racing Vauxhall Insignia VXR's in the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC)
BTCC Championship 2012
by John Thorne
Looking back over the year if I'd known then what I know now we wouldn't have entered the BTCC this year. Sounds harsh but with what we've been through this year both on and off track you'd need to be insane to repeat it. However, lacking a time machine we are where we are and one has to be sanguine about events as they have passed and look to what you have achieved about which I am very proud for the whole team.
So what did we achieve? From the casual observers point of view one might argue not a lot, a few top 15 finishes from limited starts and an awful lot of very public failures along the way, hardly something to be proud of? Well in some regards I would agree, when I was interviewed at the start of the season as a driver and a team owner I laid out my plans for the year and we missed every single one, no top ten finishes, no full season, no big sponsors, however you measure that it is a big fat fail, for which I have been humbled to the extent of re-defining the word.
Before I slash my wrists and those who have supported us leap to our defence I think it is worth noting just how hard a task we took upon ourselves. When we started the project NGTC regulations were still in a state of flux, as the first true independent build of the new NGTC cars (all others, the Audi's, the Toyotas and the Proton) were all built by the official TOCA supplier, GPRM, we were the first independent team to design and build from scratch. There was Team Dynamics of course but as a full factory backed outfit with a team coffee budget larger than my entire racing budget I think to compare ourselves to them would be a little puerile.
The problems we faced as part of the first build were enormous and for the most part already documented, but should not be under estimated, from an engineering perspective building a race car with a set of suppliers and regulations which limits what you can and cant do is 10x harder than just building a car from scratch, especially when control parts wouldn't fit with other control parts and lead times for parts ranged from 'soon' to 'no idea' I'm surprised we stuck with it, most teams I know would have bailed. We've dealt with changes to sub frames, to brakes, to bodywork throughout the season which has dramatically increased our costs but we did and I'm glad for that.
For the most part all the problems we faced could have been solved faster simply by having money. A change in the specification of the front subframes meant the entire front end of the car from the bumper to the block had to be re-engineered from scratch, this amongst other things we simply didnt budget for pretty much meant that before the car even turned a wheel on track we were out of money. The original plan was for the cars to cost £140k (it was initially £90k) but when all done and told the first cars have all cost all the teams between £300-450k each and we didn't have that in the bank. We went to the first race on my overdraft.
The hope of course was to attract a sponsor, I don't believe in referring to ourselves as 'underdogs', that's a title other people give you not yourself but when we rolled up at Brands for the first race it was clear we were outgunned on the money stakes, you've heard the phrase don't take a knife to a gun fight? Well we turned up with a rubber mallet. I stood there in the paddock nearly in tears thinking 'what the hell am I doing here'. Its easy to be over shadowed by the big teams of course but when the so called smaller teams have motor homes that cost more than our race car and support vehicles that needed their own postcode they were so big its easy to think, 'we're buggered'.
And from there our season got worse. We'd done several test days in the car where the budget allowed but as the entry fees had been paid for we figured we use the first races as part of the cars testing, hardly ideal but what choice did we have. Due to the Olympics the first three races were in the first 5 weeks which is unheard of and that alone should have alerted us to the mountain we had to climb. Despite that I was hopeful, we knew we had a brake bias issue on the car which caused the back to lock up and we were ready to make some changes after I'd shaken the car down in FP1 during which of course I experienced the worst crash of my racing career, the back snapped to the left going into Paddock Hill bend (which is a right hander so you know we had issues at this point) and stuck me in the wall at 100+, ouch.
The team worked their balls off to repair the damage but it meant we went into my first BTCC race with no qualifying and no track time, great. Then followed probably the most depressing time of my racing career, we decided to 'fix' the handling issues with a change of springs (never really a good idea) which had the effect of making the car the equivalent of a plank of wood and rather than change it back I persevered with it all weekend as I considered it my fault with the result that we performed dreadfully on track. In terms of BTCC debuts it couldn't have been worse and at this point I almost gave up, certainly on the driving front as even people I considered friends belittled me as being a crap driver but giving up wasn't an option, we'd come this far and I've not quit anything in my life yet, I wasn't about to start then.
