One of the most successful cars in the history of the British Touring Car Championship, the Vauxhall Astra Coupe is the car that defines the early days of the BTC-Touring era of the BTCC. Whilst the historic marque had struggled to remain competitive with the Vectra in the later years of Super Touring, a regulation reset in 2001 enabled Vauxhall to return to the top of the BTCC pecking order and stay there for four consecutive and dominant years. The Vauxhall Astra Coupe’s dominance of 2001-2004 is an achievement rarely matched in the 60 plus years of the BSCC/BTCC, I looked back at its time in the series in this edition of BTCC History.
Vauxhall Astra Coupe
Produced since 1979, the Astra is Vauxhall’s flagship small family car and has long been a staple on Britain’s roads. The Astra was a Vauxhall badged Opel Kadett and in the UK it replaced the outgoing Vauxhall Viva. The Astra was also Vauxhall’s first front-wheel-drive car. A BTCC title winner in 1989 with John Cleland behind the wheel, the Mark 2 Astra had already achieved touring car success before the Mark 4 Astra entered the BTCC at the start of 2001. Introduced to the UK market in 1998, the Mark 4 Astra was an immediate success and by the time it arrived in the BTCC in 2001, it was already the second best-selling car in the UK behind the Ford Focus.
The Coupe variant of the Mark 4 Astra was released in 2000, the final year of Super Touring regulations in the BTCC and in the summer of that year, Vauxhall set about building four BTC-T spec Astra Coupes for the following season.
BTC-T Vauxhall Astra Coupe Specifications
Chassis: Vauxhall Astra Mark 4
Length: 4,267 mm
Width: 1,709 mm
Height: 1,390 mm
Axle track: 1,652 mm
Wheelbase: 2,613 mm
Engine: 2,000 cc
Power: 275 hp In-line 4 NA front-mounted
Transmission: 6-speed Sequential
Weight: 1150 kg
Stats Source: BTCC Pages.
2001 – Immediate Success For The Astra Coupe
Whilst the likes of Honda took a year away from the BTCC to build a new car to BTC-T regulations, Vauxhall Motorsport launched straight into 2001 with four custom-built BTC-T spec Astra Coupes. The Astra Coupe was the first BTC-T car to be built and released however manufacturer uptake in 2001 was low, with only Vauxhall and Peugeot fielding factory entries. Vauxhall’s four-car effort was split across two Triple Eight-run teams as Yvan Muller and Jason Plato both stayed on from 2001 under the Vauxhall Motorsport banner, whilst James Thompson moved from Honda and Phil Bennett joined the BTCC to race for egg:sport.
From the outset, it was clear that the Astra Coupe was the dominant car as neither the works Peugeot 406 Coupes or the independent Alfa Romeo and Lexus entries could compete with the might of the Astra. The Astra Coupe won a stunning 25 out of 26 races and registered the fastest lap in every single race as Vauxhall Motorsport and egg:sport finished a clear one-two in the team’s championship, Vauxhall won the manufacturers title and all four Astra drivers locked out the top four spots in the overall driver’s standings.
Whilst Thompson would finish 3rd and Bennett 4th, the intense battle which raged between the Vauxhall Motorsport pair of Jason Plato and Yvan Muller would provide many of the storylines in 2001, and it was a battle in which Plato prevailed 336 points to 318. The momentum of the championship fight saw Muller win ten times and Plato eight, but four DNFs for Muller including a very costly one at the Brands Hatch Indy season-ending feature race hampered his title challenge.
Whilst it was Plato’s first title, it was one which took its toll on both team and driver and despite Plato securing Vauxhall’s first overall BTCC championship win since 1995, he would leave the team and series at the end of the season.
The Astra Coupe’s maiden BTCC year had been a rip-roaring success. The car had completely dominated the season and had helped establish Vauxhall as a force in the BTCC once again. However rival manufacturers were already eyeing Vauxhall’s crown in 2002.
2002 – More Competition? No Problem.
Whilst manufacturer interest in 2001 had been low, by 2002 more brands were starting to take in interest in BTC-Touring as both Honda and Proton joined the series alongside MG Rover who returned with a full-season entry. Once again Vauxhall fielded a four-car outfit split across two teams with James Thompson moving to partner Muller at Vauxhall Motorsport and Matt Neal and Paul O’Neill taking the wheel at egg:sport.
The Astra Coupe also appeared in the independent BTC-T class for the first time, with Barwell Motorsport fielding Tom Chilton and Aaron Slight behind the wheel of their two cars.
Much like the year before, 2002 also proved to be an Astra Coupe clean sweep as Vauxhall locked out the top three positions in the driver’s standings alongside winning the team and constructor’s titles. However, 2002 wasn’t all plain sailing as mechanical and reliability issues reared their head affecting all four drivers.
