HOW VAUXHALL ROSE TO BTCC SUPREMACY
As the British marque returns to the BTCC, David Addison examines the firm’s legacy in the category
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