With only 2 weeks before Donington we pretty much decided then that there was little point carrying on racing and we need to re-assess the cars handling straight away, but again with the entry fees paid we decided to go to Donington so at least we can be seen as being more than a one race team but again it was an abject failure. An engine missfire, a locked shock absorber and barely improved handling put paid to practice and qualifying and we decided that a repeat of Brands Hatch was not something we could afford so we parked it.
At that point we decided to simply start again. Its very disheartening to attend a BTCC meeting with you car sat at the workshop but with no money to even test the car we had to bide our time, we would literally save up money from the road car tuning and servicing side and then book a test day when we had enough, its pretty soul destroying but we had no other choice; we worked, we saved, we spent it on testing then we did it all again, week by week and little by little we improved it. The car was literally built back up from a shell, every bolt and part was assessed, re-assessed and developed and the entire chassis set up was begun again, we changed rocker positions, dampers valving, springs so many times that we had a spread sheet three pages long with all the changes and the effect they had had on the car and slowly but surely the car improved. We tried to use several different drivers at this time but bottom line they all refused, not sure whether it was simply down to diaries or no-one wanted to be associated with the car but as a result I did all the development driving work myself which is something I'm now pretty proud of. Lap after lap I put into that car changing everything bit by bit with the result that we knocked 3 seconds off our Silverstone and Brands Hatch times (the two tracks I'd driven so we used for comparison) which considering how short both these tracks are it was a massive improvement, the end result was a car I wanted to drive rather than was afraid to drive. We were ready.
And then of course the issue of money reared its head. Running a BTCC car for a weekend costs in excess of £20-25k a weekend and that's assuming no damage and we simply didnt have it. The bank refused to lend any more (mention race car to a bank and they are crawling over themselves to run away) so we had a car which we knew was quick but couldn't afford to run, so I called Tony Gilham. Tony's car was rented out to Robb, he'd had a good variety of front wheel drive experience and he could afford to run it and cover the costs if it got damaged so Saturday morning of Snetterton he got in the car for the first time. Our budget was so tight there was only three of us running the car, thats unheard of for a BTCC operation with most teams having 15-20 people per car but as I refuse to not pay my guys we had no choice. Saturday night when most teams were happily in hotels or Stingray RV's bigger than my house I went out and got kebabs for the team and ate them in a camper van at the track, we were just happy tobe there.
Tony was used to the S2000 Honda and Vectra so he had his first insight just how different NGTC cars are but he was delighted with it, he leaped out after race 1 saying 'we could get a podium here, the car is quick', we down played it of course but he was right, his pace was improving all the time and with low boost for race one we knew the car would get quicker so a 13th place was an excellent result, we were delighted. Tony's sector times had improved from second to last to 10th-15th so he was starting to get used to the car, TOCA regulations mean the cars boost level is set by looking at the previous three races and qualification times, we had none so TOCA had to guess for race 1 which meant we ran with 1.6 bar only. For race 2 we got another 0.2bar (again another guess but with one race to base it on a reasonable one) and we were knocking on the top ten.
Race 2 started well, from 13th on the grid Tony moved up to 11th, we were so close to that top ten we wanted but a hit from behind from Chris James, smashed him into Andy Neate and the resulting two car impact smashed the bumper to pieces, game over. We were gutted but at the same time delighted, TOCA said we still weren't at our full boost level but despite that Tony had moved from 10th-15th in sector times to 4th - 9th, this really was a top ten, if not a top 5 car. For race three Tony's prediction for a podium was not far from our mind.
Ahead of race three we looked at the bumper, despite the fact it had been smashed in half with the headlamp hanging off and the splitter destroyed we elected to repair it, in hindsight a mad decision but £600 is £600 so we zip tied and duct taped the bumper together, put a new splitter on and hoped. Tony started 18th on the grid and in 4 laps was up to 13th, his sector times had improved again to 6th fastest in sector 1, 3rd fastest in sector 2 and 13th fastest in sector 3 (an improvement from 18th). His speed trap times improved to first in sector 1 and second fastest in sector 2 and 3, this was a competitive race car. Then disaster, contact with Dan Welch at the exact same spot on the repaired bumper smashed it and we had to retire, absolutely gutting but a situation of our own making. What if we'd put a new bumper on we were on for a top 10 finish on the cars first ever race weekend with a driver who'd not even seen the car until the day before so we were gutted and elated at the same time.
