The Story of Williams-Renault in the BTCC

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 team.

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.

Aaron Irwin

An Ode To Jenson Button: Thanks For The Memories

Next year marks my 15th year in being a Formula One fan, and while usually that’d be reason to celebrate, it will be a horribly bittersweet year for myself.

It will be the first year in my life that my favourite driver won’t be on the grid, the first year I’ll have no one I look for first on a results screen, the first year I’ll be nothing more than a neutral. 2017 sees McLaren promote young Stoffel Vandoorne in place of the ever popular Jenson Button, and having followed his career with a keen eye for all these years, it’ll be a weird feeling watching the first race in Melbourne next season without Frome’s finest on the grid.

Way back in 2002 JB was driving for the Renault team, before it’s rise to success, he was in his third season and was partnered by Jarno Trulli. While I enjoyed watching Michael Schumacher race, he was barely on the TV screens, only at the end when he took the chequered flag. The F2002 was an incredible piece of machinery, and he walked to the title that season.

With this in mind, I looked for British drivers to support, David Coulthard was thriving at McLaren as he had for six or seven years before. Eddie Irvine was in his swansong year in the sport with Jaguar. Alan McNish was driving for the new Toyota team, and Jenson was at Renault. Something drew me to Jenson, his driving style was smooth and he was young, and full of raw passion.

So from then on in I followed Jenson, and while 2002 and 2003 were somewhat mediocre, 2004 was a year I never saw coming as a Jenson fan.

Having moved to BAR in 2003, I followed but was starting to get frustrated by how many disappointing results he was having. His horror crash at Monaco being a scary moment, having lost it into the Nouvelle Chicane I remember seeing the car and being in shock. ‘How has he walked away from that?’ I remember thinking.

The frustrating thing was something I had to get used to as a Jenson fan, which has made the last six or seven years following him even sweeter, but more on that later.

2004 and Jenson was partnered by Takuma Sato, something of a cult hero in Formula One, and I’m not sure they imagined what was to come. Two podiums in Malaysia and Bahrain for JB before he went to Imola and showed just what he could do.

I’ll never forget being sat in front of the TV as Jenson put in a 1:19:753, over two tenths quicker than Schumacher in the almost bulletproof Ferrari F2004. I was jumping up and down, my first truly proud moment as an F1 fan. Unfortunately he couldn’t go on to win as the mercurial Schumacher took the win. However Sato retired from the race with an engine failure six laps from the end, and it was panic time as JB was nervously bringing the car home hoping to avoid the

same fate. He brought it home in second place, and his best result in Formula One to that date.

Ten podiums that year including second at Imola, Monaco, Hockenheim and China secured him third in the drivers standings that year, behind Schumacher and future team mate Rubens Barrichello in the Ferrari’s.

I was only a young kid at this time so I really wasn’t too interested in what happened off the track. As a kid of nine years old I just wanted to tune in as the parade lap started and watch a load of cars go as fast as they could. So all the politics and comments made off track went over my head. Having looked back at what people said about Jenson and his ‘playboy’ era as it’s become known, it’s all rather harsh.

He was a guy in his twenties who was risking his life week in week out, if he wanted to buy an apartment in Monaco and a Bugatti Veyron so what? You have to ponder if DC did the same thing would it be acting like a ‘playboy?’

But I was unaware of these comments and just enjoyed Jenson’s race craft. He was fantastic, especially in the rain, as we found out in 2006. The Hungarian Grand Prix is etched in my mind as one of my all time favourite races, we all know why.

JB qualified 14th, giving me no hope or expectation of what was to happen. In the changing conditions he made his way up the grid and only went and won it! I remember being beside myself, shouting at my TV and willing him on as he took the chequered flag. A truly magnificent moment for Jenson as he took his maiden win.

It appeared this was a mere flash in the pan though, as 2007 and 2008 saw Honda turn their attention to trying to promote an earth-friendly message, and that rather fetching earth design from 2007, which we no longer speak about. Two drab years for Jenson and it looked to be the end of his career in 2008 when Honda pulled out the sport at the eleventh hour.

I remember thinking it was all over, having just watched Lewis Hamilton take the title in his second year I remember being happy that a Brit had won the title, but upset that it wasn’t Jenson.

However Ross Brawn being the utter legend he is became the hero as he bought out Honda and formed his own team, Brawn GP, and employed Jenson and Rubens Barrichello to drive for him. I was glad he was back in the sport but had no clue as to the amount of success they’d have.

