When Geely’s boutique manufacturer Lynk & Co. joined the fledgling WTCR series in 2018, they boasted of being the first Chinese manufacturer to take it to the global motorsport stage. However, thirteen years prior, another Chinese manufacturer could have made history play out differently. Brilliance Auto Group or Brilliance for short, were entered for the inaugural season of the revived World Touring Car Championship under the tutorship of notorious BTCC team owner John Batchelor.
This is the story behind the ill-fated attempt of the Chinese manufacturer who tried to make it to the big leagues of touring car racing in 2005, and the legacy that Brilliance left behind in doing so.
An email, and Brilliance are in the entry list for the new WTCC!
Our story starts in 2004, when the FIA was in the process of rebranding the Eurosport-promoted European Touring Car Championship into the revived World Touring Car Championship. It was to be the FIA’s third attempt at trying to create a world series for touring car racing. The first had come in 1987, during the Group A era, and the second between 1993 and 1995, with the World Touring Car Cup for vehicles conforming to Super Touring regulations.
The rebranding lit up ideas inside the manufacturers’ brains who were already involved in ETCC. Many saw this move as a bold step towards a resurgence in the touring car landscape following the iconic Super Touring era of the 1990s. BMW, Alfa Romeo and SEAT were set to continue their existing ETCC programs into the new WTCC championship, while General Motors saw an opportunity to launch their newly-Europeanised Chevrolet brand with the RML-built Lacetti. Ford, Honda and Peugeot were also involved – albeit at an arm’s length. The American manufacturer gave the German team Hotfeil Sport the blessing to develop a Focus touring car, while Honda were continuing their Accord project with the renowned Italian squad JAS Motorsport and Peugeot’s Danish Touring Car Championship team entering the beautiful 407 saloon on a part-time basis.
However, organisers in Paris were bemused when a mysterious ‘Brilliance Team China’ registered for the 2005 World Touring Car Championship by email – attaching two mocked up images of an M1 saloon bearing the Chinese flag and the lucky number 8 on the door. But now lay the question to everyone (including the FIA): who are Brilliance?
— Sergio Fonseca (@SergioFonseca8) April 10, 2020
The Brilliance Motor Company, or Brilliance Auto, was one of the foremost manufacturers in China’s growing automotive industry at the turn of the 21st century. They rose to further prominence in 2003 as part of a joint venture with BMW that saw the Shenyang-based company produce the German saloons for the Chinese market. One of their early cars – the Brilliance Zonghua – was developed by Italdesign Giugiaro and was considered a real step forward for Chinese motoring with stylings reminiscent of contemporary BMW and Lancia models. The car that Brilliance were intending to enter into the 2005 season – the M1 – was a continuation of the Zonghua line and was fairly European in styling – drawing comparisons with the contemporary E46 and E90 BMW 3 Series.
On the other side of La Manche, the now sadly departed British Touring Car Championship shock jock John Batchelor (John B&Q, John Top Gear or John York City to his friends) announced that he and his eponymous team were spearheading the Chinese manufacturer’s two-car effort on the world stage.
Batchelor’s connections are used to great effect in preparation for the season
At the time, the announcement of Batchelor’s appointment seemed like a strange decision. His BTCC team had hardly set the production class alight between 2001 and 2003 while the outfit’s step up to the top table in 2004 saw them unsuccessfully run the unorthodox combination of a Super 2000 spec Honda Civic Type-R alongside the Sergio Rinland-designed BTC-T-spec Peugeot 307. Derbyshire’s Richard Marsh drove most of the season, with former production class driver Jay Wheals joining the team for the season finale.
With hindsight, one thing that can definitely be said in favour of Batchelor’s appointment is that he had a gift for putting together lucrative commercial deals. His cars had featured sponsorship from major brands such as B&Q, JET Garages, Talksport Radio and VARTA Batteries throughout their history – the latter deal reportedly worth over £1 million.
Batchelor’s commercial nous wasn’t the only hiring Brilliance had done in the off-season. In what can be described as a coup, Brilliance had somehow attracted the former Ferrari, McLaren and Benetton designer John Barnard – who’d be best known for his trailblazing work on the McLaren MP4-1’s carbon fibre composite monocoque. Batchelor boasted that the new car would be “designed in China, styled in Italy” and be powered by Mitsubishi-based two-litre engines – most likely sourced from Proton’s aborted BTCC effort. Speaking of the vehicle, Batchelor was somewhat reserved in his expectations for 2005 but also spoke of further developments up the road: “The new car is an unknown, but with John Barnard designing it, it should at least be respectable. In 2006 we will have the new M2 model we believe to be an even better base for a racing car.“
Brilliance now had a talented designer and someone competent enough in finding money and connections attached to the project. It now required driving talent to sit behind the wheel of its M1s. Batchelor had planned an announcement of drivers for the 1st of December 2004, stating that “It is likely that in Year One the drivers will all be experienced former BTCC drivers we will need to develop the car. We will also be selecting three Chinese drivers to shadow these drivers and introduce them to the team over the next three years.”
