at Silverstone, while BMW team-mate Steve Soper clattered into Harvey’s title rival, John Cleland, at Luffield.
After the title triumph had sunk in and winter deals took shape, champion Harvey and team-mate Soper were left inexplicably without a drive for 1993. The drama ensued after BMW GB withdrew from the championship through arguments regarding equalisation, while Vic Lee Motorsport was liquidated after a further scandal involving owner Vic Lee during that period.
Solitude came from Renault, who had joined as a new manufacturer entry and signed Harvey alongside Alain Menu to drive a pair of Renault 19 16v machines.
The 19 was not an ideal tool for touring car racing initially as Harvey explains: “When I first saw the car at Renault Sport in France it had a handbrake and standard pedals in it. I asked them why it had a handbrake and they said it was because the rally driver, Jean Ragnotti, was the test driver and he liked to used the handbrake. I thought…these guys have a lot to learn about touring cars! They learned quickly”.
More frustratingly, BMW solved their argument and returned to the series, Joachim Winkelhock winning the title in what Harvey felt was effectively his BMW. “It’s one of my biggest disappointments actually, because I’d loved BMWs and my dream was to get a factory contract”, he added.
The Renault 19 model was competitive in wet conditions, but off the pace compared to the front runners of BMW, Ford and Vauxhall in dry conditions. Renault even opted out of the Knockhill race in order to further develop the car. A win did however come the way of both drivers during the campaign, Harvey’s in sodden conditions at the second round at Donington Park on his way to 14th in the championship.
Alain Menu – Champion with Renault, then Ford
The Swiss superstar himself ironically returned to BTCC in 2014 with BMR Racing after 14 years away from Britain’s tin-top scene, clinching two visits to the podium at Rockingham and Silverstone along the way to rekindle memories.
But it was a move in 1999 that altered the script during Menu’s initial nine-year foray in the sport, a mightily successful one that saw him net two title wins, 35 race wins and an assured place in BTCC folklore.
Menu raced with Renault for six consecutive years in a loyal period which consistently saw him fighting at the front of the field, three times the bridesmaid between 1994-96 before finally getting his hands on the title he deserved in 1997 with the works Williams-Renault Laguna.
That came after 12 wins, only for the Swiss ace to struggle to fourth place in the championship on his title defence the following season. Menu then, like Sears, switched to Ford in 1999 for a new chapter after Renault’s battling previous season, joined by Anthony Reid from Nissan as both saw potential in the improving Mondeo team.
A troublesome year followed, but in the final year of the Super-Touring era that was 2000, everything clicked at the big-spending manufacturer squad. Renault were not present, while all three Mondeo drivers battled for the crown, Menu’s move ultimately rewarded with a dramatic last-race title triumph at Silverstone.
British fans would have to wait until the 2007 Thruxton finale to witness a brief return to BTCC for Menu, having raced in European and World Touring Car Championship competition in between.
Fabrizio Giovanardi – An instant hero
When you really debate who are the all-time great touring car drivers on the planet, one name is often always brought up – the venerable and flamboyant Italian, Fabrizio Giovanardi.
During his career he has won nine touring car titles, although by 2006, seven of these included European, Spanish and Italian crowns since 1992.
With Yvan Muller departing Triple Eight‘s Vauxhall squad for WTCC in 2006, the Frenchman’s void was soon filled by the man who would quickly endear himself to the hearts of British fans.
‘Gio’ struggled initially to get to grips with an unfavourable Astra Sports Hatch but finally collected a dramatic win at Knockhill under severe pressure from all angles – having previously suffered heartache at the final corner at Donington when Colin Turkington climbed over the grass at the chicane to snatch a certain win for the VX Racing man.
Another win followed at Brands Hatch, but that was just a mere placemat on mantlepiece for the Italian. Giovanardi’s sublime car control was displayed time after time as he beat Jason Plato to the title in a Vauxhall Vectra in 2007 with 10 victories in just his second year in BTCC, dominating the 2008 campaign to double up with 15 visits to the podium.
Matt Neal – Left family squad for VXR in 2008
During the latter stages of the 2007 season, rumours were rife that the then-double defending champion Matt Neal was set to depart his family Dynamics squad at the end of the year.
It was tipped that Neal would be heading to the works VX Racing Vauxhall squad for 2008 during the final meeting of the season at Thruxton, but fans then witnessed a more obvious sign that this would be the case in the final round when the triple champion seemingly waved by the Vectras of Tom Chilton and Fabrizio Giovanardi in the season-closing race.
Neal was more reluctant in combat with big rival, Jason Plato, which allowed Giovanardi to escape on his way to clinching the title from Plato in a tense conclusion in Hampshire.
The switch to Vauxhall to partner the new champion at a BTCC ‘super-team’ came true for 2008, Neal leaving his Dynamics squad behind who took on Vauxhall’s Chilton as a replacement. Winning brilliantly on his sixth start for the works squad in a Rockingham race three deluge, Neal stayed in title contention initially but would go on to finish the year fifth in the standings.
A strong start with victory in the opening race at Brands Hatch the following season was the highlight of 2009, failing to win again and finishing fourth in the standings behind Giovanardi before returning to his family Honda team, which he and team-mate Gordon Shedden have remained loyal to ever since.
Jason Plato – Rejuvenated by Chevrolet
The BTCC’s most winning driver has found his home at many different teams down the years. Starting at Renault he was then scooped up by Vauxhall, winning the title in an enthralling finish to the 2001 season for the works squad only to return after a two-year sabbatical to front SEAT’s BTCC programme from 2004.
