HOW VAUX­HALL ROSE TO BTCC SUPREMACY

As the Bri­tish mar­que re­turns to the BTCC, David Ad­di­son ex­am­ines the firm’s legacy in the cat­e­gory

Motor Sport News - - Headline News -

L ook back through the his­tory of the Bri­tish Tour­ing Car Cham­pi­onship and cer­tain man­u­fac­tur­ers are prom­i­nent whereas oth­ers come and go. In re­cent years, one of the cor­ner­stones of the BTCC has been Vaux­hall, but de­spite its suc­cess, it was a late ar­rival at the BTCC ball.

Other GM fam­ily prod­ucts had en­joyed suc­cess, such as Chevro­let and even Holden, be­fore John Cle­land’s land­mark win at Thrux­ton in 1991, the first over­all race win for the brand. This came as the Su­per Tour­ing era was in its in­fancy and the series, and Vaux­hall and Cle­land along with it, was grow­ing in pop­u­lar­ity.

First a quick his­tory les­son: wind back to 1962 and you find the first Vaux­halls on a Bri­tish Saloon Car Cham­pi­onship grid, when Frank Hamlin and Jack Pearce (who went on to build the Kin­craft) raced a brace of VX 4/90s at Ain­tree. The car was a per­for­mancee nhanced ver­sion of the Series Two Vic­tor, breathed on by Bill Bly­den­stein and Chris Lawrence, but the cars strug­gled against the Sun­beam Rapiers and Ri­ley 1.5s. Then Ford launched its Cortina GT and the Lotus Cortina and Vaux­hall faded from the scene.

Gerry Mar­shall worked his magic in a Shaw & Kil­burn-en­tered Viva GT in 1970 and then in 1974 the Firenza came along with the likes of Tim Stock and Den­nis Bis­sell at the wheel, but by 1976 things were look­ing more se­ri­ous: the Dealer Team Vaux­hall name was on the en­try list with that man Mar­shall in a Mag­num, that bagged four class wins. The en­try was paid for out of the dealer net­work but came at the same time as Bill Bly­den­stein was run­ning cars for Mar­shall in Su­per Sa­loons and there was the nascent rally pro­gramme gath­er­ing mo­men­tum. Even­tu­ally, ral­ly­ing won, and Pentti Airikkala and a Chevette were deemed a bet­ter mar­ket­ing op­tion than cir­cuit rac­ing.

Fast for­ward to 1986 and GM Dealer sport was on cir­cuit rac­ing en­try lists af­ter Cle­land teamed up with Vince Wood­man to win the Thun­der­sa­loon crown in a Vaux­hall Se­na­tor, in truth an ex-peter Brock Holden Com­modore. Suc­cess fol­lowed with a Carlton in 1988 be­fore a change of cat­e­gory came about: the BTCC for 1989.

“Dealer Team Vaux­hall had mor­phed into the Dealer Opel Team run­ning Opel Mon­zas in Pro­duc­tion Sa­loons,” re­mem­bers Cle­land, “and the As­tra was do­ing good things in ral­ly­ing. We reck­oned that it could be a good car for the BTCC, which then had its multi-class sys­tem, and the ti­tle was usu­ally won by a smaller class car. Back came Dealer Team Vaux­hall and we ran the As­tra in Class C, against the BMWS in Class B. That started the Vaux­hall/bmw bat­tle as the ti­tle went down to the last round be­tween me and James Weaver in an M3.”

Mike Ni­chol­son, Vaux­hall’s Motorsport Man­ager for many years, re­mem­bers. “There was no long-term plan, re­ally, but the deal­ers wanted a higher-pro­file cham­pi­onship,” he says. “Ev­ery­thing fit­ted and we took the ti­tle.”

With Dave Cook run­ning the As­tras, suc­cess came in ev­ery race with Cle­land win­ning nine races and Louise Aitken-Walker tak­ing two vic­to­ries, but it was still a dealer pro­gramme with Cle­land’s fa­ther, Bill, the driv­ing force. Be­fore long, though, things would get re­ally se­ri­ous as Vaux­hall took over the pro­gramme.

Ni­chol­son ex­plains: “The motorsport pro­gramme came from a levy on each car sold through the dealer net­work, about £5 per car, but ev­ery year the deal­ers came to us ask­ing for money as their mar­gins were be­ing squeezed and they felt they were los­ing out by pay­ing for the rac­ing. We kept hav­ing to top up the bud­get, so we thought we may as well fund it di­rect.”

Vaux­hall Motorsport was born for the 1992 sea­son, with Cle­land spear­head­ing the at­tack on the BTCC as Vaux­hall’s motorsport pro­gramme grew: ral­ly­ing was a big part and so, too, was For­mula Vaux­hall, For­mula Vaux­hall Ju­nior and the Vec­tra Chal­lenge.

De­spite Dave Cook’s suc­cess with the early Cava­liers, change was on the hori­zon. “Cooky was a pa­per and pen­cil guy,” says Cle­land, “and RML had done good things for Ecurie Ecosse with its Cava­liers and had an im­pres­sive fa­cil­ity. Dave was a ca­su­alty of that but RML did a good job.” So good that in 1995, Cle­land won the ti­tle again but with the sin­gle class sys­tem and the qual­ity of the en­try, it was a ti­tle that mat­tered more than his ’89 suc­cess.

