Cars on three wheels, two wheels, no wheels, rubbing doors, ripping off panels, riding kerbs under the sun and kissing barriers with the rain lashing down. 11 makes of car and 14 different models on a 25-car grid. Drivers ranging from grizzled veterans to young guns of the next generation – five of them in with a shot at the title and just three races to sort it out amongst themselves.
It could only be the British Touring Car Championship, which is without doubt my favourite racing series – the only one where I make time in my schedule after each round to sit down in front of the TV highlights and soak up the action.
Soaking things up was an appropriate phrase to use in terms of race day at Brands Hatch, which would see the final three races of 2013. Saturday’s sun was short-lived, and for me, the fans and the teams, it was a case of waterproofing things as much as possible on Sunday and hoping for the best.
Knowing both their audience and the likely weather, sponsors chose a particularly appropriate item of merch to hand out to the fans: gone were the sun caps and in came plastic macs courtesy of Honda and MG.
Sunday had slowly emerged through a fog of heavy rain that lashed the circuit on and off throughout the day, reducing visibility to virtually nothing at times and creating havoc on track.
Racing lines would go out of the window; those carefully chosen braking points from practice meaning nothing and the rear-wheel traction of the BMWs and Audis becoming a liability.
Survival looked like being the name of the game – and yet there was a championship to win or lose…
The five title protagonists included the usual suspects: multiple champions Jason Plato and Matt Neal alongside last year’s title-holder Gordon Shedden and BMW’s Colin Turkington but this year joined by Pirtek’s Andrew Jordan. It was the latter who held a commanding lead going into the weekend.
Jordan had been on top form throughout the season. After taking the Independent’s crown in 2012, the young driver had been mixing it up at the front all year and consistently knocking in points finishes over the previous 27 races. His formative years spent in rallycross would also stand in him in good stead for racing in horrible conditions like these…
So, five drivers were in the hunt for the overall championship, but who does well in individual races is anything but set in the BTCC. With no real full manufacturer entries, podiums seem a serious possibility for half the cars on the grid, and even wins aren’t out of the question. I’m sure it’s this fact that’s got the BTCC back to enjoying such a massive level of popularity in the UK.
Although the powerhouse privateers of Team Dynamics and Pirtek Honda, Triple-8 MG and West Surrey Racing BMW admittedly hoover up most of the actual victories, there have still been an impressive number of other cars getting strong results with budgets that are dwarfed by those major teams.
It’s all down to the UK’s Next Generation Touring Car rules package: off-the-shelf turbocharged engines and a kit of standard parts that can be bolted onto a car of your choice.
I love the fact that what are effectively family-run teams not only go up against the established names from a pretty even starting point, but can also viably develop their own cars from scratch if they want to. It all seems true to the old school touring car ethos: taking what would be otherwise pretty average saloons and turning them into proper, meaty racing cars.
After all, when I see an Avensis on the road it wouldn’t even normally register – but when it looks like this, well… I’d even take this over an ZN6!
It used to be that promised manufacturer programmes would tend to fizzle out before a season got going, leading to one big-budget team or other dominating everything – now every year sees more and more cars appear as if from nowhere, thanks to a multitude of independent projects.
For instance, next year Adam Morgan’s family team are due to be developing a Mercedes-Benz A-Class NGTC to replace their Avensis. It’s an encouraging situation when you compare it to similar championships.
Just like the majority of BTCC adherents, I love seeing the smaller teams do well. If there’s one thing that will get the fans on their feet – and me cheering from the side of the track – it’s one of those squads sticking it to the established names.
Last year it was Frank Wrathall in his Avensis, and this year’s hero was Rob Austin in his self-developed, beefy Audi A4 who took a well deserved and popular win a couple of rounds back.
There’s also the fact that the BTCC is a breeding ground for new talent: once again it’s the place where so many drivers want to race. For Brands Hatch, yet another new face joined the grid, with newcomer Tom Barley running in a Vauxhall Insignia. What a weekend for a debut! I’d found it difficult enough keeping my car straight on the motorway that morning…
As the new came in, so the old went out. Brands Hatch would see the last races to include the older S2000 cars, and that meant the last time AmD’s VW Golf would run. Team boss Shaun Hollamby got behind the wheel to celebrate the end of an era – we’ll see if they return next year with an NGTC programme.Into the wild
Although the race-day rain was horrific, Saturday had been immeasurably better, weather-wise. The cars themselves were a different proposition: even before qualifying, a surprising number were looking decidedly second-hand, showing how hard everyone was pushing for this final set of races. A significant proportion of Brands Hatch’s gravel traps looked like they’d been transposed to the pit lane, along with a fair amount of vegetation, and mechanics worked furiously in the build-up to the all-important session to clean up the mess caused during the preceding practice.
With the knowledge that Sunday would be dramatically different, I’d popped down to Brands Hatch on Saturday to get the yin-yang aspects of touring cars under different conditions. The drivers try no less hard in the wet, but in the dry, acrobatics can be more deliberately executed than the adventures into the unknown that every lap racing in the rain can bring.
This was particularly obvious around the back of the circuit, through Westfield bend: a long right with unsettling camber that drops away on exit. This was one of the places to enjoy touring cars at their best. The strange thing is that they don’t thump up and down: there’s more of a gentle rise as the cars angle further (and further in the case of Jack Goff’s Vauxhall) up, almost like a plane taking off, before slowly rotating down to earth and hammering downhill. It’s a glorious place to watch.
This was another reason why the last round of the British Touring Car Championship is always so special, as it uses the majestic Grand Prix extension that loops back around to almost touch the high-point hairpin at Druids before blasting out into the countryside beyond. It’s a high speed rollercoaster, criminally underused.