Five wins in the first six races, as well as a win at Monaco saw Jenson race into a lead at the top of the drivers standings. I was confident this was his year at last. After a stuttering European season in which he picked up points but not as many wins, it all came to Brazil, Jenson could seal the title with a decent result.

I was on the edge of my seat from the parade lap onwards, JB was down in 14th, again, and title rival Barrichello was on pole. In another scenario I’d have loved Rubens to win the title, but I’d been following Jenson for too long to see him lose it now.

Some great racing from the Brawn team mates saw Jenson in fifth coming towards the end of the race. All these years I’d watched him race, retire, not have the car to give him results, and now here he was about to win the title.

He crossed the line and it was great seeing him celebrate, his rendition of We Are The Champions was something else. Celebrating with his dad and finally being World Champion, it had been quite a journey from Australia 2002 to here.

A move to McLaren followed and I thought this’d be an ideal place for title number two, however it just never materialised for him. This move of course co-incided with the rise of Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel, and so JB just couldn’t get near the top, but he got one over on the young German on one torrential day in Montreal…

Canada 2011 was just, chaos. There’s no other words for it, and I’m going to try and condense JB’s race as much as I can. (takes breath)

JB started seventh, hit team mate Lewis Hamilton and the pitwall and brought out the safety car. He then received a drive through penalty for speeding under said safety car, coming out in 15th. The race was suspended on lap 26 due to immense rain.

Two hours passed, race gets back underway. Shortly after Button and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso collided at turn three, putting Alonso out and giving JB a puncture, he came out in 21st and last place. However in six laps he jumped up to 14th. A steady rise up the grid saw him in fourth as the race entered its final stages. He caught and overtook Mark Webber and Michael Schumacher and was second coming into the final lap.

Vettel went wide at turn six and almost span it in the changing conditions, handing victory to Jenson Button. What a race that was. I wasn’t sure if I actually saw what I saw, it was just one of those races you need to watch as an F1 fan.

After 2011 Jenson’s career never really hit the same heights, and after getting his and McLaren’s last win in Brazil 2012, he and McLaren have slowly dropped in to the midfield.

While this is unfortunate, it’s somewhat a good thing. As this means we’ve been able to back Jenson even longer, as had he won another title he’d have probably retired on his own accord, gone out with a bang so to speak.

So when it was announced that Stoffel will replace Jenson for 2017 I was sad to see him go, but knew it was inevitable and had come to peace with it a few months ago.

All I will say is Jenson Button has been a privilege to watch these last 14 seasons and I’m glad I grew up in an era where I got to watch him and will him on every race. He’ll always be my favourite driver, but now I’ll have to just simply enjoy the sport, not enjoying the heartache, joy, delirium these last few seasons have given me.

Thank you Jenson, from a young fan who’s had years of fun watching you race, and congratulations on a unique and stellar career.

Aaron Irwin

Rally Deutshland Preview: Who’ll take spoils in German battle?

The WRC heads to Germany this weekend as Sebastien Ogier looks to get back on track following a few disappointing results.

The Volkswagen driver still leads the standings thanks to his stunning consistency at the start of the season and nurses a 45 point lead over team mate Andreas Mikkelsen. However this current season is being lauded as one of the most open and competitive in over a decade.

With six different drivers winning rallies this season, including Ogier, Mikkelsen, Jarri-Matti Latvala, Hyundai’s Hayden Paddon and Thierry Neuville, and Citroen’s Kris Meeke. The latter won last time out in Finland, and along with co-driver Paul Nagle, they became the first British duo to conquer the famous event.

With only five rounds left to go due to the Chinese round being cancelled on safety concerns, Germany poses a much bigger significance than first thought. Famous for its tarmac and asphalt stages and the notorious concrete barriers, known locally as Panzerplattes, lining the roads and not taking any prisoners.

Rally Deutschland joined the WRC calendar in 2002 and is located in Trier, with a mix of vineyard and military area stages, it’s known as one of the most difficult asphalt events of the calendar. The event was dominated by Citroen and Sebastien Loeb from 2002-2014.

The imperious Frenchman took nine victories here, with Ogier and Dani Sordo both taking wins before Thierry Neuville broke the streak in his Hyundai. There’s been a Rally Deutschland since 1982 and it was part of the European Championship.

