Monday, July 28, 2008


Both the National and the World Touring Car series were in action in the UK this weekend, at two of Jonathan Palmer's circuits - with the WTCC boys at Brands Hatch and the British Touring car series fighting it out at Oulton Park. Both Brands Hatch and Oulton Park are great circuits for tin-top racing. They may not be wide enough or have sufficiently long straights to really suit modern single seaters, certainly anything more powerful than an F3 car, but they're absolutely ideal for less powerful cars which are capable of running door-to-door. The question which struck me, though, is distance aside, which race should the discerning motorsport fan have been at last weekend?

Me, I was at neither. Oulton Park is the nearer venue and its 4 hours away from where I live. I'll wait until the BTCC makes its annual trip north of the border later in the month to Knockhill. Now I guess there is the perfectly reasonable argument that, given the all ten rounds of the BTCC take place in the UK and the WTCC comes to Britain only once a year, so if you had the choice, you would really have had to have been down in Kent last weekend. So maybe I should rephrase the question. Which is actually the better series?

I'm just old enough to have seen the old World Touring Car Championship which ran for a single year in the late 1980s and, like the current incarnation, grew out of the old European Touring Car Championship. That series, in marked contrast with the current World Touring Car championship, was notably different from the British national series. Where the BTCC has always consisted of 15 to 20 lap sprint races, the European and World Touring Car championships were made up of 500km endurance races with driver changes. As a result, the races seemed somehow more significant as events, though, to be fair, they were rarely closely fought. It was usually a question of whether the fast but fragile Eggenberger Sierra Cosworths could outlast the slower but more durable Schnitzer BMW M3s.

These days, though, the two series are much more similar. Both run to a format of multiple sprint races, both use the now nearly ubiquitous 'super 2000' ruleset and both make use of reverse grids and weight penalties to attempt to even things out between the cars and, by extension, the drivers. There doesn't on the face of it, appear to be much of substance differentiating the world championship from its provincial rivals. And personally, I actually prefer the British series.

The Case for the WTCC

Let's start with the plus points of the WTCC. As a World Championship, it does visit some great racing circuits: As well as the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit (not on the BTCC calendar this year), there are rounds at Monza, Brno, Imola, Pau and Macau. On the other hand, for a World Series, it doesn't half visit an awful lot of uninspiring autodromes. Why Valencia? And if you're going to make the trip out to Japan, why go to Okayama, the oversized go-kart track formerly known as Aida? Even Snetterton isn't quite so yawn-inducing a venue as Oscherleben, a circuit of which GT racer Ray Bellm said, in explaining why he would not be racing there "I'm not going because I race for pleasure."

The UK has some great race circuits - Brands Hatch, Oulton Park, Donington, the balls-out quick Thruxton and the tight, undulating Knockhill, but on balance I would probably concede that the WTCC does just edge the BTCC in this respect. Not least because the BTCC sadly does not make full use of the opportunities available to it in the UK. No race on the Silverstone or Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuits, and impractical as it may be, I'd love to see a BTCC race at Britain's very own bijou-Nordschliefe, Cadwell Park.

One area where the WTCC does have an undeniable edge over the BTCC is in the quality of the driver line-up. The WTCC is full of touring car legends, including former BTCC champions Yvan Muller, James Thompson, Rickard Rydell and Alain Menu, not to mention the man dubbed 'the Michael Schumacher of touring cars' - three time world champion Andy Priaulx. Add to that no less than four former F1 drivers - Monteiro, Tarquini, Larini, and the inspiring Zanardi) and it's clear that the one thing the world series doesn't want for is quality drivers. OK, so there are some time-servers and ride-buyers at the back, but that goes for almost any racing championship short of F1 these days (and it used to be true of F1 too).

The BTCC has a smattering of drivers with really first-rate resumes, including multiple former ETCC champion and current reigning BTCC champion Fabrizio Giovanardi, former Mclaren tester Darren Turner and fans' favourite Jason Plato. In contrast with the WTCC, though, most of the field have come up through the one-make saloon ladder in the UK. It might be my single-seater bias, but I somehow can't persuade myself that the likes of Tom Chilton, Colin Turkington and Gordon Shedden are quite in the same league as those who have picked up wins in F3, F3000 or GP2 I suppose British F3 winner Stephen Jelley could be considered proof I'm wrong, as he's looked pretty uninspiring alongside Turkington in the Team RAC BMW. Against that, I would counter that Jelley spent 3 years in F3, often with the best equipment, and rarely looked a serious threat to the front-runners.

The case for the BTCC

So if I accept that the WTCC has the best drivers, and on balance, the best circuits, why do I still insist that the BTCC is actually the more interesting championship? Firstly, there's the question of the cars. I'm of the view that there should always be plenty of variety in the machinery in touring car racing, and the WTCC's field is made up almost entirely of BMWs, SEAT Leons and Chevrolet Lacettis. OK, so there's a single Honda Accord and a pair of desperately uncompetitive Ladas, but the race-winning has all been done by just three marques this year.