Budget meant we knew we would have to sit out Knockhill and Rockingham but we did two more test days with me driving and made continued improvements to high speed cornering (the car was slow round corum so we fixed that) and the plan was for me to drive the car at Silverstone as it was our home race and we generated a little sponsorship. Then we got a call from Chris Stockton, he was interested in driving the car for the last two rounds in preparation for a full entry in 2013 and as we needed the money we agreed, especially as Chris wanted two days of testing beforehand, that's all good for us.
The test at Pembrey was very useful. Chris clearly knew how to pedal and the dreadful wet conditions meant we were able to pretty much get a full wet set up on the car, the data from which we could also use for refining our dry set up and we were looking forward to Silverstone. Whilst I was gutted not to be driving in front of friends and family and we had enough budget to run the car I couldn't afford to crash it, especially as Tony had already approached discussing buying both the first two cars.
Silverstone was dry so the Chris got to drive the car for the first time and he did well, a little over a second off the pace for first time in the car but over the course of the day he said he was feeling worse and worse and after qualifying he told us he wasn't fit to drive the car, oh gawd. As team manager I started the long walk to the TOCA bus to withdraw the car, I was thinking 'I'll drive it, I know how fast it can be round here I've tested here" but I was also thinking "looks like we've sold the cars, what if I smash it up?" Talk about dilemma. Well dilemma was solved, I walk past Tonys garage, he asks why I look so miserable and his response was 'I'll drive it!" so he did.
So, with no practice, not even three laps of qualifying Tony jumps into the car completely cold for race 1. Well it was another race weekend we could forget. Race 1, Tony is back of the grid due to not actually qualifying the car, jump start, we call him in for a drive through penalty but on re-entering the circuit he spins the car at the first turn on the cold tyres. Not his fault, especially as the preparation for the race was pretty unique but disappointing for all all the same. Race 2, Tony gets a good start and settles into a good pace but after a few laps the times start to drop off, Tony is on the radio saying the power feels flat and a couple of laps later parks the car. On inspection it appears that the front of the car has had some damage, the front splitter is smashed and the air intake ducting has been broken off and flattened itself against the radiator, the engine has hit 125 degrees and overheated, again, game over. We attempt to get the car our for race three (engine bore scoped ok) but an immediate miss fire, engine is lunched, end to the weirdest racing weekend I can remember.
The following week Tony comes over with his investors and collects the cars, a more roller coaster set of weeks you cannot imagine.
The last race at Brands ended the year for us on a low. Tony had a new engine put in the car to replace the overheated one and we were on hand to help in any way as regards set up and advice, however Tony was keen to put his own stamp on the car with his own team and we respected that, the agreement with the car is that whilst we supply all the spares needed but it is his car and his team will run it, if they need help then we are available. With the wet weather it was always going to be hard for a new team with a new car and new crew to run it, especially as they had another new driver in their Civic so all in all it was a tough weekend for Team Hard and also us, however I'm sure the team will get to grips with the car and we are on hand 24/7 to offer help if needed, we want his Insignias up the grid as much as anyone.
So what next? Well we've proven the car is competitive, the few races it has done have demonstrated that, especially by looking at the data even if luck and lack of time have prevented the results it deserves, thats racing I guess. I've said all along that racing in the BTCC with no money is not something I can afford to repeat so on the one hand we are concentrating on building cars for other teams, we are talking to 4 more drivers for cars so of that we hope to have at least two cars built and run by other teams to join Team Hard and their two cars next season. As for Thorney Motorsport running a team next year? Well it appears that hard work and perseverance do have their rewards, we have three large sponsors on board for next year so our plan is to run a pair of Insignias VXR-R's under a new team name which will be announced at Autosport in January. When I asked the MD of one of these sponsors why he was keen to work with us compared to any other team his response I think sums up our year, he said "John, we've watched your team all season, none of you have quit or even looked like quitting once, you clearly are punching above your weight financially and put heart and soul into everything you do, we cant help but be impressed with that. We want our name associated with you because our business is the same, we pride ourselves on being successful in our business but we also pride ourselves on conducting our business with the same level of pride and perseverance, our customers expect it and I think you do too. We're proud to be involved with Thorney Motorsport"
The full list of partners for 2013 will be announced at Autosport in January.
