Nobody should ever pretend that the BTCC is anything other than the pinnacle of sporting entertainment. It’s not about the fastest cars or pedigreed manufacturers: It’s purely and simply a platform for delivering raw, accessible, fan-fuelled excitement and racing thrills, from well before the cars even assemble on the grid until late after Sunday’s final chequered flag drops.
In any normal year, second paragraph in, I’d already be waxing-on about the cars and stars being readied for battle at the forthcoming Brands Hatch finale, the promised edge-of-seat climax to a season of sharply contrasted thrillers. But this isn’t any normal year, far from it.
I’m not going to use the word ‘devastating’ to describe the impact of COVID-19 on the paddock. ‘Devastating’ is the grief of knowing that 1.3 million people have so far died from the spread of the pandemic, and equally, that many more will sadly succumb to its hold. Nevertheless, for those whose livelihoods rely on the cut and thrust of competitive motor sport, it’s been a roller coaster of a year; and yet here we are, just hours away from the moment that will sign-off 2020 with a celebration of our best.
And it’s for this very reason that for once, I want to put the racing second. Don’t get me wrong, the wheel-to-wheel action has been as thrilling as ever, but the more I prepared for this piece, the more obvious it became that this year – the BTCC’s 62nd – racing simply wouldn’t have happened without an extraordinary effort from Alan Gow, TOCA, the BARC, the circuits, the sponsors, their partners and the teams. The likely cost to all will have been significant, both financially and physically, and so whilst what’s happened on-track is important, for 2020, what has happened off it is the real and bigger story.
So whilst I’m still going to look forward to what promises to be an exceptional weekend of motor racing, I’m going to start by talking to the BTCC’s Series Director, Alan Gow, the man who very simply led the way to where we are today.
Alan Gow – Kwik Fit British Touring Car Championship Series Director
Teams need to go racing to earn a living, it’s as simple as that. If there’s no racing, driver payments and sponsorship revenues stop. Cash flow becomes a cash drain; bills still need to be paid and contracts sustained. Furlough wasn’t going to help anyone here.
What transpired were days, nights and long weekends of planning, replanning, scheduling and negotiations. Everybody wanted it to happen, to get the season underway but when you’re trying to start a cash-hungry race series in a dramatically changing environment with very little projected income, the strain and drain would have been immense. Like Deliverance, the paddock faced its worst nightmare. The whole business model had to change. This is where Gow’s leadership came to the fore.
“When you’re told it’s either behind closed doors or not at all, it’s a painful yet easy decision to make.”
And so a season came together. Yes there were challenges, especially with the calendar. Four events in the first five weekends and three separate back-to-back events would impact heavily on teams and resources but the alternative remained unthinkable. There were other considerations to be factored in too. Crucially, the need to operate within the new regime of protocols to protect against Coronavirus transmission. Nothing was to be taken for granted. As Gow has consistently made clear, lives and safety always have to come first.. and they have. It has been a remarkable effort.
As for the future, I had to ask if he and his team were ready to go through the whole thing again.
We talked about the value and importance of the broadcast deal with ITV, the tremendous support from KwikFit and Goodyear, the need to push ahead with the hybrid programme, and the inevitable changes to some teams and driver line-ups that will be seen over the coming months. He knows that there’ll be some bad news mixed in with the good, but that’s the way it goes right now, and it’s a world we’re going to have to get used to for some time to come.
Everybody misses the fans; they’re the lifeblood of the series and their absence will be especially telling this weekend in the roaring amphitheatre environment of the Brands Hatch Indy circuit. Gow might be the ringmaster but he knows he’d be nowhere without his audience.
Back on Track
After eight gruelling weekends of racing, five drivers arrive at Brands Hatch as contenders for the most sought-after prize in British motor sport. At some stage on Sunday, it’s likely that Colin Turkington, Ash Sutton, Dan Cammish, Tom Ingram and Rory Butcher will all find themselves on the post-race podium but for once, it’s not going to matter anywhere near as much as their places on the track at the end of the day.
For each of the five, it’s been more of a season of ‘could-have-beens’ than possibly ever before. But it’s what happens next that’s going to count.
