Mention Touring Cars to most car enthusiasts in the UK, and likely they will refer to what most see as the glory period of the championship, the mid 1990s. Alfa enthusiasts become all misty-eyed when they recall how Gabrielle Tarquni clinched victory in 1994, with his Alfa 155. Indeed my new Alfa 164, bought a few months later, proudly sported a sticker in the rear window to remind the world of this. Or there were the Volvo 850 T5 cars, an improbably looking, but highly effective estate car, chosen as the estate body was more aerodynamic than the saloon. A few years earlier, the Touring Car championship had largely been a two horse race with Ford Sierra Cosworths battling it out against BMW M3s, but by the mid 1990s, and for the rest of that decade, there was a much broader field of entrants, with cars looking not unlike popular family saloons – ranging from the Nissan Primera and Honda Accord, to the Vauxhall Vectra, Ford Mondeo and Renault Laguna – all to be seen in action at a number of British circuits during the season. But as the twentyfirst century got underway, the series seemed to lose its appeal, and its publicity. But in recent times, there has been something of a renaissance, and people are now talking about the championship again. In fact, 2017 marks the 60th season, and, as in previous recent years, it has seen a mix of professional motor racing teams and privately funded amateur drivers competing in highly modified versions of family cars which are sold to the general public, all conforming to the technical regulations, known as the Next Generation Touring Car (NGTC) technical specification. With both BMW and Vauxhall returning to the series as manufacturer outfits – joining the existing Honda, Subaru and MG teams – the 2017 season featured five manufacturer backed teams on the grid for the first time since the end of the popular Super Touring era of the sport. With a maximum grid of 32 cars for the 2017 season, a full entry list was announced which sees a total of 18 different named teams who will compete over 30 races at 10 circuits during the year. Although I used to watch the series on tv, back in those glory days, I’d never actually been to a BTCC event, but when it was suggested by a couple of friends that we might rectify that, I took little persuading to book tickets. The circuit we attended was at Rockingham – also somewhere I’d never been to – and for diary reasons, it was actually a practice day that we went to, but one look at the schedule for the day suggested that there was going to be plenty to see, and with the prospect of far smaller crowds, easier access close up. And so it proved to be.
For this event, all spectator access is at one end of the track, in the areas above and opposite the pits. These turned out to be rather good, and by sitting high in the grandstand facing the pits, not only could we see the activity that was going on when cars came in and headed out, but the whole circuit is also visible from there as well. With covered seating, it even meant that we were protected from the elements. As this was practice day, there was pit access as well, though in reality when we went down to see what we could see, we found that many of the Touring Car pits were pretty much closed off, and with a lot of work going on, they were not exactly welcoming to the general public. Nonetheless, we were able to get some shots of the activity in many of the garages, as these photos will evidence. The other competing series had make-shift “garages” generally formed from tents and other cover a few yards away and were rather more open for inspection.
THE RACE CARS
THE TOURING CARS
There are eleven different basic models in the 2017 Championship, but with a mix of Manufacturer-backed entries and Independent entrants, there were more examples of some car than others. Although 37 drivers were entered for the season, but not all of them have driven all the races, with some only in action earlier in the year and others taking the seat as the season progressed. There were plenty of changes from where those who had competed in 2016 chose to drive this year. Some of the independent entrants also switched the cars they would use for the season. A number of other changes came in to effect during the season.
AmD Tuning are behind the independent entry of the Audi S3 Saloon cars, with Ant Whorton-Eales and Ollie Jackson the drivers.
There are two different organisations supporting the BMW 125i M Sport cars: Team BMW and BMW Pirtek Racing. Driving the former’s cars were Neil Brown, Northern Ireland’s Colin Turkington and Rob Collard, whilst the BMW Pirtek Racing car was driven by Andrew Jordan.
The Chevrolet Cruze cars were a private entry from BTC Norlin Racing, with Scottish driver Dave Newsham and Northern Ireland’s Chris Smiley.
Two different Ford Focus teams are in the championship, both of them independent entries. The very colourful Team Shredded Wheat Racing with Duo Focus ST cars are driven by Mat Jackson, Rory Butcher, Martin Depper and Luke Davenport, whilst drivers for the Team Parker Racing with Maximum Motorsport are Stephen Jelley, Josh Cook Stewart Lines and Sweden’s Dennis Strandberg.
There are both factory-supported and privateer entrants driving what is now the old-shape Honda Civic cars. The factory support is behind the Halfords Yuasa Racing cars, driven by Matt Neal, Gordon Shedden and Matt Simpson. The independent cars are supported by Eurotech Racing, with Jack Goff, Brett Smith and Jeff Smith the drivers.
We’d been standing on the viewing area that is literally on top of the pits during the morning session, and when we came down, it was just in time to catch a couple of the Honda drivers emerging from the back of their garage. They were never going to make the short few steps to the associated motor-home without requests for autographs and selfies. This gave me the chance to grab my own pictures of Gordon Shedden and Matt Neal.
The Mercedes A Class comes from Laser Tools Racing, driven by Aiden Moffat and Ciceley Motorsport with MAC Tools, driven by Adam Morgan.
The MG6 may no longer on sale in the UK as a road car, but it is still competing on track, and has proved some would say to be surprisingly successful. The MG Racing RCIB Insurance liveried cars were driven by Daniel Lloyd, the Republic of Ireland’s Árón Taylor-Smith and England’s Josh Cook.
There was a lot of interest in the Subaru Levorg cars, not least because well-known driver Jason Plato switched to this team for 2017. Joining him in the Adrian Flux Subaru Racing liveried cars were James Cole and Ashley Sutton. There is also an A-Plan Academy liveried car driven by Josh Price in the championship.
