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Enter the Oracle: Demise of Driving Standards in the BTCC

Image taken from: btcccrazy.co.uk

Image taken from: btcccrazy.co.uk

Since the start of the 2015 BTCC season, there has been a significant increase in talks regarding driving standards. Not a weekend goes by without multiple drivers making reference to questionable incidents and the quality of driving within the field. Many may think that comments like these exist as nothing more than excuses to explain away a disappointing race. As true as this may be on occasion, on the whole these comments do present an important question. Talk of ‘push to pass’ tactics may have escalated in the last few years, but many years ago an oracle spoke unto us all. His words, laced in brutal Brodie flavoured honesty, spoke of what may well have been the dawning of a new era: the demise of driving standards in British saloon car racing. 

After the recent Snetterton round of the championship it has been reported that the drivers were far from happy at the level of professionalism displayed. The second race saw what seemed to be a record number of cars either taking to the pits or being forced to retire as a result of contact. Even racer Rob Collard can be seen turning Hunter Abbott around at a corner just so he could get past – you may be faster than him but make a fair pass! Aron Smith made his views clear, describing the racing as diabolical with too many drivers being able to get away with knocking a driver until they’re in a wall. Having been hit nearly 10 times, Smith suffered a broken suspension which forced retirement. For him, the difference between racing with former champions compared to others in the field is staggering:

“We run side-by-side every where we go and not an inch of paint is exchanged between us. Then you drive alongside someone down the straights that isn’t a former champion or at the front all the time and they turn in on you. That’s not racing at all!”

Little did Smith know that his thoughts echoed those of an oracle from long ago. An oracle who for many may have been forgotten in the deep chasm of time. But his words from the past ring out now more than ever. At the time it may have come across like nothing more than an angry outburst, but this was something bigger. His passionate speech may have predicted what was to come.

Throughout the 2000s, the BTCC may have inadvertantly given itself a bad name, considering the rise of the ‘push to pass’ technique of racing. After the drama of Snetterton, Jordan admitted that a team can do a great deal to make a car competitive, but it really is rather difficult to engineer a car to be hit from behind. Well, unless of course you take a leaf out of Volvo’s book from 1994 when they ran their infamous Estate; a true Titanic of the touring car field! Mention of the BTCC should not immediately jump to criticisms about driving standards and crashing.

The BTCC evolved from what was the British Saloon Car Championship which was born out of the true roots of motor sport. The series used find its value on great clean racing and gentleman drivers. None of the celebrity culture from the modern era, just a group of people who wanted to do what they loved – race cars. Say what you like, but back in the day cars could be driven home after the race, not something that would be possible given the post-race state of many cars today!

As the multi-class era was giving way to what would become the BTCC we know and love, the once low-budget cars were being replaced with highly tuned, manufacturer backed machines from ever more prosperous teams. In the 1989 season, Dave Brodie entered his privately entered Ford Sierra and was able to beat many of the big names, and was subsequently accused by many teams of running with illegal fuel. Perhaps it was around this time that the rise of ‘blame-culture’ began to take shape; no need to congratulate those who were better than you when you can accuse them of cheating! What happened next was nothing short of a honest and brutal televised outburst that made his feelings perfectly clear:

“These turkeys are going to have to get up early in the morning if they want to take me and my team on. They turn up in their big transporters and their good looking motor homes and prance around the paddock all day long in their overalls. But when it comes to get the business done they’re a bunch of wallies apart from Andy [Rouse]. 26 years of driving saloon cars and there’s only one person in this paddock who’s ever been in front of me and that’s Andy Rouse. The rest of them are a bunch of Group N drivers and why should they be in front of me? They couldn’t do it before why would they do it now? Guy (Edwards) has had more spins than rock around the clock; Frank Sytner has had more rolls than a café; what sort of example is that to set to the public? I think it’s diabolical. In 26 years I’ve never seen such pitiful and ridiculous driving like it in all my life. It’s no good to us doing anything other than winning. I am on a close second or a close third but we came here to win – that’s our business!”

The Oracle lies on the left. Image taken from: BTCC.net

The Oracle lies on the left. Image taken from: BTCC.net

This speech by Brodie touches on multiple points that highlights just how much the championship has changed from its early days. In the pursuit for glory, development through spending was always an inevitability. Even in the late 1980s, the Ford manufacturer support helped propel Soper to so much success in the Eggenberger Sierra. By 1989, Brodie was one of the few Class A competitors who was still a private entry. Fast forward 10 years and the spiralling costs of the sport force many teams to leave the championship. By 2000, Renault, Nissan and Volvo had all left, leaving only Ford, Honda and Vauxhall. This was the year when Ford reportedly spent £17 million on their championship effort.

