The RAC Tourist Trophy is in fact the oldest surviving motorsport trophy in the world, first awarded by the Royal Automobile Club in 1905 and handed out on an on-again/off-again basis pretty much ever since. It makes even Indy's Borg-Warner Trophy (est. 1936) look like a recent upstart by comparison. It has cycled through from Grand Prix to sports cars, to GT, to touring cars, then back again a couple of times, but in the 1980s it was a touring car event, one of the British rounds of the prestigious European Touring Car Championship. This of course was the stage upon which Ford of Europe (based in Cologne) and BMW (Munich) had waged a long and bitter war for tintop supremacy, one fought with the hatred of the Kursk salient and more or less ongoing since the BMW 3.0 CSL "Batmobile" first lined up alongside the Ford Capri RS3100 in the early 1970s. We'd caught a hint of the animosity between them during the WTCC last year, and with all the controversy surrounding the result at Bathurst, it would be fair to say neither side had calmed down much.
The field for the 1988 running of the TT was typically impressive: among the entrants in Class 1 were Tom Walkinshaw and Jeff Allam in the #46 Herbie Clips Holden, Tom's vaunted new fuel-injected evolution of Holden's VL Commodore SS Group A (we'll be getting to that). There was also Win Percy and Allan Grice in the works #23 Nissan Skyline HR31 GTS-R (we'll be getting to that too). Most of Class 1 however was made up of Sierras, 17 in all, a veritable fleet of Fords. Most feared among them were of course the black Texaco cars built and run by Eggenberger Motorsport, three of them for Klaus Ludwig/Klaus Niedzwiedz (#1), Steve Soper/Pierre Dieudonné (#2), and Gianfranco Brancatelli/Bernd Schneider (#3). Eggenberger was Ford's works team in the ETCC, and they were here to ensure the drivers' title went to Dieudonné and not BMW's Roberto Ravaglia. With the Tourist Trophy the penultimate round of the championship, Dieudonné could clinch it here, as long as he won the race: in the smaller M3, Ravaglia merely had to win his class, and with BMW stage-managing the works Schnitzer and Bigazzi teams from behind the scenes, it seemed very likely he would. Tensions were high.
It was not the ideal time for other Ford teams to stick their noses in, but that's what they did. Andy Rouse had entered what was basically his home event (for much the same reasons as Dick – recovering lost pride), and had brought along Frenchman Alain Ferté to co-drive his #33 Kaliber Sierra. His BTCC teammate Guy Edwards was sharing the #39 with Brit Pack F1 driver Jonathan Palmer, and both were a serious threat. This was Silverstone, after all: the BTCC had held four rounds here last year, and including the F1 support race, would hold another four in 1988; on top of that this was where many teams did all their testing, and now the TT race as well. The British drivers could all lap Silverstone in their sleep, and given this was the old Silverstone, all long straights and sweeping bends, a British driver in a Sierra was a pretty safe bet to win here today. In 1988, Silverstone was a Sierra circuit: everyone else was just driving on it.
There was also the #4 AM Motorsport Sierra of Germany's Wolf Racing Team, to be driven by Harald Grohs and former Bathurst winner Armin Hahne, which really completed the trifecta: with Eggenberger, Rouse and Wolf, the Tourist Trophy entry list now counted Ford's works teams from the BTCC, ETCC and DTM alike.
And to that they could now add the works team from Australia, too: Dick Johnson, and his Tasmanian teammate and co-driver John Bowe.
I had never seen so many rabbits. Maybe they were hares. What the hell did I know? I was used to kangaroos and wombats. Whatever they were, they bounced across the lush green grass, over the rolling hills and endless plains of the English Midlands, which led to one of the most famous motor racing tracks in the world.
The Silverstone Circuit was legendary. Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham, Juan Manuel Fangio, Jackie Stewart – they were all part of the magic.
I had conned my way there, intent on restoring Australian pride, and flogging these arrogant know-it-alls. It began when I phoned Ross Palmer.
Ross Palmer was launching his company in the U.S. and the U.K., and was about to hit the two whopping markets with a product called Redkote.
"What better way to launch yourself in the U.K. than have me go over with a car and give it to them?" I said.
"You reckon you can match it with the Europeans?" he replied.
