RETRO: THE STORY OF 1986
Three decades ago, saloon car racing was on the precipice. By David Addison
orget TOCA BTCC Licences to compete, live television coverage and star billing at 10 events. Back in 1986, the British Saloon Car Championship was facing extinction.
Thirty years ago was perhaps the lowest point yet for the BTCC, still known then as the British Saloon Car Championship. Entries were small and there was opposition from alternative saloon car categories, allied to a stigma attached to the championship from a couple of years before and endless technical wranglings.
In 1986, the British motor racing landscape looked rather different: the BSCC ran as a support race to something else, such as F3 or Thundersports, and there was a cheaper alternative known as Production Saloon Car racing. There were two championships, the Uniroyal and Monroe-backed series, both with full grids, and the lower-cost regulations were championed by the press as the way that the BSCC should be going. And the series was still recovering from a difficult outcome to the 1983 season in which Austin Rover and TWR that ran the Vitesses ended up in the High Court arguing over legality – and in 1984 Andy Rouse won the ’83 title and the ’84 crown on the same weekend.
Group A was the set of regulations to which the BSCC ran and it encouraged manufacturers to build cars but it was also a period beset by technical arguments and infringements. The cars were expensive, often competitive for just a season or two.
“I’d always wanted to be in the championship,” remembers Mark Hales, who arrived on the grid in 1984 with a Terry Drury-run Alfa Romeo GTV6, “but straight away it became clear the series was in trouble. I don’t think it was just one thing that was the problem, it was a combination of lots of things.
“Group A was adopted in many countries and seemed to be a good idea but it soon became clear that it was expensive and manufacturers were spending their money in the European championship, which was very strong, rather than in a domestic one. So we lost those big teams but the championship didn’t have enough privateers to prop it up. Britain was in recession in the second half of the 1980s so it all added up to badly affect the championship.”
And as the 1986 season dawned, it became clear that the championship was in real trouble. Andy Rouse’s Ford Sierra XR4TI had been hard to stop in ’85 and the venerable Rover Vitesse was struggling to stay in touch. There was a limited number of competitive cars – although new homologation specials were on their way – and increasing costs, dwindling competitor and media interest and a cheaper alternative weren’t helping. Nor was the treatment of competitors: they got a single, relatively short race, nothing more than a club race.
“Scrutineering was an issue as well,” adds Hales. “It was felt to be inconsistent and people felt others got away with things and that was a deterrent to some drivers coming in. The cars were coming to the end of their homologation as well, and drivers were reluctant to spend money on cars with a short life span.”
Michael Lindsay was running the John West-sponsored Alfa Romeo 75s at the time. “The RAC was aware of the problems but not doing anything about them,” he recalls. “Cars were getting long in the tooth and, apart from the 75, the next wave like the BMW M3 and the Ford Sierra Cosworth weren’t yet homologated. In fact our 75 V6 wasn’t homologated until May 1 so the championship needed us! We were more concerned with having a car to race, not where to race it!
“For the championship’s point of view, it was just the bottom of the cycle. I don’t think it was purely the cost that was the main problem, otherwise we as the Alfa Romeo Dealer Team wouldn’t have been able to afford it. One year, we did it for 60 grand! Mind you, we couldn’t afford new tyres all the time….” Contrast that with today. Worse was to come in the first months of 1986. The RAC had been chasing a sponsor, which was believed to be Lucas, but then at the 11th hour it announced its backing of the British Formula 3 Championship. In 1986, that looked a better bet with big grids and headline billing.
The BSCC was understood to be looking for a co-ordinator, someone to take the reigns and look after the championship, and Donington promoter Robert Fearnall was linked to the task although that never came to fruition either. And as the season’s opening races – traditionally an Easter double header with Oulton Park on Good Friday and Thruxton on Easter Monday – loomed closer, entries were sparse. There was little option but to cancel the first two rounds.
Read that again. Cancel the first two rounds. Even when the current incarnation of the BTCC has had a tough time, the show went on. But in 1986, remember, the BSCC was very much a support act.
Thankfully, help was at hand. Martin Whitaker had reported on the BSCC for Motoring News before moving to the RAC as its press officer. Whitaker was concerned by what he saw, with little interest from the governing body, but with a small and enthusiastic nucleus of competitors keen to try to keep the championship afloat. Whitaker became the unofficial championship co-ordinator and deserves credit for talking up the series at any available opportunity.
Whitaker realised that getting cars on the grid was the key, showing competitors that the BSCC was where they wanted to be. He reintroduced a fourth class, to allow in cars up to 1300cc, although in reality this was only going to attract some of the Prod Saloon drivers as it was announced too late for anyone to build a Group A car to meet the regs. Some of the larger-engined Prod Saloon contingent was attracted out for the annual Grand Prix support race but didn’t commit to the championship with their budgets already locked into their other racing.
The season eventually began at Silverstone with 14 cars, better than expected and entries hovered around that level, save for Donington in June when just 11 cars toured round in the sunshine, many being saved for the following GP support race.
Another idea to boost the grid size came at Brands Hatch for its Indy circuit race in August. On a wet Bank Holiday Monday, the BSCC field was bolstered by a fleet of the Brands Hatch Racing School Ford Escort Xr3is, with instructors (among them Ben Edwards, who would later head the championship’s television commentary team for many years) behind the wheel. While they made the circuit look busy, the regulars claimed they got in the way.
Rouse did the bulk of the winning in his Sierra, but it was Chris Hodgetts in his Toyota Corolla who took the title, winning Class C on all but one occasion. His defeat at that wet Brands race was part of one of the better stories of the year, when rally driver Mikael Sundstrom appeared in a Peugeot 205 GTI and mastered the atrocious conditions to take third overall on the Indy circuit behind Rouse and Mike O’brien’s Rover Vitesse! And he started from the pitlane as well after the clutch linkage came adrift in the warm-up session that morning…
Amazingly, given the championship’s travails, the BBC even showed the last round, live. Well, some of it. Coverage began on lap seven of 15 but a lively lead battle between Dave Brodie (Mitsubishi Starion Turbo) and Rouse’s Ford Sierra XR4TI whetted the BBC’S appetite for proper coverage in 1988. Back in 1984, the Corporation’s cameras opted to show a Ford Fiesta race live (partly due to BBC presenter Mike Smith being on the grid) rather than the BSCC at the same Easter Monday Thruxton event, so even half a race was a huge step forward.
But against the backdrop of its troubles, there was optimism for the season ahead. The World Touring Car Championship was set to be born and Ford and BMW were set to launch the Sierra Cosworth and M3. Whitaker appointed Spencer Hall as the co-ordinator, Dunlop was tempted to come on board as a sponsor, the name was changed to embrace the Touring Car tag and bring it in line with equivalent series, Richard Hay secured a deal to show highlights on cable channel Screensport, and the championship looked set to rise from the ashes.
Thanks to a small and dedicated bunch, the BTCC made it through its darkest days. ■
Small 1986 grid at Silverstone
Toyota Corolla and Hodgetts topped Class C...
Rouse and Ford set the pace for much of 1986
...which was enough
for the overall crown