A ‘Brief’ History Of TCR: Touring Car Specification
It’s impossible to deny that TCR is one of, if not the, biggest motorsport phenomena to emerge in a generation. Built around production-based front-wheel drive hatches and saloons, the new ‘Touring Car Racing’ concept was first announced in mid-2014 and was showcased one year later with one International Series, one regional series, and three exploratory national divisions. Fast forward five years, and TCR now boasts five regional championships, a ‘World Touring Car Cup’ operating under the FIA umbrella, dedicated national championships across four continents, and up to 14 brands on the starting grid. And that’s before you include new converts like Denmark, New Zealand and Mazda.
Rewind to 2014, and neither TCR promoter WSC Ltd. nor concept founder (and CEO) Marcello Lotti knew they were in the process of capturing lightning in a bottle, though that’s not to say their newly founded ‘TC3’ initiative wasn’t built on strong foundations.
“It was a chain of circumstances, I suppose you could say” explains Fabio Ravaioli, Communications Director of WSC, who’s been part of the TCR adventure since January 2015. “Everything started when Marcello Lotti left the World Touring Car Championship” – Marcello had presided over the WTCC since 2005 – “It was clear that the WTCC’s direction would considerably increase running costs and wasn’t appealing to manufacturers, except maybe Citroën. So there was no market, there was no place for customer teams, and would be too expensive. It was a one-way street.
“So, Marcello started thinking about what to do after the WTCC, and he was particularly interested by the SEAT León Eurocup. That was a series that had the right look and a car that had remarkable performance, but at the same time, was affordable. It was the right concept, and that was the beginning of our story.
“Looking back, at 2015, we couldn’t have expected TCR would be so successful. We expected to have maybe five or six different brands building cars for their customers. Today, we have 14 brands and 900 cars racing around the world in more than 36 different series!”
On 3 July 2014, the then-named ‘TC3 International Series’ was officially inaugurated, the ‘3’ a nod to the ‘Touring Car Pyramid’ – i.e. national, regional and international competition – that the new global touring car initiative intended to restore. On top of that, WSC came steaming out of the blocks with official support from SEAT, not overly surprising, given that the Spanish marque’s León Cup Racer – dubbed by Lotti himself as “the perfect customer racing car” – had inspired the entire ‘TC3’ concept.
Fittingly, on 16 March 2015, the SEAT León became the first TCR-spec machine to take part in an official event, Guillaume Mondron and two-time Spa 24 Hours winner Frédéric Bouvy writing themselves into the history books at the season-opening round of that year’s Belgian Racing Car Championship. SEAT, though pivotal to TC3’s initial momentum, was just one of several interested parties early doors, however.
“The regulations followed the same basic principal of the Eurocup, but we didn’t want to give the impression that this was ‘just’ another branch of it. We wanted a concept that could be applied to similar cars from other brands. Marcello knew that Honda, for example, was looking for a customer racing team, away from the WTCC, like they had in rallying. And we knew the Volkswagen Group was interested because they could build different cars on the same chassis, so it wasn’t a surprise when Audi and Volkswagen joined the family. We figured this would be an attractive idea for brands as a way of giving their customers the opportunity to race.”
The philosophy was simple: a production hatchback/saloon, front-wheel drive, a turbocharged four-cylinder up to 2-litres in capacity producing ‘circa 320hp’, and Balance of Performance regs akin to GT3 racing. Before the book had even closed on 2014, announcements were made that the León Cup Racer would be joined for the first season by newly TCR-ed variants of the Honda Civic, the Volkswagen Golf, the Opel Astra, and the Ford Focus. Plus an Audi TT, but we’ll come back to that.
Further gravitas was gained on 5 December 2014 when approval from the FIA led to ‘TC3’ disappearing in favour of ‘TCR’, and just a few weeks later, a provisional calendar for 2015 was mapped out. For the first ever TCR International Series, eight teams and a maximum of 24 cars (30 for the season closer in Macau) would compete across 10 rounds and four continents. If brand support wasn’t enough of a shot in the arm, being the official support series for Formula 1 in Malaysia, China, and Singapore was another massive coup for this ‘upstart’ racing concept.
“That first race in Sepang really paved the way to our success. When we started, there was a lot of scepticism. A lot of people figured we were just another start-up series that would eventually die. Then we showed up at the 2015 Malaysian Grand Prix with 15 cars and four different brands, and that was the moment insiders began thinking ‘maybe they are serious. Maybe this isn’t bullshit!’
“If you are a support series for the European Le Mans or the DTM, it’s easy: you pay and you show up! But starting with Formula 1…of course you have to pay, but that’s not the only thing that opens the door. You need to have a good relationship, and you need to be credible. We did and we were, and the first two TCR races ever were at Sepang, with Formula 1, and in Shanghai, with Formula 1.
“The most outstanding moment of that first season was having Bernie Ecclestone on the grid standing next to our cars. At that moment, everybody knew we were serious!”
