Motoring: Family tourers in a race to boost sales: Matthew Carter explains why manufacturers are turning to touring car racing to promote their products

Motor racing began a century ago, with the Paris-Rouen Trial of 1894. Organised by a newspaper, Le Petit Journal, the trial attracted 21 entries. Competitors were allowed 12 hours to cover the 79-mile route, though the winning Peugeot needed less than seven, averaging 11.5mph.

Peugeot used the win to its advantage, promoting the speed and, more important, the reliability shown by its twin-cylinder, 954cc machine.

Fast forward a century and you find Peugeot is still using motorsport to promote its cars. Last weekend in Brazil, the French company returned to Grand Prix racing, providing the engines for McLaren, Formula 1's most successful team. Peugeot joins Ford, Renault, Honda, Yamaha, Mercedes-Benz, Lotus and Ferrari in the roster of road car (and motorbike) manufacturers using competition success as a promotional tool.

But Peugeot's involvement in motor sport goes beyond the expensive world of Formula 1 to a formula arguably more important in marketing terms - touring car racing.

The concept behind touring car racing is simple: take a regular road car, strip out the seats, add a racing roll cage for crash protection, tune up the engine, bolt on some wide wheels - and go racing.

Simple, but very effective. This weekend, Thruxton race circuit near Andover, in Hampshire, is bracing itself for record crowds keen to witness the opening skirmish in the 21-race 1994 Auto Trader British Touring Car Championship.

A week later, a 25-minute review of the race, complete with dramatic in-car camera footage, will be shown on BBC-TV's Grandstand; the event will also be screened right across Asia, in Australasia, South Africa and the Middle East.

Touring car racing works well for two reasons. The audience, both spectators at the event and the armchair enthusiasts, are familiar with the cars on the track. Racing numbers and garish paint jobs aside, these look like the reps' Cavaliers and Carinas that can be seen pounding up and down the M1 every day. Second, the racing on the track is even closer than on the M1.

Thanks to a set of tightly written regulations, the cars are extremely close on performance and handling, the action is dramatic, and picking a likely winner before the race is virtually impossible. The rules demand production-based engines with a maximum of 2.0 litres and no more than six cylinders - there are no purpose-designed racing engines. In addition, the engines are restricted to 8,500rpm, which means maximum power is held to around 300bhp.

Setting a lead that has now been followed by Grand Prix racing, driver aids such as anti-lock brakes and electronic gearchanges have been banned, though motorcycle-style sequential gearboxes are permitted.

There are restrictions on tyre widths and a 'control' fuel is supplied by the organisers, to exclude the powerful witches' brew found in F1. To 'equalise' performance further, there are minimum weight limits, with the better balanced rear-wheel-drive cars forced to carry 100kg more than those with front-wheel drive.

Last season, the leading 15 or so cars were seldom covered more than a second after qualifying and the series saw no fewer than nine different race winners in six different makes of car. This year, the racing promises to be closer still.

Lining up at Thruxton on Easter Monday will be works-backed cars from Peugeot, Ford, Vauxhall, Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, Renault, BMW, Alfa Romeo and Volvo - an unprecedented 10 manufacturers in all, fielding two or three cars apiece.

Of those 10, two - Alfa and Volvo - are new to the British championship in its current guise, and both are in it purely to sell more cars. Despite a strong sporting heritage, Alfa Romeo sold only 2,163 cars in the UK last year. Although Alfa Romeo (GB) is coy about its targets for 1994, it is hoping for sales of at least 3,000, and any such increase will come from the extra awareness of the marque generated by the racing 155 model.

Alfa is rumoured to have set aside more than pounds 5m for the effort, which, at first glance, might seem like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. But the British series is viewed by the company as an international shop window, and one that justifies such expense.

It's a similar story at Volvo, though here the emphasis is as much on dispelling myths about the cars as on increasing sales. Why else would Volvo be racing an estate?

TraditionalIy, Volvo estates are run by antique dealers or Labrador owners - they are anathema to the sporting driver. But with the new 850 model, Volvo has created a car the equal of anything BMW can produce. Its problem is how to spread the message.

The answer, says Volvo, is to go motor racing, and the company has teamed up with Britain's TWR Group to do just that. The move proves how serious Volvo is: TWR is one of the world's top racing teams, responsible for the Benetton-Ford Grand Prix effort and for Jaguar's recent success in sportscar racing and at Le Mans.

Martin Rybeck, a member of Volvo's management team, explains the rationale: 'Racing matches up very well with the sporty image of the Volvo 850. This venture is one stage in our product development process. We are convinced that the experience and knowledge we acquire from our involvement in racing can be transferred to our production cars.'

And the estate? 'Its qualities as a racing car are just as good as those of the saloon,' says Tom Walkinshaw, the 'TW' of TWR.

Thruxton will also mark the UK debut of a brand new car, the Renault Laguna, which will be out racing even before it is available in the showrooms. Renault joined the racing series last year with the 19 saloon, but swaps to the Laguna this year. Pre-season testing bodes well, and has shown the Laguna to be on a par with Ford's Mondeo as well as the Nissan Primera, Toyota Carina, Vauxhall Cavalier, Peugeot 405 and BMW 318i of the rivals.

Phil Horton, communications director at Renault UK, admits that he would have liked the car to have had its first race outing about a month after the first advertising burst. He says that 'what we're looking for from the British Touring Car Championship is television exposure. This is particularly important for the Laguna, which is competing in an area where up to 70 per cent of the cars are sold into the fleet market. If you're selling into this market, you need a high profile and a dynamic image. There's no doubt that success in this championship provides just that.'

Thruxton is on the A303, west of Andover, Hampshire. Qualifying takes place on Saturday 2 April, with racing starting at 12 noon on Easter Monday. As well as the opening round of the BTCC, there are races in top single- seater and one-make saloon championships. Race day admission is pounds 12 for adults, accompanied children under 16 free.

The rest of the BTCC Calendar is: 16-17 April, Brands Hatch; 1-2 May, Snetterton; 14-15 May, Silverstone; 29- 30 May, Oulton Park; 11-12 June, Donington Park; 25-26 June, Brands Hatch; 8-10 July, Silverstone; 30-31 July, Knockhill; 13-14 August, Oulton Park; 28-29 August, Brands Hatch; 10-11 September, Silverstone; 17-18 September, Donington Park. Some of the meetings have two BTCC races.

(Photograph omitted)

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