TWENTY YEARS OF WSR
WSR has reached a landmark in its British Touring Car Championship history. By Matt James
After nearly 1200 races in the British Touring Car Championship and two drivers’ titles, WSR is on the cusp of a landmark this year. Brands Hatch will be the beginning of WSR’S, and team boss Dick Bennetts’, 21st season in the category.
Joining the BTCC in 1996 was quite a direction change for the team. WSR and Bennetts had forged a fearsome reputation in Formula 3. After lifting crowns with Jonathan Palmer, Ayrton Senna, Mauricio Gugelmin, Mika Hakkinen and Rubens Barrichello, the team boss figured that there wasn’t that much further to go.
“I had won everything there was to win at F3 level. Moving up the singleseater pathway would mean that the team would have got bigger and then there would be less control,” explains Bennetts. “I didn’t want that – and I was looking for a fresh challenge. It all came about at the right time.”
While the timing might have been good from a team perspective, the launch into the tin-top world was anything but easy. That was through no fault of the team either – it was a combination of circumstances.
Bennetts explains: “It was Paul Radisich who introduced me to touring cars in the middle of 1995 – I don’t know whether to thank him or shoot him! He came to me half way through that season when he was driving for Ford in the Mondeo. The programme was being run by Andy Rouse Engineering, and it wasn’t up to speed with the technology and the car wasn’t good. It started from there.”
The 1995 season wasn’t strong for Ford, and there was only one win throughout the campaign for Radisich, who was partnered by Kelvin Burt.
“I had an interview with Ford and got the gig, but that was the easy bit,” says Bennetts. “Reynard was going to build the car, but it couldn’t do it in the timescale involved, so we got cars from Schubel Engineering in Germany which had been run in the Super Tourenwagen Cup. Over there, they had been four-wheel drive but we had to make them two-wheel drive. It was not the ideal situation for our first year in the top flight.”
And in those days, there were eight factory teams fighting it out at the front and there was nowhere to hide. In the modern BTCC, there is time for a team to come in, run a second-hand car and learn the ropes. That was not the case in 1996. Everything was under the spotlight in the intensity of competition.
“It was hard to come in with a car that wasn’t the best, to put it mildly,” adds Bennetts. “We had to build up the team and get the right people together. It was not just about getting the right people together, it is about getting people that work together well.
“And then the championship was all about developments. We were bringing new designs to the car all the time and pushing it forwards. It was a good technical challenge.”
That technical challenge was conquered eventually – but it took a long time. The first win was in 1998 when Will Hoy managed to dominate a wet race.
The Ford deal was replaced by Honda for 1999 and 12 wins followed, but the dawn of the new era in the BTCC, when the rules were changed to slash the costs of the increasingly expensive Super Tourers, was imminent.
The birth of the Btc-spec class in 2001 was another step for Bennetts: “We had been in touch with MG in 2000 but they’d said no, but when the more cost-effective regulations came in, they were interested again.”
Initially the team ran Lola-built chassis – and won during its late-season foray to three rounds – but MG and Lola split after 2001, so the pressure was on WSR to create a new car, with no carryover from the Lola version.
“The MG ZS was the first car that we had built from scratch. It was our baby, if you like,” explains Bennetts. “It was a heck of a rush to put the thing together, but it served us well for five seasons – even after the MG Sport and Racing factory deal fell out of bed at the end of 2003. Colin Turkington was right in the hunt for the championship even in 2006.”
The car had been through evolutions when it was in Bennetts’ hands, most notably in the engine department. The V6 was replaced by a Judd-tuned four-cylinder engine that didn’t have the same power output as the previous powerplant, but offered plenty of other advantages in terms of weight and handling.
WSR had the tiger by the tail in 2004. Bennetts had invested heavily in the four-cylinder unit before MG pulled out, and it was left in the situation where it simply had to plough on with the programme regardless. “We had outlaid nearly £1million on the engine kits and upgrades,” explains Bennetts. “That very nearly put us over the edge as a team.
“We had backing from RAC in 2006, and it said that it would rather we ran a car that was on sale in the UK and it wanted a good brand to be associated with,” explains Bennetts. “So we started looking around for what was suitable – and, to be honest, there wasn’t very much. We settled on the BMW, which had a 3 Series kit available to build. We ordered those, and that meant we changed direction in 2007. It is a brand we have been loyal to.”
And it has been a brand that has brought the team some of its greatest successes. After two seasons with the rear-wheel-drive BMWS, learning the nuances of its handling, it came together for Turkington in 2009 when he prevailed in a nail-biting finale at Brands Hatch against Fabrizio Giovanardi and Jason Plato.
“That was a special feeling – it was the culmination of everything we had put in up until that point. Although the championship had moved on since we’d joined it in 1996, it was still fiercely competitive,” says Bennetts. “Turkington was at the top of his game and we were at the top of our game engineering-wise.”
The crest of that wave didn’t last long. RAC reversed out of its deal at the end of that season. Going from the joy of winning the title, a personnel change at the backers meant the team was left without support.
“It had been a three-year deal with RAC and then they extended it for a year,” says Bennetts. “But they had a new marketing manager in the middle of 2009 and he liked football rather than racing. We were left high and dry.”
After a couple more years, it was time for the BTCC to undergo yet another revolution. The cut-price Ngtc-spec cars were coming on stream and Bennetts did his research – and by now had ebay backing. The cars that were ticking the box were the smaller machines, such as the Honda Civic.
“We had the option to stick with the 3 Series, but we knew it had to be a compact car, so the 1 Series was the best option for us,” says Bennetts. “There was a desire from BMW to see that happen as well, so we gave it the green light. It was only the second car that we had constructed after the MG ZS, and it was a huge undertaking.”
In 2013, Turkington took five wins and went in to the championship showdown in with a sniff of the crown. But then, in 2014, it came together for the 125i M Sport. Some clever engineering tweaks halfway through the campaign pushed Turkington to a run of four wins from six races in the summer and that was enough for him to outrun Plato’s MG.
“That title was down to continuity in the team and an increased understanding of the car,” says Bennetts. “Colin was so methodical in the way he went about things. We had drilled that in to him from his early days with us. He keeps fantastic records on each of the circuits and really worked hard away from the circuit.”
Yet again, the joy was shortlived. Backers ebay pulled out of the sport at the end of the year and Bennetts was once again left looking for support.
“It was getting to the point that we didn’t want to win the title any more,” jokes Bennetts. “We would have been better finishing second or third if it meant we could keep our sponsors!”
Since then, the team has ploughed on with its 1 Series and further refined the machine. “Twenty years in the BTCC has gone very, very quickly,” reckons Bennetts. “But the challenges remain the same, and that is what makes it so enjoyable. Look at what we achieved last season – at Croft, we scored our first 1-2-3 in the championship and the great thing about that was that all three of our drivers – Sam Tordoff, Andy Priaulx and Rob Collard – managed to win a race. There are still landmarks to tick off, and we will keep going until we get there.” ■