The 2019 British Touring Car Championship season kicks off this Sunday (7 April) on the Brands Hatch Indy circuit. And it looks like we’ll have another classic year; the grid is packed to capacity with top-flight drivers in proven, race-winning cars. The title fight will surely go down to the wire once again.
We are truly in a golden age of the BTCC. But for many fans, the Super Touring years of the 1990s were the golden age.
With as many as ten manufacturer teams on the grid, big-name drivers in the cars, close action on track, proper marketing and good TV coverage, the Super Touring era helped the BTCC capture the public’s imagination and propelled it to the top of the British motorsport tree. Indeed, made it one the best racing series of any sort, anywhere in the world.
BTCC ringmaster Alan Gow invented Super Touring for the 1991 season, scrapping the old multi-class system in the process. The rules were based on Division 2 of Group A and specified cars of at least 4.2-metres length, with a 2.0-litre naturally aspirated engine. In 1993, the FIA adopted the rules and added a four-door stipulation.
To start with, the cars weren’t all that sophisticated. Essentially, they were heavily-modified road cars with showroom-spec bodywork and H-pattern gearboxes. But as more manufacturers got on board competition inevitably increased, the rules were stretched and the race cars’ relationship to their road-going counterparts became increasingly tenuous. By the time the category folded, the cars were full-on prototypes. Sure, they looked like the road cars, but really only the lights and door handles could be directly transferred from one to the other.
Regardless, the rules were a minor work of genius because so many cars fitted the bill. And, over the ten years or so Super Touring ran in various countries, the fields were extremely diverse. You may well remember most of the cars run by the BTCC’s manufacturer teams, but what about the one-off specials run by privateers? And that’s before we get into the cars that ran in other Super Touring series around the world.
Here’s a run-down of all of them.
CARS THAT RACED IN THE BRITISH TOURING CAR CHAMPIONSHIP
ALFA ROMEO 155
The factory Alfa Corse squad brought the 155 to the BTCC for the 1994 season and immediately caused controversy. Whatever aero aids were used on the race cars had to be available on the road cars. Most manufacturers ran the GT/GTi/GSi/whatever model so they could run the vestigial spoilers the road car came with. There was no such model in the 155 range, so Alfa homologated a limited-run special edition version that came with a front splitter and rear spoiler much larger than anything previously seen in Super Touring. Hugely effective they were, too. Gabriele Tarquini won eight of the 21 races to take the championship by a comfortable margin. The aero revolution had started.
Alfa Corse withdrew at the end of the year and handed the program to Prodrive for 1995, but the game had already moved on massively and the 155 was well off the pace and didn’t even manage a podium finish.
In 1996, Audi extended its highly successful touring car program to the BTCC, bringing another revolution with it – four-wheel-drive. The Audi Sport UK-run A4 quattro cleaned up, despite carrying a chunky weight penalty later in the season. Team leader Frank Biela, already a multiple touring car champion, was utterly dominant. In 26 races, he only missed the podium six times, topping it on eight occasions. He took the title by a whopping 92 points.
An even bigger lump of weight was added for 1997, relegating Biela to a distant second in the title race. For 1998, 4WD was banned completely and the A4 was nowhere, only reaching the podium twice. The Audi Sport left the BTCC at year’s end, though stuck it out through 1999 elsewhere.
Various iterations of the 3-Series ran in Super Touring. By the 1991 season, the E30-generation M3 was already massively successful and all it took to meet the rules was downsizing the engine to 2.0-litres. Various teams ran them and ran off with the spoils. Vic Lee Racing man Will Hoy took the title.
BMW homologated the new E36-gen 318is coupe for 1992. VLR’s Tim Harvey put together a string of wins late in the season to take the title by three points, helped by his teammate Steve Soper and title rival John Cleland famously knocking seven bells out of each other at the final round.
The factory BMW Motorsport squad pitched up for the 1993 season with a new, four-door 318i. Chain-smoking team leader Jo Winkelhock took five wins and the title from teammate Soper. Schnitzer ran the effort from 1994 until BMW withdrew from the BTCC at the end of 1997. Though the team remained a solid contender, it never again reached those early heights. Which goes to show how competitive the BTCC was, as BMWs cleaned up pretty much everywhere else.
