The British Touring Car Championship is a Purer Form of Motorsport
Why is the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) so consistently good? It should be a sidebar series of little interest as it is guilty of two heinous crimes against motorsport. One, it punishes success by adding ballast to points scorer’s cars, and two, it adds spice through gimmickry, a randomly selected reverse grid in the final race of a weekend. And yet I’m glued to the racing, inured to micromanaging series overlord Alan Gow’s attempts to manufacture entertainment. Dammit, it IS entertaining!
I started watching the series in the early ‘90’s, when Alfa Romeo was in a pitched battle with the likes of Ford, Volvo, Vauxhall, Renault, and BMW. The 2.0 liter ‘Supertouring’ formula was taking off and touring car racing was having a golden age across Europe. In those pre-Internet days, it was difficult to find the races in North America, but equally difficult to have them spoiled by finding out who’d won. So after the ‘94 season had ended, I watched the races on a VHS from Duke Video, purchased from a local model shop and car magazine importer, which recapped the breathless season. It was the most entertaining racing any of us had seen in memory.
I was then driving an Alfa Romeo GTV6, so my allegiances were firmly in the Italian team’s camp. Gabriele Tarquini duly delivered the championship that year in the boxy 155 sedan, wrapped in the marque’s traditional deep red paint and serpentine logo. And there was much rejoicing.
I mistakenly believed that the majority of my enjoyment came from watching my team win, so I rushed back to the shop and bought the similar season recap video of the DTM, in which Alfa were the reigning champions. The German Touring Car Championship promised to be even more enthralling. For one, the cars were far more advanced and powerful. They looked mouth-wateringly wicked and purposeful, while their little BTCC cousins appeared barely removed from the street cars on sale to you and me. So I settled in to watch the fireworks…
Meh. Sure, the cars were more advanced than the contemporary F1 cars, and the driving talent was deep with names like Rosberg, Ludwig, Nannini, and Larini. But the racing was not as engaging. Not even close.
Fast forward to the present and the same can be said. The differences between the two series have grown even more stark. Almost all manufacturer support has dried up for the little series stuck on an island, and the DTM recently added BMW to the stalwart Mercedes and Audi teams. The DTM is a repository of ex-F1 drivers, and has even proven itself capable of catapulting its winners into that most elite of series, rather than merely offering them a soft landing on their way to becoming car dealership owners. The BTCC is contested by names unfamiliar to the larger racing world, save perhaps for Jason Plato who has recently entered select North American living rooms via the long-running British car show Fifth Gear. It’s a British car show actually about cars. Strange.
Photo courtesy of Phoenix Racing
DTM cars are incredible devices, covered in more aero trickery than the Batmobile, with high revving V8s filling their carbon tubs. They look like race cars – serious race cars. Meanwhile, Plato’s MG sedan looks a bit like a kid flush with money from his summer job went crazy on eBay. Its stock shell is filled with old fashioned steel tubes, and its aero package consists of a wing and a splitter that wouldn’t look out of place in a Dairy Queen parking lot on a Saturday night.
Photo courtesy of MG
So what is it – even without the aforementioned gimmicks put in place by benevolent dictator Gow – that makes the BTCC such good racing? Well, for one thing, like in NASCAR, it’s fascinating to watch the cars move around on their springs. The visual appeal of weight transfer is something that’s foreign to most modern race fans. Hell, the way road cars are sprung these days, it might soon be gone from our trip to the coffee shop. Watching a car pitch forward under braking is one of the most surefire ways to translate speed on camera. Then the car’s nose lifts almost imperceptibly as the brake is released, blending seamlessly with the steering input pitching the car’s weight left, to the outside. The tires squirm, tortured sidewalls almost folding over on themselves, as the rears describe an arc minutely wider than the fronts. Suddenly, the back end squats fully, firing the car up and over the outside curb, throwing gravel at the windshield of the car just behind.
And when I say ‘just behind’, I mean just. In general I hate contact in racing because it muddies the battles. But in the BTCC, with predominantly front wheel drive cars, the contact almost never results in NASCAR style pile ups. Because, even though they are often racing in a pack, a nudge (or body slam) into the rear bumper can be dealt with by the recipient through that most awesome of ripostes – more throttle! I have seen cars cross over the seemingly unrecoverable 90-degree mark in a spin and pull themselves out with heroic countersteer and a fearless right foot.
And that foot best remain glued to the firewall, for with these little touring cars only one thing matters, momentum. They are not ultra-light cars with horsepower to spare. Keeping apex speeds at the very highest limit possible dictates everything. The drivers throw the cars into corners, jump over curbs, and straightline exits to keep their rivals at bay. If the back end twitches and the throttle is eased for a nanosecond to calm it, four cars will stream past and most likely rip your mirror off as they do so.
And, thank the racing gods, the tires last the entire race! That means if the race is 30 minutes long, not one single on-track battle is ruined by a competitor’s tires ‘going off the cliff.’ That said, this season they’ve sunk to introducing another needless gimmick aimed at spicing up the racing. The teams must now decide in which one of the three races they will run a softer tire before the weekend gets underway. So far, after three meetings, the majority of people have run them in the third, reverse grid, race so it hasn’t affected anything, as the playing field remains level relative to one another.
But the most important element to the greatness of the BTCC – worryingly for other series hoping to recreate the great wheel-to-wheel racing – is the racetracks themselves. Or more to the point, the perfect confluence of car and track. Brands Hatch, Silverstone, Donnington, Knock Hill, Snetterton, even modern Rockingham, are all perfect partners to the touring cars. Short, fast, and busy, they are the perfect stages for the drama.
In too many series the tracks and the cars are not suited to each other. ALMS cars are pretty fantastic things, both the prototypes and the GTs, but I can’t bear to watch them on the streets of Long Beach, Baltimore, or if I’m honest, my beloved Lime Rock. The mile-and-a-half bullring would be a perfect place to watch the BTCC…twenty-five cars nose to tail, leaning hard on their outside springs, through Diving Turn, carrying every last ounce of speed onto the front straight. Perfect. But I’m just not interested in watching mile-wide prototypes use 80% of their performance to thread their way through slower GT cars on their way to a 40-some second lap.
So it seems like I’m saying there is little chance of recreating BTCC style racing here in the States. Yup, I guess I am. But I don’t mind. I hope I’m not the first to tell you, but in today’s world we can watch every race in the world – one way or another – often hours after it’s finished, if not live. So do a little digging, find some BTCC races and enjoy. Great racing on great tracks, what could be more entertaining?
This article originally appeared on Nicholas D’Amato’s blog, Just Add Lightness