Jumping into a new machine in the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship may seem a lot easier on paper to those keeping eyes on the series, but as Colin Turkington and Sam Tordoff explain, switching to a car with a different drivetrain is not an instant partnership…
Unlike other sports, motorsport is a form where jumping into new machinery with different characteristics can often be difficult for drivers to instantly get to grips with, particularly if used to a specific driving style for a certain period of time.
In formats with different machinery taking part it can be the case that the car – often wrongly – takes the credit more so, the debate in BTCC over recent years being the advantages or disadvantages otherwise of front-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive in the modern NGTC (Next Generation Touring Car) era.
Reigning champion Turkington excelled in the West Surrey Racing BMW 125i M-Sport last season on his way to a second BTCC crown, eight wins telling just part of the picture from the Northern Irishman’s success.
A move to BMR kept Turkington his place on the grid for 2015, although he says the learning process over his first handful of test outings has centered on adapting his style back to suiting front-wheel drive characteristics.
Turkington told TCF on his return to FWD machinery for the first time since 2006: “It’s not easy because I’d been with WSR for so long, plus I’m moving to a very different type of car. There’s a lot of change [from BMW to VW].
“It’s been a big step for me because I’m having to think a lot and put the miles in, trying to get as many laps as I can. The more time I’m having in the car, the more familiar it gets.
“It’s just having that instinct and being able to respond quickly when you lose the grip because its from a different axle. I try not to think about it though.”
Above: Tordoff (l) and Turkington (r) have changed cars and are still adapting ahead of BTCC 2015 (Photos: Craig McAllister)
Quite contrary is the scenario of WSR’s new recruit, Tordoff, the former MG man now acclimatising himself with a RWD touring car for the first time in the BMW 1-Series with which Turkington sealed last year’s title.
Tordoff told TCF on his switch from MG to the rear-wheel drive BMW: “I’ve never been to these tracks in the BMW before so it took a little while just to learn different gears compared to the MG.
“It’s nice to be in this car, I think we’re going to have some great results this year and it will be a step forward. We just need to figure out what it was that made Colin a superstar.
New regulations for 2015 will attempt to induce greater parity between FWD and RWD cars following a season-long debate that threatened to turn ugly in 2014, weight ballast now being pushed to the front of the car to try and equalise the FWD disadvantage of having a much heavier front end.
Tordoff now remains on the other side of the fence in 2015, and added that the change has already made him think differently about the differences between both types of car.
“I’ve now got a different mindset now of front-wheel drive versus rear-wheel drive!” he commented.
“It’s all kind of the other way round now; you now don’t worry about qualifying as much and you know you’re going to come good in the races.”
What Will Feel Different?
There are numerous key words that are thrown around when discussing the performance advantages of either drivetrain configuration, both holding their own pros or cons for those behind the wheel.
We start with arguably the most important of these for the driver’s confidence, that being the topic of balance.
In motorsport – particularly saloon car racing – the balance is key to find when setting up a car, this often being the main focal point in practice sessions at each circuit to achieve in order to feel at home with the car around the strip of tarmac.
RWD cars generally offer better balance to a driver and, because of this, better handling when smooth and precise. These cars spread the weight of their drivetrain more evenly front-to-rear, thus aiding traction and ensuring the car is less likely to feel heavy at one end and break away from the driver.
Balance-wise, FWD cars meanwhile are nose-heavy, less optimal for handling at high-speed and under high load, plus effectively working overtime by having to put the power to the ground as well as provide steering.
Teams come up with their own solutions to improve front-to-rear balance across the car, some more noticeable than others. Looking at the BMR Racing Volkswagen CC without four boots on it, you notice the vast size of the front discs compared to the rear, stopping power more necessary on the front while mechanics says the smaller discs on the rear aid the CC’s balance in high-speed corners.
There is then another vital talking point – the topic of traction.
Expect a RWD car to have greater traction in normal circumstances, although outbreaks of rain from Mother Nature herself would often switch the tables in favour of FWD machines due to the fact the front axle can arrest a powerslide more easily with a squirt of enough throttle.
This – even in the dry – is helpful when it appears to be going wrong for a FWD competitor in touring cars. Get the back end sliding and, with a fast reaction time on the loud pedal and opposite lock put in at the right moment, you are more likely to escape with just deep breaths.
BTCC however throws up another issue for RWD machines. The sport is least stranger of all to a bout of body contact, meaning broadside moments for drivers come quite frequently albeit unplanned.
Moving to RWD will potentially make you think more in racing situations, the door-to-door nature more likely to send those relying on the rear axle into a pirouette rather than their rivals, who can pull themselves out of the situation more easily via the ‘gas it and go’ method mentioned above.
As Tordoff and team-mate Rob Collard also told TCF, BMW in particular have always worked their tyres better over the sprint race distance. The extra weight over the front hurts FWD cars more so than the more equal load spread over a RWD machine, so it has become a common theme in BTCC to see those driving the latter begin to chip away in the second half of the races – particularly when track temperature is higher and degradation is increased.
The real killer to FWD competitors however on Sundays comes as early as the moment the lights go out.
Seeing a BMW or Audi fail to lead into turn one having started on the front row is usually a shock to the system, their traction in standing start situations much smoother and often requiring less care on pedals.
The BTCC Rule Change Effects
2014 was at times plagued by arguments surrounding parity between cars of different configurations, the series making some slight technical regulation tweaks to potentially reign in certain advantages of the RWD cars this season.
