John Cleland is a BTCC legend who needs no introduction. The two-time series champion who won the title in 1989 and 1995 with Vauxhall spent 11 years in the BTCC from 1989 – 1999 before retiring from the championship. With 98 podiums including 32 class and outright wins to his name, I put my questions to John in this edition of Question Time.
What’s Your First BTCC Memory?
My first BTCC memory was in 1989, where I entered the series in my Vauxhall Astra. But going back even further it would be when I was going to watch the Grand Prix and the touring cars would be on the support programme, and they would be more exciting! Touring cars have always been a passion of mine, and I never really had an inkling to get into single seaters. I’ve driven a few and was competitive in them but it never occurred to me that that’d be the way to go.
When I joined the BTCC in 1989 there was a class structure with four classes and I was in the third of the four classes (Class C) with the Astra. That was a time where you had cars like the Class A Sierra Cosworths winning the races and the BMW M3s coming first in Class B. Then came Class C where I was racing with the Astra alongside the Golf and Peugeot GTis, and below that you had Class D which had Toyotas and Hondas.
Do You Have A Favourite UK Race Circuit?
I’ve probably got two if I’m honest. Thruxton, I love because its a massively fast track and it’s a brave track. You have to be really on it, and very very committed and I loved it because you were hanging on for dear life and were going faster than you would at most other tracks in the country.
But I suppose my real favourite track is Donington because I’ve won more races there than anywhere else. It doesn’t matter whether it was the long track or the short track, or wet or dry conditions. So to narrow it down I’d say that out of the two, Donington was the best because I won more races there! But Thruxton is also there because it was such a thrill and so high speed.
What Other Motorsport Series Do You Follow?
I’m a massive NASCAR fan. I’m lucky enough to have met Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt a number of years ago at Atlanta and Charlotte and I drove Petty’s car at Charlotte on the oval. Had I gone there ten years before, I’d have probably tried to find my way into America.
The other series that I watch all the time is V8 Supercars. I’ve got some good friends out there in Australia and teams that I’ve driven for that I can still keep in contact with. For me, its a really full on and busy championship that’s controlled really well and fairly, and there’s a really high standard of driving.
How Did You End Up Driving In The BTCC?
I started out doing hill climbs, sprints and rallies and then went into production saloon car racing where I drove Opel Commodores. That led on to driving a production saloon Opel Monza where I was one of a three-car team alongside Tony Lanfranchi and Gerry Marshall in the Uniroyal Production Saloon Series. We were pretty competitive, and I was right up there alongside my teammates who were regarded as some of the best touring car drivers at the time.
I then stood in for Lanfranchi when he was racing in the Tricentral championship and did pretty well there, too. It all snowballed from there really.
I put some money together to run my own production car and then the next step was that Vauxhall wanted to get into the Thunder Saloon Series. We took an ex Peter Brock Holden Commodore and rebadged it as a Vauxhall Senator and bought it to the UK where I shared the driving with Vince Woodman. We won the championship with the Senator and the next year Vauxhall made a Carlton and we raced that again in the Thunder Saloon Series.
During the year I kept badgering Vauxhall because I could see the British Touring Car Championship, and I could see that a good class winning car could win the championship. So I badgered Vauxhall to produce the 2.0 litre Astra GTE, and we used some of the rally technology that we had and we entered one car for the start of the 1989 season. We won our class in the races so by the middle of the year we had entered a second car and we eventually ended up running three Astras before the end of the year! One of them was for Louise Aitken-Walker, one for Jeremy Rossiter and the third for myself.
Then I ended up winning the championship, beating BMW by one point. After winning the championship at the first attempt with Vauxhall everything else snowballed from there. In 1990 we started with the Cavalier, by mid-year we were running two Cavaliers and then from that point on it was a two-car team.
Did You Know You Could Win The Title At Your First Attempt In 1989?
I didn’t think we couldn’t win it, but I knew we were going to have to be consistent and the car would have to be reliable, and it was. I won my class and got the fastest lap at every track we went to apart from one so I was banking big points. But strangely, it never felt like I won the championship properly because I won it from the classes, as it had always been won up to that point. The guys who were winning the races weren’t necessarily going to win the championship, and that’s something I’ve never really felt comfortable with. But obviously, you still have to take your hat off to drivers who won the championship, especially ones like Andy Rouse who won it in different cars.
