Is the British Touring Car Championship a victim of its own success?

With a packed 32 car field, is the popular British Touring Car Championship getting too crowded? The championship needs a higher concentration of quality and a slimmer field, or it may start to lose out to its competitors, writes Luke Barry.

It isn’t often that a national championship is more popular than its international equivalent, but in the case of the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC), it’s hard to argue otherwise. The BTCC’s revolutionary format and extraordinary ability to adapt to its external factors have all helped it become the biggest racing series in the UK.

Born in 1958, the racing championship for touring cars, or ‘tin tops’, celebrates its 60th birthday next year and has seen some brilliant drivers compete over the years, from multiple title winners like Andy Rouse, Matt Neal, Jason Plato and Gordon Shedden to Formula 1 drivers such as Nigel Mansell, Derek Warwick and Johnny Herbert.

The series was originally divided into three separate classes – Class A, B and C – depending on the size of the car’s engine, before the infamous ‘Super Touring’ formula was created, which revolutionised touring car racing not just in Britain but all over the world. This era is revered as the greatest in the championship’s history, with just about every family saloon on sale trading paint across the UK’s race circuits.

With costs reaching astronomical levels, the ‘Super 2000’ regulations were adopted in 2001 which lasted the best part of the decade, with the ‘New Generation Touring Car’ replacing it. These rules are currently in place today.

The popularity of the championship is soaring with a maximum 32 car grid, with a healthy live TV package on ITV4 covering all three of the weekend’s races on each of the 10 rounds. This all points to a healthy championship, but the sheer volume of the grid is doing more harm than good to the reputation of the BTCC.

Across its vast history, the racing in British touring cars has always been exceptionally close. Occasionally too close, with rubbing, tapping and incidents aplenty down the years. This is part and parcel with racing in such competitive cars, but at points this year we haven’t seen good racing jest but blatant manoeuvres, seriously questionable driving and major misjudgements.

There is no finer example of this than the recent meeting at Silverstone, the penultimate weekend of the 2017 championship.

MG racer Josh Cook entered the race weekend with a race ban that his team appealed, there was a terrifying accident involving BMW’s Rob Collard and VW driver Will Burns, and championship protagonists Ashley Sutton and Colin Turkington were also involved, with the former forcing his way past the latter and being sent to the back of the grid for the next race as a penalty.

This reflects badly on TOCA and the MSA as this is their flagship racing championship, and it’s something series director Alan Gow is looking to clamp down on. The penalties have become harsher than in recent years which can be argued is why so many are being punished, but the counter argument is that the penalties have had to become stricter in order to discourage this kind of on-track behaviour.

Drivers are even taking to Twitter to sort out their squabbles, with Mike Epps and 2013 champion Andrew Jordan publicly arguing over a spat they had on track.

With so many cars on the grid, the racing is becoming more of a melee than an old-fashioned and sporting race, and it’s something that could be solved by putting a cap of 20-24 cars on the grid. With less cars there will be more racing room and better quality drivers with less seats available for the less experienced.

All this is coming at the worst possible time too for the BTCC, with the fast-growing TCR formula coming to the UK for 2018.

This evolving touring car series sees less expensive, less powerful cars than the BTCC race, and has proved successful across the globe in the likes of Germany, Thailand, China, Italy and Portugal to name just a few. Why shouldn’t it prove popular in this country?

The talk from the BTCC is that TCR is not a direct competitor and will not affect the series’ popularity and health. Indeed, there are no calendar clashes between the two championships which means it is unlikely that drivers will leave the BTCC to focus solely on TCR, and with no TV package, at least for the first year, sponsors are likely to be less interested.

But, much like the R5 formula in rallying, the advantage of running a TCR car is you can take it and race all over the world. As the regulations are the same, a UK car is eligible to race in China and a Chinese car is eligible to race in the UK. A large number of cars are already in existence which should lead to interesting racing, and with it being in its development phase, you can expect the series will be quick to adapt to change.

All of this is unlikely to pull people away from the BTCC, but don’t be surprised to see drivers compete a 17 race season across the two championships. If TCR is good enough and the BTCC’s standards continue to slip, all it takes is one key figure to sing the praises of TCR and suddenly the balance of power has reversed.

TCR could prove to be a massive helping hand to the BTCC and an ideal stepping stone for drivers looking to jump up to what currently stands as Britain’s premier racing series. But for Alan Gow to totally dismiss it seems very naive. Ironic too given the Australian’s brilliant awareness in years gone by. 2018 will be crucial.  

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