5th – 246 Points – Rory Butcher (deficit 63 pts)
The year started well for the Motorbase man. Two podiums from the first two races showed the potential of the new Focus ST. He should have then gone one better at Brands Hatch (on the Grand Prix circuit) until a tyre failure pitched the pole-sitter out of the lead and away from an almost perfect points haul (win, pole position and fastest lap). It was both a reality check and a bitter blow for the team; the car they’d built was fast, hard and edgy; too hard and edgy, the rigidity of the chassis punishing repeated trips over the kerbs. The twenty points lost that day, and possibly another eight from Race 2 most likely making all the difference between remaining a challenger and taking an early bath.
Driver Points 1. Colin Turkington 309 2. Ash Sutton 300 3. Dan Cammish 284 4. Tom Ingram 275 5. Rory Butcher 246 6. Tom Oliphant 218 7. Adam Morgan 180 8. Jake Hill 178 9. Tom Chilton 174 10. Josh Cook 172 11. Matt Neal 170
Butcher is one of the standout racers in the BTCC. Seven podiums (including two wins) but repeated back luck has meant that he’s only finished half of his last eight races inside the top ten. We already know that he’s exceptional here at Brands Hatch, and conditions ought to suit him too, but a 63-point deficit to Turkington (and overhauling the others) is more than a big ask, it’s monumental.
4th – 275 Points – Tom Ingram (deficit 34 pts)
How many times does Tom Ingram have to arrive at Brands Hatch before he takes the crown? I fear that there could be something of Stirling Moss about his story.. one of the finest young racers of this era, a prolific winner, and yet all too often the ‘nearly’ man. Always consistent, always delivering exceptional pace and yet sadly way too often being on the wrong side of bad luck. His stats don’t lie: Thirteen top six finishes from the first sixteen races (including two wins and three podiums), but then a puncture, followed by contact, followed by disqualification from pole at Croft (for a ride-height infringement) soon wiped away all the hard work.
Tingram is a fighter; hard, fast and fair. He came from the back of Croft’s grid to finish in the points in Race 1, just miss the podium in Race 2 and win Race 3. Can he make-up 34 points at Brands Hatch? Yes. But that requires the three leaders to each have two very bad races.. there again, this is the BTCC and quite literally anything can happen.
3rd – 284 Points – Dan Cammish (deficit 25 pts)
I think we can all remember what happened last year. It was a brake-smoking end to what had looked likely to be the perfect finish. As he crossed the line to start lap 558 of 559, Dan Cammish was leading the British Touring Car Championship and had just over three minutes remaining of a season that had promised so much: Three more minutes and he would claim the title: Yet less than sixty seconds later, he sat motionless in his car, talking calmly to his engineer, explaining that he had lost his brakes and crashed out of the race.
He’s had to learn a lot since arriving in the BTCC. You don’t get away with too much wheel-banging in Formula Ford, and Porsches don’t tend to like a push and shove from behind. He’s had to get used to door-rubbing and mirror-swapping and like everything else he’s raced before, he’s done it well.. just not well enough, yet. Three wins and five podiums have pushed him into contention, but similarly, nine finishes between P10-P6 have under-delivered the points needed to worry the leaders. The drama of 2019 is now far behind him, but unless Turkington and Sutton come together in one of the three encounters, I don’t see how he’s going to make up the difference.
2nd – 300 Points – Ash Sutton (deficit 9 pts)
There’s no one more exciting to watch behind the wheel of a race car than Ash Sutton. I still remember the very first time I saw him test the Levorg, and I remember Jason Plato’s expression when he saw the data. The only reason he’s still just a one-time champion is that he’s all too often had to be better than his cars: This year he’s discovered more of an equal.
Don’t get me wrong, the Infiniti is still far from perfect, Aiden Moffat will testify to that, but it’s given Sutton a lease to express himself. Four wins and four podiums only tell part of the story. Ten other finishes inside the top six, often against the odds, have made the difference of where he stands and, say, Cammish. Nine points down is nothing around the Brands Hatch Indy circuit. He made that and more against Turkington in the first two races of the season opener last year and there’s nothing to suggest he can’t do it again. Crucially at Knockhill in August, he held-off the champion for each of the first two races. Of course, it’s possible that Turkington knew that 17 points from finishing second was a better proposition than contact and zero. This weekend is going to be different. Both the champion and the former champion are going to take bigger risks, but there’s no guarantee that it will work for either.