"My oath. You know I can."
He agreed. Shell also offered to pay.
The race was for the Tourist Trophy at Silverstone, and took place on 4 September 1988.
With a decent budget, a dream and a truckload of Aussie fighting spirit, I loaded all my gear into two air-freight containers, grabbed my passport and headed straight into enemy territory.
I had never been to Silverstone and was astounded by the magnificent track when I arrived. Surrounded by rich verdant countryside, rabbits (or hares) roaming the plains and rain lashing the ground, I edged through the gates and was met by one of the most prestigious circuits in the world. Built on an old World War II airstrip, the track was long, fast, sweeping and technical. Being a naïve Aussie, I asked a local a dumb but important question.
"Clockwise, of course," he answered. "How could you not know that?"
I began testing on the Tuesday. After unloading my gear and piecing it all together, I took to the track – and made sure I went clockwise. I was cautious at first, learning the long straights and the hard braking points, and figuring out just how fast I could go into the sweepers. I soon had the tyres squealing and the brakes burning. After a few laps I felt I was doing okay, when I noticed a high-profile spy.
Sitting in an F1-like compound, full of computers and technology, Rudi Eggenberger’s team engineer was hunched over endless screens monitoring my every move. I had no idea why he was doing this until someone told me I was nudging the lap record on my very first fling.
Full of fire, and revenge firmly on my mind, I went out and ragged my Sierra. These guys I was up against knew Silverstone like I knew Lakeside, so they must’ve been embarrassed when they found out I was more than a second up on them. The entire European field shook their heads in disbelief.
I was on top of the world. To watch people like Rouse, the bloke who had dudded me, look panicked and scared, was just priceless. – Dick Johnson, The Autobiography
|That's not the grin of a man halfway down the timesheets|
On the fastest track of the year the #41 Redkote Steel Tubing Sierra absolutely smashed them; they took pole by nearly a second, then sat back and watched the others tear through dozens of sets of tyres trying to catch them up.
For the first time in this year's ETCC campaign, the entry was over-subscribed. There was no doubt from the outset that this would be the race of the year; the entry boasted the best of Group A cars from Europe, including the cream of the British championship cars, with the added interest of Dick Johnson's ATCC-winning car.There weren't many better places to start a race than from pole, and fastest time in the morning warm-up suggested the car was still up for it on race day.
Johnson felt humiliated last year at Bathurst when the Eggenberger Sierras almost arrogantly swept the locals aside, while his cars were out virtually at the start. Pride dictated that he should try to recoup lost prestige, not only for himself and his team, but for Australian touring car racing in general. There was a point to make.
The tension began to mount mid-week when word started to filter through that Johnson had lapped under Rouse's existing 1m39.29s lap record. It climbed further when the Australian led the times in Friday's free test sessions. Notice had been served that this was no empty threat ... a mistake ruined the first run, but then the second set heads turning when a time of 1m35.49s was announced, at that time the best part of a second ahead of the opposition. Klaus Ludwig chimed in with a time of 1m36s dead, but it was too late and too slow. – Auto Action, 16 Sep 1988
The locals' last chance to discombobulate the Australians was with the unfamiliar rolling start, but when the Pace Car pulled into the pits Johnson gunned it and pulled away, like he'd been doing it all his life. The Redkote Sierra simply left them behind, zooming into an immediate and substantial lead – a full second by the end of lap 1. Johnson led easily from Steve Soper, Klaus Ludwig, Armin Hahne, Andy Rouse, BTCC regular Robb Gravett, Jonathan Palmer, and then Tom Walkinshaw in the Holden, the best-placed non-Sierra in the race. All of them realised, to their horror, that they were now in a race for 2nd.
The Poms do have a way with words, however, and after 10 laps the commentator in the video was moved to observe that Johnson, "hadn't managed to pull out more than a couple of seconds on Klaus Ludwig." Yes, what a poor showing, to be "only" two seconds ahead of the million-franc factory team on their home turf. Shame really. Well, if Johnson hadn't rammed the message down their throats yet, he was about to get another chance. Romeo Carnathias in the #6 Jolly Club Bergamo Sierra was abruptly seen in the gravel, having apparently suffered a steering failure. The RAC thought this warranted a full-course yellow and released the Pace Car, claiming Carnathias was in "a dangerous place." I wouldn't put it past the RAC to go all NASCAR on us and call a caution simply to bunch up the field again, especially with the Aussies walking all over them like this, but who knows? Maybe the #6 really was in a dangerous place.
