Updated: Sep 5, 2020
The fifth part of my series looking at each driver from the 2002 BTCC season opener.
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 feature will be on the driver who finished fifth in my first ever race Yvan Muller.
I have been a Muller admirer since I first watched him race in 2002, and have been lucky enough to watch him race alongside some of the greatest touring car drivers of the last thirty years.
Yvan Muller is a true legend of touring cars, having made his debut in the British Touring Car Championship in 1998 for Audi filling the void Frank Biela left prior to joining Vauxhall in 1999, partnering John Cleland in a pair of Vauxhall Vectra’s.
It was a successful start to his BTCC career as Muller immediately showed promise, winning his first ever race in 1999 at Brands Hatch, winning the race following a super double pass into Paddock Hill Bend, passing both Anthony Reid and Laurent Aiello as they squabbled for the lead. This victory was a breakthrough moment for Muller, finishing on the podium a further four times that season, finishing sixth in the standings with 119 points.
Muller remained with Vauxhall for 2000 in what proved to be the final year of the SuperTouring era, now joined by Jason Plato and Vincent Radermecker from Renault and Volvo respectively, after both manufactures withdrew at the conclusion of the 1999 season. In addition to this 1999 was Cleland’s final season with Vauxhall, having announced his retirement from the series prior to the end of the year.
Muller finished 2000 as “best of the rest” in fourth behind the three dominant Ford Mondeo’s of Alain Menu, Anthony Reid and Rickard Rydell. Despite Ford’s control on the top three positions in the championship, Muller was able remain close throughout, taking three victories and 168 points, ten less than Rickard Rydell in third.
With the SuperTouring era now over, Muller remained with Vauxhall heading into the new 2001 regulations, aimed at cutting costs and ensuring closer competition. Despite the cost cutting measures in place, Ford decided to withdraw from the championship along with Honda, who took a sabbatical, leaving Vauxhall as the only manufacture remaining from the SuperTouring era. It also meant drivers such as Rydell and defending champion Alain Menu left the series.
Plato remained with the team alongside Muller in a pair of brand-new BTC specification Vauxhall Astra Coupes as James Thomson and rookie Phil Bennett piloted a pair of factory backed Vauxhall’s in Egg Sport livery.
It was Muller’s most successful season to date, winning ten times, battling teammates Plato and Thompson all season for the for the title. Muller remained in contention until the final round of the season, where he missed out to Plato after suffering a mechanical failure in the final race forcing him to retire, gifting Plato the 2001 Championship.
Plato left Vauxhall and indeed the BTCC for 2002, as Triple Eight promoted James Thompson to the full factory team alongside Muller. The duo, along with BTCC returnee Matt Neal in a third Egg Sport Vauxhall, were once again the dominant force in the championship all year however each driver struggled at some stage with reliability issues. As the season progressed Neal slipped back ever so slightly leaving Muller and Thompson neck and neck into the final round at Donington Park.
Muller gave everything however he was too bold, involving himself in battles with others resulting in accidents as he tried to claw back some points. For the second season in a row Muller retired from the final race of the season finishing second in the championship behind his Vauxhall teammate for a second consecutive year.
2003 was Muller and Thompson’s second season together and, after two years as vice-champion, it was finally Muller’s turn to take the title, completing the triumph at the final weekend at Oulton Park. The Frenchman was the class of the field all season beating Thompson, who said after, “what can I say he’s done a fantastic job all year, it’s a fantastic trophy and I think it would be a shame if his name wasn’t on it at some stage”. Muller ended the season on 233 points 34 more than Thompson, winning six times. It was a dominant season for the Frenchman, in what was the third consecutive championship triumph for Vauxhall and Triple Eight Engineering.
2003 stands out as a superb season for Muller and one I feel very lucky to have watched first hand having been to five of the ten rounds that season. I remember he was the only non-English driver on the grid yet it was his baseball cap I wore each round, something which puzzled my Mum!
It was in 2003 that I first met Muller, while he was driving for Vauxhall. He, along with teammates Thompson and O’Neill, who were the three goliaths of the time, in the dominant team, everything was just a bit sleeker. As a nine-year-old, I was dazzled by this slick look and glamorous outer shell that the team produced, giving the drivers a platform to be superstars. Despite his superstar status in the championship, Muller was always kind to me and happy to have a picture taken when he was around.
