First published in Motor Racing UK Magazine in 2019.
By Mick Palmer
When the TCR UK series kicked off at Silverstone last year it seemed like Britain was on the cusp of having a second, viable, championship for tin top racing that would slot in just behind the BTCC. With 13 cars on the grid and names recognised by touring car fans occupying the front row the future looked bright. More cars were promised and it truly did look like TCR UK was going to emulate the success that the category has achieved in international regions where it has made top level touring car racing an accessible form of motorsport. Ten months later the category looked like it was ready to tuck its tail between its legs and leave these isles bruised and beaten.
The championship has survived however and is being given a second bite of the apple thanks to the Stewart Lines run Touring Car Trophy. The new series put together by the former BTCC racer has a two class format where TCR machines share the track with other two litre saloon racers. Once again the grids are not the size that they should be, but this time around the planning and execution has a far more realistic aim, but it has suffered when it has come to timing.
“It’s pretty well documented that it wasn’t the best job in the first year and there was a lot of things that maybe could have done differently,” Lines says when he begins to appraise where the championship has come from. Last season that 13 car grid at Silverstone dropped to 10, then towards the end of the year it became a struggle to pull together eight cars. David Sonenscher was appointed as the COO of the TCR UK series early this year and it was thought that his knowledge (from looking after TCR in the Far East) could solidify the championship for 2019.
At the Autosport show in January Lines was present to launch the TCT, and on the back of his involvement in running the successful VW Racing Cup there was no doubting his pedigree. At the same time Sonenscher was providing positive, and reassuring, soundbites that the TCR UK championship was in good health. It was plainly obvious that this was not the case and that the attempt to put on a brave, smiling face was fooling nobody. It looked like the series was about to be canned.
“When TCR realised they weren’t going to get a grid out on their own they asked if I could do both jobs? So we created this,” Lines continues. “What I’ve tried to do with the TCT was just to bring in hand the situation to address all that was wrong, and I think we’ve achieved that. Everybody that’s here is saying it’s run well, people are happy, there are no negatives, the racing is pretty close. All our racing has been good, there hasn’t been any poor races this year, the cars look good, going forward all we can do is give them a good service and hopefully a few more will follow.”
From the outside it would be easy to assume that history is repeating itself with no sign yet that the series can break into double figures on the grid. “This year we picked it up too late really,” Lines says as he ruminates on how the two series came together. The TCR side didn’t pull the trigger early enough in admitting defeat, and the TCT wasn’t building enough of a grid on its own, but the uncertainty on both fronts kept potential entrants at bay. Once the merger was announced it did appear to be after that point in the year where plans had been laid, and most people who had eligible cars had already committed, but they still appear to be waiting and watching.
“There is interest in it and the people who want to come in want to know how much it costs,” Lines explained. “They now want to know where they can rent a car, whereas at the beginning of this year it was all like ‘I don’t know why you’re bothering doing that, it’s had it, hasn’t it?’ They need to come and have a go, they probably think it’s more money than what it is. I think there are a few drivers watching and thinking ‘do I want to be involved in this? Do I want any damage?’ But the races that we’ve had have been clean. You can have damage in any series, but we’re not here barging away megabucks. The competition level is getting higher, the driver levels are pretty good. We are starting to attract a few more, there are people who could race in a club race, or a Britcar race. I mean we had Max Coates in the DSG car at Donington and he won both races, and there are a few DSG cars out there, and you can buy them for forty grand now second hand, and there are a few in the UK, and they’re cheaper than the sequential TCR cars.
“We’ve got plans for next season and people can plan for that now. And now we’ve got time and people have seen it so they can plan and we have time to give them the right figures and prices which means they can go ‘right I’m going to race one of them cars,’ I can buy my own or get in a team because the cars are out there and they are available to buy and rent.”
The cars are available. According to numerous sources you could put together a grid as big as, if not bigger than, the BTCC with TCR cars that are based in the UK, and that’s before you consider the cars eligible for the TCT. Britcar has a number of machines, some of which do double duty (the Coates car raced at Donington is one he’s competed in at Britcar events,) there are cars that head off to Creventic events and one even races in clubmans with Andrew Morrison in the DDMC. All of that begs the question of who wants to race in the TCT, and what are their aims?