Either way, the field was brought back together, and at the restart Johnson had to build his lead all over again – which he did, easily. In fact, this time he even set a new lap record, a time that nobody else would beat all day – 1:36.57, or 178.12km/h.
We went to Silverstone for the Tourist Trophy in 1988 – you have to remember that this was a world championship touring car race [sic] – and Dick came past on the first lap so far in the lead that we thought he must have jumped the start. I remember following one of the Eggenberger cars through one of the fast corners, Klaus Ludwig or someone – and they were like heroes – and I just drove past him and disappeared. It was awesome. Really awesome. – John BoweUnfortunately, having claimed pole and fastest lap, the DJR team would have to settle for two out of three: it was at the first scheduled stop that things started to go wrong. Johnson pitted around lap 38 as planned, letting Andy Rouse through into the lead, but the stop was slow with a fuel feed problem. John Bowe climbed in for his stint, but because of the refuelling problem he was slow away, and rejoined only 11th.
That seemingly burst the bubble, as for DJR things quickly went down the tubes. By lap 64, Bowe was back up to 4th place, but he and race leader Klaus Ludwig both pitted at the end of the lap. Ludwig's stop was smooth and untroubled, Klaus Niedzwiedz taking over without a fuss, but further down pit lane the Redkote car's bonnet was up and mechanics were pouring fresh water into its steaming reservoir. Johnson was strapped in and ready to go, but had to sit tight and wait for the mechanics to finish their tasks. It would later emerge that a water pump gasket of a kind you could buy in any Ford dealership in the U.K. – but not in Brisbane – had failed, killing what could have been a dream result. The car had to keep returning to the pits to top up its water, losing so much time that it finished the day only 21st – a long way from where its pace could've put it.
|For want of a nail...|
Although leaving with the silverware would've been the ideal finish to the weekend, Dick had to settle for impact alone, and that they still talk about today. After all, a broken water pump gasket said nothing about Dick's ability as a tuner, car builder or driver.
The only drama was they wouldn’t supply us with new water pumps and we unfortunately ended up with one that failed on us and started leaking and that was why it was overheating and hence the extra pit stops. But mate, they know damn well exactly what the deal was there. We were on pole position by a considerable margin and my favourite photo of all time is one of me coming down the Hangar Straight comfortably in the lead with the opposition all in the background. – Dick Johnson, AMC #77So at the front, the race went on without the Aussies, and despite everything it was good one. Andy Rouse had started only 5th, but he'd risen steadily since then, dispatching Armin Hahne under brakes on the entry to Stowe, then resumed his usual battle with Steve Soper. This was yet another round of the ongoing row between these two (their scrap at Brands Hatch was, it must be said, magnificent), and although both had to be careful not to use up their cars in such a long race, the intensity never dipped. Rouse managed to get past Soper with the same move he'd pulled on Hahne, only for Soper to grab the restart with both hands and launch himself straight back up to 3rd. It was well and truly on between these two.
|The Brands Hatch race. Don't think, just go and watch it.|
Rouse eventually got the place back, and by the time the first round of stops loomed at one-third distance, Ludwig was 2nd, with Rouse 3rd, then Soper 4th, Gravett 5th, Brancatelli 6th in the extra Eggenberger car, Palmer 7th, Hanhne 8th, and Win Percy 9th in the Nissan, the highest-placed non-Sierra at that stage. Walkinshaw's Holden was well off the place in 14th, which the formidable Scotsman dealt with by pitting for a change of tyres and a fresh load of fuel, and putting Jeff Allam in the driver's seat. Silverstone of all circuits should've played to the Commodore's brute power and uncompromising new aero package, while minimising the penalty of its weight and iffy brakes, so such a humbling performance was a bad sign for a new model as important as this.
|An awesome photo of them building the thing, courtesy of Facebook page, "VL SS Group A SV - Walkinshaw."|
The Nissan team was likewise in trouble: after 30 laps, Win Percy brought his Skyline into the pits, but stayed strapped in instead of hopping out: the car had a problem. It turned out the gearbox was stuck in 3rd, a crippling handicap on a circuit as fast as this, and not one that could be fixed in time to rejoin the race. The Nissan challenge had fizzled, and teammate Allan Grice never even got to drive.
