By Mick Palmer
My feet were sodden. My ankles were itching. The ingress of water into my boots had forged a creeping dampness that had grown from the top of my socks, all the way to the tips of my toes. The arches of my feet were becoming bog like. Squelch, squelch, squelch. It wasn’t puddles that were finding access through the soles of my footwear, it was my sopping clothes sharing the wetness. My pants were so dank and waterlogged that the spread of rainwater was creeping downwards as well as upwards underneath my waterproof jacket. It had become very, very damp and very, very cold in the frontal and rear areas too. Hardy some might say, glutton for punishment others may retort. Plain stupid (and shrunken) would be my account of the day.
That was a Citroen C1 race at Croft in March of 2019, but what has that got to do with where TCR stands in May of 2023? Quite a lot actually, even if this is an extreme datum point to start at.
Outside factors of many descriptions have managed to obscure how the TCR UK championship has really developed in the last two years if you look from a distance. The narrative that was delivered has been one where the phrase ‘second rate’ would be considered as an overly positive sentiment. The truth however is very different, and most of those opinions were formed from a distance by people who pieced together selected tidbits of information, and never once dragged themselves off their arses to find out for themselves at close quarters – which unfortunately mirrors the journalistic attitude of many scribes in the world of motor racing, from F1 to grassroots.
There have been many supportive words written (including by myself) about how the series is evolving. There have also been opinions shared about where there is still work to be done to improve things (you can include me in that segment too,) but how people judge the fruitful angles and failing perspectives can be different. I’ve had my idea of how things are going by judging event versus event since TCR UK launched in 2018 – and I think we all know the story all too well of how it has fared and struggled. Being effectively what the American Sports media like to call a ‘Beat Writer’ for both TCR UK and the Croft Circuit, the confluence of the two last weekend gave me the opportunity to see if my past gushings about the reborn series are actually true.
The reason I kicked off with that drencher of a race meeting in 2019 is simple. The North East does not have a strong car racing culture. That race meeting was an extreme – not just in weather. There was no charge on the door. Any race fan could have come along to view the goings on, but the gate total was a big fat zero. Nobody came to watch. Now you might think that the factors of two C1 races lasting three hours and horrendous weather might have been the reason. You’d be right, and wrong. Between then and now I have worked at all but two Croft race meetings (missing a club event and a BTCC round – both as restricted access pandemic events) and on more than one occasion I’ve seen meetings where ticket sales struggled into double figures, never mind reaching 100. I’ve seen meetings where the car parks were not opened and punters simply parked just inside the circuit entrance. That’s not a slight against the venue, it just sets the scene as to how circuit racing is received in the area. Rallying, Rally-Cross and Motorcycle Road Racing are still king in this part of the world.
There are racing fans in the catchment area for the venue, but – with no offence to the organisers – club meetings from BARC, BRSCC, 750 and DDMC don’t entice them. There is no fan community like there is at Castle Combe. There are no car enthusiasts buying season tickets and using the place as a meeting point like what you see at Oulton. The track doesn’t have the mad, photogenic intrigue of Cadwell. Once upon a time Croft held rounds of the BSB and British GT championships. The latter will not return. The GT3 era has ensured high level endurance racing has outgrown circuits like Croft. The demands of the BSB are being met elsewhere, and frankly I imagine the costs to upgrade aspects of the venue to the standards now required are preventative, which has led to empty spectator banks, and grandstand seats at clubbies that are taken by relatives and friends of competitors on a freebie entry.
There are two exceptions each year to the dearth of an audience at Croft. The British Touring Car Championship round and the HSCC Historic Weekend. You can’t move when the BTCC is in town. On race day the circuit is packed. On the Saturday it’s quite full too. Even the free entry Friday test for support categories gets a bigger crowd than club meetings. The Historic meeting features classic cars away from the track, military vehicles and a large fifties themed festival with music and dancing, drawing a large audience who are not all there for the racing, so the acid test for TCR after an off-season where the series has grabbed more attention than at any point since 2018, in my eyes, would be how it measured up in North Yorkshire.
The word in the paddock from the organisers was that a couple of thousand race day tickets had been sold in advance of the round. Add to that the pay-on-the-day brigade and a simple sum up is that it stood up above expectations. From a personal standpoint I was impressed by the turnout. Barring the BTCC/HSCC meetings this was the biggest attendance at the track that I can recall in a decade or more.
The sight of a decent (not rammed) gathering on the banks at The Complex and around turn one and two, as well as a full grandstand was a grand sight to see. The TCR pre-race grid walk was a huge success (even more so than at the Snetterton opener) and the paddocks were well populated with race goers enjoying the ability to take a look around some serious machinery, and if we’re blunt, taking the opportunity to grab some words and photos with drivers they’re familiar with from the BTCC in an environment more conducive to one-on-one fan interaction. All this on a day when Touring Car fans could have had a lazy Sunday watching the BTCC from Brands Hatch on television. But it’s not just about getting people through the doors. It’s about delivering a decent experience and bringing them back next year.
Over the last couple of seasons the series has been a part-time addition to the Time Attack bill. I’ve voiced my personal opinions on that set up on more than one occasion. Although I’m the diametric opposition to what the ideal Time Attack punter is, I could see how it made sense at the time to align with – what is let’s be honest – one of the big, yet under the radar, track based events in the UK. And that was where the judgement call was clouded, because the majority of people were there to watch cars on the infield revving engines – even more so than the day long ‘qualifying session’ that was twinned with the racing. TCR needed to step away on its own for us to to be able to truly measure the growth – if there was one.
