X-treme: Sensational saloons

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The Independent Culture
Formula 1 remains the zenith of motor racing, but in the seven years since its re-birth, the Auto Trader RAC British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) has attracted motor sport's finest manufacturers (Williams Renault, Audi Sport, Volvo, Team Honda and Alfa Romeo to name a few), swiftest drivers (five former champions, led by current champion Alain Menu, and three ex-F1 drivers, including Nigel Mansell) and thousands of fans.

Part of the sport's attraction lies in the fact that every car is recognisable as a version of a mass-produced two-litre family saloon, but the similarity ends there. Take my word for it, your family four-door has little chance of beating these machines in a race from the traffic lights.

"Rules stipulate that body shells must be identical to their showroom counterparts," says Mark Livesey, marketing manager of Williams Touring Car Engineering Limited.

It's test day a few weeks earlier at Brands Hatch and I'm being shown around the inner sanctum - the paddocks of manufacturing champions Nescafe Blend 37 Williams Renault.

The garage is dominated by two gleaming Renault Lagunas, representing tens of thousands of pounds in research and development. Engineers and mechanics scurry around the cars like bees to a flower, making adjustments and diving under bonnets and chassis.

"Each vehicle is left- hand drive with different specifications for each driver," explains Livesey. I'm shown the braking system on the car - its top-secret design is peculiar to Williams Renault.

"Mechanical braking systems, suspension and other design or engineering innovations separate one team from another, but driver talent is the single most important factor in winning races," he says.

With countless computer readouts and projections jutting out from every corner, everything is geared towards producing the perfect car. For example, 3,000 tyres per team (offering different compounds for weather changes) are brought to every race.

As the cars career around the course at incredible speeds, the surrounding spectator banks are already filling with enthusiasts seduced by the smell of engine oil.

The BTCC has a well-earned reputation as one of the friendliest sports of its kind. Spectators are actively encouraged to walk around the paddocks to watch drivers and mechanics implement the weekend's race plan.

"I love the crowds and the attention you get during the pit walkabouts," says Williams driver, Jason Plato. "The kids have a genuine admiration for what you do so it's nice.

"We're well known in the industry and motor-sport circles but not many people back home in Oxford know who I am, so I guess we have the best of both worlds."

This is Plato's second year in the BTCC after a distinguished career ranging from Karts through to winning the Sports Spider UK Cup. In his first season, he blazed onto the scene winning four poles and two races, and he had a strong start to this season with two more wins.

With one meeting left, Plato cannot win the title but his teammate and the reigning champion, Alain Menu (who recently revealed that he will join Ford next season), is still in with a chance of winning back-to-back titles.

"We've had mechanical problems and I've made some mistakes," says Plato. "I treat every race individually. I want to win as many as I can - if you're winning races, everything else follows from there.

"We work out a plan for the entire weekend and I spend quite a bit of time in the factory with my engineer going through the plan for the test days and the results that we think that we should get."

This weekend, the season will come to a climactic finish at the world-famous Silverstone racetrack. In addition to the championship being decided, every driver will be hoping to make the kind of impression that will stay in the memory during the off-season.

The BTCC offers a real chance to get under the skin of motor sport; after spending a day in the paddocks, you might even pick up a few ideas on how to improve the pick-up on your old saloon.

Rounds 25 and 26 of the BTCC take place today and tomorrow at Silverstone (01327 857271); gates open 7.30am. Tickets for Saturday qualifying: pounds 5; Sunday race day: pounds 18 (under 15s free)