Motor Racing: Touring cream stirred by Harvey: Derick Allsop looks ahead to the British Touring Car Championship, which begins at Thruxton on Monday

THEY like to call it the best show around and confidently predict it will be playing to even bigger and more enthusiastic audiences this season. If this sounds like pure entertainment rather than purist sport, they make no apologies.

The British Touring Car Championship ensemble, back on stage at Thruxton on Monday, are motivated by viewing figures and the requirement to justify the massive investment of manufacturers. The ever- growing cast and the cult image of the production are evidence enough that they know what they are about.

The formula is simple: line up lots of cars which look remarkably similar to those you and I drive on the road, have them run so close together the occasional contact and spill is inevitable, and then make sure the drivers get out to meet the fans. In other words, almost everything you are not used to getting from Formula One at a much more affordable price.

'Now we've got the public and we're on television, we have to keep them,' Tim Harvey, a former champion, said. 'If we don't have a good show, we won't be on TV any more, it's as simple as that. The public have to be entertained.'

Harvey, who drives the new Renault Laguna, acknowledges that the packaging of 'close encounters' can give a distorted view of the actual racing, a fact causing some disquiet in more conservative nooks of the national governing establishment.

'When all the accidents and incidents are shown in edited highlights, you get the impression of a destruction derby,' Harvey said. 'The fact is that it's appealing and people come expecting to see that. But it is within controlled bounds. There is almost no intentional pushing and shoving, just a lot of close racing and it goes down to the wire.

'We are in showbusiness and the RAC has got to remember when you get close racing it is terribly easy to make an error of judgement, even for the best drivers. Ask Nigel Mansell] As long as it is within safe confines, there's no problem. The shouting and kicking cars is part of the show, and frankly harmless.'

Any notion that this may be degenerating into some sort of motorised mud wrestling should be dispelled by the calibre of the entrants: the cars, the teams and the drivers. Ten manufacturers are to contest the 21-race series this year. Alfa Romeo join the fray with a reputed pounds 5m budget and Volvo introduce an improbable contender, an estate car, though with Tom Walkinshaw Racing running the operation the sniggers are likely to be shortlived.

The competitors include six former Formula One drivers, including Julian Bailey, of Toyota, Jan Lammers, of Volvo, and BMW's Jo Winkelhock, the BTCC title holder.

Harvey said: 'All the top teams have budgets of pounds 3m or more. If the manufacturers couldn't justify it, they wouldn't do it. Everything about this championship is professional. There are more professional drivers here than in Formula One. There are 20 of us, representing the manufacturers, compared with perhaps 10 in Formula One. The other grand prix guys buy their drives. I've been in and out of this since 1987, so I've seen the changes. Then it was just for enthusiasts. Now it's big business as well as fun, and it has captured the imagination of the public. Families come along knowing they'll get good racing.'

Harvey struggled to make an impression with the Renault 19 last season, but he and his Swiss team- mate, Alain Menu, have been hugely encouraged by the performance of the distinctly squatter Laguna in testing. It was designed in France, and built at the team's operating end, an industrial unit in Buckingham.

'The first day the Laguna ran it was two seconds faster than the 19,' the 32-year-old Harvey said. 'It was frustrating for me last year, especially after being the champion. But we are bullish about this year. We are confident we can be looking for a win every time we go out to race.'

Not that he considers himself favourite to be champion. The popular tip is the New Zealander, Paul Radisich, who finished last season in stunning form with the Ford Mondeo. Development has produced a car more potent still.

Harvey said: 'Ford are obviously going to be out there and I believe Alfa will be with them. I think we are just behind, along with Toyota, Vauxhall and BMW, and I see us as the strongest of that group.

'I don't feel BMW will do it this year. Technology has moved on and they've been off the pace in testing. Volvo are going to need time, though they could be very competitive by the end of the year. We'll get stronger and I'd like to think we'll be able to put ourselves in a position to challenge Ford and Alfa.

'We'll have lots of excitement. I just hope we're not at the end of too many mishaps, but looking at that down there, I can't think we've been set up]' Gazing up at Harvey, from the front of the car, were the words: Renault Accident Management.

BRITISH TOURING CAR CHAMPIONSHIP: Monday Thruxton; 17 April Brands Hatch; 2 May Snetterton; 15 May Silverstone; 30 May Oulton Park; 12 June Donington Park; 26 June Brands Hatch; 10 July Silverstone; 31 July Knockhill; 14 Aug Oulton Park; 29 Aug Brands Hatch; 11 Sept Silverstone; 18 Sept Donington Park.

(Photograph omitted)