There are a number of entrant for the Toyota Avensis cars. Handy Motorsport provide the cars for Rob Austin, and Speedworks Motorsport the car for Tom Ingram.
The Vauxhall Astra entries are manufacturer backed with Power Maxed Racing responsible for the cars at each event. Drivers are Tom Chilton, Senna Proctor and Robert Huff.
Final car to be seen was the Autoaid/RCIB Insurance Racing Volkswagen CC. Drivers are Michael Epps and Will Burns. TAG Racing livery is on Jake Hill’s car.
OTHER RACE SERIES
During the day, there were other race series to see, with practice sessions for each in the morning and a championship race in the afternoon.
Two of these were Ginetta based: one featuring identical G40 models, for the “entry level” Simpson Racing Products Junior Ginetta Championship and a second where there was a mix of the similar looking but larger and much more powerful G50 and G55 cars in the Ginetta GT4 Championship.
The Renault Clio Cup was also here. I’ve seen this – popular with many a budding racer, as it provides a relatively cheap entry into the sport – at other events in the past and know that with identical cars and enthusiastic but not always all that experienced drivers, it can be exciting to watch with plenty of bold moves and slightly ill-judged manoeuvres. We did not see too much of that today, but then this was practice and it was of course important to ensure that the car was intact and available to race on the Sunday.
In the trade stand area, which is what you come to between the main entrance gates and the grandstand and pits area, there were a number of displays of new cars. Not surprisingly, these were from some of the brands that were competing out on track. We had a quick look at what was on show.
When the re-born MG Car Company started offering their Chinese designed and developed., but UK assembled cars to British buyers, they were conventional hatchbacks and saloons, the MG6 and smaller MG3, but in 2016, given what had been going on in the market, the inevitable happened, and the first crossover model arrived, the GS. I would not surprise me if on seeing these pictures, you look at it, and react by saying “I’ve not seen one of those. Or at least, I don’t think I have”. It is a neat-enough, inoffensive sort of product, but competing in a sector stuffed full of rivals, all of whom have a much larger dealer network means that unless there is some overwhelming unique proposition, then sales are only likely to be modest. And so it has proved. I think I’ve seen two of them in the last year, both of them at events.
I’ve actually seen more of the smaller XS model and it is not even on sale yet. That’s because prototypes have been on UK roads for months now, as final adjustments and honing is completed before the car goes on sale later in 2017. Certainly during the summer there seemed to be completely undisguised (apart from the grille badge being taped over) cars around Warwick that I saw every day I was there, and prior to that I had seen camo-ed up versions on the M5 and elsewhere. Will is find any greater sale success? Time will tell, but I think it would be a brave person who bet that this will be a common sight, either.
Renault obviously sell far more cars in the UK, though even they have had their struggles. At the end of 2010, the UK range was pruned back more than somewhat, as the least popular cars were removed from sale, leaving the showrooms free for the cars that people were actually buying – which meant the Clio and Captur and to a lesser extent the Megane-based cars, and creating space for the build-up of the ZE (Zero Emission) electric models. None of the volume selling Renault models have anything to excite the enthusiast, but there is another side of the brand and that is the RenaultSport offerings. Not surprisingly these were picked out for this event, with examples of the road-going Clio RS200 and a racing-adapted Cup version on show.
Also in the small display was an example of the diminutive Twizy, an interesting and bold idea that has found the inevitably small take-up that was predicted when the car was launched.
Subaru is another marque that has had a difficult few years. At the turn of the century, this Japanese minnow sold over 12.,500 cars a year, more than half of them Impreza WRX and STi models, to enthusiasts who wanted their version of the car that their rallying heroes were piloting to such success in the forests of the World Rally Championship. By 2014, that figure was down to around 1,500 and although a few more cars have since been added to the annual tally, the modern Subaru is a rare sighting in the UK. The focus of the range is very much on practical off-road vehicles like the latest Forester and Outback, both of which were on show here.
The BRZ may look more familiar, but that is because apart from badging and trim details, it is identical to the Toyota GT86, and whilst there is more Subaru than Toyota in the design of the car, the reality is that the Toyota outsells it by about 10 to 1 in the UK.
You can still buy a WRX STi. No longer tagged an Impreza, although it is based on the car that does carry this name and which sells in vast quantity in America, few people probably realise it is on sale and go and inspect one, let alone purchase it. Showing it here was at least the opportunity to remind everyone that it exists.
IN THE CAR PARK
Events like this typically attract enthusiasts who have interesting cars, so a quick scout around the car-park usually yields some spots worthy of a photo or two. However, as we were among the earlier arrivals during the day, and among the last to leave, on this occasion, this is going to be a very short part of the report, as there really was not much that attracted my camera at all.
First spot of the car park was this Abarth 595 Competizione. It’s not particularly unusual, these days, although you can still go several days without seeing one, even though well over 10,000 of them are on British roads, but I cannot really help myself from taking photos of the cars whenever I see them, especially in this case, as I did not recognise the plate on it, and indeed do not know to whom it belongs.
Definitely worth the couple of photos that I took was this BMW 5 Series Pickup. Clearly based on an E34 model, it sported Polish plates, and it looked to be a pretty well-executed conversion. With no-one around to ask, and no plaque in it, with any details, I had to resort to Google after the event, and all I can say is that clearly a few people have gone down a similar route with various generation 5 and indeed 3 Series models, but other than that, I have no further information to impart.
This proved to be a great day, which all of us enjoyed. So much so, that with dates and venues for the 2018 Championship already announced, that evening there was quite a chat on Facebook Messenger about which one we were going to attend. In case there is any doubt, I would say that after 60 years, the BTCC is going through another period that fans will not just relish now but doubtless be talking about in years to come. It really is worth going to see it live yourself.