And then of course we get on to the drivers themselves, many of whom by the 90s were all paid drivers from the F1 scene (Tarquini, Warwick and Jean-Christophe Boullion to name but a few). The focus on racing had shifted to sponsorship deals and the size of your motor home (take that one how you will). The increasing popularity of the sport culminated in the evolution of ‘the celebrity’ within the series; thousands of fans cheering you on and queuing for hours to get your autograph. Driver status seemed to be dominated by money and popularity. On the talk of popularity, many people only remember those who drive dirty, which in many ways promoted the decline of decent driving standards.

Even now the costs of entering the sport are capped, the remnants of the past still remain. I have always said that the Giovanardi era of the BTCC was painful to watch as a fan; no pass could be completed without someone ending up in the gravel. For me to describe any race driver as great, one must be able to complete an overtake cleanly, however close it may be. Contact will sometimes be inevitable, but not all the time. Rubbing may be racing, but when rubbing becomes thumping, something is wrong.

Brodie had it right, as did Smith – its truly pitiful and diabolical. Most importantly, what kind of impression is that having on the public? As fans, we look up to these drivers as our heroes. Should they really be promoting such behaviour on the road, racing or otherwise? Of course there are drivers who are not as I am describing – just in the same way as Brodie gave Andy Rouse an exception. As long as the majority are proper race drivers, then hope remains. Its when the bad habits catch on that trouble starts.

BTCC in 1963: How times change... Image taken from: BTCC.net

BTCC in 1963: How times change… Image taken from: BTCC.net

 

The best proof I can muster in my brain is a comparative study of famous BTCC rivalries over the year; there are none bigger than Rouse and Soper in the late 80s and then Neal and Plato of the modern day:

– When one thinks of Rouse vs Soper, we all think of their famous battle of the ’88 season, most of all at the Brands Hatch. Fiercely close racing, even a rain shower, yet no contact at all. Either driver could have punted the other off, but they did not. Relive it here: Rouse vs Soper at Brands Hatch 1988

– If we now move to Plato vs Neal, clean friendly racing is not what comes to mind. Their rivalry has ammased infamous status down the paddock, with such highlights coming in 2006 at Snetterton where the final lap was spent with both cars seemingly trying to push each other off. And then the equally infamous Rockingham qualifying where Neal thought Plato had held him up; he stormed up to him in the pits and claimed he would ‘rip his f****** face off’. Relive their rivalry here: Plato vs Neal: The Infamous Rivalry

…need I say more?

It seems strange that so many drivers now complain about driving standards, yet nothing seems to be changing. The issue may be that they can be used as an excuse so easily, as well as the fact that people can get away with it so easily!

With such a focus on these bad driving standards, we can hope that things start to improve without having to impose harsh penalty systems into races. The past is always in the present; if these drivers look back to their heritage they may learn something now. The last thing we want is to give BTCC a bad name.

What Brodie said in 1989 was right – the focus should be racing, not the celebrity status or the money. And we are moving in the right direction, but more needs to be done. We need to set a good impression for the thousands of fans out there!

All hail the oracle!

Until next time, keep driving people!

Follow me on Twitter @lewisglynn69

Peace and Love!

2 comments

  1. Dave Hunter says:

    Dave Brodie knows what he’s talking about. He’s been around since the 60’s and raced in all types of category including the BTCC. He’s always been forthright in his opinions and does not suffer fools gladly!
    We need someone like him to act as a Driving Standards Steward in the BTCC, but there are probably too many competitors out there who would feel uneasy about this, as the mentality has changed a lot in Motorsport in the last 50 years!

    August 19th, 2015 at 4:16 am

  2. Lewis says:

    I could not agree with you more there Dave! Many are scared to offend, but Brodie always says it how it is. He understands the struggles of being a smaller team in an ever more expensive field. Teams with the money can afford the repairs but stupid driving can land smaller teams out of a drive – Mike Bushell had to do a crowd funding campaign to get his car back on the road after a huge crash!
    I would love to see him and maybe some of the older legends acting as stewards – like Soper and Rouse for example. A bit like how in F1 they have an older driver acting as Steward! Great idea Dave!

    August 19th, 2015 at 10:52 pm