Thought leadership series
BTCC boss Alan Gow on the future for touring car racing
As the boss of the British Touring Car Championship as well as President of the FIA Touring Car Commission, Alan Gow is the most senior leader in the touring car world.
The category does not rely on technology for its reason to exist; it is all about close racing and entertainment. We have seen outer fringes of the category, like DTM that are reliant on manufacturers, really suffering in the last few months.
There have inevitably been a few drop outs from the BTCC in the last week, ahead of its restart on August 1/2. So for the latest #ThinkingForward interview we asked Alan Gow, will touring car racing be able to build back better after the crisis?
Q: Alan, taking a view of the overall landscape when the world resets after this crisis. What do you think could be different about the new normal or as some people are calling it the “new abnormal” as far as motor sports are concerned?
AG: It's probably easier to ask what won't be different. I think everything about the way we go about doing things we will have to question. From the moment you leave your home, how you travel, how you get there, where you stay, how you conduct yourself, is going to change. It's a lot easier for the BTCC because we are just a domestic championship. So our travel requirements and all those sort of logistics aren't anywhere near what an international championship has to do. Hopefully the only thing that doesn't change is the on track racing. We certainly don't practice social distancing in Touring Car racing! As long as the on track action doesn't suffer from the changes we have to make off track, it’s fine with me.
Q: Throughout this #ThinkingForward series, we've been hearing from leaders in motorsports saying that it's inevitable there's going to be consolidation after this crisis. In other words, fewer racing series that are strong, well supported by manufacturers and brands, rather than the very fragmented landscape that we had before. I think we all felt it was coming anyway. But I guess this crisis has speeded that up. Touring Car racing, obviously has been very successful over the years. Part of the reason being that it has a very clear identity. Do you feel that it has the right product to thrive the other side of this crisis?
AG: Yeah, absolutely. You know, we, you got to put things into perspective. Also touring car racing is not a technological exercise. That has been that way for many decades. So all we offer is good, exciting, entertaining motorsport. There are many series around the world that are there to demonstrate technology; F1, Formula E, WRC, WEC. They're all great technological exercises. And we're not that. So all we have to do is make our racing relevant to the ethos of touring car racing, make sure it's relevant to the spectators, and just keep on doing what we're doing. We don't have to worry about the technological aspect as much as all those major series, who will go through a lot of major changes going forward.
They're going to be have to be careful; they won't have the money available to them any more for quite some years. So they're going to have to be very, very careful. Formula 1 has addressed it, but do you look at series like World Rally and World Endurance, they're really expensive. And if they don't start making changes to be relevant and cost effective then they're going to have major problems. Formula 1 identified it very early and what they've done with their cost cap and everything else is fantastic. Other series will have to follow that lead I think.
Q: How do you see the participation of manufacturers in the sport in the future? I mean, obviously the rationale for them to invest has always been there; Renault, FIAT, Mercedes have been around since the dawn of the automobile. We can imagine them reducing the level of investment in sport inevitably in the short term, but how do you see it over the medium term?
AG: Short to medium term, I think that the amount of manufacturers involved in motorsports certainly won't increase, it will probably decrease, or they will actually consolidate into those areas that they want to be doing. Mercedes is a good example of that. They were involved in DTM, and Formula 1 and Formula E and a few other things like GT racing. They'll consolidate down to Formula 1 and Formula E now. I imagine that most manufacturers will start doing that. Motorsport will always form an important part of the manufacturers' marketing armoury. At least I would hope it would, certainly in the medium term, but I don't think now they will do as much of it, just consolidate and polarise their efforts into one or two series.
Q: In the recent FIA eConference there was a clear statement that a sense of purpose will be needed in motorsport, it cannot just be entertainment. That means driving diversity, greater inclusion, more female drivers, more drivers from ethnically diverse backgrounds, being able to carry messaging because you have a powerful messaging platform. On the sustainability side, what's fascinating about the hybrid when it comes to your series is that there's an entertainment component to that too, in terms of attack and defence mode on a hybrid system. So you're obviously thinking quite hard about that purpose vs entertainment balance...
AG: Look, hybrid is something we had to do and we were the first touring car championship in the world to announce a definitive hybrid pathway and we started off with the concept 18 months ago. I said I want a hybrid systems that costs twenty grand a year for the teams and delivers an increase in performance. And then I gave them certain parameters. And they all laughed at me. And now that's come true. We've got a hybrid system that absolutely ticks all the boxes that we set out to do. But we're not a technological exercise as far as BTCC goes. So the hybrid system we've got in the car is for attack or defence. And it is used as an addition; It doesn't increase the weight of the car. It doesn't detract from the racing. All the changes that we're making have to be positive. There has to be no negative which we've seen with other hybrid systems when they've been introduced in the past in other formulas. So it was an important message to get over that. Yes, we're going hybrid. But the bottom line to us is performance related.
