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From the archives: The BTCC at 60

Saturday, December 29 2018

The Kwik Fit British Touring Car Championship celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2018, and it was appropriately as good as ever this year as it visited MSV circuit on no fewer than five occasions throughout the year.

This was celebrated in excellent style at Snetterton in the summer when championship legend Matt Neal won a special 'Diamond Double' race, and we decided that this was the perfect time to take stock and briefly glimpse back at the sport's past.

The BTCC has always been close. The championship has gone down to the last day of the season in each of the past few seasons, but this is nothing new to the series - it actually went beyond the final race during its maiden 1958 season!

Back in 1958, the championship was a totally different animal to the one you know and love today. For starters it was named the British Saloon Car Championship - a moniker it maintained until the mid-1980s - and the championship was run across multiple classes.

By the time the championship's debut season was over, Class C driver Jack Sears (Austin A105) and Class D driver Tommy Sopwith (Jaguar 3.4 Litre) were tied for points. Instead of tossing a coin for the championship, the duo faced off in identical 1.5 litre Rileys for the crown at Brands Hatch, with Sears coming out on top. And thus, the template for fiercely competitive top-level saloon car racing in the UK was born.

As the championship moved into the 1960s, a hugely popular era began for the championship as huge muscle cars from the United States clashed with more nimble British machinery. The yank tanks were much more powerful, but woe betide anybody who underestimates a Mini - especially on twisty circuits with British weather…

The 1960s also represented a golden period for the championship, as the UK's finest saloon car specialists frequently banged door mirrors with the F1 stars of the day. By the time Sears claimed his second title in 1963, he was frequently racing against, and in the same class as, F1 megastars Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Jack Brabham, and Dan Gurney.

Clark even won the championship in 1964, behind the wheel of a Team Lotus Cortina, which seems unthinkable today. Could you imagine Sebastian Vettel entering the championship in a manufacturer backed Fiat Punto, or Lewis Hamilton as Adam Morgan's team-mate in a Mercedes A-Class? Perhaps not.

The championship continued to operate across multiple classes throughout the '60s and '70s, with a sequence of stunning cars claiming the crown, including the Sunbeam Imp Sport - three times a champion in the hands of Bill McGovern - Chevrolet Camaros, and Hillman Avengers.

In 1975, there was a first crown for Andy Rouse, then aged just 28 and embarking on his third season of competition in the championship. It was another dead heat year, with Rouse narrowly winning the crown after claiming as many points in his Class B Triumph Dolomite Sprint as Class A man Win Percy and Class D racer Stuart Graham.

Further championships followed for Rouse in 1983 in an Alfa Romeo GTV6, in 1984 in a Rover 3500 Vitesse, and 1985 in a Ford Sierra XR4ti, before he became one of the key protagonists of an enormously fondly remembered period - the era of the Sierra RS500.

Rouse won countless races in the RS500, racking up plenty of silverware as his career romped towards a final tally of 60 wins. He never won the title in an RS500 though, as the championship went to a variety of drivers in other classes, including Chris Hodgetts, Frank Sytner, and John Cleland. 1990 was the final year for the multi-class system and for the RS500 as the fastest car on the grid and it finally won the crown - though it was Robb Gravett and not Rouse atop the table come the season's end.

As the '90s dawned, so too did big money manufacturer interest in the series, with countess marques queuing up to prove that their saloon car was the best to the public. International superstar drivers were summoned to do the driving too, with a number of ex Grand Prix stars taking to the circuit to fight for badge honour in what became known as the Super Touring era.

BMW claimed first blood in that debate with three straight championship wins for Will Hoy, Tim Harvey and Joachim Winkelhock, but no other manufacturer managed multiple titles thereafter during the Super Touring period.

There was all sorts of innovation going on too, with Alfa Romeo cleverly interpreting the rules to introduce advanced aerodynamics, Volvo entering a colossal estate car, and Audi's use of four-wheel-drive. Renault even hired in the Williams F1 team to run its operation - it was a fun but unsustainable period for the championship.

By the time Super Touring came to a close, only three full manufacturer teams remained on the grid as budgets skyrocketed, with Alain Menu claiming the final crown of the popular era in 2000.

The championship pressed the reset button for the new millennium with first the BTC, and then S2000 regulations coming and going before the current concept was partially introduced in 2011.

After the manufacturer-led period of the '90s the series has reached a happy medium in the last few years in which independent drivers and works teams are able to compete on an even playing field - indeed this year's championship came down to a straight fight between the manufacturer-backed BMW of Colin Turkington, and the privately-run Speedworks Motorsport Toyota of Tom Ingram. Turkington won the championship, but Ingram's efforts have earnt him official Toyota backing for next year.

The racing was as exciting as ever throughout the season, and it all culminated with a stunning battle between Josh Cook and Ashley Sutton who provided an on-track duel for the ages as they swapped position time and time again on the full Grand Prix circuit at Brands Hatch.

National level saloon car racing remains a tantalising prospect. Here is to the next 60 years!

Tickets to all MSV BTCC rounds in 2019 are available here.