The Disappointment Of Success

Andrew recalls a brief heyday for tin-tops. 

Fully committed. (c) forum-retro-rides

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.

Image: speedhunters

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.

Not your dad’s Mondeo. Image: speedhunters

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.

Nerf. Image: wtf1.com

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.

BTCC 2020 fashion. Image: touringcartimes

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.

Now you’re talking. (c) : motor trend ondemand

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.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

21 thoughts on “The Disappointment Of Success”

  1. Good morning Andrew and thank you for a fascinating read, especially for someone like me whose motorsport knowledge is limited to F1. It is certainly a shame if money is neutering the personalities sucking the fun out out of the sport.

    When I was a teenager, there was a regular Sunday afternoon event at an oval racetrack in a field near Dublin Airport. I suppose it was what might now be called banger racing, although that does an injustice to the expertly prepared and well presented race cars.

    On a number of occasions I cycled to the track, paid my 50p or so admission and sat on the grassy bank watching the action. It was great fun for all involved. There was even a spectators’ race, where people took the cars they drove to the event onto track, often with hilarious results.

    Health and safety, public liability and insurance issues would, I’m sure, make any such event completely impossible these days. I don’t recall ever hearing about any serious accidents or injuries at the event.

  2. There will always be a conflict between the intrinsic marketing value in the use of stock cars for racing, and the sports inherent need for competitive evolution of technology. And the sport will always slide from one end to the other, when the price for entry gets to high there will be a push for back to basics.

    I’d rather look back to the era of Group B rally racing, an incredibly short period in history with an absolutely astonishing technological development. And a safety regulation that couldn’t put the genie back into the bottle. It’s no surprise rallying had to take a step back after being that intoxicated.

    But factory backed racing isn’t everything, I’d rather watch historic racing at Goodwood than any other form of motorsport. There’s also one make championships like Caterham Racing, with about 700 Super Sevens racing globally.

    I’m sure there are similar championships around the world, but I remember the Lancia Lady Cup in Sweden in the mid-80’s, an all women championship racing Lancia A112 Abarths, all to the same specs and with sealed engines, to keep the cost down. Also, in Sweden we have a kind of rallycross called Folkrace, and with it’s own quite sympathetic low cost rules:

    “To maintain its inexpensive nature, there is a rule on car costs. Anyone can place a fixed price bid on any car, and the buyer is then chosen by draw. The fixed price is 8000 SEK (Sweden, ca. USD 1000). Refusing to sell is grounds for having one’s competition license revoked, however participants with handicaps can get an exemption if they need special equipment in the cars. Personal equipment such as the seat and safety harness are not included in the sale. This type of system eliminates the motivation for sinking extensive amounts of work and money into a folk racing car.”

    1. There was a time when one model races were very popular. Renault R5 Cup, Alfasud Cup all provided hard fights, tightly packed starter fields and emormous fun.
      Doesn’t this Alfasud Corsa 7 look the part

  3. It’s safe to say that BTCC’s peak has been a long one. Though the game changed considerably between the early 1990s and late 1990s, each season offered a distinct flavour and reas. Having recently watched a few full races from 1998 (dear uploader, thanks!), I noticed how everything was spot on – the liveries, the drivers lineups, the fights. A then-46 John Cleland giving everyone a torrid time. The respective potentials of Volvo, Honda, Nissan, and Renault gradually becoming apparent (with Vauxhall a midfield certainty). Cameos by Messrs. Mansell and Needell, even.

    BTCC isn’t the only series where regulation disputes and the ebb and flow of manufacturers’ involvement led to bubble/burst cycles. It’s increasingly hard to see what DTM stands for. With the German manufacturers’ attention constantly elsewhere, the Japanese connection looking better on paper than in practice, these days DTM feels more like a means to provide Formula E/Sportscars employees with an afterhours job than a racing series of its own.

    1. I used to enjoy that era too, and went along to watch a few BTCC meetings. Imagine my surprise in 2019 to find I was buying my new car from John Cleland’s Volvo dealership. I met him; what a lovely chap he is.

  4. The whole limousine racing series never really interested me. I can’t even say why.
    And the DTM I haven’t even ignored.

    There was a time in the 90s when F1 had a certain appeal for me. At that time, we had made commercials for Shell as well as Premiere-Pay-TV and had therefore received a cost-free receiver from our customer. So a small interest group met at the company on Sundays to watch the races.
    But thanks to the two commentators, I got bored pretty quickly.

    After that, I rediscovered GT and prototypes again. I found the LeMans series exciting and attended a few (not many) races. It was very spectator-friendly. The paddock was open, the drivers were not “20-year-old shooting stars” but rather the older, hardened age group. But the ACO has also ruined this series out of greed – from my very personal point of view.

    Racing with historic cars is still nice to watch.
    And then there is (mainly in GB and Belgium) an absolute fun series: 2CV Endurance racing. From almost standard classes to almost prototypes (in the latter, everything is allowed that could ever be built into a 2CV derivative). Lots of crazy participants who, in addition to their vehicles and families, also bring a lot of fun to the race track. Very sympathetic/likeable.