The Mondeo endured a chequered history in the BTCC. Ford contracted multi-championship-winning driver/engineer Andy Rouse to develop the first, saloon-based iteration which appeared during the second half of the 1993 season, after the road car had been launched. Despite the late start, Paul Radisich finished third in the standings with three wins to his credit. The car’s unusual, Mazda-based V6 engine sounded utterly glorious, too.
RouseSport continued running the Mondeo through 1994 and 1995, taking the odd win along the way. West Surrey Racing picked up the cudgel for 1996 running hatchbacks originally built by Ford Motorsport in Germany with 4WD, now converted to FWD. The car was, quite frankly, rubbish, failing to even finish on the podium. WSR’s own Mk.2 hatchback, run in 1997 and 1998, wasn’t much better, claiming a single win. Though Nigel Mansell’s dramatic cameos in ’98 raised the program’s profile significantly.
Prodrive started afresh for 1999. There were no wins, but it set the team up for an utterly dominant year in 2000 – Super Touring’s last in the BTCC – Alain Menu securing his second title. Prodrive allegedly spent £12 million on the 2000 season. No wonder Super Touring imploded…
Honda jumped on the BTCC bandwagon rather late in the day in 1995 with the fifth-generation Accord, which had been built in Swindon since 1993. Motor Sport Developments built and ran the cars. The team wasn’t quite on the pace through 1995, but was there or thereabouts in 1996, David Leslie taking three wins during the second half of the season.
Honda engaged Prodrive to build and run the Accords during 1997 and 1998. Again, the car was fast enough to pick up the pieces when the regular front runners faltered, but it was never going to be championship contender.
1999 brought a new generation of Accord and the program switched again to West Surrey Racing. The JAS Motorsport-designed, Fosstech-built machine won first time out. That didn’t quite set the tone for the season, which was dominated by Nissan, but four more wins were a good showing. Seven more wins followed in 2000 – against a much-depleted field – including the last three races held under Super Touring rules. Which is a distinction of sorts…
MAZDA 323F & XEDOS 6
Mazda joined the BTCC for the 1992 season with its stylish, Escort-rivalling 323F hatchback. Built and run by Roger Dowson Engineering, and driven by the highly-rated Patrick Watts, the car wasn’t especially fast. Indeed, it only managed two points-paying finishes. But then it was really only a toe-in-the-water exercise before a more concerted effort in 1993 with the new, extremely handsome Xedos 6.
Again built by RDE and driven by Watts, the Xedos 6 was undoubtedly quick enough to be a contender, taking three fourth-place finishes and a fastest lap at Silverstone. The omens were good for 1994, especially with the reliably quick David Leslie and hotly-tipped youngster Matt Neal at the wheel. But it was not to be. The car was well off the pace, then Neal rolled his car into a ball at Silverstone which forced him to sit out the rest of the year to recover from his injuries. Not that it really mattered, as Mazda pulled the plug at mid-season anyway.
MITSUBISHI LANCER & GALANT
Erstwhile privateer outfit John Maguire Racing entered its self-built Lancer for the 1991 season, driven by racer-turned-journalist Mark Hales. The car wasn’t even slightly on the pace, but Hales did manage to score a single point in the car’s four starts.
The squad sat out a couple of rounds while it geared up for a switch to the bigger Galant. It did not go well. Four DNFs from eight starts and a best placing of 11th was all JMR had to show for its efforts. Unsurprisingly, neither the team nor the cars were seen in the BTCC again.
Nissan joined the Super Touring ranks right from the outset. Driver Keith O’Dor’s Janspeed concern built and ran the cars, with a rolling roster of talents in the second car and regular appearances by Top Gear’s Tiff Needell in a third. The Primera was a solid contender, often best-of-the-rest. But only a single win was achieved, O’Dor topping the podium at Silverstone in 1993. A poor performance in 1994 saw Nissan pull the plug.
The marque returned to the fray in 1996, RouseSport running a factory-blessed-not-backed, effort with the facelifted P11 Primera. It was not a success. Still, it was enough to tempt Nissan back with a proper campaign in 1997, this time run by RML. That first year was win-free, but success came the following season. The ever-reliable David Leslie and series newcomer Anthony Reid took nine wins between them.