Muller’s title defence saw him partnered with Thompson once more, their third season together, the duo being joined by 2003 Production Class Champion Luke Hines. Four the third season in a row, Thomson and Muller were a cut above the rest, despite the gap closing to their competitors as Anthony Reid and MG’s consistency improved considerably and the returning Jason Plato caused a threat all season in his new S2000 Seat Toledo.
2004 was the inaugural 30 race BTCC season, and for large portions of it, Muller looked set to retain his crown edging out teammate Thompson. However the pendulum swung at Donington Park, seeing Thompson in the championship lead. Despite winning the final race of the season, giving Muller a chance of overall victory, Thompson was able to finish third, taking his second crown, ensuring Muller finished the season second for the third time in four years. The gap at the end of the year was just a single point.
I continued to follow Muller into 2004 where I was lucky enough to watch seven of the ten rounds that season. It was an amazing year, with multiple drivers battling for wins, with Muller being one of the A-Listers of the series. I remember standing on the banks at Donington Park, watching the title protagonists zoom passed before listening on the tannoys to what was going on around the lap, with the title picture appearing to change at every corner.
2005 saw the end of the dominant Vauxhall Astra Coupe, a car which won four double championships in as many years and was replaced by the Vauxhall Astra Sport Hatch. Thompson left the team to join the new World Touring Car Championship, leaving Yvan as the undisputed number one driver. Once again though, Muller was unable to take the crown and finished a distant second in what would be his final season in the BTCC.
It was a BTCC career filled with “what might have been” moments, having finished second four times in five years.
From 2004, through to 2005, my Dad and I were lucky to have some great conversations with Yvan about his career and the season he was fighting. As well as Yvan, we were lucky to have someone great chats with many members of his team, with some very kindly giving me some little souvenirs, little things that I still have to this day.
For me, I feel Muller is a man who admires those who displace politeness and courtesy, which I can relate to entirely. There is nothing more disrespectful than a driver taking the time to have a picture or sign an autograph and the receiving party do not say thank you.
Having left the BTCC, Muller switched to the World Touring Car Championship for 2006 joining Seat, where Muller immediately found success, coming fourth with a single victory in his debut season up against the likes of Andy Priaulx, Jorg Muller and Gabriele Tarquini. Muller’s debut season was all the more impressive as although he only won once that year, he did end the campaign as the highest placed non-BMW driver, as Priaulx, Jorg Muller and Augusto Farfus claimed the top three positions.
Muller remained with Seat for 2007, with the Frenchman taking second once more, as Priaulx took his third WTCC title in a row., Muller missed out by eleven points having entered the final weekend at Macau as joint championship leader. Sadly though, he suffered a mechanical failure, forcing him to retire. Had Muller won the race he would have been ten points clear of Priaulx and would have only needed a single point from the second race of the day to claim
Sadly, he was unable to partake in the second race of the day, ensuring Priaulx won his fourth consecutive championship.
After another season of going being agonisingly close, 2008 was finally Muller’s year in the WTCC at his third attempt, dominating the season as he beat closest rival and teammate Tarquini by 26 points. It was a season Muller controlled throughout, only finishing outside the points twice which included three wins and a further six podiums. It was a fantastic season for Muller and a statement as to what he could do behind the wheel.
Muller was not able to defend his crown, coming second once more, this time to teammate Tarquini, as, similar to his BTCC career, he and his teammate switched top two positions.
It would prove to be Mullers final season with Seat as he switched to Chevrolet at the turn of the decade to spearhead their title push. Muller joined regular drivers Rob Huff and former BTCC sparring partner Alain Menu in a trio of Chevrolet Cruze’s.
The season started well for Muller who won the opening race of the season, in what was a 1-2-3 for Chevrolet as Huff finished second with Menu third.
Once again Muller duelled with former teammate Tarquini for the championship however this time it was Muller who came out on top, beating the Italian by a dominant 55 points, helped by a run of seven consecutive podiums towards the end of the season. It was Muller’s second WTCC title and Chevrolet’s first, having joined the series in 2005.
