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  • Writer's pictureRhonan Colquhoun

A British Touring Car Championship in lockdown

COVID-19 puts a halt to BTCC

Races announced. Drivers signed. Sponsors in agreement. Cars built. Pre-season testing completed. Hundreds of hours had gone into getting to this moment. The only thing left to do was to actually go racing. The rise of engine noises in the paddock along with the rush and roar of the cars suddenly quietened as one of the oldest going motorsport series, the British Touring Car Championship, came to a halt.

It was during the middle of March 2020 when serious action against the spread of COVID-19 prevented the championship, and all racing in the United Kingdom, to be suspended until at least the end of June. A full-scale national lockdown ensued with Motorsport UK, who oversees racing in the country, saying it would be a “brief, but vital hiatus” and called on the racing community to rally round and to do all they could to “support this battle.”

Race circuits up and down the UK were closed while the newly-built cars were locked-up in pit garages, eagerly waiting to be driven to the ragged edge on the grey asphalt of these legendary tracks. Meanwhile, the people who would pilot these cars, the drivers, were now obeying government guidelines and staying at home.

For the drivers, this would be a time in their lives they had never experienced before. Something called ‘time off’. From a young age, most drivers start karting and as they get older, getting better, they are constantly on the move and have less time to stop and take in what is happening around them.

Rory Butcher, who had made his debut in the BTCC in 2017, was born less than 20 miles from the Knockhill Racing Circuit in Scotland. Over lockdown, Butcher kept in touch with his team and his sponsors to ensure that vital information was being received between both parties. Apart from that, he focused on his fitness and attended an online driver training session.

He said: “I got invited onto a motorsport program which is conducted by a company called I Zone Performance. They are based at Silverstone and they have a really high-tech simulation facility and they created a remote training course. We meet every single morning on a Zoom call with about 30 or 40 other racing drivers.”

“We’d do visualisation, visualising laps around circuits and mindfulness training. We would talk about different topics to do with maximising our performance, about handling pressure and about improving our vision on circuits. This really helped me keep focused throughout the lockdown and when I went into the first event in August, it gave me a bit of an edge over a lot of drivers who possibly didn’t have that structure.”

Meanwhile fellow driver, Tom Oliphant, spent the majority of the lockdown by himself in his flat as his girlfriend was stuck in Australia. The 2015 Ginetta GT4 Supercup Champion started competing in the most popular activity during lockdown.

He said: “I’ve always enjoyed gaming on my Xbox and on my computer but I didn’t really have the time because there was more important things to do with your time as a racing driver like finding sponsorship, training and learning the next track. It was a breath of fresh air to be able to spend nearly three months gaming and I had my good friends from high school who’d play with me.”

Not only did Oliphant game, but he kept his PR and Marketing Business, Next Level Motorsport, up and running despite the implications caused by the lockdown.

The rise of online gaming saw a more professional take on driving games which allowed professional and amateur racing drivers get their fix while locked-up in their homes.

Spectators and fans of the BTCC were now also getting their fix of motor racing in the form of “Race Day with a Difference.” The campaign organised by the BTCC Media Team at MPA worked closely with ITV Sport to relive some classic races over the past decade.

A poll for the fans to find their three favourite BTCC races from each circuit over the last decade proved to be a hit. With more than five million impressions on the BTCC’s official social media channels in the opening four weekends, the three races were streamed via the official BTCC website on Sunday’s in accordance with the championship’s original calendar schedule and with the Media Team commentating on these classic races as if they were live.

Overall, it was a massive boost for fans while the PR statistics from the opening quarter of the year were extremely encouraging for the championship. So despite no actual racing taking place on track, the BTCC showed through its drivers and its ability to connect with fans that the championship, although dormant, was still alive.

Car servicing and repair company, Kwik Fit, who is the title sponsor of the championship, kept their centre’s opened and stayed committed in the help to fight the deadly virus.

Their staff gave out free Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to key NHS and care workers while offering discounts to those at the frontline that included free of charge tyre repairs regarding punctures. They also provided community nurses with protective seat and steering wheel covers as well as gloves.

