As part of the Crew’s Williams Week, Aaron Irwin looks at Williams’ involvement in the BTCC during the mid to late 90’s.
The British Touring Car Championship has always been a fantastic race series, full of close, tight racing. However when you ask most which era was the best? It’s undoubtedly the Super Touring era.
The 90’s were a great time for the series, with drivers such as Gabriele Tarquini, Alain Menu and Frank Biela all making names for themselves in the BTCC. I’ll be looking at Williams’ participation in what was a hugely competitive era for the racing series.
1994 was a solid season for Renault, they replaced the dated 19 for the new Laguna. Young Swiss driver Alain Menu was partnered by 1992 champion Tim Harvey. Together they won three races between them and Menu came second in the championship behind the dominant Tarquini in the Alfa Romeo 155.
In September 1994 the Williams Formula One team and Renault announced their new partnership. It was created so Williams could expand their motorsport involvement past F1 and Renault could challenge further for the BTCC crown.
1991 champion Will Hoy came in to replace Harvey, who left for Volvo. Menu continued to show he was a champion in the making, winning seven races, including the first for the new Williams backed team at Thruxton in round five. He again finished second in the championship, this time to BTCC legend John Cleland. Hoy had a less successful season, struggling with reliability in the first half of the season, Hoy managed to win three races in the second half and finish fourth.
While there wasn’t instant success in the Driver’s Championship, Williams-Renault won the Manufacturer’s championship in their debut season working together.
It’s key to remember during this time, in Formula One Williams Renault were fighting for titles too, with Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost winning the title in 1992 and 1993 respectively. Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher played out titanic battles for the championship in 1994 and 1995, with the Benetton driver coming out on top in both occasions.
Williams had their time to shine again however as Hill won the title in 1996 with team mate Jacques Villeneuve following suit in 1997. They were the dominant team during these two seasons and no one could match them, not even the might of Schumacher and Ferrari.
Meanwhile back to 1996 and in the BTCC Renault had a new foe, following the success of BMW and Alfa Romeo in previous years, Audi decided they’d try their hand at BTCC. Bringing in Frank Biela they dominated the season, with Biela taking his only BTCC title win.
Menu was considered the hot favourite for the title before the season, but Audi’s four wheel drive A4 Quattro dominated. The Swiss driver still managed to win four races, including a clean sweep at the Brands Hatch GP meeting in rounds 13 and 14.
He again finished second in the title race for the third successive season, Biela dominated, with the gap between him and Menu being 92 points. Hoy finished ninth with two second places at the season opening Donington Park rounds being his best result. He moved to Ford for 1997, with Jason Plato replacing him at Renault.
Though Plato had made hard work of it. He was in the running along with ex-F1 drivers Gianni Morbidelli and Jean Christophe Boullion (more on him later) for the second seat. After being overlooked Plato travelled down to Williams’ base in Grove and waited for Sir Frank Williams to arrive.
After chasing him down the car park, Plato was eventually given the second seat at Williams-Renault for what would prove to be a hugely successful season for
The dominant Audi team were controversially penalised with extra weight penalties applied to their A4’s. It was relaxed later on in the season but this would be Williams’ year.
Menu won 12 of the 24 rounds to take his first title. Plato proved his worth to Williams and his potential by winning two rounds to give Renault a dominant clean sweep of the championships. Menu won the title by 110 points, with Audi’s Biela in second.
The pair also raced in the 1997 Bathurst 1000, with Williams running two cars. 1980 F1 world champion Alan Jones was in the second car. Menu and Plato led for a long time, but unfortunately both cars failed to finish.
1998 however saw change for Williams, Nescafe came in as title sponsor, and the team renamed Blend 37 Williams Renault. Menu and Plato were kept on. But the competition caught up in what is regarded as one of the most open and best seasons in the series’ history.
Rickard Rydell in the Volvo won the title, Nissan’s Anthony Reid took second, James Thompson of Honda third with Menu and Plato fourth and fifth, 91 points separated the top five. Four wins between the two Renault drivers as it was clear the competition was a lot tougher than 1997.
I for one feel incredibly nostalgic about that era, mainly because my mum and dad bought me ToCA 2 Touring Cars for my PlayStation. It was based on the 1998 season and that green Nescafe Renault is still my favourite touring car ever.
Menu was pragmatic about his title winning season, quoted as saying: “I think last year on some tracks we were not the quickest car but we ended up winning the championship because we made less mistakes than the other guys. So hopefully this year (1998) will be the same.”
The Swiss driver left for Ford for 1999, ending a six season partnership with Renault. This meant Jean-Christophe Boullion joined Plato at Renault. It was their least successful season under the Williams partnership.
Now a Ford driver, Menu commented on the state of his former team, saying in a March 1999 issue of Autosport: “I’ve got to say they’re leaving it a bit late. “If they’ve got any problems they won’t have much time to fix them. They’re playing with fire a little bit.” Plato defended Renault: “It’s late because we want to make it right.”
However it would be Menu who was right, engine troubles meant Renault had a poor season, winning just one race, at Silverstone. This led to Renault pulling
out of the BTCC along with a host of other works teams, such as Volvo and Nissan, sparking the end of the golden age of BTCC racing.
It’d be fair to say the Williams-Renault BTCC partnership was an unmitigated success, with two Manufacturer’s championships in five years of racing. Not to mention this was in an incredibly competitive era where Audi, Volvo, Nissan, Vauxhall, Honda, and to an extent Ford were all capable of winning races.
Alain Menu became a BTCC legend, winning a second title with Ford in 2000. Plato also made a name of himself after pushing through the door to get his drive. Both have won two world titles each, and the 1997 season is still seen as one of the most dominant and successful for any BTCC team.