Updated: Sep 5, 2020
The final installment of my series looking at each driver who competed in my first ever BTCC race as a spectator.
For my next feature I am going to look at every driver who started my first ever British Touring Car Championship race and what they have achieved in their careers, both before and after.
As some of you may know, my first BTCC race was on the 30th March 2002 when my Dad and I went to the “Super Sunday” event at Brands Hatch, in which the touring cars were joined by the British GT championship as well as Formula 3.
I was only seven when I attended and immediately fell in love with touring cars, a passion which has failed to die down yet nearly eighteen years later!
The order I will be looking at the drivers will be the finishing positions of that race.
The next driver I am going to look at is the first driver who retired from my first ever race on lap one, eventual 2002 champion James Thompson.
James is a BTCC and touring car legend, after making his BTCC debut in 1994, he joined the factory Vauxhall team at the age of twenty, partnering John Cleland in a Vauxhall Cavalier, and went onto drive for manufactures such as Honda and Seat in the BTCC as well as very respectable independent teams. At the time of his debut, he was the youngest BTCC driver of all time and has gone onto have a superb career both on a British and World stage.
I have always been a massive James Thompson fan, having watched him during the glory years of Vauxhall dominance alongside teammate Muller as two gladiator figures in the best and most glamorous manufacture on the gird fought year after year for overall honours. As well as his teammate, Thompson also had other legends such as Matt Neal and Anthony Reid was pushing him all the way, trying to dethrone the dominant Vauxhall outfit. What I always loved about Thompson was his car control and ability to consistently score points, aiding his titles.
My earliest memory of Thompson was from Brands Hatch in 2002 when his front left suspension collapsed on the way into Paddock Hill Bend, resulting in big chunks of rubber being discarded over the main straight. I was there watching on the pit straight with my dad and found it amazing the forces involved, it was a big moment as well, with Thompson being in a title contender, leaving some around me gasping.
I have been lucky to meet James many times throughout my time around the BTCC, both when he was a driver and as a guest of teams up and down the BTCC grid.
Thompson’s BTCC debut came in 1994, driving a Peugeot 405 for Woodkirk Peugeot, competing in all bar two rounds of the season. It was a season of learning for Thompson who finished in the points once at Silverstone, finishing the race tenth.
A year later and Thompson was signed alongside Cleland, and immediately impressed, finishing second in only his fourth race for the team at Brands Hatch. Two races later at Silverstone would see Thompson go one better as he claimed his first BTCC win, beating the likes of Alain Manu and Kelvin Burt. It was a real statement by the youngster as he went onto finish on the podium a further two times prior to a season ending eye injury at Knockhill, the result of a heavy crash which saw Thompson miss the second half of the season.
It was a cruel blow for Thompson who was gaining momentum with every round.
Thompson returned return with Vauxhall for the beginning of the 1996 season in the all new Vectra, again partnering Cleland, who went onto win the 1995 BTCC title. It was a difficult year for Thompson and indeed Cleland as the duo struggled to get the best out of the new car, as other teams around them such as Honda, Renault and new comers Audi took the BTCC to a new level.
Despite his struggles, Thompson added to his win tally as he took victory at Snetterton in a season which included one additional podium. Thompson ended 1996 tenth with 83 points in what was his final season in his first stint with Vauxhall.
For 1997, Thompson signed a deal to join the ever-improving Honda team, being joined by 1994 BTCC champion Gabriele Tarquini in one of the most exciting driver pairings on the grid. It was a statement of intent from Honda who were into their third season in the championship.
It was an exciting time for Honda behind the scenes as well as Prodrive took over the running of the Japanese Manufacture’s BTCC program, however the results were not representative on circuit as both drivers only managed a win a piece, with Thompson ending the season fifth, two points ahead of Tarquini, on 132 points. Despite only winning once, Thompson did finish on the podium a further six times throughout the season.
Thompson remained with Honda for 1998, being joined by Dutchman Peter Kox, who replaced Tarquini in the second Accord. It was a much-improved showing for Thompson as he won four times during the season, becoming a genuine championship threat to the likes of Rickard Rydell and Anthony Reid. The Yorkshireman eventually finished the season third on 203 points a year which included a further seven podiums.
It was Thompson’s best BTCC season to date and although he remained with Honda for a third season in 1999, he was not able to replicate his results as the dominant Nissans of Laurent Aiello and David Leslie locked out the top two spots in the championship, followed by the defending champion Rickard Rydell. Thompson ended the season fourth with 174 points, adding four wins to his overall tally.
It would prove to be the last great season of the SuperTouring era before manufactures such as Volvo, Renault and Nissan all withdrew from the championship due to spiralling costs.
The regulations remained for 2000, their final season, and Thompson went into the new millennium as a championship favourite with the drivers who were left switching teams to remain in the BTCC.
