For all their F1 history, Williams Race Engineering also made BTCC history in the mid to late 1990’s. Fresh from a debut 1994 where the new Renault Laguna took three race victories to help the Renault Dealer Racing to 2nd in the constructor’s table, the French manufacturer brought in F1 powerhouses Williams to run the car and team from 1995. What followed was an unprecedented period of success which ensures that the Williams-built Renault Laguna takes its place in my list of favourite BTCC cars of the last few decades.
Built: 1995 – 1999 (20 in total)
Chassis: Renault Laguna I
Engine: Renault / Sodemo Straight 4
Displacement: 1,998 cc / 121.9 cu in
Valvetrain: 4 valves / cylinder, DOHC
Power 310 bhp / 231 KW @ 8,500 rpm
Torque 255 Nm / 188 ft lbs @ 7,000 rpm
Suspension: McPherson struts, coil springs (front), trailing arms, torsion bar springs (rear)
Gearbox: Williams 6-Speed manual
Source: Renault Sport Club Forum
Alain Menu: 1995 – 1998
Will Hoy: 1995 – 1996
Jason Plato: 1997 – 1999
Jean Christophe-Boullion: 1999
1995 marked Williams’ BTCC debut with the newly built Renault Laguna. With 1994 championship runner-up Alain Menu retained from the Renault Dealer Team, and 1991 BTCC champion Will Hoy bought in from Toyota, the Laguna developed rapidly throughout the season becoming the class of the field winning 7 out of the last 9 races of the season. With Ian Harrison (future boss of the all-conquering Triple Eight) at the helm, it took until round 5 of the season at Thruxton in Hampshire for Menu to take Williams’ first BTCC race victory securing pole position and fastest lap along the way.
Menu would continue to perform with brilliant consistency on his way to 2nd in the driver’s standings at the end of 95, but Will Hoy suffered from a number of retirements and mechanical problems in the opening half of the year. Hoy recovered to win 3 races at Brands Hatch, Snetterton and Silverstone towards the tail end of the season and Williams Renault won the constructors title in the first year of asking, beating Vauxhall by 5 points.
Following on from their late 1995 form, Williams Renault were most people’s pre-season favourites for 1996. With Menu and Hoy retained for another year, the Laguna struggled to replicate the success of the previous season and Williams Renault fell to 4th in the constructor’s table. Menu would recover from 3 point-less races in the opening 6 to finish 2nd in the championship behind the all-conquering Audi A4 of Frank Biela, but Hoy would struggle with performance and reliability finishing the season 9th in the driver’s table.
The 1996 season was dominated by Audi and their 4-wheel drive A4 Quattro. The A4 was the class of the field across all major touring car championships in ’96, including the BTCC. Despite weight penalties being added to the Audi’s mid-season, there was little consequence for the Ingolstadt-based brand and Biela won the title at a canter with 4 races to spare.
Then came 1997. Williams’ third season of running the Renault Laguna proved to be it’s most successful. Three-time series runner-up Alain Menu stayed with the team but Will Hoy departed to Ford, with future BTCC legend Jason Plato taking his place for what proved to be a fantastic debut season. With the Audi’s again hit with a weight penalty, the Renault Laguna would dominate the year winning 14 out of 24 races. Alain Menu won the drivers title from Biela by a mammoth 128 points, and Williams Renault would win both constructors and teams championships in a year of dominance for the Renault Laguna. Plato would finish 3rd.
1998 proved to be one of the most competitive seasons of the super touring era. Defending champion Menu and superstar rookie Plato were retained for another year but the now iconic yellow and blue livery was replaced by an emerald green and Nescafe Blend 37 title sponsor. Williams Renault didn’t enjoy the same level of dominance as they did in the previous season and with improved efforts from the likes of Volvo (TWR), Nissan (RML) and Honda (Prodrive). The competition proved to be intense, and the Renault Laguna won just 4 races all season compared to 14 the year before.
Menu and Plato would finish the year 4th and 5th in the driver’s championship, behind Rydell, Reid and Thompson. Williams Renault would also fail to successfully defend their constructors and teams titles losing out to Nissan in the constructors and Nissan and Volvo in the team’s championship.
The Renault Laguna’s final season in the BTCC proved to ultimately be it’s least successful. Audi and Peugeot’s withdrawal from the series at the end of 1998 marked the beginning of the end of the super touring era, and 1999 would see Nissan dominate and take a clean sweep of the drivers, constructors and teams titles. Longtime stalwart Alain Menu departed the team which had taken him to ’97 title and was replaced by ex Sauber F1 driver and BTCC rookie Jean Christophe Boullion. Plato remained to spearhead William’s final season both in the BTCC and with the Renault Laguna and would take their only race victory in the feature race at Silverstone near the start of the year.
After a promising start, a run of 3 successive retirements would begin to hamper Plato’s title charge and he fell to 5th in the table by the end of the season. Teammate Boullion wouldn’t enjoy the levels of success of any of his Renault Laguna predecessors and struggled to 10th the in the driver’s championship, with a 3rd place at Silverstone his only silverware of the year. Willams Renault would finish their final BTCC campaign 4th in the constructor’s and team’s championships.
At the end of 1999, the Williams Renault partnership ended and Renault withdrew from the BTCC, taking their iconic Laguna with them. Two constructors championships, one driver’s championship and 33 race victories mark a very reasonable return for Williams’ five years running the Renault BTCC program, and through their efforts, they developed the Laguna into one of the most iconic and successful cars of the late super touring era. Yet to announce a return to the BTCC, the Laguna marks Renault’s final car to have competed in or won a race in Britain’s top motorsport series. The jury is out on whether we’ll ever see Williams, Renault or the Laguna in the BTCC ever again.
I hope you enjoyed this trip back in time! If you have any comments or want to see one of your favourite BTCC cars covered in BTCC history just let me know either in the comments below or on social media!