Plato soon wrapped the SEAT image around himself as he battled for the title on many occasions between then and 2008, twice missing out on the title and never finishing lower than fourth in the championship.
Plato’s plans for 2009 were suddenly given a body blow by SEAT’s shock announcement to pull their factory team out of the BTCC at the end of 2008’s campaign. It was speculated that Plato was to take another sabbatical from racing to focus on his TV work, but over the off-season he allegedly held talks with the likes of rivals West Surrey Racing and Tempus Sport.
Ultimately, Plato made the brave decision to return with a privately-entered Chevrolet Lacetti run under the RML Group banner for 2009. The move soon turned out to be a golden one.
An unexpected victory took just three races to come, Plato handed a hard-fought win at Brands Hatch’s opening meeting after Jonathan Adam was excluded for tipping the Chevy man into a huge broadside moment at Paddock Hill Bend in the final race. The team secured sponsorship from Silverline power tools and Auto Windscreens for the rest of the season, after which Plato soon became a title pretender.
Seven wins and second place in the championship was his reward, Plato also becoming only the second driver after Dan Eaves (Thruxton 2005) to win all three races on a Sunday at the final round of the season at Brands Hatch as he finished just five points behind champion – and 2015 team-mate – Colin Turkington.
What followed completed the fairytale. For 2010, RML became an official Chevrolet manufacturer team, racing the Cruze model which also competed in the World Touring Car Championship. Plato was a title contender immediately, dominating the latter half of the season to bag a second BTCC crown in the penultimate round where victory at Brands Hatch saw him equal Andy Rouse‘s then BTCC record of 60 wins.
James Thompson – Wowed the UK crowds again
A double BTCC champion with 36 BTCC wins to his name since 1994, Yorkshireman James Thompson is still considered to be one of the country’s best tin-top talents.
He became the youngest ever race winner in only his second year in BTCC, also taking two pole positions, but it was only during his second stint with Vauxhall after a four-year flourish at Honda between 1997-2000 that ‘Thommo’ got his hands on the prize after a bitter battle with team-mate Yvan Muller in the works squad’s Astra in 2002.
He repeated the feat thanks to fastest lap in the final race of a thrilling 2004 season, but a move to WTCC and Alfa Romeo in 2005 effectively put an end to his full-time appearance on the BTCC grid over the next 10 years. However, after impressing on selected outings with SEAT in 2006, Thompson grabbed the headlines again in 2009, switching to Team Dynamics to race their Honda Civic for six meetings of the season as he swapped the car with Gordon Shedden and Johnny Herbert.
After flirting with the front and taking just three races to reach the podium at Thruxton, what followed at Donington Park was sensational as the double champion netted two victories in mixed conditions throughout the day.
In fact, he would have arguably bagged a famous hat-trick on his second weekend back on home soil had there been more laps in the reverse-grid encounter, as the slick-shod Civic tore through the pack on a drying track.
Another popular win came in the reverse-grid race at Oulton Park, Thompson netting 14 top-10 finishes and five podiums in his mere 18 outings to conclude the part-time campaign a strong ninth in the standings.
Mat Jackson – Instant Chevy Winner
The quiet assassin, Mat Jackson, was – just like Jason Plato – left without a drive in 2009 despite finishing runner-up to Giovanardi the previous year.
The story of Plato’s venture with Chevrolet has been outlined already, but the second round at Thruxton saw the team expand to two Lacettis, bringing in Jackson alongside the double champion.
That trip to Hampshire again, just like Plato’s Chevy debut at Brands Hatch, ended in fine style, as Jackson cooly stroked home to win the reverse-grid race without a single beat missed.
While Plato narrowly missed out on the title, his team-mate at times shone brighter that season and, had it not been for a stomach-churning bout of food poisoning at Croft, you could argue Jackson may have been closer in the title fight than his ultimate fifth placing in championship.
The reasoning – eight consecutive podium finishes from Knockhill’s first race including three more wins, a run that is rarely seen in the BTCC’s modern era.
Colin Turkington – Returned even stronger
It is with frightening coincidence that the reigning champion finds himself in this list, not just for his dramatic switch to BMR for the coming season, but for the fact that a similar budget problem left him unable to defend his maiden BTCC crown in 2010.
The Northern Irishman finally conquered the championship he had been a part of since 2002 after eight years plying his trade, done so in one of the most nerve-jangling finales witnessed in the sport’s history at Brands Hatch to beat Plato and Giovanardi to the title.
West Surrey Racing were just as delirious, but the Independent squad endured a nightmare winter period that saw title sponsors RAC depart and leave Turkington without a backer to allow him to compete – his place taken by Andy Neate alongside Rob Collard in a winless season for Dick Bennetts’ squad.
Turkington made his way to the World Touring Car Championship for selected meetings over the following handful of seasons. Contending for victory instantly with the likes of former rivals Muller, Thompson and Rob Huff, the BMW ace finally clinched his sole WTCC win at Japan in 2010, also finishing fifth overall in the 2011 Scandinavian Touring Car Championship.
In 2013 however, Turkington returned with WSR to the BTCC, a move which lived up to the hype instantly.
It took a mere six races to return to winning ways at Donington, Turkington finishing fifth overall in 2013 before winning last year’s title in prolific fashion thanks to eight wins and 19 podiums.