  5. Last time I paid to watch tin-tops racing it was the glorious red and gold Alan Mann Escort that I had gone to see. The facsimile cars that race now are of little interest to me.
    Out of interest, I believe some of the 1990s racing Mondeos actually used Mazda V6 motors…..

    1. My recollection as well about Ford using the Mazda 2.0l V6 in at least the first year of Mondeo BTCC racing. There was a lovely colour X-ray cutaway of the Mondeo which showed the Mazda motor with characteristic belt drive to the cams. This one in fact: (Note if you want to see it, it’s huge, add the https to the URL manually after copying and pasting to a new tab header)

      ://www.wallpaperup.com/uploads/wallpapers/2015/05/09/682341/7700da5d4648d2bcaa22b757e1b57046.jpg

    2. Bill: first I nearly fainted when you reminded me of the Mazda 2.0 V6. I have some peculiar fetishes and among them is small V6 engines (Ford´s small V6 and Alfa Romeo´s 2.0 V6). I could imagine the Mazda´s is a sweet and trustworthy unit. Second, a glance at Wikipedia shows they only used these engines in a few cars, among them the MX-3 and some Eunos cars. What a waste of effort. It seems not to have gone into a 626, which is a big pity.
      I will go away and sit while I think of the oddness of this universe.

    3. For the record, the Mazda 1.8 litre V6 was used in the MX3 and certain Asian variants of the Xedos 6, the 2.0 V6 was used in the Xedos 6 and the top model 323F/Lantis, and the 2.5 V6 in the Xedos 9 and MX6/Ford Probe coupes as well as certain 626 models.

  6. BTCC is what first got me into following motorsport, for much the same reasons as Andrew cites. I also followed V8 Supercars for a while after moving Down Under, but I’m afraid that the V8 Supercars have gone much the same direction with blandness and conformity – and are losing relevance every year, especially since there aren’t any homegrown V8 sedans made in this country anymore.

  7. thanks Andrew. I suppose it is a truism that the motor racing
    seen in one’s youth remains the most vivid. in the mid 60s in
    Melbourne we were blessed by two handy race tracks, both
    featured plenty of tintops in the Lotus Cortina, Mini Cooper era,
    just before the Jaguars were displaced by Mustangs etc. modern
    tintop racing is closer but the machinery is counterfeit, has no
    connection at all with the street. but then what we now see on the
    street makes little sense. unless it was born in the last century.
    (and F1 has been an excess of decadence for so many, many years..)
    ah yes, Andrew me lad, thee is getting old, or at least a wee bit older.
    still, one day you’ll be able to say to the grandkiddies “I once did a
    virtual lap of Mt Panorama in a V8 Supercar, thems were the days!”

  8. Sorry Andrew, but I disagree. I’ve long been a fan of Formula 1 form the era of Mansell, Prost, Piquet, Senna. Over the last few years the “racing” in F1 has been anything but. Circling the track in a predictable line sums up most races of the last few seasons. The most memorable race in recent history was last year when George Russell very nearly won when substituting for Lewis Hamilton. He was let down by the team but proved that machine maketh the man, given the tools of an accomplished winner, he should have won. That single exception though hardly makes up for the boredom that normally sets in shortly after lap 2 starts and I drift into an afternoon snooze, waking an hour later to find I’ve missed precisely nothing. I want to see real racing, not pit crews calculating strategies on a laptop, overtaking by outfoxing your opponent, not by DRS.

    Touring cars on the other hand is everything that F1 once was. Wheel to wheel, bumper to bumper, mirror to mirror hard racing. From lap 1, race 1 to the final lap of the final race, the action is almost non stop. Races in BTCC are rarely won in the pits, almost always lost in the gravel. Gordon Sheddon’s championship winning drive in the final race of 2015, starting from 19th to finish 4th, in an 18 lap race will be something I’ll never forget. Bring on Thruxton 2021…

    1. The only motor car racing I´ve ever watched was the forest and desert stuff. You have a strong sense of machine, driver and road all in balance. It´s rather exciting to watch and the vehicle dynamics are often clear to see. F1, on the other hand, strikes me as not so interesting.
      What I´d really like to see is racing with showroom cars, with no mods other than a roll cage and a suitable seat. That might be intriguing.

  9. richard herriott-
    Way back in the 70s, the SCCA had ‘Showroom Stock’ racing, which was just what you’d think it was. Two things I remember: some cars are faster than others, and some drivers are, too.

    1. Was it any good to watch? I´d imagine the cars best suited to the task were a select few. There wouldn´t be a Fiat 127 in among the Porsche 911s. Presumably there were some rules on max and min engine size? Or was it a free-for-everyone situation?

  10. Richard

    Quoting your post, “What I´d really like to see is racing with showroom cars, with no mods other than a roll cage and a suitable seat.”

