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Write What You Drive

A showcase of independent motoring journalism and automotive travails

BTCC Back on the Menu

Motorsport news hasn't traditionally been a staple for but last week, amid the fuss over ugly new F1 cars with turbochargers, a small part of my childhood returned - probably the only man in history who consistently made driving a blue and yellow saloon cool; Alain Menu.

Back in the '90s, there was an amazing racing series blessed with both the prestige of former F1 drivers and the accessibility of them driving around in what at least appeared to be your Dad's Laguna. As well as Gabriele and Laurent, there was also Derek and Matt, and as well as Silverstone, there was also Oulton Park and Knockhill - meaning the action was never far from your own front door.

It was called the British Touring Car Championship and everybody watched it. They watched it because although the cars weren't as fast as F1, they were more closely matched and literally anybody could win a race. More bodywork meant that the cars could also bump each other around in the process of the many overtaking manoeuvres. And it was on Grandstand.

To illustrate those points, here's a video of a bloke who borrowed his Uncle's Mondeo and took it from 19th to 1st in the rain at Donington Park - Nigel I think his name was. Meanwhile, it's unlikely Mrs. Tarquini will be letting her son Gabriele out in her Alfa again after this parking job at Knockhill.

This is probably coming across as a fairly insincere, light hearted article - but for all the fierce racing and crashes, the BTCC was a fairly light hearted race series. I remember wandering around the pit lane and meeting all the drivers before the race - I got Tom Kristensen's autograph 3 weeks before he won the Le Mans 24 Hours.

There were points available for pole position, fastest lap and even leading the race for a complete lap. If a driver did too well in the first "sprint" race, they had some weight added to their car and the grid was semi-reversed for the feature race anyway.

Alain Menu was a two-time champion, including 2000 in the Ford-backed Prodrive Mondeo V6. He was also champion in 1997, the first season I really remember and co-incidentally the year the first TOCA Touring Cars game was released - another string to the BTCC brand's bow at the time.

Unfortunately, 2000 was the last year of the monstrous Super Tourers and most of the factory-backed teams had bowed out by the 2001 season when new regulations designed to cut costs were introduced.

Menu went with them and largely, so did the interest of myself and many others. Coverage moved to ITV whose commentators lacked the charm of Charlie Cox or Murray Walker on Grandstand and the new format somehow lost relevance to the man (or boy) in the street with only one factory backed team (Vauxhall) remaining to "fight" for showroom supremacy.

I've barely even dabbled in the BTCC for the last 13 years but the return of Menu and a diverse grid of cars for the 2014 season have got my attention again. Pistonheads have also announced a partnership to report on the series, which should hopefully provide some more accessible and charismatic coverage.

The only real "factory" team as such next season is the Triple Eight MG6; supplementing plenty of other interesting entries. Mountune engineered Focus STs (Ford does warrant the Mountune ST tuning packs for road cars), Menu's Team BMR Volkswagen CC makes a handsome race car and Team Dynamics are entering the first estate since the '94 Volvo 850 with a Honda Civic Tourer.

I'm certainly going to pencil in a trip to one or more of the 2014 race meetings; the return of a boyhood hero and many a fond memory reasons enough to set a Sunday aside to give the BTCC another look. Perhaps I should buy myself that Mondeo ST200 to celebrate...

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6th January 2013

'90s reigns as the current JT Fleet is introduced