In the world of Touring Car racing, 2014 has seen the return of some very experienced drivers to some of the best Touring Car series in the world.
In the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship, two former Champions have returned. Fabrizio Giovanardi, who won both the 2007 and 2008 titles was signed up by Airwaves racing for the 2014 season in a bid to try and recover the potential championship and race winning form they have shown in previous seasons.
Meanwhile over at Team BMR, they confirmed that Alain Menu would drive one of their NGTC VW Passat's for the season. Menu, who won the 1997 and 2000 BTCC Titles during the Super Touring era, had spent recent seasons as a Works Chevrolet driver in the FIA World Touring Car Championship until the Manufacturer pulled its works support in 2012.
To add to this, Paul di Resta was announced as returning to the DTM as part of the Mercedes lineup this season. The Scotsman had been a Force India driver in Formula One from 2011 to 2013 after winning the 2010 DTM Title for the Mercedes outfit, however poor performances had led to him returning back to the German Touring Masters Arena.
Going as far forward as 2015, Nika Racing have confirmed that they have signed up as a Customer WTCC Team for the Honda outfit. Next year they will return full time in the series using a TC1 Honda Civic that will be piloted by Swedish Touring Car Superstar Rickard Rydell, winner of the 1998 BTCC Title for TWR Volvo and winner of the 2011 Scandinavian Touring Car Championship in a Chevrolet for Nika Racing.
So, what has led to these high profile, experiences drivers returning to each of these Touring Car series and further enhancing what is a "2nd Golden Age" in Touring Car racing?
Well for a start, one of those reasons is the team setup...
For Giovanardi, the chance of racing for Airwaves Ford has been something he has been trying to do since his one off outing for Triple Eight at the Thruxton BTCC Season opening weekend in 2010. Despite sporadic outings in the Porsche Panamera in the Italian Superstars series and more sporadic appearances in the german VLN Endurance series, Fabrizio wanted a competitive car to race in a highly competitive series.
In 2011, he raced for Hartmann Honda in the European Touring Car Cup, piloting a Super 2000 Honda Accord against the competition of Pepe Oriola in a SUNRED SEAT Leon TDI, Michel Nykjaer in a Nika Racing Chevrolet Cruze and Thomas Engstrom in a Sweden Team Honda Accord to name a few. In terrible conditions, Giovanardi won the ETCC in Austria and support once again poured in for the multiple tintop champion to return to top flight touring car action.
There were rumours of both Giovanardi and Menu joining Tom Chilton at what would've been a three car entry by Works supported Team Aon using the Super 2000 Ford Focus, but the team shut its doors in early 2013. However with increased support from Airwaves as a Sponsor, the Airwaves Ford team reworked its technical team and signed Gio for an attack on the 2014 BTCC with a reworked Ford Focus. The result is the team taking its first podiums of the year at the recent Thruxton meeting.
For Alain Menu, the chance to work with Geoff Kingston again, a man who as Menu's Race Engineer helped him to many race victories and to two BTCC Titles. After leaving the BTCC in 2001 after a change in regulations, Menu raced for Opel in the DTM for a few years with little or no success from a period he describes as "The worst point of his career." In 2005 he moved to the new FIA World Touring Car Championship as a Works Chevrolet driver alongside Rob Huff and ex F1 driver Nicola Larini, making himself a force to be reckoned with. With Yvan Muller replacing Larini from 2010 and the introduction of the new Chevrolet Cruze in 2009, Menu was a present title threat.
However with no works support for 2013, Menu found himself without a seat. With Muller finding a sponsorship package to stay at RML for 2013 and Huff being signed by Munnich Motorsport, Alain found himself without a seat. He made it clear that finding sponsorship was never easy for himself and despite two Porsche Supercup meetings in 2013 did not drive again until the WTCC supporting "Champions Race" at Macau. His pace was electric, proving he still had it in him.
However the Swiss driver had made it clear that the WTCC was the place he wanted to be with its new TC1 regulations opening a new era in the championship. But with seats limited to only 16 entries due to a small number of new cars built, a Tintop drive would need to come from another series...
So with Team BMR making its entry in the BTCC in 2013 and looking to build and expand further by purchasing the assets of Team HARD. the move to sign Menu was made and a re-union with Kingston being a big part of the attraction added to the building profile of the new NGTC regulations making the BTCC a competitive and attractive series to be in. Along with signing Menu, the team confirmed Aron Smith, Jack Goff and Warren Scott in a four car attack on the 2014 BTCC. So far the Swiss driver is still fast and getting used to the cut and thrust nature again of the series.