Contrast this with the British Championship. The title itself is, to be fair, fast turning into a straight battle between the full works teams of Vauxhall, with their locally homologated s2000 Vectras, and SEAT with their diesel Leons, but there are plenty of other teams and cars capable of winning races. The privately entered BMWs of West Surrey Racing and Mat Jackson's family run team have both picked up wins. The same is true of Team Dynamics' self-developed Civic Type-R s2000 tourer. The BTCC also allows privateers to run old BTC-spec cars, and while most of these are uncompetitive, the pere et fils Jordan with their Honda Integras have threatened the big boys on occasion. Away from the competitive end of the grid, there are also old SEAT Toledos, a privately run Chevy Lacetti, an MG ZR, an old-shape Civic Type-R and earlier in the year even a pair of pretty, if unreliable, Lexus IS200s. The very fact that the BTCC is a less expensive, less professional series actually ends up counting in its favour as I see it. It allows privately run teams to run competitively, if not quite on championship winning pace, to a much greater degree than in the WTCC. Having said that, the difference should not be exaggerated. The independent WSR BMW of Colin Turkington got a wild card entry in a couple of WTCC races last year and finished in points-paying positions on both occasions. At their home track, Brands Hatch, they even looked like an outside bet for the win.

My fundamental reason for preferring the BTCC, though, is what I consider to be a more sensible rule set. Both series use weight penalties to peg back the most competitive car and driver combinations and, while I've never been particularly enamoured of this concept, the BTCC system is much more sensible than the WTCC system. In the BTCC, the top five in the world championship carry ballast in the first race of each weekend. The ballast never exceeds 45kgs, and it comes off the car for the second race, where the ballast is instead transferred to the top 5 finishers in the opening race. Thus, if a championship contending driver is hamstrung by a weight penalty in the opening race, he nonetheless has the opportunity to make it up in the second race of the weekend, although as the BTCC does not reverse the grid for the second race of the weekend, so he may still have his work cut out. For the final race each weekend, the BTCC does use a reverse grid system, but very sensibly, decides exactly how many slots on the grid will be reversed by lot, after the end of the second race. This avoids the problem, so common in many series running reverse grid races, of drivers deliberately aiming to finish 8th, in order to secure pole for the following race. It's a system which works well, and while I wouldn't be in favour of it being adopted by any truly world-class series, for a TV-oriented national series, its a reasonable compromise between racing purity and the need to keep things entertaining.

Contrast this with the WTCC - a series with more professional teams and a significant number of first-rate drivers, where such 'performance balancing' shouldn't really be necessary at all. Rather than do away with it, though, the WTCC uses it to a far greater degree than the BTCC. The WTCC imposes a penalty of 1kg for every point that a driver scores in the championship, meaning that once a driver starts to get ahead in the championship, he carries a penalty for the rest of the season - or at least until the effect of the penalty is sufficient to allow his rivals to eat into his title lead. It seems to be a rule set designed to ensure that no driver, no matter how good, can possibly ever build up much of a lead in the championship. In the BTCC, at least, it is difficult, but possible, for a sufficiently competitive car/driver combination to build up a substantial points lead, as Matt Neal did for a couple of years in the Team Dynamics Integra and Giovanardi is doing this year for Vauxhall. The end result is that luck plays a much bigger part in determining who walks away with the title than it should. It is testament to Andy Priaulx's abilities that, despite all the fiddling with the rulebook, he has still been able to claim the title in every year of the WTCC's existence thus far.

Common problems

To be fair, there are certain problems that beset both series. Both the BTCC and the WTCC have made, what to my mind, is the mistake of allowing turbodiesel cars to compete against normally aspirated 2 litre petrol cars. These have such a significant straight line speed advantage as to make it immensely frustrating for anyone in a petrol engined car to race against them. The number of times a faster petrol machine has got stuck behind one of the diesel SEATS and remained there, because of a 5-10mph straightline speed disadvantage is beyond count. As only SEAT use diesels, and as they have a 2 litre petrol machine to hand as well, I would simply ban diesel cars from s2000. Let diesels race at Le Mans, if we must - although they still sound deathly dull.

Come to that, there has never been an entirely satisfactory answer to the conundrum of equalising performance between front and rear wheel drive cars, although this appears to balance out over the course of the season - at least in the BTCC where the works cars are all front wheel drive. In the WTCC, where BMW runs a works team, it is perhaps no coincidence that they have walked away with the championship every year thus far. This one is harder to solve, for the simple reason that most manufacturers either have front wheel drive or rear wheel drive cars and not both. Banning rear wheel drive machines would remove BMW from the equation, and that would wipe out half the grid in the WTCC and get rid of the most serious private operations in the BTCC.


The WTCC is the series with the greater potential. It is a global series, and the quality of drivers and teams that it can attract reflects this. However, to my mind, it is stymied by a rulebook which turns it into a virtual lottery, and by the fact that it is too expensive a series for privateers to be competitive, while only three manufacturers are involved - with the result that the field looks very samey. If I were running the WTCC, I would scrap the nonsense of success ballast and reverse grids, lengthen the races to distinguish the world championship from the various national s2000 championships and refocus the series on Europe where the vast majority of both the teams and the drivers come from. So the results might be a shade more predictable? Perhaps, but I doubt it would turn into a tedious procession - there are simply too many quality drivers and teams for anyone to establish an unassailable advantage. Until that day, however, I'd really rather watch the BTCC.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I realize this article is 2 years old or so, but quite informative, particularly to someone such as myself, who is attempting to become familiar with the various touring car series. Thanks.

Steve D.

12:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, I didn't even notice this was two years old until I read the other comment. This is a terrific article. Thank you for writing this.

4:16 PM  
Anonymous Geneza Pharmaceuticals said...

I think it was a dilemma for motorsports fans

7:46 AM  

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