The British Touring Car Championship roared back into action at Donington Park last weekend after an enforced delay due to the coronavirus crisis. The new campaign eventually got underway 294 days after the 2019 season finale, with Team BMW star Colin Turkington looking to defend his crown and claim a fifth title.
One of the Northern Irishman’s biggest challengers last year was Halfords Yuasa Racing ace Dan Cammish, with the 31-year-old only seeing his title aspirations falter after a brake failure in the final race of the season.
Team Dynamics – run as a factory entry with two Honda Civic Type Rs competing under the Halfords Yuasa Racing banner – did manage to triumph in the Teams’ Championship, with the combined points total of Cammish and touring car legend Matt Neal seeing off all competition.
And the pair enjoyed an excellent start this term with Cammish claiming victory in Round 1 while the duo banked solid finishes in Rounds 2 and 3 to end the first weekend of the new season near the top of the table and in high spirits.
Series organisers TOCA have implemented a revised schedule for the 2020 campaign, making up for lost time by cramming nine of the 10 originally planned race weekends into a truncated calendar which sees BTCC fans treated to the first four meetings in just over a month.
There are also a host of new protocols designed to prevent the spread of coronavirus and ensure the safety of those working on and competing in the championship.
There have already been some unfortunate absentees in the wake of the pandemic, with former champions Andrew Jordan and Jason Plato both pulling out due to financial constraints while the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport made a late decision to ban spectators from BTCC events in August after categorising the series as an ‘elite sport’.
Despite a temporary lack of fans track-side and prominent rivals taking a step back this year, Team Dynamics were always fully committed to competing in the BTCC this season.
“I never had any doubts,” explained Cammish. “I knew obviously we’ve all taken as many precautions as we can.
“I generally tried to keep myself distanced as if we get it now, we’re in trouble so we’re taking even more precautions than usual and you need to wrap yourself in cotton wool a little bit, but I never contemplated not taking part.
“As long as we social distance, abide by the rules and have a bit of common sense as well when it comes to what we’re doing, we should be okay.”
Neal echoed that stance: “It never crossed my mind to not race because of COVID. I had faith in [BTCC Series Director] Alan Gow putting a calendar together and us getting back to it.
“I’m not taking it glibly or anything, as this is obviously very serious. I wasn’t taking anything for granted but I was always hoping to go racing this year.
“They’ve done an amazing job to get a nine-meeting championship. Okay, we’re going to be running a bit later [in the year] and it’s going to be intense – August is pretty much written off for a lot of people but we’re racing.”
Responsibility for implementing logistical changes in the Worcestershire-based squad this season has fallen on Team Dynamics manager James Rodgers, who was tasked with producing a 78-page document assessing the risks of a return to racing as well as organising how the scaled-down outfit will tackle events.
“The team have been sensible – in our social lives we aren’t all out and about, putting ourselves at risk because we realise we’ve got a responsibility to the team so we’re in a bit of a social bubble at work,” Rodgers said.
“We’ve had to really seriously think about who we bring and what we do. We’re probably about six people down on what we would normally bring.
“The logistical side of things falls on my head, even down to who goes in what cars to and from the hotel.”
When asked how the team and Rodgers himself are coping under the increased workload, he denied he was feeling the heat: “Pressure is a self-induced reaction to a situation you don’t like yourself in. You put stress on yourself, and if you’re not comfortable in a situation then you’ve got to ask yourself ‘should I be doing it?’.
“What annoys me is when people outside of our influence don’t respect being sensible and social distancing, and that has an impact on us.”
At Donington, TOCA implemented restrictions on paddock access with teams only allowed a limited number of personnel on site while masks or face coverings were compulsory for the duration of the weekend and individuals were evicted if seen failing to comply.
Team Dynamics conducted regular temperature checks on all staff members, including drivers, in order to flag up any potential risk of infection and no hospitality tents or sponsor activations were present so crew members were fuelled through a takeaway-style service.
The BTCC discouraged unecessary contact between teams and all paperwork was carried out electronically while one-way systems were in operation inside circuit buildings and garage doors were left open at at every opportunity.
The pit lane walkabout, autograph sessions and drivers parade – all key features which help fans get closer to the BTCC – were cancelled, even before the decision was made to ban spectators from events this month.
