Tin-Top Terrors

by Jamie Arkle
23 April 2018 5 min read

We look back at the British Touring Car Championship’s Golden Period, the Super Touring era.

The British Touring Car Championship occupies a very special place within the collective hearts of the British motorsport community. The UK’s premier domestic championship has provided thrills, spills and epic, door-rubbing, paint-swapping action for a full 60 years now, a span of time that’s seen it go through numerous changes, evolutions and regulation tweaks. Picking a definitive ‘Golden Era’ is bound to be a divisive move therefore, one which largely depends on when you fell in love with the sport of tin-top racing.

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The above being said, the 1990s, specifically the Super Touring era of 1990 to 2000, was the period when the BTCC was at its most high profile; it attracted bumper grids of works, manufacturer entries, each spending countless millions contesting what was at heart a national, UK based series! It was as spectacular as it was unsustainable and marked the high-water mark of touring car racing for many fans, us very much included. With this in mind, we’ve opted to take a look back at 4 of the most significant seasons of the Super Touring era: 1992, 1994, 1995, 1998 and 2000.

Super Tourers Explained

The BTCC’s decision to embrace the Super Touring regulations was made off the back of the Group A era, one which had been comprehensively dominated by the howling, 500bhp Sierra Cosworth RS500. Brutal and charismatic it might’ve been, but by the early ’90s OEMs were clamoring for a return to more obviously mass-market based racing. They wanted a clearer link between their race cars and the models being flogged throughout their respective dealer networks.

The relatively lax rules underpinning the Super Touring formula meant that it wasn’t too hard for a manufacturer to cook one up, no matter how prosaic its road car range. It simply had to be mid-sized 4-door, produced in numbers in excess of 2500 units (later 25,000), and with a naturally aspirated engine (in either 2L or V6 guise). Said engine could be poached from any model in the range, a facet of the rules which proved irresistible to mass market car makers across the board and ensured that by 1993, a mere three years on from its adoption, 8 different OEMs graced the BTCC grid.

1992 – Handbags At Dawn

This was a season which went down to the wire, with John Cleland (Vauxhall) and Will Hoy (Toyota) and Tim Harvey (BMW) all in contention by the last race of the year, Silverstone. Things began to heat up in the closing laps of the race, when Cleland found himself in the middle of a BMW sandwich; Steve Soper in 4th and title rival Harvey in 6th, prompting the Scot to raise his middle finger at the lead BMW, which itself gave rise to Murray Walker’s infamous “I’m going for first, says Cleland” commentary!

It all came to a head a few corners later, when Harvey dived by Cleland on the inside of Bridge, then passed his Soper (his team mate) for what would have been a championship-sealing 4th. Cleland, clearly aggrieved at the prospect of the title slipping from his grasp, redoubled his efforts to pass the BMW E36, lunging inside Soper at Brooklands and nosing into 5th. Soper used the grass to muscle inside Cleland at Luffield but carried too much speed, making contact and sending both cars off into barrier. Both retired, Harvey cruised to the title and Cleland vented his frustration at the TV cameras, publicly saying of Soper, “The man’s an animal!”

1994 – Winging It

Manufacturers have never been shy about bending the rules to breaking point, and clear evidence of this was provided by Alfa Romeo’s debut BTCC season in 1994. The Turin firm turned up with a brace of 155s for Gabriele Tarquini and Giampiero Simoni, both with advanced aero-packages, far more so than those found on rival cars. Alfa claimed said aero was legal by dint of its homologation special (the 155 Silverstone, sold with spoilers in the boot) but its competitors felt otherwise and protested, a decision no doubt made simpler by dint of the 155s almost comical dominance at the beginning of the year.

The whole affair rumbled on for much of the season and at one point threatened to engulf the sport, but a decision was ultimately reached: Alfa were allowed to compete but with their aero appendages in the ‘downward’ configuration, pegging their clear performance advantage…but not enough to prevent Tarquini and Alfa from taking the title. All BTCC cars sprouted wings, splitters and diffusers from 1995 onwards.

1995 – Cavalier Attitude

New aero meant that the 1995 season was a much more closely contested affair, with eight different drivers taking to the top step of the podium, representing 4 different manufacturers and underscoring the championship’s rude health. The title momentum swung various way as the season progressed, the RML-built Vauxhall Cavalier of John Cleland kicking things off with a fine victory at Donington. The Scot wouldn’t have it his own way for long though, with both Rickard Rydell and Alain Menu mounting sustained championship pushes for Volvo and Renault respectively. A sustained winning streak in mid-season shortened the odds-on Cleland but Menu fought back as the BTCC circus reached its conclusion, the Swiss dominating at Oulton Park to once more close the gap.

Cleland’s ability to bag solid points hauls from disadvantageous situations ultimately told however, and he was eventually crowned BTCC champ by a full 43 points, though it wasn’t enough to prevent the Manufacturers’ Championship from going to Renault by a scant 5 points.

1998 – The Peak

Super Tourers became more sophisticated, technologically impressive and expensive as the 1990s rolled on, and the peak was probably reached in 1998. There were nine different manufacturer teams competing and nine drivers eventually won a race, culminating in a stunningly close championship battle. The principle protagonists were Rickard Rydell (Volvo), Anthony Reid (Nissan) and James Thompson (Honda), with incumbent champion Alain Menu troubling the top step of the podium as and when he could. The race weekend format was also tweaked in the run up to the 1998 season, a short Sprint race now preceding a longer Feature race, the latter with mandatory pit stops for tyres.

Rydell was eventually crowned champion at the end of the year, the 5-pot Volvo S40 proving as potent as it was charismatic. It was a richly deserved victory, not least as Rydell had driven superbly but also because he’d beaten some of the most professional, best funded teams and drivers in the world, including Nigel Mansell (the ’92 champ returning for a one-off race for Ford at Donington) and the might of Williams F1, the outfit charged with running the Renault Lagunas.

2000 – The Bubble Bursts

The ever-increasing levels of technical sophistication present in the BTCC Super Touring era had produced brilliant racing, intense competition and beguiling race cars driven by world class (often ex-F1) drivers, but it couldn’t last. Audi and Peugeot had withdrawn at the end of 1998, followed by Nissan (on a high, having just taken the title), Renault and Volvo, leaving Ford, Honda and Vauxhall struggling to fill the void. Still, at least the racing remained close and unpredictable thanks to a year long struggle between Alain Menu, Anthony Reid and Richard Rydell (all Ford), with the Swiss driver’s eventual victory cementing his position as the most successful driver of the Super Touring era.

2000 was the last BTCC season run under Super Touring regulations, the ever-spiraling costs having driven away most of the manufacturers taking part. They were replaced by the poorly remembered BTC-T rules which promoted much more cost-effective competition, but couldn’t hope to recapture the glitz, drama or impact of the Super Tourers.

What is your favourite era of motorsport? Tell us in the comments below.

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