Setting A Trend

11 May 2001


ďHello, Iím the complex commentatorĒ, I said to the marshal who wanted to know why I wished to take my car on the track to get to the commentary box at Thruxtonís Campbell-Cobb-Segrave sequence of corners on Bank Holiday Monday morning. He understood my point and let me drive off, but not before we had a laugh about the double meaning of my statement.

The fact is that touring car racing is becoming an ever-more complicated beast in its search for spectator appeal, and although the British Touring Car Championship provided some great racing, there is a danger of the complexity getting too much.

It became apparent as early as last year that touring car racing this year would face special challenges, and Series Director Richard West has not hesitated in addressing these. It was always going to be difficult to deal with the manufacturer exodus at the end of last year, but it will have come as a severe disappointment that no-one has looked like matching the pace of the Vauxhall Astra Coupes this year.

As a result, Thruxton looked a bit like the good old days of the Ford Sierra Cosworth, with one manufacturer dominating the top places. The question was, would it be Vauxhall Motorsport, or would it be Egg:Sport? However, there are some important differences between now and the late eighties, which are mostly down to West. Without the BTC Production cars the racing would be downright silly, as eight cars do not make a good championship, certainly not Britainís most popular national series.

At Thruxton, the BTC Production cars did us proud, providing some splendid battles between many cars of different makes. And although we had a few comings-together, the racing was mostly very clean, and not spoiled by safety cars, red flags or other interruptions.

The highlight of the day was, with little doubt in anyoneís mind, the BTC Sprint race. As he promised, West was prepared to be innovative, to make change before rather than after the rot set in. For those who werenít there, or even for those who were and didnít quite work out what was going on, the Sprint race was set up as a handicap race. Now you canít have handicap racing without complexity, and that is partly my point.

Anyway, at Thruxton, the Sprint Race featured the more powerful BTC Touring Cars taking part in the same race as the BTC Production cars. The only thing was, the race for the BTC Touring cars was over sixteen laps, for the Production cars over fifteen. The Touring cars started the race twelve seconds before the Production cars, but then had to play catch-up, because by the time the Union Flag was waved to start the Production cars, the Touring Cars were already nearly a lap behind. As the regulations put it: ďFor the purposes of calculating laps, the BTC Touring competitors commence on lap Ė1Ē. I told you it was complicated.

In the end, the race was a great success, with Jason Plato closing in on the leading Production car, Simon Harrisonís Peugeot, which had had an unchallenged race in the lead, to sweep past into the overall lead with a little more than a lap to go. The mounting expectation as the BTC Touring cars closed up on the tail-end BTC Production cars, and the sight of them making their way through the Production field certainly provided great drama.

The good news is that the idea is to be repeated at the next round of the championship, at Oulton Park on Sunday 20th May. And now that people are used to it, Iím sure that it will be even more successful. Letís hope the handicappers get the calculations right.

Those who have already been to a TOCA qualifying day have had even more complexity to contend with. The grids for the BTC Touring part of the two races are decided in a single qualifying session, in which only the BTC Touring cars are out. Thatís the good part, since you donít get hot laps spoiled by slower cars getting in the way. At least you only have seven others to look out for. But now it gets complicated. The fastest two times are the times used to set the grid positions, with the earlier of the two fast laps being used for the grid for the Sprint Race, and the later for the grid for the Feature Race. Iíve not actually heard any competitors complaining about this system, but you have to admit that the One Shot Showdown was simpler.

Donít forget, Touring Cars are supposed to appeal to the masses Ė the families who get attracted by the TV coverage and media hype of the BTCC. And, judging by the crowd at Thruxton, it is still enormously popular. It mustnít be allowed to get so obscure that only the Ďanoraksí can follow whatís going on.

And I thought that multi-class racing was also supposed to be too complex for the average racegoer to follow? Is it obvious why the Production Cars are slower than the Touring Cars? They donít actually look that different to the casual observer. But there doesnít seem to be any other way to go at the moment.

Then, when Richard West discovered that the notorious Thruxton abrasiveness was taking more of a toll on the tyres than they could cope with, he again altered the rules. The Feature Race distance was reduced by two laps, and a second, mandatory pit stop was added. This was a finesse that didnít come off, since the Peugeots were still unable to go the distance on their BF Goodrich tyres. We were left with the major disappointment of the weekend Ė Steve Soper pulling into the pits, with a car incapable of challenging for the lead, having used up all its rubber. Following Steveís scary accident in testing after a tyre failure, it was undoubtedly the best decision, but it made Vauxhallís dominance all the more evident.

The hope is that the collective acts of Peugeot, Lexus and Alfa Romeo are got together before long. The BTC Production class demonstrates that regulations can be written which allow many manufacturers to race closely together. It is to be hoped that Richard West can come up with enough ideas to keep everyone entertained while everyone else works out how to go Touring Car racing in the 21st century.

As far as the rest of the day was concerned, four support races didnít seem to do justice to the event, particularly as one of them was a non-championship affair, clearly a late arrival at the TOCA ball. That said, they provided exactly what was required Ė support; with some good racing, and for me at least, an eye-opening performance from the latest karting sensation to take to car racing, Colin Brown. His awareness and anticipation were excellent, and his fourth place in the Formula Renault race a portent of things to come.

So, TOCAtour is go Ė overall, a good day out. But there is certainly room for improvement. The fact is that TOCA Series Director Richard West has been dealt a fairly rough hand, and heís playing it pretty well. At least, if it were duplicate bridge, Iíd put money on him.


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