And significant changes to the broadcast coverage were obvious with ITV operating out of a confined compound while drivers held post-race interviews over video link and were only allowed to step on the podium one at a time – after their trophy and champagne bottle had been disinfected.
The attention to detail even took into account the procedure in the event of a crash with drivers told they would have to put their helmet and gloves in plastic bags to avoid contamination and only utilise the medical car if deemed completely necessary, with all of these protocols designed to give the championship the best possible chance of running smoothly.
The compressed schedule and restricted staff numbers is set to put extra strain on the crew members at events, but Neal’s No 1 mechanic Craig Smith believes that gives a chance for Team Dynamics to gain an advantage.
He said: “It’s another opportunity for us to get ahead of other guys in the paddock.
“We’ve always been strong on pitstops and assessing damage then getting the car back out. We’re a bit more limited now on numbers so you need to be certain who is doing what. A lot of teams won’t bother and will just deal with it if it happens.
“You just adapt to it, and it is what it is. Even down to wearing the masks, you get used to it. TOCA have done well to get us this far.
“The schedule means there will be a few more hours involved and there is obviously a bit of a knock-on effect with home life but there are people in a lot worse situations than we are who have a lot more to deal with.
“We’re doing motorsport for four weekends in a month – we can’t start moaning about that.”
BTCC teams are reliant on sponsors to fund their participation in the championship, and the uncertainty of a compressed season with no fans at circuits for the opening rounds has put pressure on businesses to justify their involvement this season.
But Team Dynamics’ commitment and professionalism in unprecedented circumstances, added to their impressive record over past seasons, has reassured title sponsors Halfords and Yuasa to stick things out with the Honda-powered outfit.
“We’re going to be feeling the aftermath of this for a few years to come,” explained Neal, who’s father Steve founded Dynamics in 1991.
“In all sport, marketing and advertising are the first places that they look to cut rather than people or important development. We’re lucky that BTCC is a great platform and it delivers back.
“Yuasa have stayed with us because it’s delivered and they’ve had massive growth in the company since they’ve been with us, which has been a fairytale story for them.
“BTCC sponsorship is their biggest marketing spend. That’s hopefully a good thing and we have to keep on trying to reinvent ourselves for them because if you do something enough you’re preaching to the converted, and they’re aware of that. We still try and give them a good return on their investment.”
Rodgers is adamant Dynamics is in a position to weather the current storm due to years of careful investment, as opposed to frivolous spending in the wake of six outright Drivers’ Championships and six Teams’ titles since 2005.
As technical director Barry Plowman puts it: “If we’d taken out what we could in the years when it was good, we wouldn’t be in the position we are now.”
Rodgers continues: “Honda have been brilliant, absolutely above board, while Halfords and Yuasa have both said they want to extend the partnership.
“We were thinking they might just do this year and leave, but they’ve said they want to look at a two or even three-year extension.”
The picture will not look so rosy further down the pit lane, with the BTCC arguably facing its biggest-ever challenge in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Donington meeting did provide the thrilling racing that the series has become famous for, with Turkington and Ash Sutton also bagging wins in addition to Cammish, but the lack of supporters led to something of a dampened atmosphere.
“I think it’s sad fans aren’t here,” said Rodgers. “I think the circuit could operate safely within guidelines.
“If you can go to Alton Towers and queue for a ride with masks on, or you can get on a plane, then I think we can operate at a circuit which is essentially a big field with a ribbon of tarmac going through it.
“Circuit owners Motorsport Vision had plans in place for grandstands where you would segregate people, and even when you shut grandstands it would be fine [with only 5,000 fans in attendance]. The paddock was going to be closed so we would have been separated from the public.
“I thought we had a sensible idea, but I can appreciate that the government are the ones who take the flak and it’s difficult for someone to put their head above the parapet in case it gets shot off these days.”
The series anticipates an increase in viewing figures due to the compressed schedule and cancellation of other sporting events, so Rodgers is hopeful the tin-top championship could become a fixture for people to sit at home and watch on a regular basis.
“We’ll all be shattered, but for the championship it will be good,” he said.
“I think it’s the biggest challenge the BTCC has faced and at the moment you can’t fault the way TOCA and Alan Gow have dealt with it.”
The BTCC returns for Rounds 4, 5 and 6 at Brands Hatch this weekend, with ITV4 coverage starting from 10.20am on Sunday, August 9. Catch up with all the action so far this season on BTCC.net.
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