1st – 309 Points – Colin Turkington
I’m going to be honest, after Silverstone’s Media Day test, I thought that Andrew Jordan was going to be in this position by now, but then as we already know, it’s been more than a funny old year. I don’t think I was alone either, but what I do know is that ‘Turks’ was never going to agree with me, and in hindsight, he’d be right.
Often, over the course of a race weekend, we see a number of different sides to the champion. Always deliberate, finding a starting point first and then building into a dominant position; never over-driving, always focused yet relaxed whilst skilfully seeking control. It’s why he very simply is the best. But lately, he’s always known that ‘time’ might be called early. Almost every round this year could have been the last; to stay number 1, he had to be number 1. We often think of Turkington’s style as smooth and fast, more Jenson than Lewis. This year he’s had be ‘Schuey’; gritty and steeled, willing to chance the 50-50, later on the brakes, fearless on the kerbs. It’s served him well.
Five wins and eight podiums tell the start of the story; four fastest laps (compared to Sutton’s eight) fill the middle pages. He’s had to race possibly harder than ever, yet here he is, carrying the advantage and knowing that once again, he’s primed and he’s ready.
The likelihood is, it’s all going to be down to one moment; the one time when Turkington and Sutton both decide to claim victory; side-by-side, mere millimetres apart.. possibly not even that. They can’t both win, but the bigger question is ‘might they both lose’?
The end of an Era?
There are going to be a few sad farewells on Sunday too. We already know that Ciceley are retiring the Mercedes A Class (and lets face it, if you’ve had Adam Morgan behind your wheel for seven seasons, you might want a rest too). It’s been a brilliant car to watch, and a race winner for five of its years of long service. Sadly though, the platform isn’t suited to the hybrid era and we have to wave it off. We don’t yet know which car Ciceley will be racing next year, but it’s going to have a lot to live up to.
Likewise, it’s Auf Wiedersehen to Team Hard’s fleet of VW CC’s. I remember watching a proud Warren Scott rolling-out his car, alongside Tony Gilham’s squad in the Snetterton pit lane back in 2013. It’s been a topsy-turvy time since but nobody’s going to forget Tom Onslow-Cole’s brilliant podium run in the car’s debut season, or Jack Goff’s inspired win at Silverstone last year, not to mention the 2015 season with wins for Plato and Turkington, and 2016 for Árón Taylor-Smith and Team BKR at Rockingham. They’ve certainly done their time but as with the A-Class, they now need to make way for something leaner and more current.
Elsewhere, Jeff Allam bows out as BTCC Driving Standards Adviser, and already, two teams have decided to become one (Trade Price Cars Racing and EXCELR8 Motorsport). This is going to see the end of the Audi S3 (with the newly merged outfit expanding to an all-Hyundai format) and perhaps more tellingly, it also signals a number of changes we can expect from other teams as balance sheets are reviewed.
Despite the fact that many large and successful businesses put ever-increasing effort into forward and continuity planning (should any number of disruptive scenarios emerge), as one long-standing sponsor put it to me, “not once did anybody suggest that the whole world might catch a cold! We have plans in place for both disasters and good fortune (such as syndicated lottery wins) but this has been something else. Overnight, all thoughts of marketing and partnerships went out of the window. Even though we’ve been well placed to build our revenues, the very nature of the COVID-beast means that you’re first and foremost in survival mode, seizing immediacy not only where we can but whilst we can.”
And this, in a nutshell, is just one example of the type of setback that has hit teams hard. So whilst the BTCC itself can rightly boast of the strength of ongoing support it receives from its partners, many of the teams face very different scenarios. When you talk to a sponsor, they want to know that their investment will be safe and that the value it will return warrants the commitments made. Like it or not, the ‘fear factor’ of returning to the restrictions of lockdown scenarios has been ever present in many corporations minds, as has the risk of even well-established teams failing to make it beyond the winter months. Add to this the lack of any on-event networking opportunities and for those desperately seeking fresh funding, the future isn’t looking great.
