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The British Touring Car Championship is renowned for its close competition and bumper-to-bumper action, which spans nearly 60 years. It’s no surprise, then, that in 2017 the championship is celebrating the ‘most successful grid in history’, as 16 race winners and eager challengers go head-to-head for the most coveted crown in UK motorsport.
To celebrate the start of a yet another record-breaking season, the Club hosted a special dinner in Pall Mall for members to get up and close to the stars who make it happen. We welcomed BTCC greats of the past such as John Cleland, Steve Soper, Tim Harvey and Patrick Watts, alongside the drivers of today, including three-time champion Matt Neal and BRDC Rising Star Jake Hill. Series Director, Alan Gow, also made an appearance, alongside Team Principal of West Surrey Racing Dick Bennetts, whose three drivers scored a podium position at the opening round of the BTCC season at Brands Hatch earlier this month.
ITV4’s Louise Goodman and radio broadcast journalist Alan Hyde spent the evening quizzing our special guests on their thrilling careers in the BTCC, what it is truly like behind the scenes of the UK’s leading motorsport series, and how they really feel about their rivals – often a sore subject for touring car drivers…
Neal dived in and commented: ‘I was quite flattered when they said I was in the “current crop of drivers” – I thought I was one of the golden oldies!
‘To be honest, there is a lot of school boy politics in the BTCC paddock – we all have to get on the mobile podium and pretend to like each other,’ he smirked, ‘but really we have our own little friendship groups.’
When asked whether he and Jason, the two formidable BTCC rivals, had made amends, Neal joked: “I like him. I like the fact he’s not here…’
As one would expect in a room with a handful of the most competitive characters, guests were given a personal insight into the many weird and wonderful stories the drivers were itching to share, including one particularly noteworthy tale told by Cleland. Gow was right when he told us: ‘I can’t tell you all the stories, because you wouldn’t believe them.’
One story leaked, though, when Cleland reminisced about an evening in 1994 where he cunningly stole Gow’s credit card! You probably had to be there for that joke… But revenge was sweet in this case; his sentence for conducting such as crafty scheme was to revisit the weighbridge at least 42 times during the next race weekend at Snetterton!
Looking at the youthful end of the grid, Hill spoke of his joy in achieving his dream to race alongside the touring car greats he watched when he was a young lad. He said: ‘It had always been my dream to compete in the touring cars and to race alongside drivers such as Matt, Gordon (Shedden) and Rob (Collard) is absolutely fantastic – I have a lot of respect for all the drivers and we have some great battles in return – the BTCC is where I want to be.’ When Hyde asked if his touring car hero was, in fact, in the room, Hill hesitantly replied ‘no’, causing a slight sulk among the attending drivers…
Dick, on the other hand, told us of what he believes to be the key ingredients to claim the championship title in 2017, noting: ‘You need drivers and engineers who work together to develop a winning car. The championship is incredibly competitive this year, because there are so many experienced drivers on the grid.’
He added: ‘There are four ingredients you need to win this year – talented drivers, a well-developed engine, a quality chassis, and a good team. That’s what you need to win the championship.’
Patrick Watts, meanwhile, summed up the beloved BTCC in a few simple words: ‘It’s funny to think that our touring cars have become historics already – this pays testament to the success of the series and what it means to the fans. Alan’s series is exactly what is should be.’
The second round of the BTCC will take place at Donington Park this weekend (15-16 April)