It’s been a long, cold, and for many, an uncertain winter, yet over in the far corner of a rural Kent industrial estate, there’s been a frenzy of activity as four long-serving VW CCs were put to rest and four, new to the BTCC, CUPRA Leons were designed and built.
For both Team HARD, and for the British Touring Car Championship, this is the dawn of a new era. 2022 will see a switch from the standard 2-litre direct-injection turbo engines to Cosworth-developed hybrid power. It’s a change that will not only maintain the relevance of the BTCC’s race cars to those driven by its fans but has presented a much needed opportunity for skilled marketers to re-engage with global car brands . . and there are few in the paddock as engaging as Tony Gilham and few automotive brands as ambitious and well placed to capture hearts and sales as CUPRA.
Gilham’s journey in the BTCC is already a long-serving affair. From support-series driver in Porsche Carrera Cup GB (2008-2010), to graduating to the headline act in 2011 (where he scored three top-ten finishes on his debut with Triple Eight). And then the final step (for now), returning to running his own car in 2012 (as Tony Gilham Racing), expanding this to the multi-car team we see today. I say “for now” because the one-time man & van racer has plans, and as chapters to his story go, I sense that we’re only now emerging from the prologue.
It was my first visit to Team HARD HQ. I’d expected a busy, tightly packed unit with kit and crew spilling out into the yard: How wrong could I be! It’s a huge complex, filled with cars under build, cars newly prepared, cars in store and the ghosts of cars past. Tour completed, I’m taken back through the marketing office and into the inner sanctum where Tony Gilham is busy working the phone. Conversation over, I’m asked what I think (of the facility)?
SH: “I think you’re crazy” I tell him, wary of the fact that the former cage-fighter is considerably more athletic than me.
TG: “You’re not the first person to tell me that” he laughs, “but look, look at what we’re doing, do you know of any other team like us?”
I readily admit that I don’t. Simply running four new touring cars this year is a monumental task, but then there’s the alliance with Laser Tools Racing and its three cars, a double-entry into Porsche Carrera Cup GB, entries with Ginetta, VW Cup and GT Open, and a sizeable race-day and track experience operation to add in to the mix.
“We love a challenge”
With reigning Mini Challenge champion, Nathan Harrison also in the building, Gilham is eager to talk about his team’s return to one-make Porsche racing. However, I’m here to talk CUPRA and the conversation finally goes my way.
TG: “So what do you think?” I’m asked for the second time in succession.
SH: “I think the cars are stunning” I tell him. And I mean it. The attention to detail is superb. I ask how the builds are progressing.
TG: “I can’t understate how hard everyone has worked to get us to where we are today. Most teams only ever have to worry about one or two new car builds each year; we’ve had to build four Leons and an Infiniti, but this is what’s driving us forward: It’s a full and fresh start. No longer are we taking-over already raced cars or having to buy parts from other teams; these are brand new cars with an all-new inventory.
It’s not just Gilham who’s upbeat about the change of chassis. Since we spoke, I’ve been fortunate to spend additional time in the workshop and at the test track; the smiles on the faces of the crew, meticulous in the care given to each turn of the spanner were unfading. For season after season, they’ve been chasing tails, often having to make-do, most always pitched against the clock, but not now. Parts are neatly grouped, polo shirts unstained. The jarring pitch of dubstep & grime replaced with the steady whirr of the wrench. They know it’s going to be a long and tough season, but they also know that they’ve built cars worthy of the effort.
SH: “And what about CUPRA?” I ask, “How engaged are the team in Spain in this programme?”
TG: “Can I say, It’s great for us to indirectly be a very small part of the new CUPRA story, not just with the timing of the launch of the new Leon hybrid but also the way in which they’ve organised and are growing their branding, which is nothing short of phenomenal, Look at how the partnership with FC Barcelona is being rolled-out. They don’t work in half measures. But to get back to your point, right now, we’re very much an independent. However, they made sure that we had two road cars to work from in developing the body moulds and aero package and our engineers have full access to the works team developing the TCR cars. It’s up to us to now show what we can do.”
I can see how much this means to Gilham, and his words, whilst rapid and keen are carefully chosen. We’ve been here before (BTCC teams), most recently with Subaru and Alfa Romeo (via its dealers), so I ask how he can not only keep but develop the interest shown from Barcelona whilst not, metaphorically, losing his shirt?