The 2002 title went to James Thompson who finished 20 points ahead of teammate Muller to secure his first BTCC crown. For the second year in a row, Muller registered a crucial DNF in the final race of the season as he won five races to Thompson’s six in a season-long title fight. Matt Neal finished 3rd and provided a stern challenge in the egg:sport entry with a devastating run of four straight midseason DNFs at Croft and Snetterton retrospectively proving very costly. Paul O’Neill would finish the season 8th and Aaron Slight would finish 2nd in the Independent’s standings.
Whilst the competition was tougher in 2002, the Astra Coupe still won 75% of the races it entered as for the second year in a row it dominated the BTCC.
2003 – VX Racing Continue The Astra Coupe’s Run
With sponsorship from egg now gone, Vauxhall reduced their factory Astra Coupe effort from four cars to three for the 2003 season as the VXR brand made its BTCC debut. Thompson, Muller and O’Neill stayed on with the team as Matt Neal switched to Honda. Once again the Astra Coupe proved popular in the independent class as GA Motorsport, Collard Racing and Team Dynamics all ran the car although Team Dynamics would only take part in the final three rounds of the season.
Vauxhall swept the drivers, constructors and teams titles for the third year in a row as the Astra Coupe once again proved to be the dominant force in the BTCC. The car won 11 out of 20 races as the three works VX Racing Astra Coupes finished 1st, 2nd and 4th in the overall driver’s standings. The car’s reliability had improved from 2002 and after two seasons of finishing as runner-up, Yvan Muller won his first BTCC title, beating Thompson 233 points to 199. Muller would win six times, Thompson four and O’Neill twice as the Astra Coupe drove itself into the BTCC history books as one of the series’ most successful cars ever. Rob Collard won the independent’s title, marking the first independent championship win for the Astra Coupe.
2003 had been another stellar year for Vauxhall and the Astra and whilst so far the car had resisted challenges from the likes of the Honda Civic Type-R and MG ZS, the competition would heat up even further for 2004.
2004 – Four In Four For The Astra Coupe
With Alan Gow back in control of the BTCC, the series welcomed S2000-spec cars also eligible to compete in the European Touring Car Championship for the 2004 season as former Astra Coupe title winner Plato returned in a works SEAT Toledo. Muller remained to defend his title and Thompson also stayed on with the team but O’Neill was replaced by Luke Hines who had won the BTC-Production class the year before.
Once again there was also a sizeable independent representation for the Astra Coupe with Rob Collard driving a self-run car, Michael Brentwood behind the wheel of a VXR Junior team Astra and also Team Sureterm and GA Motorsports fielding a range of drivers throughout the season.
Whilst the competition was far stronger as all of SEAT, Honda, West Surrey Racing and Team Dynamics won races, for the fourth year in succession the Astra Coupe was the best of the lot and Vauxhall enjoyed their fourth clean sweep of driver’s, teams and constructors titles. James Thompson prevailed in a season-long title battle with Muller to win his second BTCC title by just one point. Muller did all he could by winning the final race of the season at Donington Park but 3rd place was enough for Thompson to take the crown as he finished on 274 points to Muller’s 273.
Hines would finish the season 10th with two race wins at Brands Hatch Indy and Snetterton to his name whilst Thompson would win five times and Muller four as the Astra Coupe would win 11 out of 30 races.
End Of An Era
Early in 2004, Vauxhall launched their fifth-generation Mark 5 Astra which included the three-door Astra Sport Hatch. From 2005 the Astra Sport Hatch would replace the Astra Coupe as Vauxhall’s car of choice in the BTCC as Yvan Muller was joined by Colin Turkington and Gavin Smith behind the wheel.
The Astra Coupe remained on the BTCC grid in independent hands for the next two seasons with Mark Proctor, Fiona Leggate and Andy Neate driving in 2005 and Nick Leason, Leggate and Paul O’Neill appearing in the car in 2006. There was no Astra Coupe representation in 2007 or 2008 but in 2009 Martin Johnson and Boulevard Team Racing contested a full season in the car, with two 10th place finishes at Snetterton and Rockingham marking their best results.
Johnson and Boulevard Team Racing returned in 2010 for another season and finished 9th in race three at Rockingham. That 9th place finish would the car’s best result for the remainder of the season, ten years after the car made its series debut. Neither Johnson, Boulevard Team Racing or the Vauxhall Astra Coupe would return to the BTCC in 2011 as the curtain came down on the Astra Coupe’s glittering BTCC career.
The car was one of the most dominant cars in series history, carrying Vauxhall to four straight drivers, teams and constructors championships. Rarely in the BTCC do you get a car so dominant for so many seasons, and the Astra Coupe’s place in BTCC history will be locked down for decades to come.