Back at the front, Rouse kept the pressure on and soon put a move on the inside of Klaus Ludwig – again, at Stowe. The sharper, more hard-edged suspension tune needed for BTCC sprint races definitely gave Rouse the edge on handling, but would it come with a penalty for his tyre life? Only time would tell. In the meantime, he'd moved up to 2nd place just in time to make his scheduled stop and hand it over to co-driver Alain Ferté, who rejoined behind Soper, who'd now swept through into the lead.
Soper wasn't far from his own pit stop, however, and soon he brought it in to hand the #2 car over to Pierre Dieudonné. Soper was interviewed immediately after, where he was told, "Apparently there's a problem with the Australian car," which prompted the quote of the day: "Is there? Oh, I'm ever so upset!"
|Soper/Dieudonné at the Donington 500, earlier in the year|
He might've spoken too soon. Ferté was a good choice of co-driver, bringing Rouse's #33 Kaliber Sierra back to the pits without so much as a scratch on it. When it all shook out, Dieudonné was leading in the closing laps, but Rouse was on a mission to catch him and put the hammer down, sliding raucously out of his pit box and back onto the track. With 25 laps to go, Rouse was all over the back of the Eggenberger car and hounding him mercilessly, although he was wise enough to contain himself while they were still threading through the backmarkers. One of those was the Walkinshaw Commodore, in 10th – the Sierras had lapped every car up to P10!
With blue flags flying to another batch of backmarkers, Rouse took a punt and made his move on Dieudonné on the run from Copse up to Becketts. There was no sign his engine was about to pack it in, or that his tyres were wearing out, so there he stayed to the chequered flag, crossing the line for the 105th and final time to take the RAC Tourist Trophy for 1988. Whatever I might've said about the bastard, I never said he couldn't drive.
But here's the thing – if I'd been a Ford executive in the 1980s, I would've had a button installed in my desk in Cologne. I'd've watched the live feed of every touring car race from my office, and any time I saw Andy Rouse move ahead of my Eggenberger car, I'd've pressed the button and sent a remote signal to blow his engine sky-high. Rouse's victory had just deprived Ford of a coveted ETCC title: by moving ahead of the works team, Andy had taken away some crucial points for 1st place, and that effectively anointed Roberto Ravaglia European Touring Car Champion on the spot. Coming only a year after his shenanigans had arguably cost Ford the WTCC, it really is a wonder no-one tried to burn down his motorhome while he was asleep in it.
|Yeah, I'd wear that face too, Pierre|
But, if they'd done something like that to Andy, they would've done it twice over to Dick, who'd been the real threat to Eggenberger all week long. The whole experience was summed up by
the best moment in the video, exactly 13 minutes and 45 seconds in. As he cooled off after his first stint, a pitlane reporter came over to talk to the sweaty-faced Johnson, who gave one of the great interviews of all time.
"Oh, well the car's fine," he said, rattling off the usual racing driver stuff. "It’s just that we had a fair bit of trouble with slower traffic, and someone dropped a heap of oil before you come up under the bridge there. It was dripping all the way around on-line, which sort of made it pretty difficult for a couple of laps, but other than that it was fine."
The reporter nodded, then put in a stellar bid for the most condescending question ever asked: "Were you surprised to be so competitive over here?"
Dick was momentarily taken aback. Much as we might talk about "Mother England," it still takes you by surprise when they actually treat you like a child. But then the Poms never really adjusted to the loss of their Empire, and still expect you to call them nkosi or bwana if you address them in a funny accent.
"Uhh... yeah, okay," was all Dick said, smiling resignedly, a sinking "like that, is it?" sort of tone in his voice. But not knowing to quit while he was behind, the reporter then pressed on: "No, you’re obviously quite a match for the other Sierra Cosworths?" And having gathered himself by this time, Dick was able to give the answer his questioning deserved – the answer Australia can still give today, if we put our minds and backs into it.
"Mate, we convicts can do anything, I think."