BTCC: The Perfect Type of Racing

While watching the British Touring Car Championship season opener last weekend (for the first time, I might add), I was astounded at how brilliant the racing is. It was just a constant stream of action that unyieldingly balanced the line between driving precision and loosely-controlled chaos. Apart from a few rather scary crashes, the racing was largely calculated and exact. Controlled racing is like a very tall mountain with a peak just wide enough for you to stand on. One’s precarious perch on it does not require much to be ruined, and the drivers in the BTCC did a brilliant job of making sure they did not fall into a chaotic abyss.

This astounding discovery made me think about the racing in Formula One these days. It is not often that we get to see a race in which each and every driver pushes for each and every lap. One needs only to read the post-race comments from Malaysia to realize that sentiment in Formula One over the racing is one of disappointment.

The tires arguably play the biggest role in the way the racing in Formula One pans out. Pirelli have received criticism, almost from the day they arrived in the Formula One paddock in 2011, for making the racing too manufactured and too driven by the gods of luck.  This sometimes hostile criticism is one of the sad truths of the sport, as Pirelli have only done what has been asked of them. The Italian manufacturer was briefed at the end of 2010 by the FIA that there needed to be an increase of on-track action with tires that degraded quickly and provided chances for teams not normally a feature at the front of the grid the opportunity to shine. While much of this has been achieved in the past couple of years (with a peak in 2012), a new type of Formula One has emerged. A Formula One that does not allow its drivers the opportunity to drive flat out for an entire stint is not what the sport needs. Every single driver, from Red Bull down to Marussia, drives in constant fear of their tires hitting the dreaded “cliff”. Once reached, the cliff smacks you in the face with a car that is not only slow, but with grip that is struggling to remain in existence and a balance that is sometimes dangerous. If a Formula One car suddenly loses its grip at say, Eau Rouge, without giving any warning to the driver, there is a potential accident waiting to happen. Going 300 km/hr into a corner through which most everyone takes flat out on old tires raises a red flag to the driver only after they squirm their way out of the bend and back to safety.

Apart from the safety side of the sport, the actual racing is taking a serious hit in terms of its believability and authenticity. Putting the racing of today in juxtaposition with the racing of just 6 or 7 years ago makes for an unfortunate comparison. Years ago, the tires were so durable that one could drive flat out to their refueling window, pit, and go back out again on new tires and push as hard as they wanted for the next stint. While this was particularly enjoyable for the drivers, a lot of the time the races ended up looking like processions of cars with no hope of any passing. That’s not to say that all racing back then was processional, as some of Formula One’s most exciting races took place in this era. Ferrari, though, played a big part in creating this type of racing. Aside from just having the fastest cars for years on end, Ferrari also held Bridgestone and FOM around its little finger. This allowed them to give the rest of the field the middle finger as they romped to championship after championship. With Bridgestone under Ferrari’s control, they made tires that suited the Ferrari exactly, thus giving them an advantage over the rest of the teams that, for years, was insurmountable.

When Pirelli was brought back into Formula One they needed to make tires that degraded at a higher, more intense rate which, in turn, would require more pitstops. They also needed the penalty for staying out too long on one set of tires to be more severe, further emphasizing the push for more pitstops. For 2013, things may have gone too far.

I have defended the Pirelli tires ever since they arrived in 2011, but after doing some long and hard thinking, I may need to adjust my stance. Regardless of what anyone says, Formula One is no longer about real racing. Yes, the drivers are on the track at the same time and they do battle hard for position, but racing in the true sense of the word has all but disappeared. Drivers are no longer straining themselves in a race to drive flat out. The tires simply will not allow for it to happen. What happens now, is a rather pathetic excuse for racing, where the action is a mere facade ironically covering up something that isn’t even there. The racing has gone, and the drivers are not happy about it. It is hard for them to justify spewing out politically-minded responses defending Pirelli and the tires when they are the very things that deny them the joy of racing at 100 percent.

This all brings me back to the British Touring Car Championship. This series provides fans with one of the most exciting racing spectacles I have ever come across. The formula in BTCC should not even produce great racing; there is no refueling, there are no tire changes, and the cars are all very similar in speed and performance. How then, are the races so intriguing and captivating? How is it possible for Gordon Sheddon to start from last on the grid in the final race and end up only eight tenths off the lead at the end of the final lap? None of this should be possible. What makes this even more mind boggling, is that stuff like this happens on a regular basis. I did some research after discovering my love for the BTCC and found that these Herculean charges from the back of the field are not entirely uncommon. There is, however, an explanation for this racing enigma: Ballast.

