There’s a hole in the heart of the British Touring Car Championship.
Just days before the class of 2015 assembled at Donington Park for the season launch, David Bartrum, Team Principal of the front-running Motorbase Performance team, took one of the most difficult decisions of his career. With no firm contract in hand to replace Airwaves, his vacated title-sponsor, he announced that “with regret”, Motorbase would not be competing in the BTCC during the first half of this calendar year.
For Bartrum, his team, drivers, and many legions of fans, the decision was devastating.
Since first arriving in the Porsche Carrera Cup back in 2004, Motorbase and Bartrum have forged a unique presence in the TOCA paddock, taking time to nurture bright young talent, whilst just occasionally, breathing fresh life into older hands too. But operating, let alone competing at this level of motor sport is a costly affair and for Bartrum, the only way forward is to look after the bottom line.
“I didn’t want to be here today” said Bartrum, as we waited for Friday’s test session to begin, “I wanted to be here for the opening rounds last month, but we just couldn’t make the maths work.”
And then the conversation suddenly gains pace as the burden is unloaded and the harsh reality of top-level motor sport exposed.
“At the end of the day, we’re not just a team,” I’m told, “we’re a business, and without all the funding in place, we wouldn’t be able to do the job we know we’re capable of. Replacing a partner like Airwaves is never going to be easy and ‘yes’, it’s really frustrating because we’ve got a fantastic car this year, probably the best we’ve ever had; plus we have two exceptional young drivers.”
“Everybody knows what Mat is capable of, but James (Cole) is a huge talent too. He’s a proven national champion and with the right team mate and engineering support, we can take him so much further.”
There’s a mix of pain and passion to Bartrum’s words. It’s plain to see that this year’s Focus is ready to take the fight straight to the Hondas and Team BMR. It flies along the straight, yet is solid and determined under braking; its natural agility seeing the car stride through each and every corner before exploding off the apex.
Ford’s new EcoBoost engine, developed by Mountune, delivers torque where the old Duratec unit could only strain, and speed where it might lumber. This is a race winning package and Bartrum knows it… he just needs to get his cars onto the grid.
Yet for all the presence he commands, David Bartrum is also a humble man.
“Look” he says, gesturing to convey the depth of his feelings, “before we continue, there’s something really important I have to say…“ He draws breath, and suddenly I feel the need to pause mine.
“..You know, you’ve got your peers in motor sport, the people you look up to. For me, people like Ian Harrison (Triple 8), Dick Bennetts (West Surrey Racing) and Steve Neal (Team Dynamics); and Tim Harvey too, talking to the ITV4 audience. When you’re hearing from them that they want you back in the paddock, that they believe in you and what you bring to the BTCC, I can’t tell you just how much that means, not just to me but to everyone here. To know that people of their standing are thinking about you and supporting you, it’s just incredible.”
I don’t have to admire Bartrum’s words, but I do, because he means every one of them.
As we speak, his cars are rolled into the pit lane and will soon be out on track. This is an important day for Motorbase. They’ve got to show they can still make a difference, even if it’s only for half a season.
I ask Bartrum for his thoughts on how the BTCC as a whole is coping with the obvious shortage of major team sponsors.
“I have to tell you, I’m not the only one who’s worried. One of the strengths of Touring Cars is that there’s been a really good mix of the big teams and youthful independents. But I don’t think it can afford to spare any more of the big players. When we lost SEAT and Arena, that hurt everyone, not just the crews and the drivers, it hurt the paddock. So I think we all know that we’ve got to really get to grips with finding the funding to keep the best drivers in the sport.”
His tone changes again as Bartrum struggles to keep pace with the thoughts churning inside his head, “Alan Gow’s done a brilliant job, ITV do a brilliant job, Dunlop too, everybody in the BTCC plays a part in making it what it is. And part of that is having drivers who bring something special with them to the weekend. It’s what the fans want, it’s what they pay to see, and we, and that’s all of the teams, we have to do our bit too. We have to find the right people to keep the show rolling.”
I know that time is precious today, and there’s a queue gathering behind me; media, sponsors and well-wishers, all wanting 5 minutes with the man who drives Motorbase on and on. Yes, there might be some big challenges ahead, but if anyone is up to the task, I’m talking to him now. So my final question is the one that he’s no doubt going to be asked many times over the coming days – Will we see Motorbase back in BTCC action at Snetterton?
