Fun for all the family cars

Norman Fox finds that saloons are no bar to entertainment on the race track
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The Independent Online
AMID the nose-to-tail procession of obscure "sport" that fills the average weekend afternoon's television, clips of the British Touring Car Championship might be taken for a contrived excuse to keep Murray Walker's turbo-charged vocal chords in tune before the next grand prix. Far from it. Bumper-to bumper skirmishing between cars far removed from Formula One but familiar cousins of our own Vauxhalls, Fords and Volvos has become the most popular form of motor racing outside the exotic world of Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher, drawing crowds of 40,000 and more.

Tomorrow at Brands Hatch another 20,000 or so will watch the second round of this year's championship into which even the high-profile Williams organisation has invested its expertise. Suddenly, though, there is a panic among the fans that a successful formula relying on identification with the real world of the family saloon is getting too technical, with talk of downforce, aerodynamics and things that we don't need on the way to Sainsbury's. Formula One drivers describe the touring cars as "slow". Comparatively speaking they are, but the comparison is with the 200mph rockets that Hill and Co pilot. The Super Tourer is a modified version of the modern family car, but in the hands of race-bred drivers becomes a cross between "Our Other Car's a Porsche" and the Porsche itself. That gives touring car racing a magnetic fascination.

The opening two races of the championship at Donington Park went to a Vauxhall Cavalier, not exactly your common-or-garden company version but recognisable, and a Volvo, a car associated with safety, reliability and the speed of an elderly elk. For manufacturers the surprise factor is the attraction. This season Renault are promoting their Laguna, one of dozens of computer designed seemingly dull family saloons. However, for the touring car championship they have added the expertise of the Williams racing people, who are not daft enough to think that success in touring car racing is merely a matter of transplanting Formula One engineering and driving technique.

Technically, the cars have to be the progeny of vehicles that come off the every-day production line. After that they get tweaked more than a bit. They have four doors and engines of not more than two litres but creating up to 300bhp. The chassis is stiffened to stand the stress of being thrown around by drivers whose cornering defies adhesion. This season a few aerodynamic aids, including rear wings, have been allowed, to create some downforce and stop the cars' tendency to believe they can fly.

Most of the cars are front-wheel-drive, which, as the Honda driver David Leslie explains, means "they can't pull themselves out of a slide as well as a rear-drive car. You have to drive more smoothly and be more delicate with the throttle". Delicate? You could have fooled most people. As he says, the trouble is that most of the drivers are permanently "on the limit" so, inevitably, there is the occasional "coming together" (Murray Walker's euphemism for an expensive shunt, roll or slamming of someone else's door).

Unlike the more delicate entirely purpose-built single-seat racing cars, the touring cars can cope with persistent, enthusiastic running over kerbs or on the grass. Will Hoy, who is driving for the Williams-assisted Renault team, recalls that his first drive in a front-wheel-drive Toyota filled him with horror. "The car moved around such a lot. That's why people who come to touring car racing from other formulae don't get it right straight away."

The drivers tend to be Jeremy-Clarkson-type enthusiasts, clubby "boys" of a certain age rather than the younger computer brains of the Formula One circuit. Scraping paint or taking lumps off a rival's car at 160mph is a dangerous business in Formula One. The same thing at 80mph in the touring cars is something akin to acceptable "fisticuffs" in rugby. Not that the touring cars are driven by the inexperienced. Indeed, this season sees several drivers with Formula One pedigrees. Derek Warwick and David Brabham are driving for Alfa Romeo and BMW respectively. At Donington all of Warwick's considerable experience in single-seat racing cars came to nought, as he crashed in his first race. It confirmed everything Hoy had said about moving from Formula One. What went wrong? "What went right? It's an experience being slower than your colleagues when everyone has somewhere near the same equipment."

Apart from the arrival of the ex-Formula One drivers, the main interest this season is the challenge facing the Williams engineers. First impressions of the Williams Touring Car Engineering Company's Renaults were promising, since Alain Menu finished second and fourth at Donington, although Hoy made an error in the first race and finished sixth. In the second, he, like the rest, was overwhelmed by the Swedish driver Rickard Rydell in a Volvo.

Tim Bampton, of Williams, says: "Up to now we have concentrated on Formula One but Frank Williams and Patrick Head have carefully watched the touring car series. They believe it offers an engineering challenge and will help develop their relationship with Renault. But we have no track record in touring cars. We don't expect to walk into the championship and blitz it . . . it is a long-term programme". And in the long term no one would bet against their succeeding. The question is whether at the same time the class will become too clever for its own good and lose the feeling that there, but for a lack of courage and our no claims bonus, might go us.