BTCC 2012 Race Partners
As with all review reports there are a list of people without whom we could not have done what we have. We have a small team of technicians and every one has worked above and beyond the call of duty as well as a suffering team at our Milton Keynes operation where I have seldom been there to help. We've had no cash sponsors this year but the support we have from our parts sponsors is exemplary. For a start all of our suppliers have product which we use every day in our business, its not a question of stickers on cars for promotion.
Karcher are a partner really for our off road racing side where we get hideously muddy quite regularly, however their cleaning equipment is used to great affect in the workshop and in our wider operations that I'm wondering how we functioned without it.
We've had the best paddock transport all year with their Rhino SxS UTV. Something very satisfying taking guests back to the front gate at Silverstone in a vehicle that can go off road, under stands and through mud when the golf buggies are all floundering in the wet. The fact the Rhino then then tow a truck out of the way, carry 9 tyres (our record) and 8 people from A to B and even get me back along the A43 at a merry 55mph is pretty impressive.
You'd think it would be hard to get excited about workshop cabinets but you'd be wrong. Combination of strength (we crashed the aforementioned Rhino into one and it didnt make a dent) and the workshop efficiencies we've had from having proper tool storage is not to be under estimated. I can honestly say without the race workshop as it is we wouldnt have hit the deadlines we did.
Every lubricant and oil used in the Insignia VXR-R comes from Lucas. As a result of the testing we've done we've now adopted their product for our road car tuning, especially their coolant treatment which drops the water temperature down nearly 10 degrees on whatever car you run it in. Brilliant stuff.
If its good enough for Force India its good enough for us, preparing shells that cost £60k each is not something you want to drop so a forklift truck that can be used with millimetre precision is essential, they are also really good fun to drive.
Hel Brake Lines
We now only fit Hel lines to every car we build and every road car we upgrade - that's testimony enough. Brilliant product with zero failure rate on any application we've used them on.
A long time partner of ours and continue to support our racing in a variety of series. Always on hand for top advice on all matters on ECU's and have helped us enormously in terms of development on the car.
As used on the Insignia and now used on every road car upgrade we offer, same as Hel, dependable, highest quality product and recommended for whatever car you own.
At one point we had over 100 different springs for the Insignia, such was the test of getting the set up right. Each time we needed a set they were there the following day without fail. A big, dependable company which acts like a small nimble supplier and not once in 10 years have we had an Eibach spring fail.
We are not alone in the paddock in using Dread as our clothing supplier as the quality is simply outstanding. A local Milton Keynes company too so always nice to support a fellow local business.
For the few races we had the comfort from having a full size Stingray RV was a life saver, you cant imagine how good it is to be able to walk 20 meters from the garage and be in a motor home that is nicer than your house. We didn't have one for Snetterton (we frankly didn't think we deserved one from them so didnt ask) and we missed it, a Fiat Ducato camper van just doesnt cut it trust me.
Having a media of the Daily Mirrors size reflected our passion, what we lacked on track we made up for in detail and commitment.
Its common knowledge that we get no direct financial support from Vauxhall, their commitment is to football and even though they use racing in their own adverts that's not likely to change which is sad. However, the staff and management are fully supportive of what we've achieved and sometimes having a director say 'well done' is more valuable than a pot of cash.......well, maybe not but you know what I mean.
My personal thanks must go to my team, my family and TOCA, without all of them we wouldn't have done what we did and I'm certain that whatever we do next season they will deserve my thanks this time next season as well and of course to the fans, I've been over whelmed by how knowledgeable, enthusiastic and cheerful you all are, if I'm honest its you guys have kept us out there more than anything, thank you.