How the BTCC beat Covid and delivered a vintage season
The Ford and Honda drivers pushed the leaders all season
Despite racing behind closed doors and over just 16 weeks in 2020, it was a stellar campaign. We look back with the series’ boss and commentators
How the British Touring Car Championship fired out of lockdown in the summer and packed a nine-event season into 16 intense weeks was good for the hearts, souls and minds of British motorsport fans in this desperate year. We could barely see the join after the long, pandemic-induced delay, at least until the TV cameras panned to the spectator banks and grandstands.
Britain’s premier racing series missed the crowds that were barred from the circuits this year. Of course it did. But ITV’s wall-to-wall live coverage meant we didn’t miss a drop from the usual crash-bang-wallop glut of great racing action. In such a context, the season can only be considered a triumph.
Autocar gathered BTCC supremo Alan Gow and ITV commentators David Addison and Tim Harvey to look back on another great season in which racing surely emerged as the main winner, against the odds and in the most difficult of circumstances.
*Alan, congratulations on making this Covid-affected season happen. How much of a challenge has 2020 been?*
*AG:* Putting it together initially was a nightmare. Getting dates at the circuits wasn’t too bad, but to try to find seven hours of live broadcasting for nine events was tough. That was my biggest challenge, finding enough ITV airtime to make it work. They had all the other sports at the same time too, which had an impact on their schedules.
*Tim and David, in terms of broadcasting, how did it work for you?*
*DA:* We were at the events but remotely. We were broadcasting not from a commentary box overlooking the track, as we usually do, but from a purpose-built unit in the TV compound. That’s where we went and that’s where we stayed. It was a good place to work from in terms of space, and we had all the screens we normally have, but we couldn’t go trackside to watch the cars or head into the paddock to talk to drivers. We had to be clever on getting information, using WhatsApp and text messaging. We were being like young people!
*It must have been surreal and a new experience for you?*
*TH: *I’ve been around the paddock since 1987, and this time there was no sense of occasion or atmosphere at all. Most of my weekends are usually spent roaming around talking to everybody, being an insider as to what’s going on. I felt so remote. But once the racing started and we were talking about what we were seeing on the screens, it was exactly the same.
*The crowds are central to the BTCC, but this year they couldn’t be there. What was it like for you, Alan?*
*AG:* It was surreal, particularly for the first few meetings. As Tim says, there was no atmosphere, although the teams just got on with it and there was a good bulldog spirit in that sense. It took half the season to get used to it, and when the crowds come back next year, we’ll probably be shocked at how hectic and noisy it is!
*But the viewing figures on ITV4 must have been good?*
*AG: *Well, for the first couple of meetings, we took a hammering, because they clashed with the two Silverstone Formula 1 races. That was unavoidable, but after that the figures were very good. But even that was a surprise to me because there was a lot of sport happening each weekend, as everyone had shifted their events to the end of the year too.
*Ash Sutton did such a great job in the Laser Tools Infiniti Q50 to win the championship. Were you surprised?*
*TH: *No! None of us underestimated Ash’s talent, so the fact that he was up there didn’t come as a surprise. The hasty amalgamation of the BMR and Laser Tools teams over the winter and the fact that it was a newly built car – yes, perhaps that was a surprise, how they came out of the blocks so fast. The measure of them was the other rear-wheel-drive contender, the BMW [3 Series], and they were a match for it straight away. But Ash personally? Not a surprise at all. He would be in our top three BTCC drivers anyway.
*DA: *The surprise for me was the team side of it: that first of all they produced such a good car and that they didn’t have niggling problems. It’s good that an independent team could take on a works team and beat it, as Speedworks should have done a few years ago with the Toyota Avensis. The car was properly run, well engineered and reliable. We knew Ash was good, but if there was going to be any weakness, it would be if the team could match him. Actually, it all fitted together very well.
*Is it vindication for the BTCC formula that a new team can come out and beat WSR’s BMWs?*
*AG:* It’s not the first time that a team has built a new car and been quick out of the blocks. That team had the [series-standard] TOCA engine, so it was proven and didn’t need developing. The gearbox and suspension, everything was proven and they had rear-wheel-drive set-ups from the BMR Subaru [Levorg]. It underlined the strength of the NGTC regulations.
*TH: *And it’s the first time the TOCA engine has won a title.
*AG: *It just goes to show that engine is equal to any other out there if it’s in the right car and driven by the right driver.
*Colin Turkington remains the benchmark, as does his BMW team. He was so consistent, but he lost it at the final round, didn’t he?*
*AG: *[WSR BMW boss] Dick Bennetts would be the first to tell you their wet set-up is appalling. It certainly was at Brands Hatch. Right from practice on Saturday, the car was all at sea in the wet. That was their downfall. Would Ash have won the championship if it was dry? Who knows? But Colin is fantastic, incredibly consistent and reliable – apart from Croft, where he made a mistake, although that was quickly cancelled out by Ash making a mistake too. Colin is the consummate professional. You can see in the car that he does get himself into knots a bit, and at Brands he was driving on his mirrors a lot, because he knew he didn’t have the car he wanted underneath him. But he’s one of the BTCC’s all-time greats.
*TH:* Colin’s pedigree is a given. In terms of speed, he was on average the top qualifier of the year, and that was with success ballast most of the time. On Alan’s point, it’s not just the wet set-up, it’s also how the BMW uses its tyres. When they’re hot, the car is great. Had Brands been wet in the summer, the car would have been quick; the 3 Series just doesn’t work its tyres hard enough when it’s cold – wet or dry. Dick will be poring over the set-ups to work out how the Infiniti managed to generate better temperatures in its tyres.
