The British Touring Car Championship celebrates its sixtieth year in 2018. From its humble beginnings as the British Saloon Car Championship in 1958, the championship has passed through many iterations, including the Ford Sierra RS500 monsters of the 1980s, through the exotic and expensive Super Touring era, right up to today’s popular and competitive NGTC rule package.
Given how long the series has been running, it comes as no surprise that there’s been significant crossover with Formula One. Well over fifty F1 pilots have tried their hand at tin-tops over the years, some of whom have gone on to dominate in the category. During the big-money Super Touring days, manufacturers were even asking F1 teams to run their factory efforts. The Renault Lagunas were run by Williams F1 from their Grove premises, while the beautiful thoroughbred Volvos were the brainchild of everyone’s favourite wheeler-dealer Tom Walkinshaw.
It would take an aeon to list every F1 Reject who participated in the BSCC era, so we’ve concentrated on 1987 to the present day. Using our age-old definition of a Reject, this sadly means we cannot include such luminaries as Gianni Morbidelli and Jean-Christophe Boullion in this list. Nor can BTCC’s home-grown Rejects make the cut, meaning the likes of Mark Howard, Chris James and Andy Neate have all added a DNPQ to their stellar BTCC results. Nonetheless, we’ve come up with a top ten that we think you might enjoy. Strap in for the ride, it’s going to be wild.
Honourable mention – Roland Ratzenberger (1988)
While the tragic events of Imola 1994 means Roland cannot be classified as a Reject, his 1988 campaign more than deserves a spot here. Entering a BMW M3 into Class B, Roland was immediately on the pace and scored a class win in only his second entry. Not only that, but this win came at Thruxton, the most challenging circuit in Britain! Other commitments meant he could not challenge for class honours or even the overall title (the author of this piece is an avid BTCC fan and even he still doesn’t understand the old class system!), Roland still did well enough to finish fourth in class, and eleventh overall in the standings, earning a swath of fans as he piloted his cherry red BMW around the country.
The BTCC inevitably became another notch in Roland’s storied career as he looked towards sportscars and open-wheelers after 1988. But that would not be the last time he would cross paths with tin-top fraternity. Competing in Japanese F3000 during the early 1990s, Ratzenberger struck up a friendship with future BTCC hell-raiser Anthony Reid. Indeed, the Austrian ended up saving Reid’s life when the Scotsman suffered a grisly crash at Fuji in late 1992. Later, Roland”s team mate at Simtek, David Brabham, would go on to have a BTCC adventure of his own.
10. Martin Donnelly (2015)
Infiniti Support Our Paras Racing was very much BTCC’s answer to Andrea Moda, the team lurching from one disaster to another during a frankly embarrassing 2015 campaign. The warning signs were there from the outset; a squad with two drivers that had never raced above club level, a car that was barely race-ready, and paddock rumours suggested the team had burnt through their year’s budget like a forest fire. Quite how the team secured works Infiniti backing is a mystery yet to be solved.
Infiniti had a huge announcement for Thruxton, the third round of the championship, for they were bringing in a Formula One driver to spearhead their challenge. Step right up, Martin Donnelly. 25 years removed from his horrendous accident at Jerez, the Ulsterman was relishing his first top-flight race since that dreadful day in Spain. He would also be the first F1 name to tackle the BTCC since the end of the Super Touring era, aside from a short stint by Johnny Herbert in 2009. It looked like the squad had scored a massive PR coup.
This being Paras Racing however, there was always going to be a daft twist. Donnelly replaced investment banker-turned-racing driver Richard Hawken, who only found out he was being replaced when the news broke on social media. Unsurprisingly this drained any goodwill the team had earned and Donnelly’s grand return to motorsport became just a footnote to this sorry tale. Martin secured two lowly finishes and a DNF during his weekend.
The Hawken business was the final straw for Infiniti, as they pulled their works backing with immediate effect after this round. This spelt the end of any follow-up appearances for Donnelly, as survival became key for Paras Racing. The team continued to pay homage to Andrea Moda as the season drew on, even having their own Monaco 1992 moment when Derek Palmer Jr secured a shock points finish at Snetterton. However, the squad did not return for 2016, surprising precisely no-one in the paddock.
9. Eric van de Poele (1994)
Our favourite Belgian linked up with the works Nissan team to partner Kieth O’Dor in 1994, replacing the veteran Win Percy. The Primera had shown flashes of promise over the previous couple of seasons, the car even securing a 1-2 finish at Silverstone in 1993. However, the Nissans were shuffled deep down the order in 1994. A solitary ninth at Snetterton was the single ray of light in a dismal season, one that Van de Poele would not see the end of. He was replaced mid-season by fellow F1 Reject Tiff Needell, marking yet another dark splodge on Eric’s racing CV. Fortunately, sportscar and Le Mans success was on the horizon for the Belgian.
