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A Day at The Races

Its been a while since I've been to a motor race of any great significance. The processional Coulthard benefit that was the 1999 Belgian Grand Prix as it happens. Last weekend, though, I finally got back into the old habit, making my way to the Croft round of the British Touring Car Championship. Its even longer since I saw a BTCC race - an Alfa dominated affair at Oulton Park back in the early nineties if my memory serves me correctly. In recent years it has seemed, from the half hearted attention I had been paying to television coverage of the series, that it was dying on its knees. The manufacturers no longer wanted to play ball and the privateer teams that had once been the backbone of the series (remember the days when everyone drove a Sierra RS500 Cosworth ?) could no longer afford to. Thus it was a pleasant surprise to flick through the race programme at Croft and find there was a decent field of thirty or so cars, seventeen of which were the faster, category one cars. Race programmes themselves for that matter, remain reassuringly familiar, the same little spaces to fill in the grids and finishing positions, the rather anachronistic looking lap speed/time conversion charts, all exactly as they were when I first saw a motor race some seventeen years ago.

All in all, Croft is a pretty good place to see this kind of racing. The track is a little too tight and narrow for powerful single seaters, which would struggle to find overtaking opportunities, but for touring cars it is ideal, and one is close enough to the track to get a real impression of speed, unlike at Silverstone where binoculars sometimes seem like an essential item. It may not be as truly wonderful a track as Oulton Park or Brands Hatch, but it's a lot more inspiring than Snetterton or Thruxton. I watched the race from the banking above the first corner complex - which is both a decent overtaking opportunity and a challenging enough series of corners to catch out the unwary. If the place had a flaw, it was that it didn't really have enough in the way of spectator areas to cope with the huge crowds which had come to see the race. Space was at a premium throughout the day, though perversely, the track's only grandstand was rather empty.

The first touring car race was the first of the day -held up by fifteen minutes to allow stragglers a chance to beat the traffic and get into the circuit, which certainly wouldn't happen at a Grand Prix these days, where TV remains God. There was an odd mix of machinery on the grid. Six of Vauxhall's somewhat unattractive but very effective Astra Coupes, the fastest of which monopolised the front row. Behind them were a pair of stubby little Honda Civic Type Rs. Also well up the order were a quartet of Rover 400s masquerading as MGs, the works cars running in lurid green with backing from toy maker Hot Wheels, and two lurid yellow cars running under the rather absurd sounding 'Team Atomic Kitten' banner. Making up the rest of the field were a pair of Protons, one of which was driven by vastly experienced ex-sports car driver David Leslie, and no less than three bright orange Peugeot 406 Coupes, far and away the prettiest cars in the field, despite the horrid orange colour scheme. Behind these cars, a gaggle of production cars made up the rest of the field. The race was to prove incident packed bordering on chaotic. There were plenty of spins, collisions and no less than three fires to keep the interest of a crowd which appeared to have been imported straight from a NASCAR meet. The result was a victory for local boy James Thompson in an Astra, though behind him the order was somewhat confused. David Leslie's age and experience paid off when he picked his way through the carnage to take second in his Proton, who finished just ahead of the 'Atomic Kitten' MG of Colin Turkington. Behind them, most of the more favoured runners had self destructed in various ways. Muller had a puncture while running second towards the end of the race, while Harvey and Neal went off towards the end. The Hondas got involved in silly little accidents and finished well down, while the Astras of Paul O Neill and Tom Chilton went out in near identical oil fires.

One of the intrinsic weaknesses of the BTCC, at least for those at the track, is the rather poor quality of the support races. The weight that manufacturers carry with the series organisers is such that the support races tend to be for one-make championships featuring their cars. Even that fails to explain why there is space on the support card for both the poor man's F3 that is Formula Renault and the really rather uninteresting Renault Clio Cup. Renault abandoned the BTCC some time ago, and it is about time its one make series followed it out of the door. Unlike the Clio's, the Porsche 911 GT3s at least look the part. In fact they are rather like the cars which compete in the GT class at Le Mans. This seems rather neat for a BTCC support race, until you watch them drone round uninterestingly for half an hour and remember that the GT Class at Le Mans is a singularly uninteresting affair really and watching a bunch of well heeled amateurs going for a Sunday drive in their Porsches does not a spectacle make. Also on the Bill were a set of rather odd looking 5/8 scale motorbike engined 30s American Sedan replicas. They look like they would be more at home racing alongside Penelope Pitstop and Dick Dastardly than at a real race track, but they actually prove reasonably entertaining, with plenty of overtaking going on.

The other category on the Bill are the Formula Fords. The skinny tyres and absence of wings ensures that they are the most spectacular cars on track during the day and in Christian England and Westley Barber the category has a pair of drivers who look like they might one day be right at home in the higher echelons of the sport. The race, after a frantic few opening laps, is ever so slightly disappointing, settling into something of a procession, but unlike much of the support act it looks and feels like real motor racing.

All the same, the issue of the support card is one that TOCA might do well to address. If one is to ensure that the casual fans come back for more then it would be well to provide them with a spectacle, and different coloured Renault Clios going round in circles doesn't count. A historic saloon car series would add variety and be in keeping with the theme of the event. Come to that, it would probably be possible to do something with the legions of old 1990s touring cars that must be lying around in lock up garages. A formula with spec tyres might be cheap enough to remain well within the reach of the amateur, or at least the privateer. That said, some of the touring car rounds this year get Group C revival races, and I felt a little cheated that Croft wasn't one of them really.

The feature race was ten laps longer than the first BTCC race of the day, and featured the rather unnecessary novelty of compulsory tyre stops. These do little to improve the show for TV and make the races somewhat difficult to follow at the circuit, especially at Croft where the PA system isn't up to much. The BTCC rule of adding ballast to successful drivers meant that Thompson had little chance of beating his French team mate Muller in race two. In any case, it made little difference, with Thompson dropping back down the field and out of the race with a misfiring engine. Muller did have to fight for victory though, with the unlikely opposition coming from Andy Priaulx, the only man to provide serious opposition to Takuma Sato last year in F3. Both are now driving Hondas of sorts, though one can't help feeling that Sato got the better half of the deal. In the end, Priaulx couldn't hold Muller back, and after being held up by a backmarker, he was forced to concede the lead he had gained in the pit stops. Behind them, the Protons, Peugeots and private MGs and Astras fought it out for the minor placings, while German Norman Simon ran away with the production class.

As the afternoon turned to evening, the Formula Fords came out and the everyone else went home. As the trucks pulled out of Croft one of the things that struck me is just how much money appears to be floating around the sport in these supposedly recessionary times. Lowly Formula Renault teams seem to have transporters that wouldn't have looked out of place in the Formula One paddock but ten years ago, and not one of the Renault Clios was coming out on the back of a trailer as they might have done ten years ago. Where it is all coming from is a little hard to say. There are plenty of rich people out there, but to judge by the paddock it would appear that every last one of them has bought themselves a racing car. There's plenty sponsorship floating around too, some of it seemingly being spent in some rather wasteful places (Serco were sponsoring a carů.quite how they think being on the name of a midfield Formula Renault will do anything for their business is a little beyond me. Could be tax fraud, I guess) though it seems a little hard to see exactly who or what is backing the apparently sponsor-less Atomic Kitten MGs. One possibility is that it is MG themselves, running a Trojan horse team in the privateer championship. All in all, though this seemed like a series that has risen phoenix like, this year, from seeming certain death. And there's a good day at the races to be had too, just make sure those Group C cars are on the grid.

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