    That was available in the Bathurst 12-hour. Note that when the rules were altered (2010?) to allow the “GT” cars the number of entrants collapsed. Costs…

    On a related subject, have you noticed how the big commercial sports have degenerated? They are becoming ever more bland, more corporate, without soul and without passion. Plastic people are just not very interesting. Sameness is not very interesting either (especially all that corporate wokesterism and the PC banalities we are force fed with ever increasing intensity). They are also getting hideously expensive to attend. Further, spectators and sports fans are not treated with much respect at all. The experience is not worth the cost of admission. I’ve followed the advice of a friend and saved money and time by finding other things to attend or watch instead. For example, these last weeks we have been out on the water watching the Americas Cup racing. What a spectacle that is! Dramatic! Exciting! Awe inspiring! The TV coverage is not bad either (I’ve kept a laptop on the boat and keep an eye on it for updates while we watch the racing- things like weather and wind, time checks, penalties and to find out what is going on at the far end of the course, since it can be hard to see roundings of the top mark from where I site the boat, downwind beside the start). Also, all of this is completely free! No admission cost whatsoever. What’s not to like? Now that was a great find. What makes this all work so well is that the sponsors do not control it all. Nor do the media or broadcasters. In contrast it is likely I won’t be attending much professional rugby or football in the future. There are far superior things to do.

    BTW if you enjoy football and suchlike, try attending some secondary school 1st XV or 1st XI matches. They are free and the standard of play is high. Better entertainment than you’d find at most of the pro venues. The after-match functions are very social as well.

    V8Supercars did indeed provide some great racing in the past. It was really worth going out to the trackside for the day for that. They are in a spot of bother these days though. Next year there will only be the Camaro and the Mustang. There is a suggestion they’ll move away from the V8s and down into hatchback racing. If that occurs it will be the end. The patronage would shrink. I think a better approach would be to move away from the manufacturers and allow people to race specials. This is how rallying and circuit racing once was. People would turn up to the tracks and stages in some wild creations indeed. There were V8 powered Escorts (Leyland V8, Windsor V8, Cleveland V8 and even the Chevrolet small block) and Centuras. There were Corvair powered Beetles and Beetles with rotary engines (and one with a V8 out back). There were kit cars such as the Purvis Eureka. There was an Oldsmobile 455 powered Mercedes. Someone raced a Holden Statesman. There was a six-wheeled twin-engine Mazda Familia (that thing was giant killer fast). A friend of mine even ran a 605cid big block. It was a golden age which we didn’t really appreciate at the time. Once the international rules from Europe came in everything just dried up and a different group took over (a tinier less lively group).

    I think what made the Supertouring so compelling was a particular set of conditions prevalent in the UK at the time. The rules were sound and the money was there, yet corporatism had yet to emerge to the extent it could crush the spirit out of everything it touched. I remember the track facilities were surprisingly primitive, but the racing was exciting and the crowd was so enthusiastic. The competition was not only between the drivers and the teams but also the engineers. The specification war was a great part of it all. We all knew that and followed it with interest. Coming to the track to see what the next round of clever tweaks or developments would do, well, that all added to the total. The thing I realised in hindsight was why that it could not last. At those costs the manufacturers wanted control over everything. The hangers on wanted more of a cut. Capital was diverted away from where it would provide the best racing (on and off track) and towards enriching certain parties while guaranteeing certain conditions and special treatment for certain others. That Supertouring golden age came to its sudden end. The best way to get some of the life and passion back again is to ignore the manufacturers entirely and write rules that suit the local builder/racers. Remember to keep an eye out for what the spectators need. Give them a better deal and better conditions.

    1. It sounds like the difference between indie music and the music pushed by the big labels. Small shows, raw bands, small audiences versus stadium banality. Of course there are exceptions and not every small band in a dive is good to listen to.
      I´ve not thought for a minute about car racing: how easy is it to set up a legal race? I expect the answer is not very. Otherwise you´d see cheap saloon car racing on most summer weekends in the woods. How about the Mazda 626 challenge: the only allowable car is the last Mazda 626 in any OEM engine/trim spec. Tyres are discretionary. Points are awarded for the condition of the car afterwards. I don´t want demolition derbies. I´d like to see fast but sane driving of ordinary cars. That might be good.

    2. Richard, this seems to be in the spirit of what you’re suggesting. I wish my Japanese was better so I could understand what the drivers were saying; I only get the gist of it when they talk about handling etc. but don’t get any details.

      I love this particular video because I used to drive an Astina/323F and you can clearly see it gets tail happy on the limit (even though it’s FWD) which is a handling characteristic I remember somewhat fondly 🙂

  11. It is interesting noone mentioned the current crop of TCR events globally.
    Whilst the tintop has never experienced such a massive return as nowadays,
    its core philosophy of ‘unpredictable BoP strategies’ (attempting to sound politically correct here) has turned it into something more akin to a public
    entertainment of the casino variety.

    While BoP is a fantastic way of positively limiting actual ‘racing return’ on costs & efforts, it can easily turn into a discriminatory, anti-sportive instrument, as the case of the TCR has recently shown.

    Some even go that far to say that the TCR is a ‘screen’ that FIA uses to hide behind, as the commercial aspects of the series seem to outweigh
    any pretense of sport. The appeal of its simplicity
    is sadly only a superficial promise.

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