8. Jan Lammers (1994)
Sportscar ace and perennial F1 also-ran Jan Lammers was tempted into the BTCC by that loveable rogue Tom Walkinshaw. Having had previous employment with TWR, the Dutchman seemed a logical choice to lead the new Volvo works squad for 1994.
Lammers posed very little problem for grid spotters, as he drove one of the more bizarre cars the BTCC had ever seen; the infamous Volvo estate. Distinctive the estate may have been, it was sadly an uncompetitive, lumbering beast. Lammers would have to make do with a smattering of low points finishes, a fifth at Brands being his best result. Being outperformed by his team mate, a relatively unheralded Swede by the name of Rickard Rydell, didn’t help matters either.
Lammers departed the BTCC at the end of the year. The timing was unfortunate, as Volvo became an overnight frontrunner in 1995 having ditched the estate for a traditional saloon. It would be Rydell who feasted on the spoils of Volvo’s improved form, culminating in championship success in 1998, a title that Lammers might have won instead had he stuck around.
7. David Brabham (1995)
It looked like David had secured a decent meal ticket linking up with Schnitzer in 1995 to drive the BMW 3-series, still the most successful Super Tourer at this point. With the team’s previous lineup having been Steve Soper and Joachim Winkelhock, David and his new team mate Johnny Cecotto had big shoes to fill.
The season was an almighty struggle however. Schnitzer were distracted by other commitments and had handed over the running of their BTCC squad to BMW UK,, causing massive upheaval. The ageing Beemer was being outclassed by the new generation of Super Tourers. Having expected to challenge for race wins, Brabham wasn’t even able to collect podium finishes, a smattering of minor points finishes being scant reward. The Australian didn’t stick around in touring cars after this season, moving on to sportscar racing.
6. Johnny Cecotto (1995)
Motorcycle ace and F1 Reject Johnny Cecotto had achieved significant success racing touring cars across Europe. The BTCC looked a promising bet for 1995, and with prior experience racing BMWs, Team Schnitzer welcomed Cecotto the fray. Partnering David Brabham, the new line-up added a new international feel to a series which was rapidly attracting the best tin-top drivers across the world. Then, Schnitzer handed over the running of the team to BMW’s UK arm, and everything suddenly went downhill.
Cecotto was unable to replicate his form in other series, and had to make do with a best finish of fourth. He was at least able to win the inter-team battle by pipping Brabham by one point at season’s end. Given this battle was for 11th overall in the standings, it probably didn’t feel like a victory, understandably. Suitably burned by his experience in Britain, the Venezuelan returned to mainland Europe to compete in the German Super Tourenwagen Cup, with much greater success.
5. Guy Edwards (1988-1989)
Guy Edwards was one of those elite band of drivers tasked with taming the rapid and violent Ford Sierra RS500s in the late 1980s. 1988 saw Guy knock on the door of victory several times, but always falling short. Nonetheless, consistent scoring saw him finish fifth in class. 1989 was rather less successful, a season interrupted with various clashing commitments. A solitary podium at Silverstone was his only significant result. Edwards largely called time on his top-line career after this season.
4. Tiff Needell (1987-1989, 1992-1994, 1998, 2001)
A racing driver turned TV presenter, “Tiffany Dell” only made occasional appearances in the BTCC, though this included winning a race in 1989 driving the ubiquitous Ford RS500. Tiff however rose to notoriety in 1993. Andy Rouse’s works Ford squad had pulled off a PR masterclass by signing Nigel Mansell to participate in the post-season TOCA Shootout at Donington Park With Mansell having spent the year Stateside in CART, the British public were eager to see their hero on home soil once again, packing the stands in their thousands. At the wheel of a Nissan, Tiff was also participating in the Shootout, when Mansell caught a tankslapper coming out of the Old Hairpin right in front of him. With nowhere to go, Tiff pitched Nigel’s Mondeo towards a nasty shunt underneath the bridge.
Incredibly, these two would come to blows again in 1998. For the second Brands Hatch round, Mansell was making another appearance driving a Mondeo while the works Nissan squad fielded a third Primera for Needell, which was being filmed for a Top Gear segment that would air towards the end of the year. In the feature race, Mansell ran into the back of Tiff’s Nissan, damaging both cars. A post-race altercation saw Nigel get in Tiff’s face, all captured on film. We have to wonder if hostilities still continue between the pair two decades on…
3. Julian Bailey (1991-1995)
With his Formula One career having spluttered to a halt earlier in the year, Julian Bailey secured a lifeline when the works Nissan squad fielded an extra car for him towards the end of 1991, to very limited effect. A year later, the same scenario unfolded when the works Toyota team snapped up Julian to play rear gunner for Will Hoy as the last few rounds of the championship unfolded. Try as he might, Julian’s efforts were not enough to enable Hoy to retain the BTCC title. But he had done enough to earn a full race seat for 1993, partnering Hoy. Bailey had perhaps the biggest shoes in the paddock to fill, as he was replacing the legendary Andy Rouse, who had moved on to begin a Ford Mondeo works team.
