Nostalgia And Fury: Here Are Your Touring Car Legends Doing Their Jobs At Spa
Photography by Will Broadhead
Ever since I was old enough to stand on the grass banking at Thruxton Race Circuit, in a sleepy part of Hampshire, UK, touring car racing has been one of the most captivating motorsport. No, not in the same vein as vintage F1, nor modern GT racing, but in terms of pure entertainment and relatability there’s nothing like it.
To the eye of a child at least, they look so similar to the cars that were out there on the road as my dad and I drove into the spectator parking area. Then there’s the exceptionally close on-track action, certainly watching the British Touring Car Championship throughout the 90’s, the old adage of “rubbing is racing” never seemed so accurate with the likes of John Cleland and Steve Soper et al going at it (and each other’s doors) hammer and tongs every other weekend.
As I grew older, rule changes within the British Championship caused me to lose interest somewhat, I couldn’t keep up with the seemingly endless reverse grids, sprint races and any other number of novelties designed to keep racing vibrant and exciting. Besides, motorcycles were starting to draw my eye away from modern four-wheeled racing. As well as this new-found love of two wheels, I was also starting to delve into the world of classic cars as opposed to current competitors, and these days motorsports fans like me are spoiled for choice; historic racing series abound, and the good ones can bring back the halcyon days of our favorite championships in live action.
Almost every historic event I attend these days has a touring car class on the docket, but often they are for pre-’66 cars, and as great as those are, a field of Lotus Cortina’s racing a bunch of Mini Coopers just doesn’t quite capture my attention like a CSL and a Capri hurling around a place like this. Thankfully at the Spa Classic this past weekend, there was a whole ‘nother grid of machines a generation or so back from the cars I grew up watching. It would have been nice to see the ‘70s ETCC up close in person, but this is the next best thing. Colorful, loud, unabashed in their aesthetics and fabulous to watch around the historic undulations of Spa-Francorchamps, this is the “good stuff.”
The Peter Auto Heritage Touring Cup class was open to machines that competed between 1966 to 1984, representing what many call the golden era of the European Touring Car Championship (though the ‘80s would like a word in this argument I imagine).
As you would expect, the grid is dominated by the Group 2 and 4 weapons that were the BMW 3.0 CSL and Ford Capri RS, but for all that there is a great variety across the 38 cars that made it to the track in Belgium. The earlier years of this lot were covered by 2002 Bimmers and Ford Escorts. Then there are some early-‘80s greats out and about (when the FIA replaced Group 2 with Group A and such), represented by a smattering of BMW 635s, but sadly, no Sierra Cossies. Throw in the odd Alfa, Volkswagen, or Chevrolet, and you’ve got visual and aural feast to nip into.
The cars all look great of course, especially the works CSLs in my mind, and whilst I can’t profess to any feelings of nostalgia created by memories of seeing these machines race the first time around, I was more than a bit excited to see these things in motion, having only read about them in the past and seen a handful flung around at Group 2 rally events here and there.
The circuit holds historical significance to the ETCC, as well as being a smashing place to watch any sort of racing. The 24 Hours of Spa was part of the ETCC season at various points along its timeline, originally on the 14-kilometer track and in the later years of the cars represented on this grid, the 7-kilometer version we are used to these days. There were many notable winners of that famous old race, including Jacky Ickx and Jochen Mass and a certain Tom Walkinshaw. Also, who could forget the red pig, the 300SEL that put Merc-tuner AMG on the map?
The pig wasn’t there, but the cars in attendance have their own pedigrees, with one of the Ford Capri 3100 RS machines on the grid being raced by Jochen Mass the first time around. This weekend its pilots are Richard Dean and McLaren F1 boss Zak Brown, but while oohing and ahhing at the machines and their pilot names in the open pit lane is all well and good, I want to hear engines at redline and tire torture—after all, these are racing cars right?
Thankfully there is plenty of time to salivate behind the guardrails as your hair’s ruffled by the backdraft of a screaming line of bright colors and loud noises, with just over three and a half hours of track time scheduled over the weekend just past, including the challenge of a night race, emulating the times in days gone by when these cars would have raced all of the way through a 24-hour cycle.
Somewhat rightfully it is a BMW 3.0 CSL that is the fastest car over the weekend, the “Batmobile” being so dominant in the championship in the ‘70s, but throughout the field there are some fabulous dices and battles going on in the back. Race Two in particular has an extremely close contest for the remaining rostrum positions. Regardless of the winners though, what’s clear is that it has been an optical and sonic extravaganza seeing these fabulous cars at Spa. My favorite moment though was not seeing them snake and struggle for traction through Eau Rouge, or scream along the Kemmel straight, it was listening to the cries of the engines and probes of the lights crack through the darkness of the cold Belgian night, just as they would have done during the boom years of this wonderful old championship.