So what do sponsors want and how can these worries be addressed?
The simple answer to the first part of the question is to demonstrate a ‘return on investment’. To be able to put your brand in front of half a million fans during the course of the year is a good starting point. If you can activate this into physical engagement (with giveaways or activities), even better. Then there’s the live television coverage. Seven hours of dedicated content, delivered ‘free-to-air’ via ITV is a huge plus. So is paddock hospitality and the opportunity for brands to entertain customers with all the sights, sounds and action of a race weekend right where it happens. Branding on cars and race trucks is important too; it’s a stamp of approval and a sign of belonging. Finally, there’s media and social media coverage. It’s why businesses like Ginsters (and ‘no, I didn’t talk to them’), a brand far removed from a traditional automotive environment, have done so well in partnering with Tom Ingram. Its name is seen in both the paddock and public areas, there’s often a friendly team of staff offering hot pastie tasters to the crowd (and to those of us in the media centre – thank you girls and guys). Toyota receives a lot of television coverage, and the company can entertain its guests with not only great racing but fine food, grid walks and Tom Ingram himself.. and then, days after the race, and days before the next one too, tens of thousands of Tingram’s loyal social media followers see post after post of their man and the Ginsters logo, right there, in your face. This is how you do it. But with the opportunities for direct fan engagement and hospitality denied in 2020, the returns once earned are now seriously depleted.
What is clear is that in keeping the BTCC racing, Alan Gow has delivered a lifeline to the teams, and what is constant is the exceptional quality and thrill of the racing (even behind closed doors). You simply don’t get anything else like it, and this is the magnet for brands. There’s a lot of sporting hospitality on offer these days, but there’s only one BTCC, and the opportunity to not only witness the racing but get on the grid, speak to the drivers and taste the adrenaline is a huge attraction. Compare this to say, Formula E. As one leading CEO told me, “it ticks all the right boxes as far as brand values are concerned but fundamentally, it’s as dull as dishwater.”
So for teams to survive, they need the fans, they need hospitality, and they need normality. The rest is down to the twenty-odd drivers who know that their job is to race hard and close, then harder and closer still.
Matt Neal – The Big Question
I started this feature by talking to one of the most important figures in touring car racing, I’m now going to end it with another.
There’s been a lot of speculation lately as to whether this will be Matt Neal’s final year as a driver in the BTCC. His is a position complicated by the fact that he not only has to consider his career behind the wheel, but also the impact of the current economic crisis on his family’s team (Team Dynamics). There are many questions currently unresolved but I’m grateful that he took the time to be brutally honest with me as regards racing, Honda, teammates and the future. I started by asking the three-time BTCC champion if this weekend was going to be his last as a driver in the series?
“We’re talking about the BTCC. There is nothing like it; there is nothing better than it. Full stop.”
I know that I can sometimes be a little obsessive about stats but if you look at them correctly, they quickly tell as much as any conversation can: So here’s a concise look at Matt Neal’s BTCC highlights: three championships and 63 race wins from just over 700 starts. Since 2002, he’s been on the podium every single year and has never yet finished a season outside of the top ten.
As records go, it’s not just impressive, it’s remarkable.
For the Neal family, racing isn’t just about getting behind the wheel though. As Team Dynamics, they also run one of the two most successful works-entry teams in recent BTCC history. I ask how this has already shaped his season and if he might now need to take a step away from racing to manage the many challenges facing teams across the board.
This leads me to an awkward but important question about Honda. With the Swindon factory closing in April next year, and road car sales declining globally, will the Halfords Yuasa Racing team still be a ‘works’ entry in 2021 or will it be challenging as an independent?
We talk about his teammate, the learning curve he had to face and how Neal sees his young protégé as a worthy future champion.
Finally, I ask the question of ‘what if’? Would he, like Rob Collard, choose to switch disciplines if he vacates his touring car seat?
* * *Images: Steve Hindle (The Black Stuff), Jakob Ebrey (Jakob Ebrey Photography – Cover photo & Alan Gow).