Julian made a lasting impression on the BTCC through a rather infamous accident at Silverstone. Battling for the lead with his team mate, Bailey clumsily managed to flip Hoy onto his lid. Murray Walker exclaimed that “the car upside down is a Toyota!” on commentary as Hoy slid to a halt upside down. This incident, a permanent feature on BTCC highlight reels ever since, rather overshadowed a decent season behind the wheel of the Toyota Carina. Bailey ran riot at Knockhill scoring his sole BTCC pole and race victory that weekend, on his way to 5th overall in the standings. Indeed, he even outscored the much-fancied Hoy throughout the year.
1994 and 1995 were much tougher affairs as the Carina wilted against newer and more sophisticated Super Tourers. Despite the podium being out of reach, Bailey was still able to gather a respectable number of points during these years, before Toyota finally pulled the plug at the end of 1995. Sadly, Bailey was unable to recharge his career a second time.
2. Gabriele Tarquini (1994-1995, 1997, 2000)
After spending his F1 career toiling away with such infamous Reject teams like AGS, Coloni and Fondmetal, Gabriele Tarquini found his true calling in tin-tops. Alfa Corse were plotting an assault at the BTCC for 1994, with a brace of Alfa Romeo 155s piloted by Tarquini and Giampiero Simoni. When the Scuderia arrived on British shores with their blood red 155s, Tarquini read the riot act on the field by winning the first five races of 1994. He did this without so much as a hint of competition, making the likes of John Cleland, Alain Menu, Steve Soper and Joachim Winkelhock look like a bunch of rank amateurs. This inevitably led to a vigorous backlash from other teams.
It transpired that the Alfa had been fitted with a variety of trick aerodynamic devices, and to get around the regulations had produced a limited number of road cars with this aero. The backlash was so fierce that TOCA had to intervene, ordering Alfa to remove these devices. Rather than comply, Alfa stuck two fingers up and withdrew from the Oulton Park round in protest, ending Tarquini’s winning streak.
After a compromise was hammered out in the paddock the Alfas returned at Donington. Despite this enforced timeout and a spectacular accident at Knockhill where Tim Harvey’s Renault pitched Gabriele into a barrel roll, three more race victories and consistent podiums meant the title was destined for Tarquini’s trophy cabinet.
Having demolished the field at the first attempt, Alfa Corse handed the works programme over to Prodrive for 1995, and Tarquini elected not to defend his title. With the team struggling severely, Tarquini was persuaded back behind the wheel for the second half of the season, but even he could not restore Alfa’s fortunes, making do with a trio of fourth place finishes. To the surprise of no-one, Alfa quietly ended their BTCC squad at the end of the season.
Spending 1996 racing Super Tourers in other series, Gabriele would return to British shores with two separate stints at Honda in 1997 and 2000 respectively. While the Honda Accord was a decent piece of kit, it lacked the killer edge required to become true title contender, and coupled with inconsistency Tarquini was unable to add a second BTCC title to his hoard, though he did take a further four race victories across these seasons.
1. Joachim Winkelhock (1993-1994, 1996)
He was christened “Smokin’ Jo” in Britain, and not just for his ability to light up the track. Joachim Winkelhock earned himself a huge fanbase during his BTCC stint. Buoyed by privateer BMW teams sweeping the last two titles, the legendary Team Schnitzer stepped up to the BTCC in 1993. Winkelhock was expected to play rear gunner for the brilliant but controversial Steve Soper, whom everyone thought was a shoe-in for the title.
The German however refused to follow the script, rattling off five race wins and generally doing a number on Soper. The Schnitzer BMWs were clearly the class of the field in 1993, and this meant Winkelhock lifted the BTCC crown at his first attempt.
Like the rest of the field, Winkelhock was ill-prepared for the Alfa Romeo onslaught in 1994. With the defence of his title turning into a damp squib, the German set his sights on ensuring he beat Soper for a second straight year. Four victories in the second half of 1994 meant this goal was achieved rather easily.
After spending a season competing in Japan, Smokin’ Jo returned to Blighty for BMW’s swansong in 1996, where at times he appeared to be the only man with an answer to Audi and Frank Biela’s seemingly unstoppable steamroller. Victories at Brands, Thruxton, Oulton Park and Snetterton hinted at another title run, but largely Winkelhock was driving out of his skin. The venerable 3-Series was too long in the tooth to really compete with the Audi. The second half of 1996 saw Winkelhock slip back as the Renaults and Hondas came good, though a final flourish at Brands with two poles and a third place finish was a decent way for Smokin’ Jo to sign off from the BTCC.