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BTCC Memorable Drives: How to React to Progress (Or Not)

Image Credit: Touringcartimes.com/ PSP Images

Image Credit: Touringcartimes.com/ PSP Images

Throughout the vibrant history of the British championship, there has always come a time when the organisers and race officials are faced with a dilemma. In any other walk of life, such a conundrum would be nothing but an occasion for celebration. However, when it comes to the delicate world of motorsport regulations, such happenings can never be so simple. For this latest edition of BTCC Memorable Drives, we shall delve into the world of how teams have pushed the boundaries of regulations. For those wizards of BTCC history, you will know I am talking about Alfa Romeo in 1994 and Audi in 1996 specifically. 

It is not very often that you will find me discussing rules and regulations at any great length; there comes a point when I believe the very essence of a sport can be ruined when politics take hold. The modern Formula One championship springs to mind, but that is for another time. On very rare occasions however, when rules and regulations are applied more creatively by teams, they become the catalyst for change in championships. The British Touring Car Championship is no exception to such happenings. The first of these was the 1994 season and the infamous Alfa Romeo ‘wing debacle’ as I shall name it henceforth.

When the Super Touring regulations were first introduced, the specifications were as follows:

  1. minimum of 4.20 metres (13.8 ft) in length
  2. 4 doors
  3. No more than 2 litres engine capacity, or six cylinders were permitted, and the engine was required to be normally aspirated
  4. For homologation, initially at least 2500 units of the model used must have been produced

The introduction of these rules were meant to simply the previous multi-class racing that were in place up until the end of the 1990 season. For the first 3 years of their life, these regulations worked stupendously well, creating fast intense and action-packed racing that became globally famous. However, as 1994 loomed something was about to change. 1994 was the year of THAT Alfa Romeo.

The Alfa Romeo 155 Silverstone from 1994. Image Credit: Simon Lewis

The Alfa Romeo 155 Silverstone from 1994. Image Credit: Simon Lewis

After the Alfa Romeo (driven by Tarquini and Simoni) dominated the first 5 rounds of the season, Ford and Vauxhall made an official complaint to the FIA regarding the legality of the Alfa Romeo 155 Silverstone in the championship. The BTCC car had a move-able front spoiler, acting as a splitter, and an extendable rear spoiler, giving the car more downforce. Usually, such a combination would be disallowed. But this is where the genius of the Alfa Romeo team shone through. Alfa Romeo had also homologated 2500 155 Silverstone models to be sold in the UK, so that their 1.8 litre car with a higher rev limit could enter. Furthermore, this model was sold with the extendable spoiler brackets as extras one would have to attach themselves.

So technically speaking, Alfa had found a perfect sized loop hole in the regulations to make their car completely legal. However, the complaints made suggested that although the car could enter, it went against the spirit of the championship. As such, the FIA eventually banned the extra wings on the cars and decreed that the cars could only re-enter the championship if they ran with the spoilers in the retracted position. Eventually, Tarquini did still win the 1994 championship, but things would never be the same. In 1995, the regulations were changed so that all teams were allowed to use aerodynamic aids on their cars to iron out the performance disparity between the cars. On top of that, the number of production units increased from 2500 to 25,000 to reduce manufacturers producing homologation specials.

The officials must have been happy with that episode sorted out.. “Our problems our solved!”, they rejoiced. Or so they thought…

The all-conquering 4WD Audi of Frank Biela in '96. Image Credit: Autocar

The all-conquering 4WD Audi of Frank Biela in ’96. Image Credit: Autocar

After the 1994 shenanigans, it was Audi’s turn in 1996 to do their best on taking the media spotlight. After entering its 4WD Audi A4, it came as no surprise to anyone that they utterly dominated the championship, with Biela taking overall honours. Unlike the case of the Alfa Romeo however, Audi were not twisting any of the regulations. Nowhere did it specify that Super Touring cars could only be powered by no more than 2-wheels. In a similar fashion to the RWD BMWs of previous years, for 1997 Audi were imposed with weight penalties in an attempt to even out the added performance of 4WD with the FWD and RWD cars.