Firstly, of last October’s changes applied by TOCA, Cosworth and Xtrac will independently analyse the start-line performances and in-gear acceleration of cars, with a view of earning greater parity through engine management programming.
BMW and Audi’s lighting starts may receive a knock-back, but ultimately the physics of rapid getaways will remain in favour of RWD machines should the driver behind the wheel time a start to perfection with little wheelspin.
Above: RWD cars are always dangerous off the line (Photos: btcc.net)
Another equalisation method is that RWD cars will carry the championship’s mandatory ballast box as far forward as possible in 2015.
The additional weight penalties to be thrown into cars after each race will significantly affect performance still, although it is unsure which cars are expected to handle the increased 75kg of ballast better.
Tordoff added to TCF his opinion on how the increased penalty for winning a race would affect the cars, stating that the additional weight placed over the front of the car will naturally act as better balancing act for the BMW squad over their FWD rivals.
“It’s going to handicap us anyway, but how it does compared to the others is a bit of an unknown at the moment”, the double race winner added. “The important thing is that generally, just by the laws of physics, we are going to be slightly better than most.”
Dick Bennetts, WSR team principal, remains adamant that the changes are exaggerated from Turkington’s sublime 2014 results rather than those of BMW or Audi, saying: “The weight distribution will hurt us compared to what we’ve had before – especially with the increased ballast.”
BMWs have however always been known for gaining pace as the races go on thanks to better tyre management, aided by less work from the front tyres and again creating a more equal balance even when encountering degradation.
Brands Hatch’s season opener on Easter weekend (4/5 April) is already tough to call, so quite how the changes will affect cars remains to be seen. A clear view on the pecking order will have to wait until this weekend for the time being…
Kings Of FWD in BTCC
Plato’s aggression and sheer bravery behind the wheel of a saloon car under braking still today makes him one of the toughest to beat. 88 BTCC wins – more than anyone else – also proves that,FWD cars his specialty since 1997 in the sport.
Many people were treated to Plato’s car control also in 2009’s Brands Hatch visit, producing ‘that’ save after Jonathan Adam provided the punt downhill at Paddock Hill Bend.
Although the Frenchman has not been part of the BTCC since departing for the world scene in 2006, it was Muller’s famed skills behind the wheel that made driving a FWD car seem effortless at times.
Muller not only looked visibly ultra-smooth and precise as you would expect from a character of his demeanor – similar to how Eric Cantona was in the football world – but he could avert disaster when given an unhelpful bump.
Besides the 2003 championship, the image lodged in BTCC folklore of the Frenchman is arguably the sideways moment at the final chicane in 2005 at Thruxton, when arch rival Plato tipped the Astra Sports Hatch broadside across his SEAT Toledo’s front end. Muller planted the throttle, somehow emerging still ahead of Plato having entered the corner rear bumper-first.
The master of car control, Giovanardi bagged two titles in BTCC, his many saves in a Vauxhall Vectra soon earning the Italian his ‘flamboyant’ tag which would endear him to the ever-flocking BTCC fans.
While ‘Gio’ knew exactly how to get the front end of a Vectra to the apex better than any driver on the grid, he also made saves during 2007-09 that staggered commentators and onlookers alike. See Brands Hatch 2007 and Snetterton 2008 for evidence…
Scot Shedden is another to have often shown exhibition-like car control in BTCC when tipped into a sideways moment, instantly one to have learned how to rescue that situation by burying the throttle pedal as well as display outright pace that even triple team-mate Matt Neal has struggled to match at times.
Take Brands Hatch’s sodden 2010 visit to the GP circuit in Kent when, while leading heading out of the final corner on a safety car restart, Shedden’s Civic veered onto the grass and was soon over 90 degrees broadside to the oncoming traffic. Amazingly, the#52 machine – screaming on the rev limiter – was pulled back into shape before it looped, Shedden saving the moment which would be a defining image to match his car control.
Kings Of RWD in BTCC
Arguably the current rear-wheel drive star has been Turkington, part of BMW’s return since 2007 with WSR and staying loyal in every season with the squad even through his sabbatical to WTCC between 2010-12.
The feel Turkington had always seemed a cut above the rest, particularly in getting the power down without losing traction, more so in the single-lap scenario of qualifying. His former team-mate Collard said he was “amazed” by the Northern Irishman’s one-lap pace in 2014, while his new stablemate Plato has waxed lyrical quite publicly of Turkington’s outright speed in a saloon car.
A real coupon bargain for RWD drivers has been the fast-starting advantage earned, Turkington arguably one of the better starters since 2007 despite last year’s enforcement introduced to the 125i M-Sport’s clutch.
It’s not about the rear axle for Turkington however as, when you analyse his career, the current champion also spent five seasons (although less races overall) racing FWD cars in BTCC, such as the MG ZS and Vauxhall Astra Sports Hatch.
RWD wins – 26
FWD wins – 6
Deferring from past BTCC glories for our second selection, the returning Priaulx plied his trade in the UK driving Vauxhall Astra and Honda Civic machinery which worked from the front axle, picking up a victory in 2002 for the latter at a damp Knockhill.
It was a switch to BMW in European and then World Touring Car Championship competition when the Guernseyman really became a darling of British motorsport, collecting 18 wins with BMW Team UK/RBM and three world championships alongside the 2004 European crown.
Priaulx now returns to BTCC, again with his preferred manufacturer, alongside Collard and Tordoff for a three-pronged BMW assault in 2015.