It’s been a while since I examined the history behind one of my favourite ever touring cars the TWR run Volvo S40 and in this post I want to continue this mini series by looking at what surely has to be one of the most successful cars in the history of the modern BTCC, the Vauxhall Astra Coupe. Winner of 12 championships in it’s short four year history ensures that Vauxhall enjoyed a drivers, constructors and teams clean sweep in the BTCC from 2001 – 2004 and the Astra Coupe will no doubt be fondly remembered as the car which facilitated some great championship tussles between the likes of Yvan Muller, Jason Plato and James Thompson.
Based on the Vauxhall Astra Mark IV chassis the 1150kg BTC-T Astra was powered by a 2000cc giving off 275 bhp at 8500rpm. A 60 litre fuel tank sat in the back two seats, harking back to the days of sprint and feature races and the Astra was modified by a Triple Eight exhaust system, six speed sequential gearbox and featured the mandantory front wheel drive TOCA components. The Astra was the first BTC-T spec car to be unveiled in late 2000 after the Super Touring Era came to an end at the end of the season and went on cement it’s place very firmly in BTCC history.
2001 saw four Astras entered into the BTCC with all four cars being run by Triple Eight. Two cars for eventual champion Jason Plato and Yvan Muller were entered under the Vauxhall Motorsport banner whilst the remaining Astras were driven by James Thompson and Phil Bennett under the egg sport name. 2001 was a Vauxhall whitewash in the BTCC. The Astra Coupe proved far more advanced and reliable than any of the other works entries from MG or Peugeot and it took 25 race wins out of a possible 26 as Vauxhall thrashed the Peugeots in the manufacturers and teams championships, with Astra drivers locking out the top four in the drivers championships also. Plato won the championship by 18 points from Muller after a string of consistent podium finishes despite the Frenchman winning three more races over the course of the season.
Despite an unusual amount of mechanical issues in 2002, alongside new works entries from Honda and Proton (and a full season from MG) the Astra Coupe still managed to lock out the top three spots in the championship courtesy of James Thompson, Yvan Muller and Matt Neal. Vauxhall yet again won the both the teams and constructors titles for the second year on the trot but this time by a margin of 151 points from MG, far smaller than the 600+ margin to Peugeot the previous year. Incidentally Peugeot withdrew manufacturer backing after that disappointing 2001 season. Two independently backed Astras joined the series in 2002 driven by now WTCC stalwart Tom Chilton and Aaron Slight under the Barwell Motorsport banner.
2003 saw Triple Eight, now rebranded as VX-Racing downsize to just three Astra Coupes following the departure of title sponsor egg however five new independent coupes joined the grid piloted by Rob Collard, Carl Breeze, Gavin Pyper, Gareth Howell and Paul Wallace bringing the total number of Astras on the grid to eight from six in 2002. Paul O’ Neil joined Thompson and Muller at VXR as once again the team won a clean sweep of drivers, teams and constructors titles. Rob Collard added an independent title to the Astras trophy cabinet for the first time winning the independents championship by 11 points from James Kaye. Back in the manufacturer backed entries Yvan Muller finally claimed a long awaited title by 34 points from rival James Thompson with the now Honda driving Matt Neal beating Paul O Neil to third place by ten points. Once again the Astra dominated the trophy haul in terms of race wins and podiums however it was the first time since 2000 that Vauxhall drivers hadn’t managed to lock out the championship’s top three.
2004 was the last year the Astra Coupe was used by Triple Eight in the BTCC as SEAT joined the series in an S2000 SEAT Toledo driven by returning Jason Plato and future WTCC champion Rob Huff. Despite the onset of new regulations and the return of Plato the Astras and VXR yet again locked out the top two in the championship table as Thompson edged out Muller by just one point however Vauxhall faced much stronger competition in the form of the fast SEAT Toledos and the independent West Surrey Racing MG of Anthony Reid. Well, I say stronger competition but the Plato still finished a whopping 49 points behind Yvan Muller in third place.
Luke Hines joined Muller and Thompson in the third factory backed Astra for what would become the Astra Coupe’s swansong year in the BTCC and somewhat fittingly two cars would finish on the podium in its final race at Donington Park with Yvan Muller taking victory and Thompson finishing in third. VXR/Triple Eight would yet again sweep all three championships for the fourth year in succession
2005 saw Triple Eight switch to the Astra Sport Hatch, a change which signalled the end of an era in the BTCC. The all conquering Astra Coupe was never raced again at manufacturer level in the BTCC and it raced with limited success in the independent category until the end of 2006 where it was gradually phased out of competition. The Astra graced the BTCC for the final time in 2010 when Martin Johnson scored it’s final points at Rockingham early on in the season.
Despite not having featured in the BTCC for six seasons now, the Vauxhall Motorsport/VX-R Astra Coupe was, and will remain to be one of the most highly decorated and successful cars ever to grace the series and we’re yet to have a repeat of such dominance from any one car in the seasons since.
Watch this space……