The BTCC has a rule that those who do very well in one race will then start the next race with ballast. That is, they will run heavier for the next race in a bid to make the field closer on the track and positions more hard-fought. Formula One has DRS to solve its passing problems, but it is largely unloved by Formula One purists. It makes the already artificial world of Formula One just that much more of a sham. This is also one of the reasons that I am a huge advocate for the development of passive drag reduction systems. They allow for more top speed, and thus more passing, but it is achieved through technical innovation and hard work rather than through an afterthought regulation like the DRS of today.

I am going to make a rather radical proposal here, but bear with me, as it could help solve some of the problems that plague Formula One’s reputation. If a system of ballast removal could be implemented in the cars that qualify at the back of the grid, the racing could be much closer and the pain the tires cause could be assuaged. I suggest this not only because it would keep the racing close and more exciting, but because it goes about doing this in a way that is unseen by an observer.

One of the problems I have with DRS is that it is so blatantly fabricating the passing we see in F1. There is nothing inconspicuous about it and something within me doesn’t react well to that. I, along with many other fans, want there to be more passing. But the way the DRS goes about doing it not only makes the passing obviously fabricated, but it also makes it happen in one split moment. With the slower cars running lighter, the advantage they gain will be constant and under the radar. The DRS makes it blatantly obvious that the passing is not genuine and that doesn’t sit will with fans. If we are to have some sort of passing assist in the sport, I think we would all rather have it go unnoticed. You tell me if you agree or not.

While this will probably never happen in Formula One, we must, for  now, live with the fact that things aren’t perfect. This is a hard thing for most Formula One fans to accept, and for good reason. We don’t call F1 the pinnacle of motorsport for nothing, do we? The BTCC is a bit of an enigma in the motorsport world. Its ingredients do not suggest for a second that any great racing should be produced. But somehow, a spectacle so enthralling ensues that I wonder why I ever watched anything else. If Formula One is to satisfy its fans in the long-run, maybe it should look to the BTCC for some help. They seem to know something Formula One doesn’t.

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12 thoughts on “BTCC: The Perfect Type of Racing

  1. There’s also another reason why Shedden was able to charge from the back. Most the grid are untalented buy-riders and businessmen pretending to be race car drivers. The few others often just break down. So Plato and Neal who have been in it literally for a thousand years always win. It isn’t proper racing. BTCC is a shadow of its former self. The real glory days were the mid to late 90s. A quick YouTube search will show you just how much better it was then than it is now.

  2. Good article mate, I enjoyed reading it and I agree with a lot of the points you’ve made, particularly regarding how well F1 drivers can push their cars.

    However, I do think that putting ballast on cars is actually a more artificial way of spicing up the racing than DRS/deliberately degrading tyres. At least with DRS and Pirelli everyone’s in the same boat, all the drivers have the same rubber available to them and all of them can use DRS if they wish. It may not be 100% pure racing, but at least no-one loses out on those advantages. I think if they were to mess about with putting/taking ballast on/off the cars there’d be even more complaints about the purity of the racing.

    The reason ballast works in the BTCC is it’s a series that’s aimed almost 100% at entertainment. Reverse grids, three races, ballast etc, all achieve that. It’s something that they deliberately set out to do and it works well for them. However, in a series such as F1, which is about the best drivers in the world driving the best cars built by the best engineers, the whole model of the sport should be based on performance rather than making things fun for ‘the show’.

    I think the best thing F1 could do is produce a set of aero regs which force the teams to build cars that can follow each other closely and can overtake with as little ‘dirty air’ as possible. However, by going down the route of DRS/Pirelli tyres, at least they’re doing it through something which everyone has on the cars rather than unfairly penalising others for winning, so to speak.

    Sorry about the longish reply, just wanted to make my point as clearly as possible.

    • Yeah I see where you’re coming from. It was something I debated in my head for a long time.

      We need to remember that DrS was also just to increase the entertainment as well as with the Pirelli tires.

