The Ben Evans Column – Troubled touring cars

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The Bank Holiday’s absence of F1 action gave me a chance to catch up on some Touring Car action for the first time this year and to be honest it was depressing viewing.

Whilst televised tin-top racing has long been flattered by clever editing and trick regulations, the big three series (BTCC, WTCC and DTM) all seem to be at a bit of a crossroads and all appear to be unsustainable in their current guise.

Which is a shame because, at their peak in the 1990s, both the German and British series provided excellent alternatives to F1.

The BTCC has been in decline for a number of seasons, but has begun to successfully climb away from its early-2000s nadir. The BTCC has stuttering managed the transition from its manufacturer dominated, superstar driver heyday to its current format of short races, smash and bash action, and a field light on ‘works’ cars and household name drivers.

The likes of Tom Chilton and Darren Turner are undoubtedly quick drivers but they lack the charisma of John Cleland or the finesse of Andy Rouse. Crowds are on the up and grids on the rise – but the loss of live terrestrial ITV and Motors coverage of every race has hit the series and driving standards are still risible.

However touring car racing remains massively popular in the UK and unless TOCA manage to shoot the series spectacularly in the foot (such as missing Silverstone from the calendar – oops) it will continue to survive.

The same perhaps cannot be said for the WTCC. The WTCC has everything the BTCC had and needs – massive manufacturer involvement and big name drivers.

Unfortunately it also has a calendar that could charitably be described as esoteric, an unimpressive audience (thanks to poor TV coverage and the calendar), and some NASCAR-esque naff regulations to punish performance in the name of improving racing.

Last weekend’s races at Zandvoort are a case in point. The ballast regulations are such that the quick drivers are effectively penalised from the outset so they are busy fighting for 8th. Likewise the sprint race format – both races were done in just over 15 minutes – with a lengthy gap in between means that catching the races on TV is a matter of fluke rather than inevitability.

None if this would matter if the on-track action was any good, unfortunately both Zandvoort races were dull – yes the top 10 cars were all running extremely closely to each other, yes the length of the start/finish straight held 20 cars on the penultimate lap – but the chances of any overtaking moves without some gratuitous punting was almost nil.

With the regulations ensuring the cars are so evenly matched it makes passing and exciting races (not close train processions) the exception rather than the rule. For BMW, Seat and Eurosport to make good on their investment in the series there must surely be a period of organic growth instead of knee-jerk reactions to every incident.

And just what do BMW get out of beating Chevrolet anyway? Has anyone ever decided to by a 3 Series when they originally went to buy a Lacetti? Or a Leon for that matter.

On paper, the DTM has it all – ex-F1 stars and the cr???me de la cr???me of young European talent, enormous crowds and TV audiences and some jaw dropping machinery.

The reality is more complicated. On the plus side a DTM car circulating on its own is exciting to watch (unlike BTCC or WTCC) and some of the driving talent is first rate. On the down side the races are painfully contrived – pit-stop windows that mean its hard to understand what’s going on from the first lap to the last, and crucially a team-order system that makes a mockery of everything that motor-racing stands for.

Last season Mercedes ordering Jamie Green to let Mika Hakkinen back through because his move on him, was in their view, over-aggressive (in any other view it was a hard but clean pass) was perhaps the worst moment of motor sport in 2006 and has ensured that I will not take the DTM seriously for some time. That said, it was little worse than Seat’s contrived handling of last year’s Turkish round of the WTCC.

With only two manufacturers, and Audi wavering over their commitment, the longevity of the DTM rivals that of most 125cc Moto GP racers. However the crowds and publicity are such that should the series fold it would leave a massive gulf. The DTM has its problems but its role within European motorsport is such that it must continue into the future.

Is this appears a bleak assessment of touring car racing, that’s because it is.

Once you cut through the hype surrounding the various series it is clear that the investment and talent pool is stretched too thinly. Imagine a 30 car grid of Audis, Mercedes, Seats, BMWs, Vauxhalls and Chevrolets!

The racing is suffering as a result. Hopefully there will be a period of consolidation – certainly on a European level, for otherwise touring car racing is destined once again to be a large national draw with little interest elsewhere.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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2 comments on “The Ben Evans Column – Troubled touring cars”

  1. Scott Joslin
    12th May 2007, 14:42

    I don’t seem to understand why you have got it in for the BTCC. I think that the series is badly represented with Live BTCC races, and if you remember back to the so called hay days of BTCC (1989-1992) We were not given live feed back then. Also the level of driver skill in those days was thinly spread too. Other than Cleland, Rouse and Soper, the 2nd rate drivers were awful, Eugine O Brian, Patrick Watt’s, Mike Smith!!!

    I think BTCC is great value for money today, we have open fields and very competitive racing. I find the DTM dull, 2 manufactures, loads of ex rate drivers circulating to pay off their big houses from their F1 hey days, and you only get 1 race! Hardly gripping stuff to sit down to watch on a sunday! That’s a highlights package for Channel 5 perhaps at 3am on a Tuesday morning.

    BTCC is doing just fine, ITV need to wake up and see what they have got!

  2. Andy Murphy
    17th May 2007, 0:45

    I agree entirely with Ben. The late 80’s and early 90’s were by far the best years for touring car racing, not just in the UK (even allowing for the quality of some of the drivers Scott alludes to) and Germany, but also France, Italy and let’s not forget Australia. And it’s the latter where I would suggest the most exciting tin-top racing remains today. Yes V8 Supercars is a two-make series with rules that contrive to keep out non-Aussie competition. But it is close, fast, eventful and the cars sound bloody brilliant (and not a little unlike those supersaloons from the early 70’s … now there’s a thought)

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