A year later and it was all change at the top following BMW’s withdrawal from the WTCC and Seat’s scaled back effort. This did not affect Muller and Chevrolet as the Frenchman went onto claim back to back titles for the first time in his tin top career, beating teammates Huff and Menu ensuring he claimed his third World Championship title.
For the third season in a row, Muller, Huff and Menu dominated the WTCC in 2012, although the Frenchman was unable to make it three out of three for the American manufacture as he finished third, 20 points behind Huff, who won his maiden WTCC title. Such was the dominance of the three Chevrolet drivers, their nearest rival was Tarquini in fourth, an astounding 141 points behind Muller in an independent Seat Leon.
It would prove to be Chevrolet’s last season in the WTCC as a manufacture, withdrawing at the end of 2012. Muller remained in a Chevrolet Cruze for 2013, competing as an independent for RML alongside Tom Chilton, who moved from his own outfit Team Aon in which he made his WTCC a year earlier.
Once again Muller’s closest rival was Gabrile Tarquini who had switched to the new manufacture backed Honda program and was still developing the car throughout the season.
With other big names out the running, Muller once again dominated, winning the 2013 championship by a staggering 209 points, only finishing off the podium eight times all season.
2014 saw the WTCC have a complete overhaul as the TC1 regulations were introduced ensuring bigger, faster cars with more aerodynamics. The introduction of the new specifications encouraged Citroen to join the series, and Muller was signed alongside Jose Maria Lopez and eight times World Rally Championship Champion Sebastian Loeb.
Honda continued in the series as Citroen’s closest competitors with Lada completing the manufacture entries.
Despite tough competition, Citroen immediately showed they were the class of the field, with their three drivers controlling the standings, the trio winning fifteen of the twenty-four races. Once again however, Muller found himself second in the standings, being comfortably beaten by teammate Lopez.
Muller remained with Citroen until 2016 when they withdrew from the WTCC, finishing 2015 and 2016 as runner up to Lopez, who was the class of the field during his brief stint in the WTCC.
At the conclusion of the 2016 season, Muller stated that he would retire from motorsport, only contesting in the occasional race before taking up a testing position with Cyan Racing, helping Volvo and their new WTCC team. By 2016, the WTCC was starting to struggle, rising costs saw manufactures such as Citroen start to pull out, with Volvo and Honda the only two manufactures remaining.
This also saw the grids start to dwindle as independents struggled to compete amid the rising costs of the series.
2017 was the final season of the WTCC, with the series being replaced by the World Touring Car Cup, a championship using TCR machinery, a much more affordable car capable of close racing. It also allowed for a degree of contact, something all touring car fans love and what was lost with the preceding regulations.
Another positive of the new WTCR is that manufacture entries are banned, ensuring all the cars are run by independent teams, although they are allowed updates from the manufactures.
Muller returned to racing in a privately run Hyundai i30 TCR ahead of the 2018 WTCR season, partnering 2017 WTCC champion Thed Bjork. Muller was immediately back on the pace, and his rivalry with Gabriele Tarquini continued once more, the duo in identical machinery however different teams.
The duo were a class above the rest all season as they have been for the majority of their careers. It was Tarquini who came out on top leaving Muller to finish runner up for the tenth time in sixteen full time seasons, a fantastic achievement yet frustrating record.
For 2019, Muller has remained in the WTCR however he has switched back to Cyan Racing in a Lync&Co 03 TCR with Bjork also moving alongside. The team are also running cars for Touring Car legend Andy Priaulx and Muller’s nephew Yann Ehrlacher, a competitive driver in his own right.
In a new car and team, Muller once again showed his class in 2019, as he finished third, just behind Esteban Guerrieri and eventual champion Nobert Michelisz. Despite finishing third I am sure Muller will be disappointed he was not able to add to his WTCC titles.
Muller’s career has been a phenomenal one, a driver who could, and probably should, have gone onto to do great things in other categories around the world had his earlier career been kinder to him.
However, to continuously finish at the top of each series, in with a shot of the championship is a testament to his abilities and how classy he is behind the wheel. His car control is beyond superb and arguably some of the best the BTCC has seen.
I love Touring Cars, for me it is the best racing in the world and the world would be a lesser place without Muller and his skills.
Additional Images: www.wikipedia.org