For Paul Di Resta, a chance to return to the DTM was a no brainer after being dropped by Force India. Whilst being able to secure the Force India seat in 2011 through his connection with engine supplier and employer Mercedes his three years in Formula One were full of ups and downs, leading to him being replaced in 2014 by Sergio Perez. But with Mercedes keeping hold of the Scotsman, there was a plan...
With the return of BMW to the series in 2012, the chance to sign talent from Mercedes and Audi took place, leaving Mercedes relying on a younger, lesser experienced driver lineup, led by 2005 Champion Gary Paffett. But with BMW and Audi both winning the 2012 and 2013 championships, Mercedes needed to find an edge to get back into the fight.
Whilst it will take a while to get him back up to speed, Di Resta has always been a driver who fights for his position. This season has seen a 14th place finish at the season opening Hockenheim DTM Meeting whilst at Oschersleben, an inspired pit strategy in wet conditions saw him finish in 4th place, therefore there is still fight in him yet...
Another reason for these drivers to return is the series profile. Both Menu and Giovanardi have spoken this year about how the BTCC has become the biggest and best high profile Tintop series to be in, what with a field of 31 entries this year and the NGTC Regulations proving to make the competition even closer. Added to that as being part of the 7 champions racing this year, the chance to conpete and win in the BTCC is the drive for them both.
Di Resta has said how he has felt like he has "Come Home" to the DTM this year, another series that boasts 7 ex champions in its lineup and a championship that has attracted more interest with its close competiton and the freezing of current cars to allow the racing to stay close despite pit stops and longer race duration. Added to that, the fact that he used the early season tests to acclimatise to the current spec DTM machines, Di Resta expects to be on the pace soon...
In the case of Rydell and Nika Racing tying up to return to the WTCC in 2015 using a new TC1 Honda Civic, this is a marriage that makes sense. Nika Racing were a customer Chevrolet team for many years, often running under the "Chevrolet Motorsport Sweden" banner in the STCC. In 2010 they ran Leonel Pernia in a Chevrolet Cruze at the WTCC Race of Italy as a toe in the water exercise. They returned again in 2012 at Monza with Rickard Rydell in a Cruze who managed to match the pace of the Works Cars.
Last year, they ran a full season with Michel Nykjaer at the helm followed by Yukinori Taniguchi and Rickard Rydell and the team punched well above their weight. Nykjaer won three races and took one Pole Position during the season and was often the quickest Chevrolet driver after Yvan Muller. Taniguchi won the Eurosport Asia Trophy for Asian Touring Car drivers competing in the Asian WTCC. However they took the next step to further progress the team with a tie up with the Works Honda squad for an entry next year.
In Rydell, they have a driver signed who is familiar with the team and its workings and has great experience of how the WTCC works, having contested it in a Volvo, A SEAT and a Chevrolet in various seasons. As he has proven as well, Rydell is still as fast as the likes of Muller, Tarquini, Huff and Thompson and once he has dialled in the Honda Civic, he will be a match for the rest of the Honda entrants and the other WTCC TC1 entries.
So, in effect, these Touring Car drivers who were once a dominant force in their respective championships have made the step back into the limelight to take on new challenges. Whether its signing with a new team to return to try and win a third title or returning to a series with a familiar team or manufacturer, the drive is still there in these guys to win, to compete and to be the best.
For me, its brilliant to hear and read about these guys making their respective returns. I remember watching Menu cutting his teeth in a BMW in the BTCC and then moving on to Renault and later Ford to win his titles. I remember watching Rydell making his rise in the BTCC in a Volvo and later a Ford and the racing in the WTCC for Volvo and SEAT. I remember watching Giovanardi being the dominant force in the European Super Touring Series and later the European Touring Car Championship for Alfa Romeo followed by his epic Vauxhall Days in the BTCC. I still remember the euphoria at Di Resta winning his DTM Title before moving to F1 later on.
But what makes me happiest is seeing these legends, these most experienced Tintop drivers racing at their best with the current generation of drivers and showing that they have lost none of their talent.
The Return of the Old Guard is here... And long may they reign again...