Towards the latter part of the 1997 championship following an appeal the weight penalty was reduced, which gave Biela an end of season charge, but not enough to stop the eternally determined Menu from taking the title. The 1998 championship saw a new addition to the regulations which stated that all cars that entered the championship must be powered and driven by only 2 of their 4 wheels. As a result, the Audi A4 of 1998 was the FWD version instead of the previous 4WD machine.

Was it the forward thinking of Alfa and Audi that forged the Super Touring Era into the stuff of legend?

Was it the forward thinking of Alfa and Audi that forged the Super Touring Era into the stuff of legend?

These two examples do raise an interesting area of debate; how should governing bodies react to instances such as this? As I touched upon in the introduction to this piece, in any other walk of life innovation is celebrated as progress ‘toward a brighter future’. However, when this is is a sporting occurence, the reaction is of course different. For the FIA, the rules are there to be adhered to. Or are they?

The classic saying ‘rules are made to be broken’ is more than applicable to this argument. If we were to approach this argument scientifically, then the actions of Audi and Alfa Romeo are almost completely justified. An old theory suggests that hypotheses are created with the aim of being disproved; it is only through critiquing the flaws that a concept can be improved for the future. In many ways, it was Alfa Romeo in 1994 that paved the way for the great racing of the late 90s. Furthermore, pushing the boundaries of the rules will inspire the other teams to work hard to catch up and come up with their own innovations. Similarly, the monstrous 4WD system in the Audi team forced the other teams to develop their own cars to match the pace of the Audis. Added power, performance and handling as a reaction to these people? Sounds like a good end result for me. After all, if rules were never broken, we could never move forward to more exciting opportunities.

On the other hand, the case made against Alfa Romeo by Ford and Vauxhall in 1994 does raise an interesting issue. Although everything Alfa did that year was within the scope of the rules, many felt that they did not adhere to the ‘spirit’ of the championship. I have always found this a fascinating phrase; they may not be written down but their power can often overthrow the legality of governance in the right circumstance. The BTCC has always been so special since its evolution from gentleman racers giving their cars a good run on a Sunday afternoon. That family feel has always been above the racing rivalries; a group of equally matched racers fighting for their deserved place on the podium. When Alfa came along in 1994 with their huge budgets and clever corner cutting, it almost took the fun away. It was utterly ridiculous how much of an advantage the Alfa team had in those first few races, and the races where Alfa had withdrawn the racing returned to how it always used to be.

And yes, it was the work of Alfa and Audi that paved the way for the late 90s BTCC memories. However, let us not also forget how else Alfa Romeo changed the BTCC. It became a global championship of big budgets, big names and a loss of that original BTCC magic of the 1950s. Independent drivers were forced out the championship simply through the budget needed to be competitive. The championship became much more corporate, driven by sponsorship and paid drivers. If it was not for Alfa Romeo in 1994, coming in with their ex-F1 driver and field destroying red rockets, then the championship may have retained its Super Touring status for longer into the 21st century.

1993, the year before everything changed. Image Credit: Pistonheads.com

1993, the year before everything changed. Image Credit: Pistonheads.com

I have been wrestling with this debate for quite some time now, and I will admit that I am still unsure of my viewpoint. I feel that the argument ‘everything happens for a reason’ is far too philosophical and too much of an easy excuse for me to get away with. On the one hand, I love watching people pushing the limits of what is possible, but on the other seeing a national institution transform into a corporate exercise as a result is not so nice. At the end of the day, I always love seeing BTCC teams take a brave step forward. The actions of the governing bodies are justified to ban teams or force them to change, as long as then they take that as a point of consideration for adapting the rules. However, as with the case of late 90s team budgets, care should be taken to make sure that it doesn’t then bring too many negative changes. For example, the added aerodynamic upgrades was a great leveler and made for some sensational racing, but the big money ex-F1 drivers replacing homegrown talent and driving the costs skywards did eventually spell doom for the Super Tourers.

…and then I remember that if it was not for the Super Touring era ending, the new look touring cars would never have arisen which of course led to the simple yet perfect NGTC regulations of today. There is a chance I may be over thinking this.

What would you do when faced with such a dilemma? Would you adapt the rules to suit the new forward thinking or retain the current rules and force these teams back into line? 

Let me know your thoughts!

Follow me on Twitter @lewisglynn69

Keep Driving People!

Peace and Love!

 

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