Then Nissan signed Le Mans winner Laurent Aiello for the 1999 season. On circuits that were almost entirely unfamiliar to him, the Frenchman took ten wins, sealing the championship at his first and only attempt. Teammate Leslie took three wins himself, securing the manufacturers’ title by a country mile.
Oddly, though, the Primera’s most famous win came in the hands of privateer Matt Neal, who became the first non-works driver to win a race outright at Donington in 1999. A cheque for £250,000 was his reward. After the factory team withdrew at the end of ’99, Neal’s Team Dynamics squad continued running the Primera, updated with the latest P11f bodywork.
PEUGEOT 405 Mi16 & 406
Various teams across Europe had been running the 405 Mi16 in Division 2 of Group A since the model had been launched in 1988, so it was ready to go when the BTCC switched to the new Super Touring rules. Independent squad ACE Motorsport ran the lone example on the grid in 1991, then the factory team arrived for 1992.
Though the team picked up the odd podium, it couldn’t replicate the 405’s huge success at home in France. It was much the same story when the team switched to the new 406 for 1996 season. Despite success elsewhere, including winning the German championship in 1997, the British crew just couldn’t put the results together. Even with drivers of the calibre of Tim Harvey, Patrick Watts and Paul Radisich at the wheel.
Peugeot withdrew at the end of 1998, winless.
RENAULT 19 & LAGUNA
Renault dipped its toe in the water in 1993 with the Escort-size 19 Chamade saloon. The car proved to be very fast in a straight line but a bit of a handful in the corners. Still, drivers Tim Harvey and Alain Menu managed to wring a win each out it.
A switch to the new, bigger Laguna for 1994 proved to be an immediate success. The team couldn’t stop the Alfa Romeo steamroller, but Menu scored a run of strong results including two wins and secured second place in both the drivers’ and manufacturers’ title races.
With serious aerodynamics being allowed for the 1995 season, Renault Sport engaged long-time Formula 1 engine customer Williams to build and run the cars. It proved to be a good idea, the campaign netting Renault the manufacturers’ title in that first year. 1996 was less successful for Renault as a team, but Menu still finished runner-up the drivers’ championship for the second year running. The wiley Swiss followed up with an utterly dominant performance in 1997, taking 12 wins on the way to his first BTCC title. With young hotshot Jason Plato finishing third, Renault secured another makes’ title, too.
A few more wins followed in 1998 and 1999, but the team was never again in a position to challenge for titles.
Privateer Grahame Davis entered a 216 GTi built by his Moto-Build outfit for the 1991 season. Though the project had backing from Rover, there was no money involved in the deal and that showed in the (lack of) results. Struggling with the under-developed car, Davis only started one of the five races he entered, and that outing ended in retirement. There was talk of a renewed effort for 1992, but it came to nothing.
Toyota had dominated the 1600cc division of the BTCC since the mid-Seventies, but didn’t mount an attack to take overall honours until Super Touring was introduced. RouseSport was contracted to build and run the Carina II. The team turned out to be best-of-the-rest behind the mighty BMW and Vauxhall squads, Andy Rouse taking three wins.
For 1992, the team signed reigning champion Will Hoy who scored a run of strong results, including two wins, missing a second title by just three points. Indeed, he might have won, had he and Rouse not tangled and clattered into the barriers together at Brands Hatch.
1993 saw the introduction of the all-new Carina E, run by the UK arm of Toyota tuning experts TOM’s. Toyota also supported a junior team sponsored by car leasing company Park Lane. Julian Bailey scored a single win in 1993, but otherwise the team never broke out of the mid-field. The program folded at the end of 1995.
VAUXHALL CAVALIER, VECTRA & BELMONT
Vauxhall was well prepared for the start of the Super Touring era. The marque fielded a brace of Astra GTEs in 1989 which, with no real competition, won Class C at every race. Team leader John Cleland took the overall title.
The Dave Cook Racing-run squad switched to the bigger, recently-launched Mk.3 Cavalier for 1990 using more-or-less the same drivetrain as the Astra. It couldn’t quite live with the BMW M3s, but Cleland still took four wins in Class B. The Cavalier needed little, if any, alteration to meet the Super Touring regs, so the team was able to hit the ground running. 1991 and 1992 continued in the same vein as 1990, Vauxhall – and Cleland in particular – battling BMW for supremacy. Ultimately, though, the German cars would prevail.
