For the past 62 years, the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) has shaped up to become the finest racing series in the world and Iain Robertson has been privileged enough to have an involvement but he admits some things must change.
Although pole position is often accorded to Formula One in the overall pecking order of motor racing championships, it would be fair to suggest that F1’s heyday has been and gone. The days of top drivers hopping from one class of car into another ended several decades ago. The advancement of road cars through racing reached its peak in the 1990s. Now we have a bunch of complaining, kneeling and politically motivated rich boys, who make a pretence of gratitude towards ‘fans’ and largely serve the needs of their multi-million Dollar sponsors…but not much else.
On the other hand, the Touring Car scene is populated by enthusiasts, each of which has a hands-on involvement in the entire process. The drivers mingle with their fans. The circuits boast of capacity crowds. The cars, barring some essential detail changes, are mostly the same as those sold in showrooms nationwide and the BTCC offers a fully televised and entertaining 30 races spread over ten weekends throughout the year.
Yet, be under no illusion, it is a commercial success, not least for the various carmakers participating season after season. Even following a major catastrophe, like the Covid-19 pandemic, there is no cessation in interest and fascination levels. As a result, Ford, Honda, Toyota, MG, Audi, BMW and other manufacturers strive to put on the best show imaginable. Yet, despite the genuine closeness of the competition, often with little more than one to two seconds separating the cars on the grid, from pole to tail-ender positions, TOCA (TOuring Car Association), its management body, exercises a perpetual task of ensuring relevance.
While electrification remains moderately embryonic in the road car scene, hybridisation is practised across the brands more broadly. F1 cars have been powered by hybrid engineering for the past few years but the BTCC could have been accused of falling out-of-step with such developments, a factor that is more noticeable, when F1’s relevance to road cars proves to be scant.
Following an announcement made in 2018, TOCA carried out a tendering process with potential hybridisation suppliers. Renowned Cosworth Electronics was engaged to design, supply and service the technology and Speedworks Motorsport, the team managing the Toyota Corolla BTCC racing cars, was chosen to develop the all-new hybrid racer. Top British sportscar driver, Darren Turner, was selected to provide the development mileage and essential feedback.
The new equipe made its historic debut on the Snetterton 300 track, in Norfolk, recently. Blessed with a mix of dry and torrentially wet conditions, enough information and data was obtained during a two-days’ session, in which the hybrid Toyota was able to compare performance with the current non-hybrid touring cars, so much so that BTCC Chief Executive, Alan Gow, could state: “It’s an extremely proud moment for everyone involved in the BTCC and the TOCA Hybrid project itself. The BTCC was the first major touring car series to confirm its intentions and pathway for introducing hybrid technology and this is clearly another hugely significant milestone as part of that.
He continued: “This is obviously just the start of the extensive programme ahead, prior to the full introduction of hybrid technology into the BTCC in 2022, but Cosworth, Speedworks and all of the technical partners involved should be congratulated for the professionalism, expertise and efficiency shown. Despite these challenging times the BTCC and its partners have worked extremely hard to ensure that the TOCA Hybrid car made its track debut as originally planned and it has been an extremely positive and successful test.”
Neal Bateman, Cosworth Electronics Head of Support, was understandably supportive and said: “It has been an extraordinary effort by Cosworth and all of our technical partners to get to this point. This milestone is a proud moment. We have completed a huge amount of systems checking at Snetterton. It’s not just a new hybrid system for us, it’s a new electronics package, with a new ECU and hybrid controller, as well as a new display on the car. It is all part of our next generation electronics that are going to be deployed at the same time as the hybrid technology in 2022.
“The initial test plan was to complete a number of short runs, followed by the checking of data and trying out different strategies. We are here to test, we are here to learn and here to find out what works and what doesn’t, as part of this extensive programme. We are at the very beginning of our development stage. The test has clearly not been about lap times at all, but about system verification and system testing, and ensuring that everything is working as it’s supposed to be. Working with Darren (Turner) has been great; he’s extremely experienced, professional and has provided exquisite feedback.”
Darren Turner riposted: “It is a great initiative and I am delighted to be a part of it. I am also fully aware that it’s an historic moment for the series and we are all delighted to have completed an extremely successful test. The BTCC is the biggest and best championship in the UK and it’s right that it should be leading the way with this technology. It will be a great addition to the racing. We have deployed the system on-track. It works really well and will undoubtedly add an extra and exciting dimension to both the defensive and attacking aspects of the racing.
“We shall, of course, be developing the system and integration further; this is just the beginning of the car’s track life. The project is going extremely well, it is on schedule and there is no need to rush things. Every bit of information is vital at this point to ensure we have a robust system that enhances what the BTCC is all about, and I’m absolutely convinced we shall achieve those intentions. Personally, I’ve also loved being back in a BTCC car and remembering just how fun they are to drive!”
Conclusion: Making motor racing relevant is what ensures its future and the BTCC is in the vanguard of relevant championships that will continue to generate a healthy audience for the future.