Andrew recalls a brief heyday for tin-tops.
Bias, a weakness akin to pride can lead one down avenues built of pavé. We all have our likes and dislikes which can be difficult to explain rationally, even for humble word-slaves. Such is my bias towards the tin-top racing car, the ones that at least (used to) resemble a vehicle we might actually go out and purchase. In particular the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) – last year concluding a rather protracted season. One should be thankful we had a season to watch at all – albeit on the television and not trackside.
Hooked by the close quarters, no holds barred, side view mirror smashing racing, driven by what looked like my neighbour’s dad saw me delve deeper. The rifle-bolt action of the sequential ‘box, the angry exhaust notes, cars squeezing through impossible gaps, cars that were known from the street, bodily attractive. And although few may admit it but the crashes – insofar, should the driver live to fight another day, bring on the noise.
Mid-1990’s Peugeot 406, BMW 3 series, Vauxhall Cavalier, Renault Laguna, Nissan Primera, Ford Mondeo and even Volvo’s S40. Sponsorship a given, just not every conceivable inch, inside or out as the modern day machinery. The drivers had character, form. They were professional, ruthless even, yet retained a playful spirit. They appeared to remember fun, even if that was just for the cameras/ fans.
Rules back in the day (1991-2000) had two litre petrol engines which later came under FIA jurisdiction, renamed Super Touring. Manufacturer friendly, this ushered in mega-sized budgets. Witness the Audi A4 with its four wheel drive, sexy paintwork and steamroller victories. Or the controversial Italians. Alfa Romeo’s 155 – the road car had no rear wing whereas the track version did leading to tears before bedtime and one hell of a Scottish crash only to return to the motherland.
Ford reputedly spent upwards of ten million pounds on a fleet of Mondeo’s capable of 9,000 rpm from their V6’s for one season. Fathers brought families trackside in their sport blue Mondeo ST’s to watch exceptionally well paid (with an increasing foreign presence of) drivers crumple metal, monster kerbs and occasionally (almost) revert to pugilism on Britain’s race tracks. Crowd figures both live and on the gogglebox soared, sales figures presumably followed. Though you’d be hard pressed to actually buy anything containing the technical wizardry of these track only machines.
Of course it couldn’t last. Even with such close competition, professional teams employing hundreds, the plug was pulled on Super Touring for 2001. The first apex saw significantly reduced costs alongside interest. The body shells remained recognisable though the featured cars took the hatchback and coupé routes; saloons were very much descendant.
Losing the toothy grinning manufacturer’s direct bankroll led to cars being plastered with advertising, the more the merrier. Diehard fans (such as myself) kept watching but small grids of (still professionally run) Astra’s, Peugeot 307’s and 406’s, Proton Impian and Honda’s Civic and Integra became increasingly lost to other series in ascendancy, such as the DTM. From 2004, rules allowed Super Touring cars back in with weight penalties. Manufacturers, money and international drivers stayed away.
2007 saw the Super 2000 rules launched – two litre naturally aspirated engines shoving around 275 bhp, based on cars selling at least 2,500 models per year. A committed driver will always wring the neck of his (or her) steed but the circus had become rather generic.
Paris based rule makers the FIA launched the NGTC directive in 2009 – Next Generation Touring Car which continues to the present day. Swindon Race Engines provide the lions share of 300+ bhp from a two litre turbocharged petrol engine, AP Racing clutch and brakes, sequential six speed ‘box and your choice of front or rear wheel drive. Electronics meaning the ECU, wiring looms and for data logging/scrutineering purposes is supplied by Cosworth. Along with tyre pressures, the only true alterations can be had with suspension settings – and the helmsman.
The body shell must comply with what is available on the forecourt with again your choice of opening doors. Safety regulations on rollcages, fire extinguishers, etc are again, standardised. Engines will cost around £25k, the whole car (should be) £100k but this often doubles. All this leads to a silhouette race car, with similar exhaust notes along with extremely close and competitive racing. When qualifying, most of the top twenty are within a second of the pole time.
And this leads me onto my beef. There is no doubting the quality of racing, the professional set ups. But the circus has evolved into the modern encumbrances of conformity. Post-race interviews revolve around tyres going off with drivers who do not exude much character. I’m finding myself rooting for anyone else to win, rather than the dominant few. Mechanical maladies, as much as genuine smiles, are rare.
Is this just a case of getting old? Are the peripherals of social media, websites insatiably hungry for the latest titbits to blame? Having witnessed the highlights of those behemoth Super Tourer’s, the lure of those first races watched, can anything else compare? Drivers are so wrapped up in contracts, thanking sponsors and greasing wheels that marching into your rivals garage to have a word or throw a punch at someone who forced you off the track are the stuff of old YouTube videos now. Corporate clap trap, insidious kowtowing are in.
Of course you may advise me to change tack: WTCR, DTM or the off button. But I’ve found an answer already – Australia’s V8 Supercars – 500bhp, rear wheel drive, better weather and some rawness to track and paddock activities. Less stiff upper lip – more down and dirty – and all the better for it.