The British Touring Car Championship has traditionally led the way when it comes to the variety of cars on the grid – this is the 2016 field at the start of the first race at Thruxton – but, when it comes to manufacturer entries, are things as clear-cut as they seem?
In stark contrast to the glitz and glamour of other forms of motorsport, there’s something decidedly more down-to-earth about touring car racing as a whole, with the familiarity of the cars themselves – which are essentially modified versions of the same ordinary hatchbacks and saloons that you or I might drive on the road – making it much easier for spectators to recognise and relate to the machinery out on the race track, and, with so many different models to pick from, it’s no surprise that many of the more high-profile championships have such variety in the amount of manufacturers represented on the grid.
However, while the number of marques might be increasing, things aren’t necessarily as clear-cut when it comes to the issue of ‘works’ teams – by which I mean teams that are officially backed by their manufacturer, who would also pay their drivers to race rather than the other way around – and the role they now play, so, for the second of my new, opinion-based ‘Mouthing Off’ series of posts, I’m going to take a look at the situation in terms of how things were not that long ago, where they are now and (potentially) where they might be heading in the future, before trying to come to some sort of conclusion as to whether or not modern-day touring car racing actually needs them…
1) The recent past and the legacy of Super Touring
While touring car racing has been around in one form or another for some time, most fans would point to the 1990s as being the golden era for the sport, when the introduction of what became known as the ‘Super Touring’ regulations – an evolution of the 2.0 litre formula that had previously been adopted in the British Touring Car Championship at the start of the decade – prompted an explosion in the number of manufacturer-backed teams taking part, and this variety was reflected when it came to the overall champions, with no fewer than EIGHT different marques tasting outright success (BMW, Alfa Romeo, Vauxhall, Audi, Renault, Volvo, Nissan and Ford) between 1993 and the final year of the regulations in 2000.
However, while it was a huge success in broadening the appeal of touring cars and getting manufacturers involved, Super Touring certainly wasn’t without a fair amount of controversy as the competition became ever more fierce, with some even going as far as producing special edition road cars that were then homologated for the track in an attempt to gain the edge on their rivals. This came to a head in 1994, when Alfa Romeo entered the BTCC with a pair of limited edition 155s (known as the Silverstone) that featured adjustable front and rear spoilers, but, while the 2500 road cars had them retracted, the race cars ran with the spoilers fully extended, which handed them a significant advantage and allowed Italian Gabriele Tarquini to take the opening five race wins of the season.
After complaints from other teams, Alfa – who actually withdrew from one race weekend in protest – eventually agreed to retract the spoilers, and, although it wasn’t enough to stop Tarquini from taking the championship at a canter, the precedent had been set, and, ahead of the ’95 season, regulations were changed to allow wings to be fitted to all cars, as well as requiring 25000 road-going models to be produced before the car would be homologated.
As the decade went on, the category grew in popularity around the world, with series in France, Italy, Sweden, Japan and Australia all adopting the regulations to varying degrees of success, but there were still problems with equalising the cars – as was demonstrated by Audi’s arrival into the BTCC in 1996 with their four-wheel-drive A4s – and, as manufacturers continued to plough increasing amounts of money into the development of their cars, it soon became apparent that Super Touring would prove to be unsustainable in the long run. Eventually, entries began to drop as budgets started to soar, with even the BTCC unable to maintain its appeal for manufacturers – eight works teams in 1997 falling to just three by the year 2000 – and, although the standard of drivers and the quality of the racing remained high in later years, it was clear to see that the regulations had run their course, and it was no surprise when they were eventually replaced.
Although I was too young to properly remember Super Touring at the time, it doesn’t take much to understand why it became so popular with fans – but, as seems to be the case with virtually every form of motorsport…yes, we’re back to that ‘M’ word again, aren’t we? Sure, the whole ‘race on Sunday, sell on Monday’ mantra – by which I mean the idea that each manufacturer, by racing their cars against their direct rivals, would be able to appeal to spectators more easily and ultimately get them into the showrooms to buy one themselves – might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but even the prospect of more sales in the showrooms doesn’t mean manufacturers are always going to be willing to put their cars out on track if they know it’s not going to produce the results. While it may well have been the greatest period of all-time for the sport, Super Touring quickly became a victim of its own success, and, as much as fans might still hanker after a return to those glory days…it’s just not going to happen.
The World Touring Car Championship has seen a steady decline in manufacturer interest since it introduced its current regulations a few years ago – this is the class of 2016 at the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit in Argentina – so what could it learn from other series in order to ensure its survival?
