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Since You've Been Gone: The End of Vauxhall in the BTCC?

Vauxhall once dominated the tarmac in the BTCC. Image Credit: Speedhunters.com

Vauxhall once dominated the tarmac in the BTCC. Image Credit: Speedhunters.com

 If you turned the clocks back 10 years, you would probably be mistaken for thinking that the BTCC was in fact called the British Touring Vauxhall Championship. Throughout the 2000s, the name ‘Vauxhall’ characterized what it was to race in the championship. Vauxhall and Triple Eight were a driving force behind consistent championship success. For those history heads, Vauxhall has been a name associated with the BTCC since 1989. Alas, in recent years they have become an endangered species until last year when the single surviving member of their species was lost. Is this the end for Vauxhall?

The Vauxhall journey began back in 1989 when a little known Scotsman named John Cleland entered an Astra GTE (Class C) and walked away at the end of the year with the overall drivers championship. Cleland and his Vauxhall were able to blitz the rest of the Class C field and even battle with the Class B BMW’s. The next year saw the 2-litre formula beginning to take shape, although the monstrous Class A Sierras remained for one final year. Vauxhall entered the larger Cavalier GSI, although 1990 saw Cleland lose out in the class honours to the BMW of Frank Sytner. The overall title in that year went to Robb Gravett in the Ford Sierra.

Between 1991 and 1994, the backbone of the Vauxhall manufacturer team would always be the potent combination of John Cleland, Jeff Allam and the Vauxhall Cavalier. The team would never win a championship outright (although Cleland did come tantalizingly close in 1992 as we all remember). Alongside the factory team, Ecurie Ecosse also entered two Vauxhalls in 1992 and three in 1993; David Leslie was the stand out driver for the team and even got a rather patriotic livery to go with it. This independent team was run by RML, which in 1994 switched to the factory deal following their success with Leslie in 1992/1993.

Where it all began. Cleland in his Astra GTE in 1989. Image Credit: TouringCarTimes.com

Where it all began. Cleland in his Astra GTE in 1989. Image Credit: TouringCarTimes.com

David Leslie in his 1993 Ecurie Ecosse Vauxhall. Image Credit: Speedhunters.com

David Leslie in his 1993 Ecurie Ecosse Vauxhall. Image Credit: Speedhunters.com

Following the controversial Alfa Romeo championship victory in 1994, the regulations were amended for 1995 allowing for the addition of wings, even if they were not standard on the road car. The partnership of Vauxhall and RML was a winning combination in 1995; John Cleland won his second championship after a season long battle with the Volvo of Rickard Rydell. Cleland’s team mate James Thompson also got a race win at Thruxton. Little did anyone know what this young driver would achieve in years to come. After 6 years in the championship, 1995 was the final curtain call for the Cavalier as the works car.

As 1996 rolled around Vauxhall switched to the Vectra which lacked much of the performance always held by the Cavalier. In the final year with the RML partnership, the only spoils came with a chance victory for James Thompson at Snetterton. From 1997 until 2009, the legendary Triple Eight Engineering (formed by Derek Warwick and Ian Harrison) would run the Vauxhall works effort. In their inaugural year, Vauxhall (now piloted by Cleland and Warwick) endured a tough time, struggling to be on the pace with the Renaults. However, in 1998 the cars were significantly more competitive and Cleland managed two race victories, both of which came at Donington Park; the second of these is arguably from one of the greatest races the sport had ever seen when Nigel Mansell nearly won the very wet feature race which he had started in last place.

Cleland was flying high in 1995, taking the title. Image Credit: Pistonheads.com

Cleland was flying high in 1995, taking the title in spectacular style. Image Credit: Pistonheads.com

The final two years of the Supertouring era were more competitive for Vauxhall; gaining a race win at Brands Hatch for Yvan Muller after completing a near impossible overtake at Paddock Hill. Cleland retired from the BTCC at the end of 1999, leaving his seat to be filled by ex-Renault man Jason Plato and the addition of Vincent Radermecker for 2000. Vauxhall had a sniff at the championship in 2000, but sadly they could not keep up with the all-conquering Ford team who won the title with Alain Menu.

