One of the most popular motorsports in the UK, the British Touring Car Championship (the BTCC) has been in existence since 1958. It involves teams and drivers from across the world, not just from Britain. The exact format of the Championship has been changed by the governing body, known as TOCA, on a frequent basis over the years. One common point is the mix of cars involved in each race. There are the teams run by well-known car and engine manufacturers (known as Super Touring, or 'factory' teams), and also there are private owners running their own teams with purchased vehicles (the so-called 'Privateers', or more officially, Super Production teams). There is a separate Championship for each of the two classes.
Presently there are 26 rounds in the BTCC. Each race weekend has a double-header of rounds held on the same day, with all qualifying cars from both classes taking part in both races. The first is a timed 'sprint' consisting of a few laps, which is followed by a longer 'feature' race, during which each Super Touring car must make one mandatory pit stop. Qualifying is held separately for the races on the day previous to race-day. Also, a couple of rounds each season are held at night, presenting an extra level of challenge.
The Championship uses a points system to determine the overall winner of the series - points are awarded to the first ten finishers in each class. The amount ranges from 15 points for a first place down to a single point for tenth. There are also bonus points on offer; one for gaining pole position in any race, one per race if you gain the lead at any stage, and one for achieving the fastest lap of the race.
One final complication is the concept of 'success ballast'. A top six finish confers a weight penalty, graded according to position, which is added to the car for the next race. These penalties are cumulative, but can also be removed gradually if the car fails to finish in the top six. This system evens out any differences in vehicle performance over the course of a season, and keeps the championship from being dominated by a particular manufacturer.
Teams and Drivers
Over the BTCC's lifetime, there have been entries from the likes of Ford, Williams Renault, Honda, Alfa Romeo, Audi, Rover, Vauxhall, Volvo and Peugeot. Past champions have included Joachim Winklehock, Paul Radisich, Rickard Rydell, Yvan Muller, and the 2000 winner Alain Menu. Note that none of these men are British, which is a reflection of just how attractive the BTCC is to drivers from Europe and beyond. There are, however, a number of UK-based former champions, such as Bill McGovern (the first three-time winner, all consecutive) and Andy Rouse (the only four-time champion to date, all in different cars). Other challengers from Britain have included James Thompson, Jason Plato and John Cleland. Another notable name is Matthew Neal, the most successful privateer of recent times, and the first to win a round of the championship. Note that many of these drivers have competed and continue to compete in other forms of motor racing, such as 24-hour endurance racing (Le Mans etc), Ice Racing and Formula One.
Despite the 'British' prefix, most rounds of the BTCC are held in England. The current line-up of circuits used for the BTCC is: Silverstone, Brands Hatch in Kent, Thruxton in Hampshire, Oulton Park in Cheshire, Donington Park in the East Midlands, Snetterton in Norfolk, Croft in the North East, Knockhill in Scotland and Mondello Park in Ireland. With so many races each year and so few British circuits able to provide championship-quality facilities, inevitably some tracks are visited more than once over the course of a season.
The Appeal of BTCC
Touring cars are exciting as they have a mix of the best elements of other motor sports - tactical battles (especially where pit stops are concerned) and bumper-to-bumper action are all part and parcel of the experience. What's more, the nature of the cars is such that they can take a tremendous amount of punishment. It is not uncommon to see cars with mangled bodywork and rear bumpers dragging while their drivers press on with the business of racing. Shunts and barges which would bring a car's race challenge to an end in other races are generally more robust in touring cars, and thanks to modern technology the driver's reactions to these frequent incidents (colourful or otherwise) can be recorded in sound and vision!
Changes for the 2001 season put the lesser-powered privateers at the front of the grid, and give them a head start. The idea is to make the big factory teams work for their points in the main championship, and there is always the chance that a good qualifying position can give a Super Production car the chance to take a race win over their heavily-modified counterparts. This is more likely as the Super Touring cars have recently had to limit their engines somewhat, closing the gap between the classes.
In previous years the super-powered machines were at the front of the grid having their own race, and the less-modified cars at the back fighting among themselves until the factory cars caught up and eventually lapped them. The privateers have their own championship (previously known as the Privateer's Trophy, but now as the less-inspiring Class 'B' Championship), but they can score points in the main championship as well.
This entry is only concerned with British touring cars, but they are by no means a UK-only phenomenon. For instance, Germany has a similar championship series known as DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters), while Australia has its Supertouring Championship. There is also a recently formed European Cup, which is intended to set a common standard for national championships to follow - indeed the British series has reorganised along similar lines.