Sadly however, James suffered a massive accident at the opening round of the season at Brands Hatch which left him out of action for two rounds while he recovered. He was not the same for the remainder of the season, as Honda struggled to match the other remaining manufactures of Ford and Vauxhall, with the two locking out the top five places in the season standings.
Thompson left the Japanese manufacture at the end of the year as Honda decided to take a year sabbatical to focus on their new car in accordance with the new for 2001 regulations. This left just Vauxhall and the returning Peugeot as manufactures backed entries in the BTCC as well as some hopeful independents.
It ensured Thompson returned to Vauxhall after a five-year hiatus, being joined by rookie Phil Bennett in a pair of Egg Sport liveried Vauxhall Astra Coupes. These were identical to those driven by returning factory drivers Yvan Muller and Jason Plato, with the trio battling for the championship before Thompson slowly drifted away eventually finishing third behind champion Plato and Muller.
Plato left the BTCC for 2002 to join new ASCAR championship, Europe’s equivalent to NASCAR which left a space open in the factory team vacated by the champion. Thompson was the natural choice and graduated to partner Muller.
Despite a shaky start in his new team in which he struggled with engine failures in qualifying and the first race of the day, Thompson bounced back superbly to win the second race of the day on the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit, the second race I ever watched.
He would struggle the next time I saw him however at Brands Hatch again later in the season as he suffered a suspension failure going down the pit straight, as mentioned earlier.
Despite this issue, it was not enough to hamper his overall season as he went onto narrowly win his first BTCC crown, an amazing achievement to beat Muller, who pushed him hard all season. In the end Thompson won by 20 points, having taken six victories throughout the course of the season compared to Muller’s five.
Unlike Plato before him, Thompson remained in the BTCC to defend his crown in 2003, and reignited his rivalry with teammate Muller, as the duo were once again the two to beat in the championship. 2003 saw them joined by Paul O’Neill who graduated like Thompson the season before to the factory outfit in a third VX Racing Astra. The now trio faced stiffer competition than ever, with the likes of Honda and MG improving following their first full seasons in the BTC regulation era. Like 2002, the title went down to the wire between the two Vauxhall drivers, with both Thompson and Muller fighting all season.
It was a tense battle throughout the year, however Muller was always able to keep in the front of the battle, a position he kept all year as Thompson lost his crown to the popular Frenchman. Despite losing the title, Thompson was gracious in defeat and offered his congratulations to his teammate as Muller celebrated the win in the Oulton Park sun.
It was in 2003 when I first met James. He, Muller and O’Neill were three Goliaths of the BTCC, and three drivers I always felt had an aura around them. I saw Vauxhall as the best team on the grid, so surely they would always have the three best drivers in the biggest awnings with the best and most mechanics. What made this feeling of dominance greater was the fact everyone also raced to the trio first during the pitman walkabout, they just had that wow factor.
Other aspects which heightened the excitement around the trio was Vauxhall’s massive presence at each BTCC event. At the time they had car stands as well as an area for Vauxhall drivers, something they continued until the manufacture’s withdrawal from the BTCC in 2009.
It was a fantastic era for Vauxhall, who kept their dominant duo for 2004, this year being joined by 2003 Production Class Champion Luke Hines, replacing Paul O’Neill after O’Neill was sadly diagnosed with diabetes which left the popular Liverpudlian with his race license temporarily suspended while he recovered. Thankfully he did and returned to racing.
2004 was a much harder year for Vauxhall as Jason Plato returned to the series with the S2000 manufacture backed Seat outfit which proved a thorn in the side of Thomspon and Muller, as well as Anthony Reid in his independently run West Surrey Racing MG.
However, despite the added competition both Thompson and Muller remained the class of the field, and again went to the final round of the season neck and neck in the championship.
I was very lucky in 2004 that I was able to attend seven of the ten rounds that year, mainly because my dad is a nutcase who doesn’t mind not having a lie on a Sunday! We were able to see the championship battle first hand, only missing Silverstone, Mondello Park and Knockhill as the peak of the BTC regulation era played out in front of us.
Thompson won only four of the thirty races in 2004, however it was his consistency which aided him in his battle with Muller. Thompson won the title by a single point to claim his second BTCC title at the season finale at Donington Park.
Thompson was visibly emotional at the end of the race, as he and Muller congratulated each other in what would be their last BTCC race together.
After ten seasons in the BTCC, Thompson switched to the World Touring Car Championship, the series’ inaugural season after trying his hand in the European Touring Car Championship in 2004. He signed for Alfa Romeo, racing for the Italian’s factory team alongside Gabrielle Tarquini once more as well as Fabrizio Giovanardi and Augusto Farfus in a quartet of Alfa Romeo 156’s.