The effect of the pandemic was now taking its toll on the championship with funding now becoming a huge issue. 2013 Champion Andrew Jordan decided to withdraw from the season due to a lack of funding while BTCC legend and Double Champion, Jason Plato, decided to take a sabbatical due to fears over the economy amid the fallout of the pandemic.

The weeks went by, but slowly, the number of cases in the UK started to slow and decrease despite hundreds of deaths a day. The relaxation saw the championship announce a new calendar; visiting nine of the UK’s most renowned circuits. Announced on the 27th of April, it was the news that everyone involved had been waiting so long for.

There would be no leeway as the championship had been condensed into a four month campaign with three separate back-to-back events.

Starting in August, the BTCC would start the season at Donnington Park before heading for the first of two visits to Brands Hatch. Travelling to Oulton Park, Knockhill, Thruxton, Silverstone, Croft and Snetterton would follow before concluding at Brands Hatch for the season finale.

With a calendar announced, drivers and teams started ramping up preparations as TOCA, the Series Organiser, started to make sure that the championship was going to have all the safety requirements in place for when racing got underway.

With the resumption of sporting activities, the hype for the championship to get underway was reaching fever pitch with anticipation and excitement building. The longest off-season in BTCC history came to an end as the cars blasted round the Donnington Park circuit.

Paul O'Neil shares his thoughts on how the BTCC team coped last year


When racing resumed: The Championship fight

Setting the pace would end up being the three main championship contenders of reigning champion Colin Turkington, 2017 Champion Ashley Sutton and Honda driver Dan Cammish who all took one win apiece over the three races at Donnington.

At several times over the season, Turkington and Sutton battled for the championship lead as the BMW and Infiniti drivers were the cream of the crop. Sutton’s inconsistency over one-lap led to him qualifying poorly but it provoked him to race-hard as Turkington remained ever consistent - a trait that had helped him secure four titles in the past.

Come the finale at Brands Hatch, Turkington led the championship with Sutton his closest challenger with Cammish lagging a few points behind but remained an outsider. Turkington’s nine point advantage would quickly evaporate as the balance swung in Sutton’s favour.

Former BTCC race winner turned ITV pundit, Paul O’Neil has been in the BTCC scene for the best part of 20 years and was present at all of the races last year.

Commenting on the championship decider at Brands Hatch, O’Neil said: “I really think it was the weather. I think if it was a dry Brands Hatch, you would have had a fight and you wouldn’t have known who to pick but as soon as there was enough water on the track to make it difficult, I just think Ash was always going to come through with that car set-up.”

The heavens had opened over the circuit and it was evident after the first race of the day that Sutton was now the favourite. Taking the lead, Sutton was cautious but remained calm and crossed the line to become a Double BTCC champion. He and his team’s achievement was truly incredible as they both took the Independent titles as well.


The absence of fans

No matter how hard the Championship tried, no fans were allowed at any of the nine events on the calendar.

At the start of October, initial plans to allow some fans to return were shelved as COVID-19 infection rates started to rise in all areas of the country.

There was some hope that the two final rounds of the season – at Snetterton and Brands Hatch – would potentially see the return of fans but it was not to be. It was the first time in the British Touring Car history that a season would be ran behind closed doors without the presence of its loyal and dedicated fans.

Given their positions in the BTCC paddock, O’Neil and Butcher had differing views on how fans were not present last year.

O’Neil said: “I am going to be honest, because of our jobs in the media and given the guidelines this season, I didn’t really feel a massive amount of difference. Only the fact that when you drive into the circuit there was no traffic on the roads which was a massive plus. I thought the last weekend in Brands Hatch was actually a bit flat because the fans weren’t there fighting for people corners.”

Meanwhile, Butcher said: “It was really weird. It was quite spooky actually and eerie because a Touring car event, one of the best parts about it is the spectators. They bring such an atmosphere, the grandstands are filled, the paddock is full; you’re trying to walk from your truck to the garage and you’ve got people coming up and asking you about how you’re doing, wishing you luck and that side of it and it was greatly missed. I think next year they’ll have the crowd back and it’ll make a big difference.”

Oliphant shares his thoughts on the abscene of fans

The championship is designed for a fun day-out for families and while fans were not able to cheer and hear the sound of high-revving engines, they were in the minds of the drivers, team bosses and mechanics every time the lights went out.

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