Neuville is looking forward to what he describes as his home rally, saying: “Rallye Deutschland is the highlight of the season for me. It’s like my home rally, very close to the Belgian border and a lot of supporters come down with lots of Belgian flags. So it’s the rally we are most waiting for in the season, and it’s an event we have always been competitive at. We got our first victory there so I am looking forward to it.”

Ott Tanak, whose best result this season is second on Rally Poland, said he will be ‘pushing as hard as possible’ to get a good result. “I like Tarmac and also enjoy the stages in Germany – you can have different weather on every stage in a loop so it’s always a compromise. We’ve shown how our pace can be on gravel this year and hopefully we will have the right conditions next week. Either way, I will be pushing as hard as possible for a solid result,” the Estonian said.

Championship leader Ogier will be keen to get back to winning ways after a poor couple of gravel events in Poland and Finland. He said: “I always look forward to the Rally Germany, but slightly more than usual this time around. Finally, Julien and I have a realistic chance of fighting for the win under our own steam again after the difficult gravel rallies.

“I am highly motivated and very keen to repeat the success of last year. The Rally Germany is also Volkswagen’s home event and so the whole team wants to deliver a particularly good performance in front of the fans,” the reigning champion added.

With the rally about to get underway in Germany, can Ogier get back to winning ways having not won since Sweden back in round two? Or will one of the chasing pack cut into his lead?

Previous Winners

Sebastien Loeb (2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012)

Sebastien Ogier (2011, 2015)

Dani Sordo (2013)

Thierry Neuville (2014)

Force India: German Grand Prix Review

 It was a double point’s finish for Force India in Hockenheim as they closed the gap on fourth placed Williams to just 15 points.

Sergio Perez recovered from a horror start to take tenth while Nico Hulkenberg ran well at his home race to bring home seventh place, with Williams only gaining two points to Force India’s seven.

With a fantastic qualifying performance, which saw both cars in Q3, albeit at the tail end. Hulkenberg qualified seventh but started eighth after an issue saw him drop a place. While Perez rounded up the top ten.

Nico started well but Sergio dropped as low as 16th after a poor start off the line. While the race was bereft of any real action, the Force India team silently and effectively ran their race to the points. Perez was in the action right up until the end as on the penultimate lap, he passed the McLaren of Fernando Alonso to take a point.

The summer break is now upon us and Force India are in a strong position, with two races showing they have more than enough ability to take fourth place from Williams and make it their own.

Meanwhile the struggle appears to be off track as again Perez continues to be linked with a move away from the team. However his wish to drive for a better team appears to be fading as vacant seats remain at a premium.

If Perez does leave however, can he provide the ultimate parting gift in sealing fourth place for Force India and the lucrative rewards that come with it.

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Double retirement in Austria for Force India

 

 It was a weekend to forget for Force India in Austria as both Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg failed to see the chequered flag.

Perez was languishing in the midfield when he had a failure at the rear of his car and ended up in the wall. This went largely unnoticed due to the battle between the Mercedes’ of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton taking the attention of the cameras. Meanwhile Hulkenberg struggled with his tyres from the start.

He dropped from P2 on the grid and was hit by graining issues on his tyres almost immediately, before retiring a handful of laps before the end of the race.

MELBOURNE (AUSTRALIA) – 19/03/2016
© FOTO STUDIO COLOMBO PER PIRELLI MEDIA (© COPYRIGHT FREE)

 

This weekend was a large contrast to last time out in Baku where Perez and the team were celebrating a third podium in three races.

There was cause for optimism before the weekend with the upgrades the team made paying off and seeing the team taking podiums. These thoughts were amplified when Hulkenberg qualified third behind the Silver Arrows duo.

He was promoted to second thanks to Rosberg’s gearbox penalty but got a poor start and was overtaken by Jenson Button at turn one. Over the next few laps the Ferrari’s and the Red Bull’s got past Nico, thus the end of his points chances. He retired the car to save the power unit a few laps before the end of the race.

Meanwhile Perez qualified poorly, starting 16th he made his way up the grid and was fighting for points when coming into the last lap he went off into the barriers at turn three. It appeared to be a brake issue as he went straight on and seemed unable to slow his VJM09 down.

Overall not the weekend the team wanted, and with the next race being right in their backyard at Silverstone, they’ll be keen to make sure this is a minor blip in what appears to be the season of resurgence for Force India.