Three decades ago, saloon car rac­ing was on the precipice. By David Ad­di­son

Motor Sport News - - Contents -

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

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