It’s also like another world: the circuit’s PA doesn’t stretch out around the GP section and only the hardcore fans make the pilgrimage out this far. The silence in between cars allows your mind to wander and take in the surroundings. Ancient vegetation grows out of the long tyre stacks; bits of car litter the outside of the barriers, evidence of previous smashes. It says something about me that I was excited to find a Giugiaro-branded tyre… I was also reminded that it’s around this section that there are housing developments half the age of the track, that butt up to the circuit edge, often the cause of problems…
But every minute or so an engine note would grow in volume and cars did appear, sometimes for longer than expected as the fast nature of the Grand Prix layout claimed its victims – some of them high profile.
The strange thing is that it’s really only four extra corners, though that raw description doesn’t do it justice. Each one has its own challenge, all are impressively quick and feature difficult camber. It’s simply one of my favourite places to witness racing cars.
Come Sunday the GP section looked rather different – more swimming pool than race track. The rain made the Grand Prix circuit seem even more remote.
Even when the rain occasionally eased, the spray was breathtaking. Take here, when race leader Jason Plato passed under the bridge at Pilgrim’s Drop during the second encounter, throwing up a ball of water in his wake.
As each car passed, the spray became all-encompassing: Andrew Jordan’s Civic was just half a dozen cars back, yet by the time he arrived it was like racing on a different planet! Truly terrible conditions.
Further round, tagging the Westfield kerb that yesterday they’d been hopping over was out of the question. Risking losing what little rubber-to-ground contact there was would be suicidal, with the small gravel trap on the other side waiting to suck in anyone who went in too hot.
One driver who looked in danger of visiting the gravel on many occasions was the driver of the medical car, who threw the big Cayenne around like it was a 911, revelling in the low-down power and getting the crowd cheering almost as much as for the racing cars!Unleash the hordes
Along with fresh donuts, one of the other great things about BTCC weekends is the quality of the support package. You get a horde of Clios rampaging around, which is the fertile breeding ground for future BTCC stars. If they manage to complete a lap. It can get a bit messy.
Things aren’t then helped by conditions such as we saw for the races, when it was more rallycross than circuit racing and safety car followed safety car for the Clio outings. As I stood with some marshals at the end of one SC period, watching about 20 Clios nose to tail, it was clear the green flag would last about 30 seconds – as indeed it did.
Still, there was also a healthy dose of slightly less rowdy Ginettas both junior and senior (the former for obscenely young drivers in G40s, the latter bigger G50 and G55 GTs), the Porsche Carrera Cup and Formula Ford single-seaters.
To prove there’s a complete ladder available to aspiring BTCC drivers, fans could even start off gaining relevant experience in the funfair…Down to the wire
Three 15 lap races would decide the 2013 titles, and it all started around mid morning. The usual systems check warm-up on the garage apron was naturally ditched: cars idled in the garages, waiting for the track to go live before immediately sprinting out and onto their formation lap.
Out on the start-line, teams huddled around their cars, trying to keep laptops and gear dry whilst preparing the car in amongst the chaotic crowd of people that packed the grid.
It didn’t exactly look like fun for the grid girls either, although at least for once the majority seemed to have been issued with clothing that was appropriate for the temperatures!
As I walked to the first corner to catch the opening race, I turned back to take in the scene. Every race weekend is special, but finales always add that extra little frisson.
I had half been expecting empty grandstands, but I should have known better – the Brits are a hardy lot and a sea of umbrellas surrounded the circuit. Also, getting into the track that morning involved a number of our favourite things: queuing, complaining and rain.
I don’t think anyone left disappointed at the end of the day. Personally, I spent a happy eight hours or so sloshing round the outside of the track, just generally lost in enjoying the whole event. The three races were spread throughout Sunday, with the third and final BTCC race closing off the event at the end of the day.
There were naturally plenty of incidents right from the off, starting off on lap one of race one with two very unhappy WSR BMW drivers. Hardly an ideal start.
There was also plenty of interfacing with nature…
… and a not inconsiderable number of rearranged panels.
Keeping everything running was the army of marshals, some of whom had travelled form as far afield as Scotland’s Knockhill circuit to help out. These guys had plenty of work to keep them occupied…
Even though I’d been stuck out around the track, mostly out of touch with the exact details of what was happening, it was still obvious that things were plenty exciting on track.
With Plato having swept to two imperious victories on the trot compared to a virtual meltdown for his rivals, the final would come down to a straight fight between three drivers: Plato, Shedden and Jordan – the latter still holding on to a decent points lead. It would all be down to the last race, just how a proper championship should be.
I carried out a quick scout of the pits ahead of the final race and came across Andrew Jordan in his garage – earphones in. You could almost see the pressure he was under…
Jordan would be starting from the back, needing eighth place to guarantee the title. In front of him, over 20 cars, and his two opponents both at the front.
As the cars went out, the rain had marginally relented but the cold had definitely set in – making tyre temperature even more difficult to maintain.
It really was a perfect ending: Jordan scythed his way through the field, taking no prisoners, as Shedden did all he could by keeping the lead right till the flag. Plato’s MG faded, and his earlier speed was demonstrably not there; Jordan passed him on track, and ninth place was just enough to secure his first ever overall BTCC title.
As ever, the podium celebrations were held on the pit straight and the gates opened to allow the fans to flood the track. With a popular podium in the third race for another 2013 BTCC debutant, Jack Goff in his Insignia, I’m sure the cheering could be heard in the local village – another glorious end to a glittering BTCC season.