The new era of BTCC in 2001 (BTC-T regulations) began what would become an almighty dominance from Vauxhall, who were the only returning manufacturer from the 2000 season. In 2001, Vauxhall would win 25 of the 26 races, with only MG spoiling the fun at a wet Brands Hatch at the end of the year. They fielded two teams, the works team and egg:sport; Peugeot, Alfa Romeo and Lexus never stood a chance. One of the only memorable moments of the year was the season long battle between Plato and Muller, who struggled to work as team mates (to put it lightly). From 2002 – 2004, the Vauxhall pairing of Yvan Muller and James Thompson would share the titles between them, two for Thompson and one for Muller in 2003.

The new car in 2005 brought the same problems as in 1996. Image Credit: carenthusiast.com

The new car in 2005 brought the same problems as in 1996. Image Credit: carenthusiast.com

Vauxhall must have suffered a massive case of deja vu in 2005/2006; just like in 1996/1997 they introduced a new model (this time the Vauxhall Astra Sport Hatch) but were not in a high performance position to challenge for the titles, which in both years went to Matt Neal in the Halfords Honda Integra run by Team Dynamics. Colin Turkington and Yvan Muller may have departed the VX-R team at the end of 2005, but it did pave the way for World Touring Car driver Giovanardi; 2006 was not the best time for Giovanardi, who was in a car that was developed for Yvan Muller (who coincidentally had moved to take on the WTCC) which consequently suffered on his performances. He did however managed to take a race win that happened to be the 100th BTCC win for Vauxhall.

The switch to the Vectra in 2007 was the final hurrah for the VX-R team; Giovanardi took a thrilling championship title in 2007 after an amazing final race at Thruxton. He repeated his success in 2008 with a comfortable championship win. By 2009, VX Racing were the only factory support team, but even the dangerous combination of Vauxhall and Giovanardi could not stop Colin Turkington from winning the title. By the end of 2009 Vauxhall had made their decision; they were to pull out as a manufacturer in the BTCC. It was the beginning of the end; one of the greatest racing empires had crumbled. But it was not the end for Vauxhall just yet.

Vauxhall often dominated the independent entries in the BTCC. Image Credit: TouringCarTimes.com

Vauxhall often dominated the independent entries in the BTCC. Image Credit: TouringCarTimes.com

Fiona Leggate entered a bio-ethanol powered Vauxhall in 2005 and 2006. Image Credit: online-utility.org

Fiona Leggate entered a bio-ethanol powered Vauxhall Astra in 2005 and 2006. Image Credit: online-utility.org

The final few years of Vauxhall in the BTCC was as an independent effort. It says a great deal about the strength, performance and affordability of the Vauxhall as a machine in the sense that it was probably the most used car as an independent machine between 1991 and 2014. From Jeff Wilson running a Vauxhall Belmont in 1991, to Chris Goodwin in a Demon Tweeks Cavalier in 1993, to Mark Blair’s Vauxhall Vectra in 1999, even to Rob Collard’s Vauxhall Astra in 2003/2004, a Vauxhall appeared to be the car of choice for private entries.

Triple Eight continued to run Vauxhalls in the championship, but in 2010 they most definitely ran into some issues, making their way through multiple drivers including Giovanardi, Phillip Glew, Sam Tordoff before eventually settling on James Nash. On the other hand, 2011 seemed to be looking up for the fledgling team, having finally sorted the crippling sponsorship problems that had ruined their 2010 campaign. James Nash was blisteringly fast throughout the year, eventually winning at Rockingham, taking the overall Independent title and finishing joint 4th overall with Mat Jackson. Triple Eight switched to run the MG-factory team from 2012.

