It’s undeniable that Formula One and the World Rally Championship are, at present, struggling to pull in the same audience numbers as they used to. While this is no fault of the cars or their technology, in my opinion, thirteen years ago both sports were awash with variety.
Audiences had Minardi and a young unknown called Mark Webber score his first points at his home race. Naturally-aspirated V10s provided a rousing aural soundtrack to the diverse grid. We even had Arrows, even though their Cosworth-powered cars did little more than be a mobile chicane for the dominant Ferraris.
The WRC, too, was a great mix of manufacturers and competitors. Mitsubishi, Citroen, Peugeot, Subaru, Ford and even Hyundai provided cars for Sainz, McRae, Burns, Loeb, Solberg and company to whip through some of the world’s most challenging cross-country routes. Sadly, manufacturers have deserted both F1 and the WRC in their droves due to cost-cutting and draconian rule changes, leaving less variety for the motorsport fan.
That criticism certainly can’t be levelled at the British Touring Car Championship, as in 2015 the formula is as diverse as ever. The grid lined up at Donington Park on Sunday was a veritable roll call of lowered, bewinged and raspy rep-mobiles. In a steroidal twist on suburban driveways, Mercedes-Benz, Chevrolet, Audi, Honda, Volkswagen, MG, Toyota, Infiniti, Ford, BMW and Proton models glinted in the Leicestershire sunshine.
Another feather in the BTCC’s cap is that, unlike Formula One, the rules are relatively simple, with no adjustable aero or KERS to complicate matters. Tyres are provided by a sole manufacturer – Dunlop – and the cars are built to a standardised Next Generation Touring Car specification. Power is limited to 300bhp from a 2-litre turbocharged four-cylinder and is fed through an Xtrac six-speed sequential gearbox and AP Racing carbon clutch.
Interestingly, ballast is allocated depending on the success of a car, with the fastest cars lumbered with extra ballast in an attempt to equalise the field. Competing cars must be on sale throughout the UK and can be a mix of front or rear-wheel drive hatchbacks or saloons.
My visit to Donington Park was the first time I’d been to the circuit, and my first experience of a touring car race outside the digital world. While the cars sounded as buzzy as turbocharged four-cylinders should, I was taken aback by the speed that some could carry through the fastest corners. With the Craner Curves and Old Hairpin as my vantage point, Gordon Shedden’s Honda Civic Type-R and Colin Turkington’s VW Passat CC romped away from the rest of the pack early in the first race. When braking for the Old Hairpin, both cars pitched into the bend with very little roll, allowing them to get back onto the power quickly as their brake calipers cooled and faded back to grey.
Comparing this to the Toyota Avensis that spent most of its time at the back of the grid, I could hear its splitter graunching the tarmac each time it swooped down the compression into the bend. With Donington a fast track with tight corners at each end, aero setup and braking ability would be important, and the maiden race of the day went to Jason Plato.
Notable not only for its race track, Donington Park hosts the largest collection of Grand Prix cars in the world, displayed through its eponymous Grand Prix Collection.
After walking through a surreal display of wartime tanks, motorbikes and lorries, I was immediately greeted by F1 cars from the 1950’s up to the 1980’s. A particular favourite was this 750bhp Tambay-driven Renault from the heyday of turbocharged F1 cars, with its aggressively-staggered wheels.
Moving on through the display, the #63 Sauber-Mercedes of Mass/Reuter/Dickens I’d driven countless times on Gran Turismo was crouched beside a prototype Jaguar XJ.
Donington Park also has the largest Williams F1 display outside of the factory, with cars driven by Mansell right up to Rosberg included. Seeing the BMW Power-era V10 cars made me nostalgic for my visit to the 2002 and 2004 Silverstone Grand Prix as a child.
McLaren was also incredibly well-represented, with one of Senna’s chassis having a permanent crowd of cameras hanging around it.
The Prodrive room demonstrated the sheer breadth of ability that the engineering firm offers. I still can’t decide whether I’d take Burns’ Rally Kenya-spec Impreza or the tarmac-spec Bastos-liveried E30 M3.
Having exhausted the collection, I pitched up at Goddards corner to watch the second race of the day. As the final sequence of turns before the main straight, Goddards was a vital braking point from Starkey’s Straight. Dunlop Sport Maxxes on the rear axle spun helplessly out of sync with the front under trail-braking, as the ABS-less cars tried to carry as much speed as possible through the chicane. Bumpers were leant on, reshaped and full-on rammed by cars behind as they fought for position through the corner.
With the front-runners taking little over a minute to complete a lap of the circuit, the grid would spiral through the corner in a blur. After five laps the smell of rubbered-in tyres rose off the hot afternoon tarmac and gravel had been dragged across the racing line like marbles on a carpet.
A pack of four or five cars approaching Goddards has enough velocity to punch the air out from around them, yet somehow with several cars abreast they would dive into formation at the last second and flow through the corner in series, before fanning out again on the main straight. The pushing and shoving of rubbed doors and dented bumpers was a by-product of rapid yet careful driving, rather than a mark of carelessness.
That said, there were some proper scuffles. Those who couldn’t slow down quickly enough would bang into the rear of their competitors, with chunks of bonnet and bumper giving way as over 1000kg of touring car struggled to slow down. Martin’s Focus got involved in an incident early on in the race; its taped-up headlight an automotive eye-patch to reclaim some pretence of aerodynamics on the straight.
Other competitors flung themselves at the kerbs, with their cars partially airborne at the exit of the corner.Seeing the varied angle of attack from each competitor through the kerbs showed the kind of punishment that each suspension component goes through during a battle for position.
After watching Colin Turkington grab the second win of the day for Team BMR, I took my leave, getting home in time to catch Matt Neal’s surprise win for Honda Team Dynamics in race three on TV. The F1 collection had been worth the trip alone, but the automotive brawling provided by the touring cars was every bit as visceral as I hoped it would be.