2) The current situation in the major championships
So, you might ask, if the works teams are all gone…who’s actually racing in touring cars these days? Well, since the demise of Super Touring, many of the major championships around the world have had to rely on privateer or ‘independent’ entries to bolster their entry lists, and, while there’s still the odd manufacturer outfit knocking around, there’s certainly nowhere near as many as there used to be. However, with each series running to its own unique set of rules, it’s difficult to really draw a comparison between them all, so here’s a brief run-down of how things have moved on in recent years in the main worldwide touring car series, both in terms of their technical regulations and the effect these have had on the number of manufacturers taking part…
British Touring Car Championship:
2001 – 2003: A combination of BTC-Touring and BTC-Production cars – BTC-T was reasonably well-subscribed with 5 manufacturer entries during its lifetime (Vauxhall, Honda, MG, Proton and Peugeot), while the BTC-P class (which was canned at the end of 2003) was entirely made up of privateer entries.
2004-2010: A combination of Super 2000 and BTC-Touring cars – S2000 proved more popular for manufacturers, with 6 entering at some point during this period (Proton, Honda, SEAT, Vauxhall, Ford and Chevrolet), while the BTC-T regulations became exclusively for independent entries.
2011-2013: A combination of NGTC (Next Generation Touring Car) and S2000 cars, with BTC-T cars also eligible up until the end of 2011 – not quite as well-subscribed for works teams, with only 4 taking part (Chevrolet, Honda, Ford and MG), but saw the arrival of new manufacturers in independent hands, such as Toyota, Audi and Volkswagen, while the S2000 cars were entered into their own separate class in 2013 before being ineligible to compete.
2014-present: Exclusively NGTC cars – growth in manufacturer interest once again, with 5 having been involved as of the end of the 2016 season (Honda, BMW, MG and new entries from Infiniti and Subaru), as well as several others in independent hands, such as Audi, Chevrolet, Toyota, Volkswagen, Ford, Mercedes and Proton.
World Touring Car Championship:
2005-2010: Super 2000 cars with either petrol or diesel engines, running with 2.0 litre, normally-aspirated engines – relatively popular initially, with 5 manufacturers in the inaugural season in 2005 (Alfa Romeo, BMW, Chevrolet, Ford and SEAT) and the likes of Honda and LADA joining further down the line, but gradually lost its appeal towards the end of the period.
2011-2013: Super 2000 cars, either running with the existing 2.0 litre, normally-aspirated engine regulations or a new turbocharged, 1.6 litre upgrade – the decline in manufacturer interest continued, with only 4 entering in three years (Chevrolet, Volvo, LADA and Honda, who only joined towards the end of 2013 to test their new Civic).
2014-present: Evolution of Super 2000 cars known as TC1, with bigger aerodynamic packages and more engine power – reasonably popular, with 4 manufacturers (Citroen, Honda, LADA and Volvo) already having entered, as well as a handful of independently run Chevrolets, while the pre-existing machinery (now known as TC2) was given an additional year in 2014, allowing the likes of BMW and SEAT to field their older-spec cars, before being phased out of competition.
DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters):
Solely a manufacturer-backed series, with rear-wheel-drive cars (perhaps bearing closer resemblance to sports cars because of their coupe-like body) powered by 4.0 litre, normally-aspirated V8 engine, contrasting with the more common 2.0 litre engine regulations seen in other series – not hugely subscribed, with only Audi, Mercedes and BMW currently represented, although Opel were part of the series up until 2005 and several other manufacturers, including Alfa Romeo, MG and Jaguar, have been rumoured to join over the years without ever actually entering.
Rumours of a new “Class One” set of regulations in partnership with the Japanese SuperGT series may well lead to the likes of Nissan, Honda and Lexus joining the series as well (perhaps with American manufacturers also joining at a later date once the situation around a proposed IMSA-run series in North America eventually gets resolved) but this still seems some way off at the moment, with new engine regulations for the DTM delayed until 2019 at the earliest.
Australian V8 Supercars Championships:
Similar to DTM in many respects (a rear-wheel-drive, V8 powered car), although their saloon car body means they look more like ‘traditional’ touring cars, but the regulations have changed in the recent past:
2003-2012: “Project Blueprint” – not at all well subscribed by manufacturers, with only Holden and Ford represented
2013-present: “Car of the Future” – much better representation initially as the likes of Nissan, Mercedes and Volvo all joined the series, but this influx hasn’t been maintained, with only Nissan still remaining out of the three most recent additions
(The rumoured “Gen2 Supercar” regulations have been in the pipeline for a while – these are intended to open up the series to a variety of different engine specifications, including turbocharged V6 or 4 cylinder engines, as well as including coupe-style bodies – but, with even existing manufacturers wary in committing, it’s unclear how this would work going forward.)
