What was the worst BTCC car Tim Harvey ever raced?
The 1992 champion recalls a works project that guaranteed his stay in the British Touring Car Championship. But all was not well on his first factory visit
Tim Harvey drove some of the most iconic cars during his 14 years in the British Touring Car Championship. But the 1992 champion also recalls a time when he was entrusted with ‘an absolute dog’, more commonly known as the Renault 19 touring car.
The winter of ’92 was a rollercoaster of emotions for Harvey, then driving for Vic Lee Racing in the Listerine-adorned BMW 318is. Having just clinched his maiden BTCC title in a petulant season finale at Silverstone, Harvey was suddenly left without a drive to defend that crown as a disgruntled BMW pulled out of the series and the team itself was liquidated following owner Vic Lee’s drug-related scandal.
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Awaiting a works contract for the following season, disputes between BMW GB and the championship body would not be resolved until after its title winner had fond solitude at Renault – the French team persuading Harvey to sign a two-year contract.
‘In 1992 when I won the title with BMW, I was fully expecting a manufacturer contract at the end of the year’, says Harvey. ‘At that time they were in an argument with TOCA over the technical regulations for ’93 and beyond, so just at the point where I thought ‘happy days’, BMW suddenly announced they were pulling out of the championship.
‘At that point I thought basically I was up s**t creek, but Renault had been knocking on the door with big plans for their touring car team. Renault had such a good reputation in motorsport that I just thought, "I’m going to go with it", so I did a two-year deal with Renault.’
Harvey would not be among BMW’s works attack the following season as Joachim Winkelhock clinched the title, something he looks back at through gritted teeth. ‘A month after I signed it, BMW sorted out their differences with TOCA, came back and obviously won the championship in ’93 with Jo [Winkelhock] which was a bit of a bitter pill to swallow.’
The Renault 19 was his new team’s weapon of choice but, as Harvey recalls, all was not as rosy as it seemed upon their first glimpse of the car in Paris.
‘Renault had been telling me all these great stories about the prototype that they were running in France and that everything was great and they had put all this effort into it. Then I went to an awards evening in Munich for BMW. The following day, I flew from there to Paris to meet RenaultSport and see the prototype car they had built.
‘I went from a typical Germanic setup at BMW where everybody was wearing their BOSS suits and were typically engineering and detail-minded, then I flew over to Paris. The car was introduced to the designer who was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and had long dreadlocks. I thought, "this is obviously a very different culture!"
‘The car looked like a Group N car to me’, he adds. ‘It was high up the air and wasn’t lowered. It had standard Renault 19 pedals in it and a fly-off handbrake. I just couldn’t believe I was looking at what was supposed to be a Super Touring racing car.
‘I asked why it had the handbrake and they told me that [test driver] Jean Ragnotti, who was obviously a rally driver, liked to do handbrake turns! That’s what it was, and I knew we had a lot of work to do.’
Renault’s moment of glory came in sodden conditions during a memorable weekend at Donington Park. On a day given fame by Ayrton Senna’s superlative European Grand Prix success, Harvey dragged the 19 to one of its two victories that season and was tailed by team-mate Alain Menu in a one-two finish.
‘A fortuitous win’, admitted Harvey. ‘We did a lot of work and got the car into a raceable condition, but it was still nothing like what it should have been. In the ’93 European GP meeting it was pouring with rain, Senna won the F1 race and we had a great opportunity to do something with the Michelin tyres.
‘It was thanks to the tyres. I like driving in the wet and was able to win, but I remember being in parc ferme and Charley Lamb from Schnitzer was phoning Germany to tell them the results of the race. I was listening to him saying the results and heard him say ‘Tim Harvey won… in the Renault’, and he was asked to repeat it!
‘It was one little moment of glory for that car, but it really was an absolute dog.’
But what was Harvey's favourite car?
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the ’92 champion sampled many of the BTCC’s more envious machines during his time.
One of his personal favourites was also his first, hustling a powerful Rover Vitesse to three overall race victories with John Maguire Racing. Its British Leyland roots gave it a briefly unwanted tag of the "poor man’s Aston Martin", but on a race track it was a firm favourite of many with an uprated ex-Buick V8 that produced 190bhp.
The benchmark at the latter end of the 80s was the venerable Ford Sierra Cosworth RS500. Ford teamed up with Reudi Eggenberger and his eponymous Swiss racing outfit, previously running Volvo's works charge. The Ford XR4TI was evolved, and the Sierra Cosworth RS500 was soon taking over the tin-top disciplines until the Super Touring era ended its dominance prematurely in 1991.
‘I’ve had several favourite cars’, said Harvey. ‘The first Group A car I drove was the Rover Vitesse, which was a fabulous machine, an absolutely fabulous machine. I loved that car.
‘Obviously, it was then superseded by the Sierra Cosworths and they in turn were fabulous machines. A completely unique and iconic form of racing car. A 560bhp, 175mph beast that couldn’t really make the tyres last at all, but they were proper racing cars.’
Harvey’s foray in Super Tourers took him to BMW, Renault, Volvo, and Peugeot. These years it's still an era fondly remembered by BTCC fans and looked back on by younger generations as manufacturers emptied their wallets to win a fierce development battle.
‘In the Super Touring era, the cars got better because of the pace of development. The ultimate Super Touring car would be a Super 2000 Honda [Accord] or Ford Mondeo, but if you compare those to the early Super Touring cars, they made them look like Group N cars. So the pace of development was so much better which each subsequent car.
‘Obviously my BMW in ’92 was a special car for me. I make no secret of it now that I preferred rear-wheel drive to front-wheel drive. For me, that was always the right way round as I’d grown up driving RWD road cars and then in Formula Ford, everything was RWD, but it wasn’t the way it went.
‘I still very much enjoyed the Volvo  also. It was a special car and a different thing with an iconic five-cylinder engine. The BMW and Volvo are probably my favourite Super Touring cars.’
Images courtesy of PSP Images and LAT
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