The introduction of a 2-litre, single-class touring car formula (devised in the UK and later adopted worldwide by the FIA as ‘SuperTouring’) – and with all cars running on unleaded fuel – attracted renewed interest from major motor manufacturers, which led to unprecedented growth, unparalleled global interest and fierce rivalries. The BTCC quickly became the world’s premier touring car series and, as such, the best possible global shop window for car companies wishing to promote their mainstream showroom models.
Right from the outset in 1991, BMW, Ford, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Toyota and Vauxhall were all represented and all the current touring car hallmarks were immediately on display. There was no runaway winner with the top four drivers in the championship – Will Hoy (BMW M3), John Cleland (Vauxhall Cavalier), Andy Rouse (Toyota Carina) and Steve Soper (BMW M3) – each winning three races and, as has become the norm, the title fight went right down to the wire. Although Tim Harvey (BMW M3) won the season finale, fifth place was enough for Hoy to clinch the coveted crown.
While BMW and Vauxhall shared most of the honours, special interest was centred on the return of Toyota. In the hands of multiple champion Rouse, the Carina showed its potential straightaway but did not begin winning until mid-season. In fact, two came along at once in the BTCC’s first double-header event (two races for the crowds) staged at Donington Park.
In 1992, the BTCC came under the management of TOCA, which set out to attract new manufacturers and added a sparkling package of support races to transform the championship into the top-line travelling roadshow that it remains today.
On the track, Peugeot joined the fray but it was Cleland who started strongly for Vauxhall before Hoy and Rouse fought back for Toyota (despite an infamous clash that sent the pair of them spearing into the barriers on Brands Hatch’s Grand Prix loop)! It took Harvey until mid-season to give BMW’s new 318i model its first win, but then the floodgates opened. Four consecutive victories ensured that a three-way title tussle, in the finest tradition, would go right down to Finals Day at Silverstone with Hoy, Cleland and Harvey all still in the frame.
While a soon-to-retire Rouse won what was a predictably explosive finale, his team-mate Hoy could finish only fifth. Cleland crashed out in a highly controversial coming-together with Soper’s BMW. Thus Harvey’s tactical finish in fourth place was sufficient to land him the championship crown.
Sponsored by Auto Trader, the 1993 BTCC was notable for Ford’s official comeback and an exciting new challenge from Renault. BMW, now represented by the crack Schnitzer outfit, staked its claim from the outset, winning seven of the first eight races. The sequence was interrupted only when Harvey triumphed in Renault’s 19 model in a very wet European Grand Prix support race at Donington Park. German Joachim Winkelhock hit back for BMW to emerge as the leading title contender.
Nissan, Toyota and Vauxhall won races thereafter and the late-season appearance of the Rouse-prepared Ford Mondeo also made an impact, with New Zealander Paul Radisich claiming his maiden and Ford’s 200th BTCC victory at Brands Hatch. However, Winkelhock held on to become the first non-British driver to capture the title in two decades.
With the series going from strength-to-strength and an increasing number of double-header events further increasing the spectacle and public appeal, two more manufacturers – Alfa Romeo and Volvo – launched major challenges. Although the Swedish company caused a significant stir by entering an estate car, it was the Italian team that stole the spotlight. Former F1 driver, Italy’s Gabriele Tarquini, won the opening five races in a well-planned attack that upstaged his rivals, not least as the 155 was fitted with special aerodynamic aids – a bold move which forced the FIA to permit all competing teams to fit limited wings and spoilers in future seasons. Radisich (Ford Mondeo), Switzerland’s Alain Menu (Renault Laguna), Cleland (Vauxhall) and Winkelhock (BMW) all won races, but Tarquini was rarely off the podium and he continued to pile up enough points to take top honours.
Honda was the newcomer in 1995, taking the tally to no fewer than nine manufacturers contesting what was firmly established as the world’s premier championship of its type as all events now moved to a two-race format. With a season’s experience under its belt, the TWR-run Volvo attack switched to a saloon bodyshell, while Renault set up a new BTCC camp with its renowned Formula 1 partner Williams. Further underlining the series’ status, Alfa Romeo engaged former F1 star and UK racing hero Derek Warwick. Nevertheless, it was Cleland, the 1989 champion, who took the opening race for Vauxhall. Sweden’s Rickard Rydell and new team-mate Harvey were soon race winners for Volvo and, when Menu triumphed for Renault, an epic battle was set up among the leading three manufacturers. Four successive mid-season victories by Cleland reasserted Vauxhall’s advantage. Although Menu and Hoy fought back and ultimately secured the Manufacturers’ title for Renault, Cleland continued to amass enough points to become a worthy Drivers’ Champion.
Audi was the big talking point in 1996. Entering the series for the first time, the German manufacturer came armed with its four-wheel-drive A4 quattro saloon and accomplished German star Frank Biela. The silver cars quickly became the class of the field and Biela established a strong grip on the title by winning five of the opening eight rounds. A mid-season weight review reduced the Audi’s 4WD advantage, but didn’t prevent a clear-cut success.
After three seasons as championship bridesmaid, Renault ace Menu finally made it to the top in 1997. The Swiss speedster swept to victory, securing the Drivers’ crown with several races in hand. The Renault Laguna was all-conquering and the Williams outfit succeeded Audi as champions in every domain.
The following year’s championship, though, was more keenly contested with the destination of the Drivers’, Manufacturers’ and Teams’ titles all in doubt until the final weekend of a memorably hard-fought campaign. No fewer than nine different drivers claimed race wins before Rydell emerged as champion in his TWR-prepared Volvo S40. The other two titles went to the Nissan Primera squad prepared by RML. 1998 was also the year when former F1 World Champion Nigel Mansell made three high-profile guest appearances in the BTCC, racing a Ford Mondeo at Brands Hatch, Donington Park and Silverstone.
Volvo, Honda, Vauxhall and Ford all won races in 1999 but, after a disastrous start at Donington Park, it was Nissan’s French signing, Laurent Aiello, who quickly established himself as the man to beat. Aiello was always under pressure – not least from team-mate David Leslie – but nine victories from 26 starts was enough to clinch the crown. The year produced another big winner, too, when Nissan privateer Matt Neal bagged a bumper £250,000 cheque offered by TOCA to the first independent driver to win a BTCC race outright.
With TOCA marketing the series aggressively, the Nineties were a boom time for the BTCC. Thrilling TV coverage – live coverage on the BBC’s Saturday afternoon sports show, Grandstand, supplemented by regular highlights – plus packed grandstands and star names became part and parcel of the championship’s ongoing success, but such achievement came at a cost. With budgets soaring, only three manufacturer teams – Ford, Honda and Vauxhall – remained as the BTCC headed into a new millennium in 2000 and the Super Touring grid was supplemented by a less powerful class for Group N-based cars. All three front-line teams won races before Menu – now spearheading Ford’s three-pronged attack – took his second title. For the record, the final two races of the Super Touring era – which was about to be superseded by a new set of cost-cutting technical regulations – were won by Le Mans 24 Hours legend, Denmark’s Tom Kristensen, in a WSR-prepared Honda Accord at Silverstone.