“I REALLY hope so!” says Bartrum. “We’ve got people coming today, and we’re going to be seeing more over the next few weeks. There’s no ‘done-deal’ yet, but with the package we’ve got in place, I know that we’ve got something special to offer.”
The next hour or so is spent watching the cars take to the track. Observing how they, their drivers and the crews perform. Forget about this being a public test day, Team Manager Oly Collins has everybody and everything in full race trim; the work in the pits and on the pit wall functioning seamlessly, like the well-oiled machine that Motorbase is. And as the cars dodge the Caterhams and the explosively noisy Proteam Focus ST, it’s clear that this year’s model belongs firmly on the black stuff and not garaged under expensive dust covers.
Insight on James Cole (former Formula Ford champion)
With the first session complete and the data analysed, I was able to catch-up with new team member and former Formula Ford champion, James Cole. I asked for his impressions on his move to Motorbase, his thoughts on the new car and his frustrations at being side-lined for the first part of the season.
“Well this is the first time that I’ve driven this car in any form of anger” says a beaming Cole, “and I have to tell you, it’s fantastic! Very different to the touring cars that I’ve driven in the past, both with the massive amounts of torque from the engine and the sheer level of grip the car produces. So this makes it a very different beast to what I’m used to and it’s something that I’m going to have to work hard to fully understand and exploit. But hopefully, another day or two and we’ll be right there, right up with Mat.”
This will be Cole’s third season of touring car racing, but undoubtedly his first with a car that looks capable of scoring podiums and points. What difference, I ask, has the switch to EcoBoost made?
“Well I drove this car earlier in the year when it still had the Duratec engine in it. With the EcoBoost, you can really feel the difference with the push out of the corners; I can’t wait to feel what it’s like with a new set of Dunlop slicks-on.”
You can tell when a driver knows they have a good car; the body language, the way they talk, their smile! This isn’t just good PR from Cole, it’s a statement of fact. So how difficult is it for him, having signed to Motorbase, and with a great car underneath, to have to join Jackson and Bartrum in the waiting game?
“It’s hugely disappointing, knowing that we’re not going to be out for the first half of the season. But we looked at the bigger picture before we committed; I want to be in the British Touring Car Championship, and I think that Motorbase are the best team to be with right now, so if it means that we’ve got to sit-out a few races, then it’ll be worth the pain.”
And what of the opportunity to work alongside Jackson? A racer whose talent is widely and highly rated.
“Look,” Cole says emphatically, “the guy’s only 33 but he’s already got over 20 wins to his name! He knows these cars and this team inside-out. So to be honest, Mat is one of the main reasons I came to Motorbase. The experience he brings and what he can teach me is what I’m here for. I’m on a steep learning curve with this car, and with this championship, and I need the best of everything around me to be able to succeed. Mat’s experience and his understanding of the techniques needed to win results is everything right now.”
The respect that Jackson commands is well-deserved, and Cole is absolutely right to point out that he’s a driver who understands how to win. And so perhaps unlike the Hondas and VWs that they hope to battle, the obvious hierarchy at Motorbase might work well for him.
If Cole and Motorbase make it to Snetterton, he knows that he can simply get on with developing his career, rather than having to carry Bartrum’s flag. Yet at the same time, both Cole and Jackson are clearly going to have to compete for race-by-race honours instead of building points for a campaign. So I ask him, will this change the way the drivers and the team set about each weekend’s business?
“I want to arrive at Snetterton with people applauding the effort the team has made to get us there” says Cole, “and I want to leave having caused the biggest shock of the day!”
“I want a one-two on the grid, and I want to be one-two past the flag. I want it, Mat wants it, the whole team is hungry for it. The car’s quick enough, Mat’s quick enough, and I know I can be quick enough.”
It’s simple really. And what’s incredibly frustrating for everyone at Motorbase is that they really do have it in them to win more friends and more silverware this year. And although it remains unspoken, it’s clear that both drivers, not to mention key team members, could have very easily found competitive homes elsewhere – but have chosen not to.
These are good people, and they’re hard racers. They know what they have to do and I really hope that someone out there understands the rewards that will come from having their name carried around the country by two of the fastest touring cars I’ve seen this year.