From this, it’s clear to see that every championship has their own idea of how to entice manufacturers to come and join their party rather than any other, but, while some regulations appear to have worked on this front – indeed, the NGTC regulations that are run in the BTCC these days have now been endorsed by the FIA under the TCN-1 moniker, with the idea being that any new or existing ‘high-level’ national series would be able to adopt them for their own use – others, such as the increasingly expensive TC1 regulations that now dominate the WTCC, have proven to be ineffective in bringing in a greater variety of cars.
In essence, as far as I see it, what this boils down to is series organisers being able to ensure quality bumper-to-bumper racing – which is one of the staples of any touring car championship – while making their regulations suitably cost-effective, which would help manufacturers that might not have been interested in putting together a racing programme justify the inevitable cost and thus make them more likely to get involved. However, with regulations generally only being changed once every few years in a particular series as a means of cutting costs to teams, this is clearly going to be easier said than done…so is there another way?
The DTM (German Touring Cars) has not been massively popular with brands based outside of the country – this is the class of 2016 in the opening race of the season at Hockenheim – but, with the manufacturers committed to providing cars and engines themselves…does it really matter?
3) The future and the rise of TCR
Amongst all of this, there’s one championship I’ve neglected to include so far (with good reason), and, although you might not be aware of it just yet, it could well be the direction that global touring car racing is headed in over the next few years. When it was announced in 2014 by ex-World Touring Car Championship boss Marcello Lotti, many people – including, I have to say, even myself – were quick to dismiss the TC3 International Series as another over-optimistic attempt to launch a new series that would inevitably bite the dust within a couple of years, but, so far at least…we’ve all been proven wrong!
Now known by the moniker of TCR, the popularity of the regulations – which are based on the SEAT Leon currently used in their one-make Eurocup series – has simply exploded in its first two years, with manufacturers queuing up to put their cars out there…and that is where the difference lies. Similar to the GT3 ruleset in sports car racing, the idea behind TCR – as well as creating an affordable platform for drivers to step up from national series onto the world stage – is for manufacturers to build the cars and then sell them to independent, privately-funded teams and drivers to race, with a maximum price of around 100,000 Euros keeping costs down and a Balance of Performance system keeping the cars evenly matched.
So far, no fewer than TEN manufacturers have either entered the global series or stated their intention to in the near future, and, with the establishment of a whole host of regional championships in Asia and the Middle East, as well as national series in Germany, Russia, Italy and the Benelux countries amongst others, using almost exactly the same regulations, the potential is there for the same car to be run in a variety of different series during a season. However, although it sounds great on paper, there is still something of an issue when it comes to grid sizes – sure, quality over quantity is important, but, with average entries in the International Series hovering around the mid-teens and only a handful of drivers able to contest a full campaign…it’s certainly not at the same level just yet as its more established rivals.
Until relatively recently, the Australian V8 Supercars Championship was a straight head-to-head between just two manufacturers – this is the 2016 field at the Symmons Plains circuit in Tasmania – and, despite new regulations producing a spike in interest, things have now started to drop off again…so what’s gone wrong?
Where does that leave the idea of ‘works’ teams, then? Well, the idea of a manufacturer entry now isn’t the same as it was in the days of Super Touring, with many nowadays settling on a compromise of providing technical support to privateer teams in order to get their cars on track (as BMW currently do in the BTCC) while stopping short of funding and running the operation themselves. However, while this might produce greater variety in terms of marques represented on the grid, the financial security associated with works backing isn’t going to be there, and the loss of a primary sponsor, for example, would leave an independent outfit vulnerable in terms of being able to maintain their entry.
Does modern touring car racing really need manufacturer entries, though? In many ways, it depends on how successful the regulations are – for instance, the NGTC ruleset in the BTCC have allowed smaller independent teams to compete on an equal footing with more well-funded works and semi-works operations, while the current level of development of the TC1 regulations in the WTCC often sees them left behind, and this, combined with a lack of manufacturer entries anyway, means any additions to the grid are going to be few and far between. The model of TCR – which has now also been endorsed by the FIA under the TCN-2 moniker, thus providing a blueprint for lower-level national and club series around the world – may well be a solution in the short-term without requiring any more manufacturer support, but, if it starts to eclipse the more established championships in the popularity stakes…there could be more problems on the horizon.
So, that’s the way I see things, but, as ever, I’m interested to see what you make of this as well – does the modern world of touring cars need the backing of big-name brands to survive and, indeed, thrive, or are the smaller, independently-funded operations (perhaps with some support from the manufacturers) capable of stepping up to the plate and proving that the racing can be just as good without them? Comment below with your thoughts, or feel free to post them on my Facebook page (search Straight from the Motormouth and drop it a like)…
Could this be the future? Since its introduction, the TCR regulations have prompted an influx of brands – this is the International Series field of 2016 at Spa in Belgium – willing to build cars that are then run and financed by privateer outfits, so, if this is the way forward…do we really need works teams at all?