“The cars are factory cars and properly made, they’re cheap to run, they’re cheaper to run than a Mini JCW car, the same price to run as a Clio Cup car, a little bit more than a Volkswagen Cup car. They’re bulletproof things, and they’re fast. It’s what’s needed, there’s nowhere for these drivers to go, second hand TCR ones are coming on for £60,000 (with a new DSG Golf or Cupra listed at £86,000,) they can be run for 20-30 grand a year.”
Last year the championship was marketed as an entity in its own right, some of the words that came out of the organisation were bullish and it did elicit some remarks from BTCC boss Alan Gow that downplayed any comparison with his championship. It did appear that they wanted to match the level of success that the TCR format had achieved in other countries, but it didn’t deliver.
The TCT concept was aimed at two markets – those who wanted to race a two litre touring car for the hell of it, and those who are aiming at a career in the higher ranks such as the BTCC or WTCR. That angle has been carried over into the merged competition, and so far it is beginning to build what could be a solid backbone for the future.
“No one can afford to be in that BTCC pitlane in a Touring Car because it’s half-a-million pounds to be competitive,” Lines remarks. “We’re looking at 60 grand with a car that does the same laptime, sounds the same, looks the same. It’s the same with the older NGTC cars out of the BTCC. If people have got visions of racing there they need somewhere to practice driving the things. Henry Neal here has put in laptimes in that would put him mid pack in BTCC.”
Neal, the son of triple BTCC champion Matt is running in a 2012 Team Dynamics Civic, with full support from the outfit. It’s turning out to be the perfect learning environment with an NGTC machine. Alex Day is also running in the category with the old faithful ‘Sherman’ Audi campaigned by Rob Austin a few years back. These are drivers of around 20-years-of-age who will benefit from operating cars of this calibre before attempting to move into what is possibly the toughest production based championship on the planet.
Having those entries is an important part of the whole package for Lines. Running this series is not about trying to match TCR abroad, it is a gateway. “We want Dynamics, Ciceley and Power Maxed here, we want all the teams that are in the BTCC here, for a lot of them it’d make sense to run a second programme for junior drivers. I’m convinced it’s going to work for people who want to race tin tops as the ultimate thing we’re able to put them in the situation where instead of a handful or the chosen few that can do it, there are lots of people who can do it, they need to believe.”
Belief is a word that stretches beyond those who are on pitlane and on the track too. The series has needed a bit more belief from fans, and this year there has been a distinctive shift in how TCR is perceived. Travel back a year and you would see how negative touring car fans were to the series, even when reigning BTCC champion Ash Sutton took to the track and won a couple of races there, and when eventual TCR UK champion Daniel Lloyd bagged a BTCC win at Croft. This year it is very different. The spectator banks are still sparse, but touring car fans no longer consider it to be a relative with plans to usurp the BTCC (whether that concept was real or perceived.) Generally across the board the atmosphere at a TCT event is far more settled then at a TCR meeting last year.
Fan engagement is a key element. The inclusion of TCT on the British GT bill was a move that exposed the series to a larger audience, and the decent battles for the lead in the races were appreciated, along with access to drivers in the paddock. Placing the series in the right environment is important in both the cases of spectators and, crucially, investors who are going to fork out to put cars on track. On that Lines said: “We have to make the support races that are with us are the right ones. On the run up to next season we’re going to change the package slightly to attract a few more drivers and we’ll make sure it’s at the right races. We’ve thought about chucking prize money at it, we’re not sure how much yet.”
Exposure to TCR in the UK hasn’t been huge. Touring Car fans have been able to watch former BTCC champ Gordon Shedden and former WTCC title holder Rob Huff racing in WTCR on Eurosport. The option to watch Josh Files and Dan Lloyd in European TCR via Freesports has arrived recently, and various series streaming live on YouTube is an avenue that hasn’t really whetted the appetite of a fanbase that is dominated by their love of the established BTCC, but if one of those series could make the trip to the UK, with the option for British entrants to take part (like Lewis Kent did at the Spa round in the European championship,) then it might light the touchpaper. Lines muses: “If we could get a European round with 40 cars with drivers like Josh and Dan, I’m sure people would come and have a look, and getting our cars in there, it would attract a decent crowd.”
The TCT and TCR UK are still playing a numbers game though. The races this year have looked thin on the ground when they line up on the grid, but once the lights go out it has been wheel-to-wheel action. If TCT/TCR UK is to succeed then it needs to build on the solid foundation it is laying right now and convince those with the means to jump onboard, as Lines says: “It just needs three or four more cars, then another two, then another one and then it’ll build. I mean the cars are – you only have to watch them go around – they’re unreal aren’t they?”