      With ballast, though, it closes up the field. Like you said, the DRS and tires are the same for everyone, thus not doing as much to level out the field. It has helped, as I said in the article, but I just felt like the ballast could do something more.

      • I think it depends what you’re looking for in F1. If you want the field to be as close as possible then I agree that ballast would be a good way of achieving that. But the problem is that F1 is as much about how good a car the teams can build as it is about the drivers. This isn’t an issue in something such as the BTCC, where the cars are all souped-up versions of models you or I can drive on the road.

        Say for example a WIlliams or a Toro Rosso were allowed to run 20 kilos lighter because of ballast and shot through the field. That would feel a lot more ‘fake’ to me than it would if they used a tyre strategy that no-one else thought of. If midfield teams were able to do this and were regularly achieving podiums from this kind of advantage than I guarantee the complaints to do with the tyres will be a drop in the ocean compared to how the teams would whine about ballast.

      • Interesting point. I’ll have to think about this some more. And also watch BTCC for longer. It was my first race weekend after all.

      • It’s definitely a debate worth having though. The way I see it F1 has some of the best engineers in the world, some of the things they can come up with boggle the mind. They should be more than capable of producing cars that can follow each other closely and can lend themselves to great racing.

        The FIA could do a lot worse than get together a group of engineers/designers/aerodynamicists with a brief to come up with a set of aero regs that promote overtaking to the same level as DRS/Pirelli tyres do. That way we would get good, natural racing without any gimmicks involved.

      • Yeah. This is why I talked about how much I love the passive DRS.

    • This is just what makes the problems we have with Formula One so difficult to solve.

  3. tyre management was always a part of f1 racing going back to the early days until bridgestone made rock hard tyres. even in the 80s turbo days it was a big thing, prost driving slowly in the early laps and then coming on strong in the closing ones being a good example.

    as for ballast, the ‘purists’ would still know it’s there so it would be no better than DRS in that respect. f1 has never been a close formula, these last few seasons have probably been as close as it has ever been.

    f1 rules are ever changing (engine size, aspiration, aero, tyres with/without grooves, refuelling etc) and these pirellis, KERS and DRS are just part of that. this is just a basic truth of f1. there is too much time spent looking at the past and the so-called golden ages which most people only know through highlights shown in the modern age and they’re just that, highlights.

    all ‘in my opinion’ of course 😉

  4. Apart from just the racing I think F1 could learn a lot from BTCC about spectator entertainment.

    I went to both BTCC and F1 at Silverstone last year and there was far more going on at the BTCC for spectators than the F1. At the BTCC spectators could access the entire pit lane, I filmed all the cars leaving for the grid – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQ_twGx1MIQ&list=UUhCVzbEeHneBkbFqIIu2HWw&index=7 (sorry for the shameless plug). I understand that this would be quite difficult in F1 due to the number of spectators but I’m sure something could be done.

    Other entertainment was also much better at BTCC and there was loads to do during the day and loads of different races to watch whereas in the F1 the only other thing to do was to buy overly priced merchandise, there was no entertainment.

  5. I too love btcc and f1. I have been to 4 British go and enjoyed them all and seen some great passes except 2007. I am going to my first touring car race at donington in a couple of weeks and at £25 it’s superb value. I love the ballast removal idea but feel this only works where you have multiple races on the one day. The pace of the f1 cars differs so much track to track that removing ballast from lotus due to their last result for the china race where their pace may have been better anyway, may create a situation where they romp away at the front. Maybe removing ballast biased on qualifying position might work to reduce field spread. I also agree with the Ferrari and Bridgestone analysis was unfair and wouldn’t happen now. So ballast removal after qualy and more durable tyres allowing drivers to go flat out seems the best solution to my mind.

  6. Great read and some good points raised. I agree with you in terms of I miss the old racing where drivers could go flat out. I’m talking V12 engines and tyre wars pre -millenium. Can’t fault the FIA for trying to improve the show because yes some races were mind numbingly dull and that’s coming from a die hard fan! But while they search to find the balance between a good show and keeping the skill element, the sport has been dumbed down a bit. After 2008 which was one of the best seasons I’ve ever seen, I saw no need for change to be honest but the races now are still a good watch, Canada 2011 and Valencia 2012?

    In the meantime BTCC will always remain a fantastic alternative if you want to see some proper balls out stuff!

    -Jake

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