TG: “It has to be one step at a time with no over-promises. In a championship where literally, any one of ten or more drivers could win each race, we have to show consistency and we have to excel off the track as well as on it. Of course we’d love to see CUPRA in the BTCC as a manufacturer entry, and this is something that we’ll aim towards, but it will be done in the background as the emphasis, now and always, is the team, the drivers and the results. CUPRA will make its own decisions according to its own priorities, we’ll do the same.”
The talk moves on to the driver line-up. At the time of this interview, Nic Hamilton had yet to be announced as joining Jack Goff, Árón Taylor-Smith and Glynn Geddie in the four-car squad but Gilham wasted no time in showing me the renders of the Rokit-backed car. His smile couldn’t be wider: “We’ve always stood out” he tells me, “and we’ve always stood proud, but this is something else. Now we’ve got statements to make.”
I get it. And nowhere was this more evident than at the first Brands Hatch test. There was a swagger in the steps of each of the new gang of four as they climbed into untarnished cars and headed out on track. All any driver should expect from a race car is that it will work with them to deliver the results they know they can achieve. Standing on the outside of Paddock Hill bend and later at the Druids hairpin, I saw the swagger evolve into ever confident strides; pace and grip driving the Leons beyond the intended shakedown and into timed territory. It was the surest of signs that the old Team HARD had stayed under the dust covers of the retired CC’s. This is the new Team HARD; polished, practised and primed. In previous campaigns, the driver lineup would often comprise mostly of rising amateurs and underfunded young professionals, yet even before the 2020 season had closed, Gilham had known that his investments would deliver him a squad capable of winning on the track and off it.
TG: “First and foremost, we’re family. Drivers, crew, fans and partners: Everyone here matters; it’s what keeps us real. We had more than our fair share of interest on the phone when we announced the new cars, and in many cases, the bottom line might definitely have looked better, but if we’re going to do this right, we have to have the right people behind the wheel. Keeping Jack, Nic and Glynn was important to me, but then so was signing Árón. Yes we wanted his experience and pace, but we wanted his demeanour too. We’re now in charge of our own destiny, and this means that we need to make the most of everything we’ve invested in; infrastructure, driving talent, and partnerships. Each piece has to come together and stay together.”
It all makes sense, but I’m left with a nagging doubt. The resources that Gilham will be bringing to Thruxton for the opening round will be considerably more expensive than the package he normally delivers, and this is going to require him to go head-to-head with some of the BTCC’s stalwarts in order to generate the returns. The stakes have been raised: Is he up for it?
TG: “The difference between us and, let’s say the ‘giants’; West Surrey Racing, Team Dynamics, and Motorbase, even with new management, is that they’ve been racing at the top for years, so they naturally attract the best of everything and everyone. We’ve now got the structure in place where we can give them a good clean fight, but we’ll still be learning because simply to score points consistently, let alone win and race for titles, that’s something that you have to earn. We know this and we know we have to give it time, but am I up for it? People are very quick to forget that Team HARD has actually been one of the most successful proving grounds in national motor sport. I think we had no less than 18 current or graduate drivers in the BTCC or its support grids last year. We’ve always been seen as a place where drivers can earn their stripes . . now we’re looking to make stars: I’m up for it.”
With this, I’m reminded that our time is nearly up. The team has scheduled an announcement regarding its Carrera Cup campaign and Gilham is required in the boardroom. Plus there’s a growing backlog of missed calls, but I still have one last question: Just how did he and his team manage all this under the smothering cloud of COVID-19?
TG: “The experiences of 2020, learning to live with distancing, lockdowns and strict infection control measures, have stood us well. They clearly had a huge impact on how we’ve had to restructure our operations but having decided to bring the CUPRA programme forward a year, despite losing some of the financial benefits from key revenues (such as hospitality), we simply set about creating multiple plans that could adapt to circumstances. Spending more and earning less might not sound like good business sense but in this case, we could see the advantage of embracing CUPRA as it emerges with a new vision and we could also see better future gains by knowing the chassis before the hybrid system is introduced. Of course, we recognised that many crew members and suppliers would have their own challenges that would take precedence, especially with childcare, home-schooling and possible family health issues, so our approach from the outset has been supportive and flexible. But what’s been truly amazing is just how everyone here has been determined to get us to where we are today. Everyone we work with has been supportive and flexible with us too, so despite vastly changed practices, and missing our fans and partners on race weekends, as a team, I have to say that COVID hasn’t stopped us, it’s shaped us.”
The opening rounds of the 2021 British Touring Car Championship will take place without public attendance at Thruxton on 8th & 9th May 2021. Full coverage of Sunday’s race programme can be seen on ITV 4.