Nine months later, Stefano Comini was crowned the inaugural TCR International Series champion, drawing to a close an impressive season that saw four brands and 10 drivers stand on the top step. One year later, the Swiss driver successfully defended his crown, albeit by a scant 2.5 points during which another seven drivers had added their name to the TCR International Series’ winners’ list.
‘International’ though tells only part of the story. Helmed by former Asian Touring Car Series promoter David Sonenscher, TCR Asia, also debuting in 2015, was the WSC’s first official regional series and even shared three of its four rounds with the parent ‘International’ calendar. Before the season was even half over, national series in Italy, Portugal and Russia were also up and running, with Benelux not far behind.
“TCR Asia was pretty straightforward, and because of their customer market, it was an important series to host first. Italy, Russia and Portugal? They actually made the first steps by allowing TCR cars to compete within their established touring car series. That was great! TCR Italy started with just two cars, and the year after, they had a dedicated championship with 12-15 TCR cars.
“Russia was the same. That started with Lukoil Racing running three TCR cars alongside Super 2000s and Group Ns, and it wasn’t long before teams noticed these cars were faster, looked better, were less expensive and were more reliable. The next year, you had TCR Russia. In many ways, the TCR International Series was a sort of showcase for the concept.”
One year on from its debut, TCR featured in more than a dozen regional and national championships that were either up and running or in the works across Europe, Scandinavia, Asia and the Americas. Across in the international series, new races were confirmed in Bahrain, Belgium and Germany for 2016, plus a new Italian round at Imola. Honda, SEAT, Ford and Opel meanwhile were soon joined on the grid by Alfa Romeo, Peugeot, Subaru, Audi (again) and Volkswagen, following the latter’s three race trial run in 2015. Even the technical regulations received a tweak, with minimum weight reduced by 10kg and driver aids like ABS, ESP and TCS banned outright.
Having proven globally, nationally and regionally that the new ‘pyramid’ formula had past muster, interest for TCR in 2016 was through the roof.
“Obviously, you always want to improve a formula, and we pushed the envelope a lot for 2016. We worked a lot with the brands, with the teams and with the event promoters, and in particular, we regularly invited them to meetings to help fine-tune the technical regulations and establish a set of rules that worked. All for no additional cost. Everybody was embracing this concept.”
2017 saw the TCR International Series visit Georgia, Hungary and Dubai for the first time, and a new champion crowned in France’s Jean-Karl Vernay. It also witnessed the debuts of the KIA Cee’d, the Audi RS3 LMS and Hyundai to TCR competition, the latter two stamping their authority quickly. The Hyundai, with one Gabriele Tarquini on-board no less, caused a stir by winning on its TCR debut in China, the former British, European and World Touring Car Champion one-upping that formidable achievement by taking the global TCR crown with Hyundai in 2018.
Audi meanwhile, having placed a cautious toe in the TCR waters first with a homologated TT Cup in 2015 and an RS3 saloon in 2016, were finally all in alongside its Volkswagen Group bedfellows. To Fabio, the RS3 LMS is among the most notable of TCR’s success stories.
“Looking at the brands, probably the the most successful in the least amount of time was Audi. And I’m not just talking results. In 2016, the assured us they’re have a car ready for 2017: ‘we’ll build 110 of them and they will cost €135,000 each.’ They sold out in 45 days!”
Ironically, as Audi, Hyundai and their ilk came through TCR’s revolving door, Ford was on its way out. Originally developed by Onyx Race Engineering for 2015, and with plans for a 12-20 car roll-out, a lack of factory support and terminal overheating problems meant the Focus TCR failed to start its first TCR race at all and had yielded just one top 10 finish before the FRD Motorsports Team began a thorough overhaul 18 months later. To little effect. The Focus TCR competed only twice in 2016 before disappearing from the International Series completely.
“Probably the only thing that went really wrong in 2015 was the disappointing performance and reliability of the Ford Focus TCR. We expected much more from that. But without direct technical support or blessing from a manufacturer, it’s difficult to develop a competitive car, and we’ve seen this with Ford, with Subaru and with KIA. They tried, they spent money, they spent time and they were enthusiastic, but the manner in which things were done, it just wasn’t meant to be.”
It was somewhat inevitable that the FIA would came knocking, and after three successful seasons, the TCR International Series name was retired was retired to make room in 2018 for the FIA World Touring Car Cup (WTCR). In doing so, motorsport bade farewell to the World Touring Car Championship after 13 consecutive seasons.
Astonishingly, inside just four years, the mountaintop has been reached for Marcello Lotti, WSC Ltd, and TCR. And that’s not where the story will end either.
“TCR will keep growing. We have new brands joining, new championships starting, and we’ll soon have new models from Volkswagen, Audi and CUPRA. Of course the next step will be the ETCR” – the Electric TCR – “which could be perfect for brands who want to do more for the environment but don’t want to leave motorsport. There is so much potential for TCR, and we intend to keep this going for many years to come.
*Images courtesy of TCR International Series