When the BTCC became a one class series and I won the 1995 championship that was just fantastic because I led it from the front. I won races outright and the champion was the guy that won the most races effectively!
How Tough Was It For You When The Vectra Arrived In The BTCC And Wasn’t As Competitive As The Cavalier?
I was offered a drive with every manufacturer on the BTCC grid apart from Honda during my career, so I didn’t have to stick with Vauxhall, but we had a great relationship during my time in the BTCC, and we still do today. At the beginning of 1995, I’d signed a two-year contract with Vauxhall which was great because up until that point that’s what I’d always wanted. At the time I signed it, I didn’t think that I could win the championship that year, but I hadn’t driven the car yet. As soon as I drove the car at the start of 1995 I thought we could win it.
But then coming into 1996 I never thought that getting into a brand new, specially designed Vectra…it would do anything other than win. But it didn’t. It was a really tough car to drive, neither me or my teammate could get the car to drive as we wanted it to. I think there was a lot of inherent mechanical design that we couldn’t alter to make it the same as some of the race winning cars of that time. We still won the occasional race here and there but it wasn’t what it could have been.
I was committed to Vauxhall for two years until the end of 1996 which was nice security from a drivers point of view. But at the end of 1995, I was offered a drive with a number of manufacturers and the one I probably think about most is Audi and the A4 Quattro. Audi offered me the chance to drive alongside Frank Biela who went on to win the 1996 title, but I was committed to Vauxhall and they had been loyal to me during my time in the BTCC and I wanted to do the right thing and honour my contract. I’ve still got a great relationship with Vauxhall and I don’t have any regrets about not moving.
What Was It Like To Drive In The Bathurst 1000?
I drove in the Bathurst 1000 13 times during my career, including in 2001 where I finished second driving alongside Brad Jones, just 1.5s behind Skaife and Longhurst in the works Holden. Bathurst is a fantastic race. Alan Gow got me the drive when I first went there in 1992 with Peter Brock and its just a different place, its hard to describe. Its a track where you drive certain sections of it and you just smile because it’s a fantastic track, just really special. I think every touring car driver has an aim to race at Bathurst at some point because it’s just the bravest place. When you get it right and you get to the end of the lap you breathe in and just go “wow”, its that sort of place.
What Are Your Thoughts On The BTCC Today?
I think its less brutal than it was a couple of years ago. By that I mean that the standard of driving is a bit higher than it was, there’s less crashing into each other etc. Alan Gow has now got that together, and drivers do get penalties for that sort of thing. I still watch it, and I think that there are some really good drivers in the championship but having not driven one of the latest NGCT cars I can’t comment on how exactly the drivers drive the cars relative to how I did.
I purchased by 1997 Vauxhall Vectra, and up until a couple of years ago when the BTCC introduced wider tires and increased engine power the Super Touring cars I drove were still travelling faster at the same circuits than the modern BTCC cars. But now with the recent changes, the current NGCT cars are now slightly faster.
There’s absolutely no doubt that it is still a really good series, and it is a challenge to win it. I think you’ve got guys in it like Ash Sutton who just proved that he’s a real star, and for me, he’s the real star of the last couple of years. Before Sutton, I’d say Gordon Shedden was a class act. He still is, but now he’s racing in the WTCR series, but for me when he was in the BTCC he was head and shoulders above everyone else. I always said that if I had to run a touring car team I’d employ Shedden and Colin Turkington, but now that Gordon has moved on it would definitely be Ash Sutton and Colin Turkington. With those drivers, even if the cars isn’t the best on the day they will still make the best of it and I rate the two of them very highly.
Who Was The Toughest Person You Raced Against?
I think in the time I was racing touring cars at the height of the Super Touring era, you have to remember that you had two dozen highly paid professional drivers in the championship. You had drivers who competed in World Sportscars, Formula One and other global touring car series and you had some really high profile, very competent drivers. You had guys like Yvan Muller, Steve Soper, Winkelhock, Will Hoy, Alain Menu, the type of drivers who wouldn’t give you an inch on track.
The BTCC was a really tough series with no quarter given, but saying that we had a really strong bond off-track and we socialised a lot away from the race circuit. Even though we were knocking seven bells off each other on the track! We all had a really good relationship because everyone had high regard for everyone’s talent. It was very much a professional series and everybody in the world wanted to be in the BTCC. Every touring car driver I met wanted to be part of the BTCC in the Super Touring era.