Friday, 19 June 2015

19/06/15 - 1992 BTCC Season Finale

The British Touring Car Championship is arguably one of the most adrenaline-fuelled and exciting series on the modern motorsport calendar. It certainly provides as much bumper-to-bumper theatre and ramming-each-other-off-the-track drama as you’re likely to see outside of banger racing. The mantra of the BTCC from time immemorial has been ‘rubbing is racing’, and if you see Matt Neal giving Rob Collard a gentle shove in order to cut a cleaner line through Clearways, you can be damn sure that the favour will be returned on the next lap. They jostle, they bump, they smash into their rev limiters like there’s no tomorrow, and any driver who’s seen crossing the finish line with his bumpers intact gets unceremoniously debagged in the pits afterwards. (Possibly.)

For many, the glory days of the BTCC were the late eighties, when the titles were effectively contested by two key groups; E30 BMW M3s and Ford Sierra Cosworth RS500s. Frank Sytner’s Prodrive M3 did alright in ’87, but it was 1988 when the BMW invasion began in force, with no less than six M3s running in Class B. This was countered by fifteen RS500s in Class A – not direct rivals due to the class system (and massive power gulf between them) but still, amongst the Corollas and Golfs, it was the showboating Cosworths and tenacious M3s that really captured the buzz of the era.

In 1990, everything changed. The introduction of the Supertouring rules heralded a sea change in how the series was run; 1990 was a transitional year in which Supertouring cars were entered alongside Group A cars, which were now detuned for closer racing with new entrants such as the Vauxhall Cavalier and the BMW 318is. In 1991 the series shifted to just one class, ensuring parity (to a degree), as well as much lower entry and running costs than the highly-developed, highly-strung Group A racers.

…and now we reach the crux of the matter. Twenty years ago, BTCC fans witnessed what is regarded by many to be the best motor race of all time; not just in Touring Car racing, but of any motorsport. I’m talking, of course, about the 1992 season finale at Silverstone. It was a race of such stagecraft that it could have been penned by Hollywood’s most dramatically-inclined scriptwriters; as the Championship zeroed in on its final round at Silverstone’s Grand Prix circuit, the title could have been taken by any one of three drivers – John Cleland in the Vauxhall Cavalier, Will Hoy in the Toyota Carina, or Tim Harvey in the BMW 318is. There was still all to play for, and the blood was up for the title-fight contenders.

To throw a little extra drama into the mix – as if it were needed – the qualifying was dominated by drivers that sat further down the points table; pole was taken by the indomitable Andy Rouse in his Carina, Jeff Allam was second in his Cavalier, the sister car to Cleland’s. In third place on the grid was Julian Bailey in another Carina, while the fourth spot was occupied by Steve Soper in his Listerine-liveried 318is, stablemate to Tim Harvey’s steed. Steve Soper figures in bold in the dramatis personae of this race, thrice underlined in red. I’ll ruin the surprise now and say that he didn’t take his BMW to victory, although you shall see shortly why his drive was so pivotal…

So where were our Championship contenders, Cleland, Hoy and Harvey? They’d qualified in seventh, ninth and twelfth respectively, so the crowds knew that they were in for a frisky fight. Harvey and Hoy both had a strong start, with the latter passing Cleland on the first lap. Steve Soper, way up ahead, made a move on David Leslie’s Ecurie Ecosse Cavalier, but in his furious scrabble to pass - he’s a tenacious helmsman, Soper - the two made contact and the BMW span out, unfortunately to be collected on the way past by Rob Gravett’s Peugeot 405 MI16. As the pack streamed past, Soper found himself dead last with heavy rear damage to his car, his bumper hanging off at a jaunty angle. In-car footage of his charge to catch up is little short of breathtaking, applying full-lock and screaming sideways back into contention, then punching at the gearstick as if he was trying to send it through the bulkhead and straight into hell. You may well have heard the phrase ‘driving out of his skin’ applied to any number of racing drivers past and present, but you haven’t seen the full fury of a bitter comeback charge until you’ve seen Soper’s angered blitz on that grey October day in ’92.

Nearer the front of the field there was all sorts of banging and clattering going on, the three Championship hopefuls eagerly tearing after the taste of Champagne, while the rest of the field  - all at an approximate level of parity in terms of power and performance, remember – were forcing every ounce of effort towards grabbing one last podium place. In what seemed like no time, Hoy, Harvey and Cleland were sitting in fourth, fifth and sixth, each more determined than the last to eke out an extra iota of thrust, to cut a closer line through Becketts, to brake later at Bridge, to show everybody else on the track that they were the dominant force for the British Touring Car Championship. Soper, driving like a man possessed, much to the near-apoplectic gobsmackery of commentator Murray Walker, had managed to shove his way up to seventh place, his gearbox screaming in an agony as raw as that suffered by the 318is’ hind quarters, now painfully bumper-free.

Two laps from the chequered flag Harvey attempted to pass Hoy through Copse, the pair running doorhandle-to-doorhandle; Harvey, with the inside line, drifted wide at the exit and forced Hoy off the track, and in the furious mêlée Cleland and Soper screamed past. Cleland was now in fourth position which, given the number of points he’d accrued through the season, would have gifted him the Championship. Soper was hot on his tail, an unstoppable force of pure retribution, and in sixth and seventh sat Harvey and Hoy. On the entry to Club, Soper powered past the Vauxhall; the on-board footage clearly showed Cleland giving him the finger. ‘I’m going for first!’, yelled the ever-diplomatic Murray.
Exiting Abbey, Harvey used the BMW’s superior rear-drive traction to get alongside Cleland, passing him through Bridge. Soper, ever the team player, dived out of the way to allow Harvey to pass into fourth, then ran defence behind him to block Cleland. As they shot through Priory they were nose-to-tail, then the Cavalier scythed under Soper into Brooklands; Soper blocked the manoeuvre and the two collided, the Cavalier rounding the curve on two wheels. Cleland was half a car-length ahead as they approached the right-hander, so the intrepid (and clearly slightly unhinged) Soper dove across the grass on the inside of the corner, smashing into Cleland at the apex and spinning them both out of the race.
With just a lap to go, Tim Harvey eased toward the finish line in fourth place, picking up enough points to win him the Championship. Hoy finished three seconds behind him.

The podium spots went to Andy Rouse, Jeff Allam and David Leslie, but none of that really matters to the history books. What we witnessed that day – the Listerine BMW taking the controversial win, the angry Scotsman in his totalled Vauxhall, the gladiatorial might of a spurned racer on a kamikaze drive – will resonate through the annals of motorsport lore forever. You can be sure that John Cleland’s still fuming about it.

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