Touring cars' brave new world

Fresh format should broaden interest in motor racing success story
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The Independent Online

For a production company supposedly in crisis, the British Touring Car Championship is putting on a bold front. Not only does the show go on, it gets better, they maintain.

Such claims will doubtless meet with scepticism. This much-vaunted arena of drama and spectacle has been undermined on stage and behind the scenes of late, and some of the sport's soothsayers contend that the series is in terminal decline.

Only three manufacturers are entered this season, which opens with a double-header at Brands Hatch on Sunday. Each of the works teams - Ford, Honda and Vauxhall - will have three drivers to bolster the entry list. Independent and Class Bdrivers make up the grid.

Uncertainly about long-term regulations and the identity of the organisers has inflicted more anxiety on a championship that billed itself as the people's racing show, an allaction antidote to highbrow, low-value Formula One.

However, the main contenders are adamant the prophets of doom will be confounded. They say political stability will be achieved and the emphasis on quality, rather than quantity, will guarantee compulsive racing.

David Richards, the team principal of Ford, said: "You always come up against a slightly cynical nature in motor sport but the reality is that when you look back on the so-called heyday of touring car racing, with seven or eight manufacturers, it was too many.

"You can't all win and you can't sustain the aspiration of so many manufacturers. In any form of motor sport, any form of sport, you have in reality only three or four potential winners.

"We've ended up with three of the most competitive teams, each stronger than ever, each with three cars. It will make the championship as big a spectacle as ever it was and just asdifficult to win."

Another droning irritation to the eardrums of Richards and his contemporaries laments the passing of the championship's personalities.

"Everyone misses old characters who retire or disappear off the scene," Richards said. "The reality is they are replaced by new, up-and-coming personalities. I am sure Formula One was bemoaning the loss of Damon Hill, and now we have Jenson Button. It's a moving cycle."

Ford's drivers are Alain Ménu of Switzerland, the Swede Rickard Rydell - both former champions - and Britain's Anthony Reid, who has more going for him in the personality department than most sportsmen.

Reid's accent has presumably undergone substantial revision between his native Glasgow and his adopted city of Oxford. One of his rivals, Matt Neal, suggests Reid would have made the quintessential Spitfire pilot. Off the circuit Reid is as laid-back as he is articulate. On the track he has a fearsome reputation.

Like his boss, Reid dismisses the notion that the clones have taken over. "You need personalities but also very good competition on the circuit and you will find with new drivers coming into the series their personalities are developing," Reid said.

"There are fewer drivers but it means there are no passengers in the championship this year. All the drivers are there on merit and they are the cream. It's what's happening in English football. It's attracting the best in Europe. The British drivers in the championship are top quality."

Each of the works teams has a British driver. Jason Plato is with Vauxhall and James Thompson, widely regarded as the favourite for the title, drives for Honda. Neal, another Briton, enters a Nissan as an independent, although he has the support of a semi-works operation.

Reid acknowledges Thompson's credentials yet adds mischievously: "James has been touting his chances for a number of years. Usually at this time he tell you how he is going to win the championship and then at the end of the season he's telling you why he didn't."

Thompson concedes he has so far "not delivered the goods", but insists he feels no extra pressure to do so this time.

"People can say what they like, I take the rough with the smooth," Thompson said. "All I can do is hope this year goes OK. The results will determine that."

Thompson and the other home drivers are conscious that a first British winner of the championship since John Cleland's success in 1995 might give the series a fillip.

"I think we do need a British winner, but remember that in this championship you have perhaps the best talent in Europe outside Formula One," Thompson said.

Plato concurs: "We have a field of proven winners and it's important that the Britishdrivers sustain their challenge this year. The Brits can give the championship a lift."

If that is a task for a big man, then step forward Neal, all 6ft 6in of him. He is aware the works teams will be ganging up on him, but hopes internal conflict will balance the odds.

"My target is to finish in the top three," he said. "But then if I am in the top three I'll want the title."

Reid believes that what the BTCC wants above all, in the struggle to defy the critics, is to reclaim its traditional identity.

"There's a fantastic following for touring car racing in this country. It's got a great heritage. This year I believe we'll again deliver what people want to see."