*DA: *I’d argue that if you want to single out one event where it possibly went wrong for Colin, it was Thruxton. In the first race, he had mechanical problems, then he finished 13th and eighth. It wasn’t all about being in the gravel at Croft.
*Behind the top two, there were a number of potential BTCC champions of the future. Let’s start with Team Dynamics Honda’s Dan Cammish.*
*DA: *He’s the real deal. He has adapted very well from Porsche 911 Cup cars to front-wheel-drive touring cars and doesn’t make many mistakes. For me, the weakness in his make-up is that he’s not that jolly a character out of the car. I’m not suggesting that everyone has to be an entertainer, but sometimes he comes across as being arrogant, shy or grumpy – or a combination of all of them.
*TH: *As a driver, Dan is genuinely exceptional. I’ve had the privilege of working with some of Britain’s best through the BRDC Superstars scheme, and I saw very few exceptional drivers. Dan was one of them. He’s blisteringly fast, and he’s a highly accomplished BTCC driver now. I quite like that he’s not the same as everyone else out of the car. Being a brusque northerner, he has a chip on both shoulders! He’s a serious, applied character at the race track.
*Expectations were high for the four. Speedworks Toyota Gazoo Corolla of Tom Ingram in the car’s second season. Was he enough of a contender?*
*DA: *I was disappointed with the package, and it depends who you to talk to as to where the weakness was. Collectively, they didn’t come out all guns blazing, as I thought they might after a good debut season with the Corolla. I thought he would be more of a contender at the start, and perhaps it was another season that got away from them. There shouldn’t be little errors like the ride height problem they had at Croft [Ingram topped qualifying only to start race one from the back after his car failed a ride height check].
*TH: *Tom has all the speed and nous of any touring car driver. I really hate to pour fuel on David’s fire, but it’s the team that’s letting him down, with the procedural errors like that ride-height problem. His season didn’t really get going until Thruxton, when he had that double win, but that was too late. He had given away half the year by that stage.
*Rory Butcher consolidated his progress from 2019, didn’t he?*
*TH:* Absolutely. The point for me is that Motorbase went after him specifically last winter, because they wanted him in their new [Ford] Focus. That says a lot, because [team boss] David Bartram will go after the driver he thinks will deliver him the best position in the championship, regardless of money. Rory’s season was slightly derailed by his big accident at Silverstone, but he’s a class driver. I don’t think we give him enough credit.
*DA:* I’d go along with that. He was let down by the team at the first Brands Hatch meeting with the tyre-pressure punctures, but he doesn’t make many errors. He had a pretty good, consistent season in another brand-new car. All of these young drivers we’re talking about are going to get better; they haven’t peaked yet.
*Who else stood out this year, for reasons good and bad?*
*AG: *Ollie Jackson was a delightful surprise. I like him as a person and he has put a lot of BTCC miles under his belt. He finally got the chance to win a reverse-grid race at Silverstone and did so under a lot of pressure, then he backed it up at Snetterton. He deserved his success.
*DA: *I’d go along with that. He was the most improved driver and the surprise of the season. My other big surprise was how the front-wheel-drive teams collectively were all so inconsistent at the start of the season, whereas Laser Tools and the BMWs were banging in good points right away; kerching, kerching, kerching! TH I also have Ollie down as my most improved driver. Nobody likes to be singled out for disappointments, but I’d say Tom Chilton and Jake Hill, because they were both in race-winning cars yet neither scored a win. Chilton should have been a team leader at BTC Racing but wasn’t. Jake had a lot of mechanical issues at the start of the year, which was a surprise, and I think an element of desperation crept into his driving, because he wasn’t getting the results he was due.
*How much of a blow was it to lose Andrew Jordan and Jason Plato before the start of the season?*
*AG:* Well, it didn’t make any difference to the crowd… We have drivers come and go; it’s never a body blow to the championship. If you had your way, you would keep all the popular guys, but the reality is the likes of Jason and Matt Neal are getting older and won’t be around forever. We have to put our effort into up-and-coming drivers, because they’re the future. But it was a shame not to have Andrew and Jason; hopefully one or both will be back.
*In summary, Alan, you’ve packed a full BTCC season into half a year. You must be proud.*
*AG:* Yes, I’m proud of what we achieved. It was just a great combined effort from everyone. It showed the spirit of the BTCC. I’m also very relieved, because I’ve never worked so bloody hard in all my life, which wasn’t my intention for 2020. I’m confident that 2021 will be nothing like this year.
*Standout memories from 2020*
*Alan Gow:* “The way everyone just put their shoulders to the wheel and got on with things. It was such a tough year for everyone: the teams, the venues and the drivers all took pain. But from the first race, I didn’t have anyone come to me and say: ‘Do you think we should be doing this?’ Everyone came together and got it done.”
*Tim Harvey:* “Ash Sutton’s drive from 26th to third in race three at Silverstone was fantastic. Charges from the back have been harder this year because we haven’t had the option tyre in play; everyone was on the same rubber, so you haven’t had that variable in races.”
*David Addison:* “Donington Park at the start of the season, because we were back racing. Apart from the face masks, it didn’t feel any different. It was a great feeling after all the uncertainty and boredom. It was surreal without crowds, but the racing was as good as ever.”
*BTCC 2020: Sutton clinches second title at Brands finale *
*BTCC: Brands Hatch finale given go-ahead by government *
*BTCC reveals 2021 calendar with return to 30 races*