But it was a few years be­fore Vaux­hall claimed out­right hon­ours again, 2001 to be ex­act. By that stage, RML had gone and Triple Eight was the in­cum­bent. “We went to see Ray Mal­lock in late 1996,” re­mem­bers Ni­chol­son, “and he played hard­ball. It was clear that he wasn’t go­ing to drop his price, and in hind­sight he must have had Nis­san all lined up, so we walked out of the meet­ing and thought, ‘Oh, f**k! What do we do now’?

“A few weeks be­fore, Derek War­wick had rung me and was in­ter­ested in start­ing a tour­ing car team and I’d told him we were set to do a deal with RML, but thanks for call­ing. When we left the meet­ing with Mal­lock, I rang Derek and we met at a ho­tel on the M4. We chat­ted, the dis­cus­sion went well and then out of the bog popped Ian Har­ri­son, who was go­ing to be part of the team but was still un­der con­tract to Frank Wil­liams! We agreed the con­tract in a cou­ple of weeks and they

“The BTCC was the right place to be” MIKE NI­CHOL­SON

ran the cars from 1997 on­wards.”

Both Cle­land and Ni­chol­son are agreed on the team’s early tra­vails.

“The car had front aero that was never right,” says Cle­land. “Poor front end,” con­curs Ni­chol­son. The cars even­tu­ally won races but a ti­tle came in 2001 for Ja­son Plato, by which stage Cle­land had called time on his ca­reer and Yvan Muller and Plato led the team. Triple Eight ran a satel­lite Egg-spon­sored team, and Vaux­hall sup­ported the series against fee­ble op­po­si­tion through dark days.

“We stayed in­volved be­cause it was still the right place to be,” re­mem­bers Ni­chol­son. “Bud­gets were be­ing slashed all the time, so ral­ly­ing went and the For­mula Vaux­hall and Vec­tra cham­pi­onships were stopped, but the BTCC still made good com­mer­cial sense and helped us raise the VXR brand. To a de­gree, we stayed out of loy­alty to the BTCC but we wouldn’t have stayed if it hadn’t made com­mer­cial sense.”

But, with Alan Gow back in charge, the cham­pi­onship picked up and Ni­chol­son, re­mem­ber­ing how Gow had made the BTCC the suc­cess it was in the ’90s, was ready to com­mit to more. Vaux­hall had big­ger spend than its op­po­si­tion, and was able to pick its driv­ers, based on tal­ent not cheque­book. And for a Bri­tish brand, some of its stars came from over­seas.

“We went for the best driv­ers,” re­mem­bers Ni­chol­son. “We had Mike Briggs from South Africa for a few races but Vin­cent Ra­der­mecker, Yvan Muller and Fabrizio Gio­va­nardi were all cho­sen for their abil­ity, not their na­tion­al­ity. Alain Menu still tells me he doesn’t know why he wasn’t a Vaux­hall driver!”

Ah, but he was, at least for a week­end as the Swiss ace was drafted in to help Gio­va­nardi win the 2007 ti­tle as he guest drove a third Vec­tra in the fi­nal week­end of the cham­pi­onship.

Vaux­hall had made the BTCC its own in that decade as the As­tra Coupe racked up 25 wins in 2001 from 26 races, 15 wins a year later and 11 in both 2003 and ’04. The As­tra Sport Hatch came into the cham­pi­onship in 2005 and eight wins were fol­lowed by just two a year later. The Vec­tra was in­tro­duced in 2007 and 10 wins were racked up fol­lowed by a fur­ther 14 across 2008 and ’09. De­spite SEAT and Honda op­po­si­tion, Vaux­hall was still the bench­mark man­u­fac­turer. Through­out this pe­riod, Triple Eight op­er­ated the Vaux­halls, and just as Vaux­hall’s rep­u­ta­tion was en­hanced by the pe­riod of suc­cess, so too was Triple Eight’s as the team proved how far it had come from its fal­ter­ing first steps, with Ian Har­ri­son now firmly at the helm.

By 2009, though, it was time: Vaux­hall had won over 100 races and had noth­ing left to prove. There were the usual man­age­ment changes, global re­ces­sion and the lack of other works teams to con­sider. SEAT had left the pre­vi­ous year, and as a works en­tity, it was game over. Pri­vate cars car­ried on with a va­ri­ety of teams run­ning Vec­tras, and more re­cently In­signias, but Dave New­sham is the last man to have won in a Vaux­hall back in 2012.

Vaux­hall’s time in the BTCC was a huge suc­cess and helped pro­mote its brand to a new level. “Even now, peo­ple re­mem­ber me in the Cav­a­lier,” says Cle­land. “Some­one stopped me in a John Lewis store the other day when I was buy­ing a Christ­mas tree and talked about those days. Vaux­hall was good for the BTCC, but the BTCC was cer­tainly good for Vaux­hall.”

And now for the re­turn: Vaux­hall has an en­vi­able her­itage in the BTCC and, de­spite a rel­a­tively un­proven team at the helm, it could be that its strike rate in­creases. And if it does, could this pave the way for more man­u­fac­tur­ers to look again at the BTCC? ■

Gio­va­nardi took the ti­tle in 2008

Plato took the first ti­tle in the BTC- spec­i­fi­ca­tion As­tra Coupe

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