Why the BTCC ain’t what it used to be

Manufacturers with huge budgets, international-standard superstar drivers… but Motorsport.com columnist David Addison reckons the BTCC’s so-called halcyon years weren’t all that.

There is a German friend of mine whose regular greeting when we meet in media centres of Europe is to ask what is happening in the British Touring Car Championship.

It is interesting that he asks, because when you are involved in a championship it does rather become the centre of your world, so the fact that people from outside the series are interested too is gratifying.

But stretch that further: people in a different land with their own successful touring car series are asking about it and that in part is a throwback to the days of Super Touring regulations, manufacturer teams and drivers with glittering CVs.

I asked American driver Robb Holland recently why it was that he came back, year after year, to have a crack at the BTCC. The answer: “People still know about it and care about it back home," he told me.

"It has a great reputation and people love watching the racing."

Built on strong foundations

He is right: from the late 1980s, when the championship had a 20-minute highlights package run a week, sometimes two, after the race, it now commands over eight hours on each raceday with interviews, features and race action plus coverage of the support races. Fans in the UK have never had it so good.

But, as in all cases of something being successful, there will be a group of Brits determined to do it down.

They moan that it isn't what it was in Super Touring days; they moan that the racing is artificial thanks to ballast and soft tyres; they moan that the drivers aren't international stars and... they moan that there is only one moon, that eggs don't bounce and other relevant stuff.

Do they have a point? Well, there aren't the manufacturers that there were in the '90s, but they aren't queuing up to join the WTCC or DTM either.

The motor industry has changed – there are fewer manufacturers around and many are in the same group, so you are hardly likely to have them all fighting it out. So, take out the manufacturers and their money (and their boardroom whims that do the sport so much harm) and what do you really need? Sponsors.

And what will attract sponsors? Good racing and a good television package. The racing is designed to thrill fans trackside and at home, so the ballast, soft tyres and reverse grids are all there to stimulate the racing, build up the fan base and give sponsors a bigger audience. Makes sense, doesn't it?

Star name attractions

And the drivers? Again, it is a funny old world. Now, the naysayers hark back to Gabriele Tarquini, Joachim Winkelhock and Gianni Morbidelli racing in the championship, but how many of the ‘fans’ had actually heard of them before the BTCC? Hardly any of these so-called "experts".

Yes, they added flair and built up a fan base when they were on the grid but did they draw people through the gates? Nope. The heroes were the likes of John Cleland, Tim Harvey and Andy Rouse that people had been exposed to for years.

And think what BTCC really was in the '80s: it was glorified club racing for many years with real amateur drivers, but no one moaned. It was just the way it was back then. Maybe the Super Touring era spoilt us, but, that said, the aero on the cars precluded fabulous racing and even pitstops were introduced to shuffle the order.

Last year's BTCC produced 11 different winners over 30 races, and this year we stand at 10 from 27. We never had so many different – and potential – winners in the so-called golden age.

Changing with the times

The BTCC, like other touring car championships, is a different beast. If Super Touring was so good, why did it implode? Costs were key to its demise, as was manufacturer decision-making, but the racing needed a good TV edit and wasn't as exciting once the cars became more complicated.

What we have now is a championship that is designed to entertain and it does that in bucket loads. If you want pure racing, please go to a national single-seater championship - in doing so, you can double the crowd!

And yet, despite the way that the modern day BTCC is designed, it is still the best teams and drivers that rise to the top. The engineering challenges are to be overcome by the engineers and the best drivers show their worth on track. That is how it should be, isn't it?

We still have four drivers with a shot at the BTCC crown this year on a grid nudging 30 cars.

Yes, it's true, the BTCC isn't what it used to be: it is better. 

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Series BTCC
Article type Commentary