This year sees the British Touring Car Championship celebrate sixty years of high-octane, bumper to bumper racing. Currently, the championship, and its support package, enjoys up to eight hours for every race day live and free on ITV4. But, coverage in yesteryear was not quite as extensive as that…
For its first thirty years, under the banner of British Saloon Car Championship, the series had sporadic coverage on the BBC’s radio stations, but there was no formal arrangement, largely in part because deals back then were between broadcasters and circuits, making it impossible for a complete series to air on television.
The arrangement ended in 1987, allowing BBC television to cover every race in highlights form starting in 1988, with Steve Rider and Murray Walker fronting the coverage. BHP, otherwise known as Barrie Hinchcliffe Productions, were responsible for producing the BBC’s output.
Writing in his autobiography My Chequered Career, Rider goes into detail about the hurdles faced by the BHP. These include (but not limited to) funding, the placing of sponsors on the on-board camera angles, and a feature in the Sunday Times accusing the BBC of a “corrupt commissioning system.” Suffice to say that there were many different reasons why the BHP production deal may have fallen through.
Thankfully, the BHP production deal continued, and the series was a mainstay on Grandstand in the mid-1990s on BBC Two, becoming the starting point for many of today’s stars getting involved in touring cars. Television audiences increased, as did attendance figures at the circuit.
ITV pundit Paul O’Neill was one person introduced to touring cars thanks to Grandstand. “The first race I remember seeing was James Thompson winning in 1995 on Grandstand, at Thruxton in an old Cavalier,” explained O’Neil. “The thing that stuck out for me was the action that it has now, it’s part of its DNA, the other thing I remember was just how well it was broadcast especially by Steve Rider back then, but also with the music and everything they used just made it stand out massively.”
For the veteran racers that have watched the championship grow over the decades, things were slightly different back then, outside and inside the car from a broadcasting perspective. Triple BTCC champion Matt Neal fits in that category, having raced touring cars since the late 1980s. “I remember there being a VHS tape in the bottom of the foot well in the passenger seat!” recited Neal. Walker would voice over the races, which aired on a week delay in a highlights package.
“The production guys used to get the tapes, cut them all together, Murray watched it once, and voiced it in the week. Some of the mistakes off Murray were deliberate, he was a genius at commentary. It made for very exciting viewing, because they could pick and choose the action. We did have some boring races back then, but BHP were very good at finding gems over the weekend, piecing it all together for Murray to commentate on,” Neal continued.
“I used to go through the whole thing meticulously, making a shot list with brief notes on what was coming up next, then go into the sound booth and commentate on the tape pictures that were pumped into a monitor in front of me.
“I knew what was coming, of course, because I had practically learnt the vision by heart and also had my notes to remind me but, because I was making the words up as I went along instead of reading from a carefully crafted script, the effect was that the race was live and continuous rather than recorded and edited.
“It was long-winded and labour-intensive, but it worked well.” – Murray Walker, Unless I’m Very Much Mistaken (pages 174 and 175)
Rider believed the notion of delayed highlights was on “borrowed time”, and that the package produced by BHP was a “misrepresentation of the narrative and pace of the actual race,” even if it was “terrific television.”
With a Formula 1 shaped hole in the BBC’s schedules though for 1997, the corporation opted to increase their commitment to touring cars, with races airing live for the first time. Charlie Cox joined Walker in the commentary box, before Walker himself stepped aside at the end of 1997, John Watson filling the void.
Neal’s first race win in 1999 at Donington Park was one of the races that aired live, thanks to its Bank Holiday slot. It was a remarkable feat for Neal, the first win for an Independent driver in the modern era.
“Back then, you couldn’t compete on engines, tyres, and we ran with year old cars,” Neal recalled. “The first race of 1999, we ran with the same tyres as the manufactures, and won. That race was actually live! It’s one of the few times, I’ve heard the roar of the crowd from inside the car. It was surreal, almost like it wasn’t happening.”
“The next day I woke up, went into the office and my PR guy was on the phone to Australia doing interviews, and I thought ‘so what?’ It doesn’t change me as a person, so you’ve just got to roll with it, and try to do it again, which I’ve been doing ever since. It was a crazy time.”
After Formula 1 moved to ITV, BTCC was one of the remaining four-wheel motor sport left on the BBC, and stayed with the BBC until the end of 2001. Speaking to Autosport at the time, BTCC’s boss Richard West said that the BBC “admitted that certain things had not been to the benefit of the series, such as the inability to provide regular slots and, by their own admittance could not meet the exacting standards that we had put to them.” In other words, the championship could not grow further with the Beeb, partially due to no other motor racing complimenting its coverage.
Led by West, BTCC headed in a different direction, moving towards a deal with ITV and Motors TV. Briefly, a stint on the ill-fated ITV Sport Channel also ensued. Neal believes the move did damage to the health of the series. “The Head of ITV at the time wanted to move everything onto ITV Sport, and we were one of the first things to get drafted across. The viewing figures fell through the floor, people just didn’t know where to find it,” Neal said.
Following a rut on and off the circuit for touring cars domestically in the early to mid 2000s, the championship found its place on ITV, where it has remained ever since. Ben Edwards led the commentary line-up from 2002 to 2011, with Tim Harvey alongside him, before David Addison controlled the reigns from 2013 onwards. As in the BBC days, Steve Rider continues to host ITV4’s race day output.
In terms of television coverage, ITV4 has for the past decade provided extensive coverage of the championship, with a peak audience of up to half a million viewers watching each round. Although BTCC does not attract the audience it once did during the Super Touring era on the BBC, current ITV reporter Louise Goodman, who has been involved with covering the series since 2009, believes the championship is in a healthy position.
“The more exposure the championship can get the better, but it’s a very different media age to what it was like in the Super Touring era. You have to think about the amount of sports out there vying to get coverage. The level of coverage on terrestrial channels has become quite limited in many ways, so the fact that BTCC has six, seven, sometimes eight hours of free-to-air coverage on ITV4, is still a fantastic amount of exposure,” Goodman told this site.
“If we only offered half an hour of programming per weekend, the guys in the support races wouldn’t get any exposure,” Goodman added. “Those are the guys in two or three years’ time that may be racing in the BTCC, so the exposure has enabled them to make that progress through the ladder from a sponsorship and marketing perspective. I think we’re in a healthy position, it’s a proper career option for young and upcoming drivers.”
“You’ve still got the Plato’s and Neal’s of this world, we hope they’ll never go away because they’re entertaining, its great viewing and they still have what it takes behind the wheel. You need the next young talent coming through the ranks and there’s been an increase in that in recent years.”
And this weekend at Brands Hatch, the championship heads into its next sixty years hoping for more of the same action that has helped its popularity over the course of the last six decades.