1993 passed by without a win for the works Vauxhall squad. However, the independent Ecurie Ecosse team did win with its RML-built Cavalier. That prompted Vauxhall to switch builder for 1994. Against the might of Alfa Romeo and BMW, Cleland’s two wins were a decent showing, but it all came together in 1995. It may have been the oldest car in the field by some margin, but the bewinged Cavalier flew to the manufacturers’ title and gave Cleland his second crown.
The new Vectra was less of a success. A single win in early 1996 was followed by a winless 1997. And so followed another switch to new outfit Triple Eight. Three wins in 1998 and one 1999 underlined how problematic the Vectra was. 2000 brought five wins and third in the makes’ standings, but then there were only three makes on the grid.
As for the Belmont, that was run by privateer Jeff Wilson’s HWR Motorsport in 1990 and 1991. Essentially, it was a Group A Astra GTE in Belmont clothes. In four appearances in the latter half of 1991, it only finished twice at the tail end of the field.
VOLVO 850 & S40
The Volvo 850 estate is probably the most iconic car of the Super Touring era. Never mind the fact it wasn’t actually that good – it only managed a best finish of fifth – the Tom Walkinshaw Racing-built machine almost single-handedly turned around Volvo’s image in the UK, which was largely the point. The fact it remains iconic underlines just how well the point was made.
1995 brought a switch to the saloon version of the 850 which was an immediate success – despite being the biggest car in the field – taking seven wins, most of them courtesy of swift Swede Rickard Rydell. Were it not for Frank Biela and Audi, Rydell could have won the championship in 1996. As it was, four wins netted third in the standings, just three points behind Alain Menu – both were more than 90 points adrift of Biela.
1997 brought a switch to the newer, smaller S40. It didn’t quite manage to pick up where the 850 left off, only managing a solitary win. It all came good in 1998, though, Rydell putting together a consistently strong campaign to secure the drivers’ title. Another strong showing in 1999 put Rydell third in the rankings. Even so, Volvo pulled out at the end of the season.
CARS THAT RACED ELSEWHERE
ALFA ROMEO 156
Keen to continue the success of the Alfa 155, Fiat’s in-house racing arm, Nordauto, set about turned the new, drop-dead gorgeous 156 into a Super Tourer for the start of the 1998 season. It raced in series across Europe and proved highly successful, Fabrizio Giovanardi taking top honours in the Italian championship in 1999, and the European series in 2000. A British campaign was slated for 1998, but the plans collapsed before the season started.
Audi pioneered four-wheel-drive in Super Touring with the 80 quattro. The factory ran teams in various championships around Europe; with its all-wheel grip the 80 was certainly effective, but it usually had to play second fiddle to the all-conquering E36 3-Series. Still, Emanuele Pirro scored the Italian crown in 1994.
It seems unlikely that there would be a Super Touring series on the other side of the Atlantic. But for two seasons in 1996 and 1997, the North American Touring Car Championship proved there wasn’t actually much appetite for the category over there. The Stratus, a car most commonly found on Hertz rental lots, was the only truly home-grown car on the grid. Built and run by CART squad PacWest, it was a winner from the get-go, taking four wins. Five more wins followed in 1997 and team leader David Donohue secured the title.
HONDA ACCORD & CIVIC FERIO
For reasons known only to itself, Honda decided Europe would have a different version of the fifth-generation Accord to the rest of the world. In 1996, Motor Sport Developments built several cars based on that RoTW bodyshell and using the same drivetrain and running gear as the European-spec machines in was running in the BTCC. They were primarily intended from the Japanese championship, though some ending up contesting the North American series in 1997 as well. Neither campaign brought much success.
A number of teams contesting the Japanese championship built their own racers out of the fifth-generation Civic Ferio saloon. Through 1994 and 1995 it often seemed like they made up half the grid but, being privateer entries, they were never in the fight at the front.