The final win for a Vauxhall in the BTCC came from Dave Newsham. Image Credit: MJP Media

The final win for a Vauxhall in the BTCC came from Dave Newsham. Image Credit: MJP Media

Dave Newsham now holds the honour of being the last driver to ever take a Vauxhall to victory having won at Snetterton and Knockhill in the 2012 season. It was in the same year that the Vauxhall Insignia was introduced by John Thorne of ‘Thorney Motorsport’. It is fair to say that Thorne was much more of an owner/engineer than a racer; this is the man who once managed to spin out of control on the warm up lap. It was in 2013 that a Vauxhall would see a whole season for the final time; Lea Wood won the Jack Sears Trophy in the S2000 Vectra and Tony Gilham ran the two ex-Thorney motorsport Insignias, with drivers including Jack Goff. One of the highlights of the Insignia was Jack Goff harassing Gordon Shedden for the race win in the final round of the year at a drenched Brands Hatch GP.

As we reach 2014, Team BMR entered two Insignias as part of the 4-car team for Jack Goff and Warren Scott. However, these were eventually switched to the ever-improving Volkswagen CCs. After 25 years glorious years in the worlds best touring car series, the age of extinction has hit. Vauxhall has now completely left the British Touring Car Championship.

Every rose has its Thorne - the car that never really was. Image Credit: thorny.ms

Every rose has its Thorne – the car that never really was. Image Credit: thorny.ms

Goff fought hard against Shedden to nearly get the first win for an Insignia at Brands Hatch. Image Credit: BTCC.net

Goff fought hard against Shedden to nearly get the first win for an Insignia at Brands Hatch. Image Credit: BTCC.net

Heading in 2015, there may yet be no official plans or even rumours of a Vauxhall return, but with the NGTC regulations going from strength to strength, I would not rule out a return. A while ago I wrote an article about the Return of the Manufacturer to the BTCC, and I believe this now more than ever. If I was to put my money on an ex-manufacturer making a glorious return to the sport, I would take the bet with Vauxhall. In the 90s and even the 00s, the Vauxhall was quite clearly the perfect drive for both factory and independent teams; there were times when Vauxhalls would outnumber other manufacturers by at least 3:1 in many years. The audience has grown, the new regulations limit spending (eliminating the financial issues) and the sport is fast returning to world recognition as the best race series in the world. Even if not as a manufacturer, the potential to have an independent entry with an Insignia is considerable. Look what Jack Goff managed in 2013. Unlike Volvo who have announced that their motorsport division does not follow their company vision and will pull factory backing in the next few years; Vauxhall have become famous for producing what is essentially ‘race cars for the road’, whether this is the Astra, Corsa or of course the 600BHP monster that is the VXR8. What better way to market such a brand than enter the best series in the world as a factory-backed team.

Is this truly the end? Second only to Ford (in the ever-honest opinion of mine anyway), Vauxhall have become one of the most successful manufacturers ever to enter the BTCC. From their humble beginnings with the Astra GTE following the rise of a living Scottish racing legend, the name Vauxhall truly embodies the meaning of BTCC. Close racing, big drama and glorious victories became a beautifully common occurrence with the addition of Vauxhall to the grid. They have been there every step of the way, as the championship has evolved to the NGTC masterpiece it is today. The passing of the Vauxhall may be a time to grieve, with no plans yet emerging of a comeback in 2015, but something still remains at the back of my mind…

Is this truly the end?

What are your thoughts on the Vauxhall extinction in the BTCC? Don’t forget to join the conversation on Twitter @lewisglynn69

Whatever happens, the Vauxhall legacy will live on. Image Credit: Speedmoney.com

Whatever happens, the Vauxhall legacy will live on. Image Credit: Speedmoney.com

Keep Driving People!

Peace and Love!

 

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One comment

  1. chris glynn says:

    Well written, I knew most of the drivers names. That makes a change, possibly because of your racing games?

    January 14th, 2015 at 1:20 am