Touring Car Racing: Wild saloons are stocked up for business: Soap opera on wheels starts fresh series on Sunday with new models on show

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The Independent Online
ONE of sport's most seductive shows begins a new series on Sunday with new characters and the prospect of more drama, intrigue and controversy.

This soap opera on wheels, otherwise known as the RAC British Touring Car Championship, is filmed before a live audience of 20,000 or more, with the opening programme at Silverstone. It is a neatly packaged television production which has increased public interest and consequently prompted a stampede of entries from manufacturers.

Despite the recession and the demise of the German equivalent of the championship, it is boom time for this 14-round wheel-to-wheel combat for cars recognisable - more or less - as a family saloon.

These two ingredients have given the championship an almost cult status. For car makers, it provides a market place they cannot afford to ignore.

This year, the manufacturers' involvement is greater than ever. Eight factory-backed teams - BMW, Ford, Mazda, Nissan, Peugeot, Renault, Toyota and Vauxhall - will contest the championship, with Mercedes due to flex their muscles in the summer as they prepare for a concerted effort in 1994. All of which should ensure that the fierce competition is maintained.

Mercedes, featuring the 190 replacement, are one of six companies using the event as a platform to introduce racing versions of new models. BMW have the four-door 318i, Mazda the Xedos 6, Renault the 19 16v, Toyota the Carina E and Ford the all-new Mondeo.

Market researchers have convinced them the media coverage justifies a pounds 1m budget for the year. Ford's surveys have even assured them winning is not everything, that it really is the taking part which matters.

Ford will aspire to more than making up the numbers, especially after the spectacular entry of their Escort Cosworth on the world rally championship scene. The Mondeo is crucial to the future of the company and they have charged the championship's most successful driver, Andy Rouse, with the task of leading their challenge. In little more than two months, Rouse, equally renowned as an engineer, had to build and develop the distinctively squat racing Mondeo, though he admits it may take longer to turn the V6-powered car into a winner.

Rouse is an ambassador for his racing category as well as for Ford. He typifies the touring car driver: boy racer with dreams of Formula One discovers the dream is over-subscribed and accommodates his passion alongside business. At the age of 45, he has a record 60 race wins and four championships to his credit.

He said: 'The level of competence in saloons is as high as it is in Formula One, it's just that it's a different skill. I think we give better value than Formula One in terms of real racing. People want to see competition and the rules have been devised to ensure it is not only about technology and cars, but drivers. Formula One is suddenly realising that.'

Two ex-Grand Prix drivers who have tried touring cars in recent seasons are Jonathan Palmer and Julian Bailey. Both now have a healthy respect for the protagonists on this circuit. 'Jonathan didn't find it easy to switch and Julian admitted he couldn't cope at first with such intense and close racing,' Rouse said.

There were indications last season that the racing was becoming too close and intense for comfort and safety. In the last race, at Silverstone, John Cleland's hopes ended when he went off into a gravel trap in company with Steve Soper. The incident handed the title to Tim Harvey, who happened to be Soper's team-mate. Tougher disciplinary measures have been threatened.

Rouse said: 'It is a sport and it's important that it should not be seen as a dirty sport. We recognise people want to see spills and that's all good for TV. The cars are strong, but we must never forget that it can still be dangerous. The car that went over the fence at Donington a few months ago was a reminder of that.

'The other point is that we don't want manufacturers to be turned away because it is degenerating into stockcar racing. It is a professional sport for professional drivers.'

The signs are that Rouse and his colleagues need have no fears about that. Alfa Romeo, Saab, Honda and Rover are all apparently considering taking part next year.

BRITISH TOURING CAR CHAMPIONSHIP: 28 March Silverstone; 11 April Donington Park; 3 May Snetterton; 16 May Donington Park; 31 May Oulton Park; 13 June Brands Hatch; 27 June Pembrey; 11 July Silverstone; 25 July Knockhill; 8 August Oulton Park; 22 August Brands Hatch; 30 August Thruxton; 12 September Donington Park; 19 September Silverstone.

(Photograph omitted)