Q: How are your teams adapting to the pressures imposed by this Coronavirus crisis?
AG: We're fortunate in as much as we've got 29 cars so we've got a fair quite a few cars on the grid. If some drop off, we've got that pretty well covered with numbers. Some teams are hurting. And I would expect by the time we go racing in August, we will see three or four cars maybe drop off. And you know, considering what they're going through at the moment, I think that's a really good result for the BTCC. But I think that just shows the level of commitment from the teams. There will be one or two or three or four or five cars, that will probably end up having budgetary problems and have to pull out but you know, if we can get the season finished by doing our nine rounds out of the 10 that we originally had in the schedule, and lose just four or five cars in the year as a result of it. I think we've done really well.
Q: You've also got a reasonable degree of autonomy in terms of cutting costs and making moves if you need to without having to align with other championships internationally - that must be quite an advantage.
AG: It is, it's something we've already done. We've made certain changes to our regulations. We have gone about doing things to make things cheaper for the teams? So, yes, we have that autonomy, we don't have to go through another layer to get approvals. We have a zoom meeting with the teams, we go through a couple of ideas, we agree and it's done. There's no other process than that. The teams are incredibly committed. They're incredibly upbeat about the future, and they can't wait to get going. I mean, the big schedule we put to them for this year was really, difficult. You know, we start on the same weekend as Silverstone F1 race, first weekend of August, and we race for the next we raised four weekends out in the next five. That's a lot of racing. And that makes it really hard. And through the rest of the season, we got three back to back events. Now, sure, we're only travelling from county to county, but that's really hard work. You know, these are teams that are made up, half of them are professional, half of them are amateur, as far as their work is concerned. You know, most of the most of the work is on the weekends are temporary. So we've got to, you know, when I put the calendar to them, not one of them said to me, okay, this is too hard. I don't want to do I don't want to do this. They all to a man said, yes we're up for it. Let's get going. Fantastic.
I'm sure I went through more than 30 calendar changes. I had a Word document on my on my screen that just kept on going through changes all the time, till we got to the stage where everyone could agree it and then you just sit back and cross your fingers and hope that nothing changes between now and then. And the only thing that will change that is if there's a government directive, they may stop us for a second lockdown or something else. But so far, so good. We could have gone in July but we decided to wait until August and I think I think our timing was pretty much spot on. Unfortunately, we end in in mid November in deepest darkest Kent and it'll be bloody cold and bloody dark. But you know, again, we'll just have to get through it. We'll just do what we can.
Q: Motorsport is nothing if not able to adapt and be innovative but I guess the other key stakeholder in all of this is the circuits. They have not been having an easy time either because they're so reliant on event income. Obviously the restart is behind closed doors but are you hoping you might be able to admit some spectators at some point?
AG: Okay as each day goes past I'm more and more confident there'll be an element of spectators allowed into the circuits. Obviously shops and now I've been shopping malls are open, theme parks are open, you know zoos are open. So I struggling to understand how you can allow 30,000 people at Alton Towers theme park and not allow I don't know 10,000 people at Donington Park so I'd be I'd be very surprised if by August there wasn't an amount of spectators allowed in. I think we got our timing dead-on for that. There'll obviously be a limit to it. They'll give you a percentage or a maximum number that might be allowed, but it'll be enough to hopefully make it work for everyone.
Q: Shifting the focus out a little bit Alan obviously you're also president of the FIA Touring Car Commission. Can you give us your wider world view on the challenges and opportunities for touring car racing globally?
AG: Well, the WTCR is going through a major change at the moment they've had to cancel the world aspect of it if you like, and just concentrate their races into Europe for this year. Because logistically and politically it was just too difficult for them to undertake an international series. So that's been compressed into a series is just for Europe. And that starts in September and finishes end of November.
On the same token going forward they're introducing an electric only series which was going to debut this year at Goodwood that has been cancelled. That'll be an interesting project. That’s a good long term project, Touring Car Racing on a worldwide basis should obviously look at electrification. Australia is going through some hard times at the moment the circumstances have overcome them much more quickly than they thought would happen. And they're gonna have to make some very fundamental change to their regulations to make their racing more and more relevant to the world we live in now. NASCAR going hybrid, that to me underlines a real revolution in the way motorsport is going. Then of course DTM. Again, it's not something FIA is directly related to but DTM is going through a terrible time. The two major manufacturers, one pulled out , another at the end of the year Audi, which only leaves BMW, so obviously, the current format they've got is unsustainable. So they're going through a lot of heartache at the moment, they'll find a way around.
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