The WTCC’s opening season was crammed full of legends such as Rickard Rydell, Alain Menu, Nicola Larini, Alessandro Zanardi and Andy Priaulx however in only his second race, Thompson claimed victory at Monza, eventually finishing the season an impressive eighth with 53 points. He would go onto finish on the podium a further two times at Silverstone and Istanbul.
Thompson remained in the WTCC for 2006, switching Alfa Romeo for Seat which also saw him dovetail his world commitments with a drive back in the BTCC, competing in selected rounds of the season. Thompson finished eighth once again in the WTCC, this time on 54 points and also finished sixth in the BTCC despite missing four rounds of the year.
It would have been interesting to see how Thompson would have fared had he focused on the BTCC rather than the WTCC, as he was consistently at the top of the results.
2006 would prove to be Thompson’s only season with Seat as he returned to Alfa Romeo and the WTCC full time in 2007, where he achieved his best results in the championship. Thompson was joined at Alfa Romeo by Olivier Tielemans and convincingly beat his teammate, as Thompson finished a career high third in the standings, winning twice, ending the season with 79 points.
At the conclusion of the season, Alfa Romeo withdrew from the championship, leaving Thompson with a part-time Honda drive in 2008. Despite missing six rounds, Thompson still finished a respectable 15th with 25 points, winning once at Imola after taking pole for the first race of the day, a sign of how fast Thompson was at the peak of his career.
It was the first time Thompson had raced for Honda since 2000 and he continued this into 2009 as he joined Team Dynamics in selected rounds of the BTCC season, contesting in six of the ten rounds. Once again, Thompson was quick, winning three races and always being at the front of the pack.
I always wondered what he could have done had Team Dynamics been able to have him for the whole season, as at that time, the team was struggling for financial support following the loss of title sponsor Halfords.
Bar a one-off appearance in 2011 for Motorbase Performance, this would prove to be the last time we saw Thompson in the BTCC, as since then, the now 44-year-old has focused on his WTCC exploits, joining Lada in 2009 before getting the drive full time in 2013.
It was the first full time drive back in the championship since Alfa Romeo back in 2007, and saw him return to the series after spending two seasons in the European Touring Car Cup, in which he won the championship in 2009 and 2010, beating the likes of Norbert Michelisz and Franz Engstler.
His return to the WTCC was not as successful as his ETCC exploits sadly as Lada, in comparison to their rivals, were not as developed, ensuring they struggled to match the likes of Chevrolet and Honda.
Thompson ended 2013 14th in the standings with 41 and a best result of fifth. As the rules changed in the WTCC to boost power and aerodynamics for the 2014 season, Thompson remained with Lada however his fortunes with the new more advanced Granta did not change as he ended the season 15th in the standings with 22 points.
This would be his last full season with Lada, after leaving the Russian manufacturer during the 2015 season. He initially withdrew from the Hungarian round due to a tooth abscess before leaving the team entirely prior to the German round of the season, held at the Nordschleife - Nürburgring. Prior to the event, Thompson spoke of his concern of racing there, which I can completely understand given the proximity of the barriers around the circuit and the speed that the cars were travelling at during the 2015 season.
Thompson returned in 2016 with Munnich Motorsport racing an independently run Chevrolet Cruze TC1 alongside Rene Munnich for eight rounds of the season. 2016 proved to be one of the final competitive seasons on the WTCC, with Honda, Lada, Citroen and Volvo all fielding manufacture backed programs, however because of this, Thompson struggled to achieve regular points finishes in a car not as advanced as those around him.
At that time the costs of the WTCC were spiralling out of control which led to the withdrawal of Lada and Citroen at the end of the 2016 season. Thompson also took a sabbatical in 2017, returning 2018 in the newly formed World Touring Car Cup, which rose from the ashes of the WTCC, after the championship folded. The championship uses TCR machinery which is much cheaper and does not rely on manufacture involvement as it is banned from the series, although manufactures are allowed to provide machinery for independent teams.
Thompson once again drove for Munnich Motorsport, partnering Esteban Guerrieri and Yann Ehrlacher, the nephew of Yvan Muller. I have always found this amazing how Thompson has been the teammate for effectively two generations of the same family. Sadly, after suffering a heavy crash in Portugal, Thompson was withdrawn for the remainder of the season in what has been his last outing to date.
It would be fantastic to see Thompson back in the BTCC fighting with the new generation of stars. I would also love to see him in the new NGTC machinery as he has been fast in three regulation changes, so far in the SuperTouring, BTC and S2000 regulations so I cannot see him having any issues adapting.
Only time will tell if he is back on the grid in 2020 however one thing is for certain, the motorsport world is a poorer place without him on the grid.
Pictures: www.flickr.com, www.touringcartimes.com, www.fiawtcr.com