A pair of Elantras were in built in 1994/1995 for the Australian championship. They were not a success…
MAZDA FAMILIA & LANTIS
Several examples of the closely-related Familia and Lantis – same chassis, different body – raced in Japan with no notable results. In the UK, Roger Dowson Engineering built a 323F – as the Lantis was known in Europe – at the tail-end of 1994, which Matt Neal drove in FIA World Cup event, but the brand-new car didn’t make the finish. Which scuppered the plan to tempt Mazda back into the BTCC…
NISSAN SUNNY, PRIMERA CAMINO & SKYLINE
Though some European-spec Primeras found their way into the Japanese series, most teams inclined towards Nissan chose either the JDM-spec Primera Camino or B14-gen Sunny. There seems to have been a lone Skyline, as well. As ever, up against the works teams these independent entries never really figured in the running.
Before being taken on by Honda to build Accords, Motor Sport Developments built a number of four-door Astras for Opel Motorsport, which ran in the German and South African championships.
Yes, the brick-like seven-seater really did race. It was built at the behest of Peugeot Belgium for the 1995 Spa 24 Hours to drum up publicity for the newly-launched model. Built by Kronos Racing out of bits of 306 rally car and 405 touring car, it qualified an astonishing 12th overall and 3rd in the more-or-less Super Touring-spec Procar class. But the car was plagued by technical issues in the race and retired before half-distance. To our knowledge, it remains the only MPV to contest a FIA-sanctioned race.
Three cars were built for the French championship in 1994, run under the SEAT France banner. Some mid-field placings were achieved, but the results weren’t good enough to tempt the squad back the next year. Instead, the cars were sent to the Spanish series where their performance was similarly unspectacular.
TOYOTA CAMRY, CHASER, COROLLA, CORONA & SPRINTER
This veritable smorgasbord of Toyotas raced in a number of series outside Europe. Former Vauxhall builder Dave Cook Racing built a pair of XV10-gen Camrys for the South African championship in 1995. Results were nothing to write home about. The cars subsequently ended up in Australia and North America.
In Japan, the factory TOM’s team had considerable success with the T190-gen Corona E, Masanori Sekiya taking the championship in 1994. The squad also used the EXiV four-door coupe variant, Sekiya again taking a number of wins in 1995 with it. 1996 passed by winless, so the team switched to the rear-wheel-drive Chaser for 1997. But that, too, failed to top the podium.
A number of privateer teams also ran various iterations of the seventh and eighth generation Corolla, from plain saloons to the four-door coupe Corolla Ceres and Sprinter Marino.
CARS THAT NEVER RACED
Despite the failure of its efforts to restart a Mazda works team, Roger Dowson Engineering built a new 323F for the 1995 season. Ex-F1 driver, truck racing champion and ABBA drummer (really) Slim Borgudd was set to take the wheel, but a lack of funds lead to the collapse of the project. However, the car would go on to race in other series.
Plans were well advanced for a works effort in the BTCC with the new C-Class, due for launch part-way through 1993. Prodrive would run the cars in collaboration with AMG, while long-time Prodrive racer Tim Sugden and factory hotshot Bernd Schneider would drive. The team would appear late in 1993 ahead of a full campaign in 1994, but the plans fell through. Perhaps Mercedes felt that its enormously expensive DTM campaign and nascent F1 engine program were enough to be getting on with. As far as we’re aware, the C-Class never competed in a Super Touring series.
When it unveiled the new mid-size, Dutch-built Carisma at the 1995 Geneva Motor Show, Mitsubishi also showed off a prototype Super Tourer. It was destined for the German championship, but the project was quietly dropped. Perhaps Volvo, whose upcoming S40 used the same chassis and would be built in the same factory, had a quiet word: “You’ve got the World Rally Championship, leave touring cars to us.”
As the cost of Super Touring machinery exploded, independent teams started to feel the squeeze as prices for the second-hand cars they used went up. Championship-winning driver and car builder Andy Rouse started work on a more affordable alternative in the bug-eyed form of the eighth generation Corolla Liftback. A prototype was built in late 1997 and a BTCC campaign planned for 1998, but homolgation issues delayed FIA approval for the car and halted development. When testing resumed, it was clear the car wasn’t ready so its race debut was put back again. Then Rouse decided there wasn’t enough money left, anyway, and the project was shuttered.
By Graham King