Think of the British Touring Car Championship during the 90s and near the top of everybody’s thoughts will be John Cleland. The popular Scotsman drove for Vauxhall throughout the whole of the 90s and became a real crowd favourite as he did so. After coming agonisingly close to the title in 1992, John clinched his second BTCC crown in 1995 and took his last win in THAT race at Donington in 1998. John took some time out to talk to us about his time in the BTCC.
John, thanks for taking the time to talk to us about your time in the BTCC! You first raced in the BTCC in 1989, in a Vauxhall Astra. How did the deal come about?
“I was racing Thundersaloon for Vauxhall and just pestered them to get into BTCC. The class structure at the time suited the 2000cc Astra GTE and Vauxhall went for it!!”
You raced from the very beginning of the Super Touring era, right up until 1999, a year before the regulations were phased out. What can you tell us about the differences between 1991 and 1999?
“In 1991, the cars were very basic with nothing flash! In fact, the cars were relatively basic right up to my 1995 Cavalier that I won the championship with! It was from 1996 onwards that they had all the carbon fibre kit and fancy electronics fitted to them! That’s when the running costs grew to anywhere between £2.5-£5m per team of two cars – each car costing about £400,000 to build!
What are your fondest and most memorable moments in the BTCC?
“Winning the 1995 championship and beating Nigel Mansell at Donington 1998 were among the highs, but every race weekend was special because I was doing what I loved and getting paid for it!!!! How good was that?!”
One of the biggest talking points of the BTCC throughout the 90s is THAT moment at Silverstone in 1992. How long was it before you and Steve made up & looking back on the incident today, who was to blame in your eyes?
“After the incident, Steve and I had to attend an MSA tribunal to apportion blame, but at my insistence we went in holding hands and said it was a racing incident! They wanted to take Steve’s licence off him and that was not getting me back MY championship, so I saw no point since Harvey was actually the beneficiary of it all! BUT – he was for sure to blame!!! Just ask him?”
What was so special about the 90s era of the British Touring Car Championship?
“We had 2 dozen factory cars, with professionally paid world class drivers from F1,Sports Cars and many Touring car series from round the world. They all wanted to be involved. It was the place to be. There were more drivers being paid in the BTCC than in F1 at that time.”
The calibre of drivers in the BTCC field during the 1990s was arguably 2nd to only Formula 1 at the time. In your opinion, who were the most talented drivers? Was there anyone you thought twice about going “door handle to door handle” with?
“Most of those lunatics I wouldnt take a lift to the pub with !! But there were some world class acts! Frank Biela, Jo Winkelhock, Steve Soper, Rickard Rydell, Alain Menu, Andy Rouse, Will Hoy, Yvan Muller, Tom Kristensen – they were all there!”
In the year you won your second BTCC title, the cars all sprouted front and rear aero. Did you prefer driving the cars with or without and how did it affect the racing?
“When the cars developed wings and spoilers, it made the cars more precise and obviously faster, which is always what a driver wants. Also, they didnt move around quite so much – so you could go side by side with someone a lot more!”
You had several team mates throughout your time at Vauxhall, who was the toughest to beat? Who was the hardest to get on with?
“From all my team mates, Yvan (Muller) was hardest to beat – but he did go on to be a multiple World Champion, so he must have been fairly good!! Also, he was about 50 years younger than me at the time! When it comes to the toughest, James Thompson was tough to get along with because he was just a quick kid at the time and knew no boundaries.”
Talking of team mates, you and Derek Warwick were dubbed “The Good Old Boys” when team mates, did you get on as well as it appeared? Was it tough with him being your team boss as well as team mate?
“Derek was one of my favourite F1 drivers in the past and when he became my team mate, we got on great because we were about the same age, both car dealers with a similar love for fun and stupidity on occasions. In 1999, when he became Team boss of Vauxhall and not my fellow driver, it got a bit harder. He’s still a good guy though!”
Your final BTCC win came at a sodden Donington Park in 1998, often referred to as the best touring car race ever. What are your memories of that weekend? How different was the paddock with Nigel Mansell around?
“No argument, Nigel Mansell brought the spectators into the circuit. After all, he was an F1 World Champion and Indy Car Champion, but as long as my arse points south – there was no way he was beating me on that day! It was the all time best touring car race. Everything that could happen, did happen and despite that, I won from David Leslie and Derek Warwick – with a combined podium age of about 150!”
You announced your retirement at Thruxton in 1999 after a tricky season in the Vectra. Did Vauxhall offer you a contract for 2000? Did they try and get you to reconsider?
“When I had made my mind up to quit it was for a number of reasons, the main one being my father was very ill, so I was never going back on what I had agreed with myself and my family.”
Famously, you remained with Vauxhall throughout your BTCC career, did any other manufacturers try to sign you, were you ever tempted to move at any time throughout your career?
“Every manufacturer, except Honda, offered me a drive at some time during my time in the BTCC, but I always felt that Vauxhall could give me a car to win races with – until the last few years! By that time though, it was too late to move on. I have no regrets at not moving to drive other manufacturer cars. In 1996, I had the works Audi driver offered to me and I couldn’t drive it because I had just signed a 2 year deal with Vauxhall. I always felt that this drive would lead me on to Le Mans and other Sportscar racing, as that’s where Frank Biela ended up, but we will never know!”
Finally John, I’ve got to ask this, but just what sort of animal is Steve Soper?
“Haha! Well, at the time he was a wee rodent! But, as I said earlier – Steve and I became friends after that event and I respect him as a racer and he respects me, now that it’s all over! It was a heat of the moment thing to say and having just lost a championship after a full season of leading it was hard. Fortunately, it was many years ago and I had no idea how to swear at the time! If I had sworn that day, it would never have been used in so many TV shows!”