Leading names banded around for the seat included former Volvo crash tester Kelvin Burt, Footwork’s hero Gianni Morbidelli, and Anthony Reid, who was also being courted for MG Rover’s doomed DTM effort at the same time. Regarding the aforementioned Chinese drivers, no names were put forward. Other names mentioned at the time were Gabriele Tarquini, Tim Harvey, David Leslie and Tom Ferrier.
Despite all these rumours, the 1st of December passed, and no announcements were made by the team. Things were starting to look awry but the team were still on schedule to race in the championship. They were still present on the entry list and, nine days later, the world would catch its first sight of the M1 touring car.
The world gets a glimpse of the Brilliance M1… at Monte-Carlo!
The FIA World Touring Car Championship was launched on the 10th of December 2004, at the FIA Prize Giving Gala in Monte-Carlo. Surprisingly, the Brilliance team was present, as a barely-modified M1 road car dressed in attractive maroon colour was parked alongside its rivals on Casino Square. At least the car didn’t look bad!
WTCC spokesperson at the time, Fabio Ravaioli, was particularly excited about the prospect of the team in the championship. In an interview with German automobile magazine AutoBild, he was quoted as saying: “Brilliance’s entry is the best thing that could have happened to us” within the context of the WTCC’s plans of getting manufacturers from every corner of the globe. FIA President Max Mosley was also encouraged by the bumper grid – “”We welcome eight manufacturers to the new Championship – Alfa Romeo, BMW, Chevrolet, Ford, and Seat as well as Honda and Peugeot. For the first time a Chinese Manufacturer, Brilliance, will compete in a World Championship. […] I very much look forward to the first season of what I am convinced will be a very exciting new Championship.”
Ultimately, Brilliance managing to park a show car outside the FIA Prize Giving on Casino Square would be the biggest impact the manufacturer would make on global motorsport. Just before Christmas 2004, it was suggested that Barnard had already departed the project due to a lack of payment from China. It was also widely rumoured that the rather infamous Vic Lee Racing were involved in preparing the car that turned up to the launch and also would be involved in the running of the 2005 programme – although obviously the (second) conviction of Lee in mid-2005 would have put paid to any involvement they would have had.
News began drying up about the project and Brilliance missed the season opener at Monza. In the wake of this, Batchelor announced the team’s on-track debut was to be pushed back to the third race of the season at Silverstone. Just as before, the round came and no M1s were to be seen on the racetrack. The FIA hadn’t included Team China on the official entry list for 2005 and in 2006 the WTCC organisation confirmed to TouringCarTimes that they had heard nothing new about Brilliance’s plans – effectively killing the trail dead.
A legacy that was not in vain
What became of all parties involved? As I’m sure you’ve noticed, Brilliance never raced in any high level motorsport barring a brief run in the 2006 (and, seemingly, 2007) China Circuit Championship with little success. The company still exists to this day but now seems to be more focussed on producing minibuses for the domestic market. The Brilliance M1 built to S2000 rules never saw the light of day and there are no traces of what happened to the show car presented at Monte-Carlo.
John Batchelor, having retired from motorsport, spent the rest of the decade attempting to buy various football clubs following his controversial term as York City chairman between 2002 and 2003. He was involved in takeover bids for Mansfield Town, Accrington Stanley, Chester City and Southampton before he was disqualified from being a company director for seven years in 2010. In an unfortunate turn, Batchelor died of liver disease in April that same year, caused by years of alcoholism. Finally, John Barnard took an unexpected turn away from motorsport soon after the Brilliance debacle, selling his B3 Technologies firm in 2008 and then moving into the exciting world of furniture design.
Despite the failure of Brilliance, China would go on and rightfully take a leading position in world motorsport over the next decade and a half. In single-seater racing, four out of the first six Formula E championships were won by Chinese-entered teams NEXTEV TCR (now NIO 333) and DS Techeetah whilst Alpine Academy & 2021 Formula Two pacesetter Guanyu Zhou looks destined to race in Formula One, providing some of the old guard move out of the way in time.
In the realms of touring car racing, Shanghai’s Ma Qinghua – following his brief F1 FP1 foray for HRT in 2011 – established himself as one of the most impressive tin-top drivers of his generation with his strong performances for Citroën (driving the C-Elysée, the French manufacturer’s flagship car in China) & Team Mulsanne in the World series and domestically with Teamwork Motorsport. SAIC’s MG Motor have reestablished themselves as a force by virtue of their BTCC programme in the mid-2010s and their newly-developed MG 6 XPower, proving itself competitive in Asian TCR series.
Finally, Lynk & Co have taken the new World Touring Car Cup (WTCR) by storm with their Cyan Racing-built 03 car – taking the team’s championship in both 2019 and 2020, and powering Frenchman Yann Erlacher to his first driver’s championship in 2020. They’ve courted controversy with their somewhat unfair interpretation of the WTCR rules against organised manufacturer teams, but their performances against the representatives of Audi, Hyundai and Honda have been undeniably impressive.