“The British Touring Car Championship needs to go back to its heyday of the 1990s when it had all those manufacturers, pit stops and night races. It just isn’t quite what it used to be, I haven’t watched it for years.“
How many times have you heard any or all of the above statements in recent times? I have, on too many occasions to mention and I’m bored with it. Wake up and smell the proverbial cocoa motorsport fans because the BTCC is again in the midst of a golden era and should no longer be shunned.
Don’t get me wrong, the nineties were glorious and provided so many iconic moments. Think of Steve Soper punting John Cleland out of the race at the Silverstone finale to give Tim Harvey the title in 1992. Remember Nigel Mansell hustling his Ford Mondeo to fifth at a rain-soaked Donington Park in 1998. And finally, Matt Neal becoming the first independent to win an outright race at the season opener in 1999 and scooping a £250,000 cheque as a reward. There isn’t the time or space to list them all in this article.
Such was the championship’s prestige and appeal, household European names such as Frank Biela, Alain Menu, Rickard Rydell, Gabrielle Tarquini, Joachim Winkelhock and Laurent Aiello chose the series over anywhere else in the world to go racing and were victorious.
However, the Super Touring formula was far too expensive to be sustainable in the long run and was scrapped at the end of the year 2000. BTC-T and S2000 regulations followed which saw grid numbers and manufacturer interest dwindle.
The NGTC regulations initially introduced in 2012, and unanimously adopted by the whole grid in 2014, have galvanised the series. So far a total of 13 marques have been represented – this will become 14 when Excelr8 Motorsport debut a pair of Hyundais this season. Seven of these, have at some point during this set of regulations, had full manufacturer backing.
This variety of makes and manufacturers has given the fans the variety of cars they had been longing for and helped make the racing incredibly competitive, with certain cars suiting different track layouts and conditions.
The size of the grid has been equally impressive with between 29 and 32 entries consistently contesting each race meeting over the last few seasons. This is in stark contrast to the dark days of the early BTC-T and S2000 days when fifteen cars in the main class was seen as a large entry and lower classes had to be introduced to bulk the field out.
Then there’s the unwavering loyalty of the top drivers. There was a time when it was almost fashionable to win the BTCC and move on but this is no longer the case and the series does a good job of holding on to its previous champions. Every season since 2011 has seen the reigning champion come back to defend their crown. In the preceding 19 seasons, the defending champion only returned for a full campaign on 13 occasions.
There are two reasons for this, the first is that the BTCC is once again seen as a top-line championship. This has particularly been aided by the fact that the World Touring Car Cup (formerly the World Touring Car Championship) has adopted a different set of regulations aimed at attracting customers rather than manufacturers.
Also, the popularity of the BTCC with both fans and drivers makes it once again an enticing investment for manufacturers, teams and sponsors. Big companies including Shredded Wheat, Yuasa, Airwaves, KX Momentum and eBay have all been title sponsors of teams within the last six years.
This has meant that the likes of Colin Turkington, Andrew Jordan, Ash Sutton, Matt Neal and Jason Plato have been ever-present during the NGTC era. It also saw brief returns from former champions Fabrizio Giovanardi and Alain Menu in 2014, meaning there were a record seven former champions on the grid, the most in the same field since 1997, when there were six.
The strength and depth of the field are arguably greater than ever. In 2018, 17 different drivers won across the 30 race season. In many forms of motorsport when predicting the winner of a race it’s normally between a handful of competitors. The BTCC is the exception to the rule in this case with just about everyone on the grid being in with a chance of victory during the season.
This closeness and competitive nature of the field was epitomised at Silverstone in 2017 when less than a second covered the entire field in qualifying. Just to put that into perspective, quite often in other forms of motorsport such as Formula One or MotoGP a second covers the first five or six competitors so seeing 32 drivers separated by 0.886 seconds was absolutely incredible.
It isn’t just qualifying that is tight though, the races are equally finely balanced. There have been a number of races decided by the final run to the line over the last few years including Jack Goff pipping Ash Sutton to victory at Snetterton in 2018 and Sutton edging Josh Cook at Brands Hatch in the final meeting of the same season. This door handle to door handle action keeps the spectators coming back for more. There aren’t any processional races in the BTCC and the action-packed nature of the sport is what some people are crying out for in other forms of racing.
My message then is a simple one: let go of the past, put down your Super Touring rose-tinted spectacles, ignore any misconceived preconceptions and give the BTCC a watch in 2020, you won’t regret it!