The 2021 season finished at the end of August at Donington Park. A grid of 16 TCR cars made up the field. The year had kicked off as a mix of TCR, outdated BTCC and VW Cup cars, but by the close of competition it was back to being exclusively TCR for the first time since 2018. Three races to decide the championship were interspersed (along with the Civic Cup) with Time Attack and drifting. In terms of media I was there as a photographer and journalist for Motor Racing UK magazine. TCR UK media officer Phil Kinch was in attendance, as were two photographers from the official championship agency JEP. That was the full total of the coverage for the written media. No Autosport. No Motorsport News. No websites. Fast forward a year to the 2022 showdown and there was a greater interest – as was seen at the 2023 Media Day. When this season kicked off at Snetterton – as the new headline act for the BRSCC – there was a notable increase in media after the Time Attack relationship had been severed. But the real test would come at Croft.
The circuit based between Darlington and Northallerton put a considerable amount of effort into accommodating the championship. Freshly painted kerbs, a high end independent promotion campaign and VIP opportunities were only a part of the strategy to bring fans in, and it appeared to work.
From the BRSCC side a solid support bill was in play – and this is crucial to the TCR concept working as a major championship in the UK. Originally for this season the series was billed as a support for British GT, but it was unceremoniously dumped in favour of the Ginetta exodus from the TOCA package (in that paddock the word is that this was due to the company wanting an increased say – and a stake in – the running of that show – which was rejected) but has actually worked out in favour of TCR. Like the Time Attack setup it would have meant running out of awnings and picking the crumbs from the SRO table. Instead they now get the prime positions, garages and control of the pitlane, there is also more say in streaming/broadcast coverage. Across last weekend camera positions akin to the BTCC were in place. Scaffolding towers at various points – which are usually the domain of the TOCA package – were used. A new strategy of increased video output away from racing on both YouTube and social media was in play. Even with the usual TV crew otherwise engaged on a weekend when their services were used by BGT/BTCC a replacement team did a top level job. As for the rest of the media? There were a couple of journalists. There were quite a few photographers too. Added to the increased trackside crowd and general interest it shows where things are going. In the weeklies published over the last two days TCR UK leads the Croft meeting report in Autosport, and has a separate pop out in the Motorsport News race review. That newspaper also carries a full page opinion piece praising how the year has begun, so you could say that using ‘my’ circuit as a reference point has allowed us to come to the conclusion that in 2023 TCR UK is finally realising its potential. But it still needs work in some areas.
The championship does not decide the timetable, and this was one of the complaints in the straw poll/vox pops part of my interaction with fans on Sunday. The day was what Touring Car fans want if we’re going to be blunt. The Civic Cup, Fiesta Junior, CityCar and various MX5 championships in support delivered what they wanted. Fast turnaround times meant that races were kicking off just after the previous one finished. Hard action, contact and a bit of controversy. But was it enough? These types of bills are ten a penny – even at Croft, which counts the TCR round as one of 10 meetings for cars this season.
In previous years similar bills have been sent North without a headline grabber – to very small crowds. The truth is the majority of fans were happy to watch, but it was the TCR machines that encouraged them to come. It’s a grand idea to kick the day off with them just after lunch, then close the show with the second race, but, the reality is the five hour gap between the races is too long for that audience. There was a notable decrease in spectators for the second race, but most of those were still there between 4pm and 4:30 – which would have been a better slot for those who are paying (as stated earlier, these are the crowds that need to be given priority to encourage a return in 2024 – having given other fans an encouraging report.) With no disrespect to the other championships – they are the dressing on the burger. Okay, TCR teams are not turning up with multiple trailers and crews similar in size to BGT/BTCC – but as proved at that Donington finale in 2023 (practice, qualifying and three races in one day) that cars can be turned around in that time, so why not cater to the paying public in this respect? After all, the championships will get there track times – and the risk of the headline act being delayed to run beyond curfew (which happened at both Snetterton and Croft) could be mitigated against.
The first race was not the best that TCR has delivered in the last few years. It ended with the winner on the road Carl Boardley (you can read his thoughts on that in the next issue of Motor Racing UK) being placed second – which was a theme in Touring Cars cross the country last weekend. The follow up featured some driving that the crowd loved, but there were a few incidents that were questionable in driving standards. There was some contact that was very low brow, and to date that hasn’t really been seen in the series on this scale. It also led to a few frayed tempers, but that happens in racing. What didn’t work out at all well trackside according to people I spoke with – for a second meeting in succession – was poor quality commentary. In previous seasons on the Time Attack bill the TCR and Civic livestream comms has been relayed through the PA with no problem. The informed voices of McEwan and O’Neil (or for this week Woodwiss, Beaudette and Goldschmidt) would be preferable, or if not then knowledgeable voices that know TCR quite well. In the end this series has the opportunity to boost the BRSCC. TCR UK is seeing the game upped somewhat, and if they can force any sway on the issue – as for the moment this is the series that will bring the crowds – a push is needed for them to be represented to those paying to come through the doors.
There is still a long way to go. TCR UK has found its identity. It has found its place, but that message needs to be pushed far and wide. The championship needs to work with its partners for the benefit of all. A more successful series will lead to concessions from circuits if they can bring in even 5,000 people per round. That will benefit the BRSCC and other competitors sharing the bill – and will lead to a better fan experience.
Britain is a world centre in motor racing. It has the best national/club scene on the planet. There is more than enough room for a third wheel alongside BTCC and British GT. There is enough room for another well supported championship for fans to go and see (especially at tracks like Croft and Knockhill.) The tagline might be that ‘TCR is the Future,’ for that to be the case the positives need to be built upon, and the negatives corrected.