Prior to the start of the 1999 BTCC, organisers ToCA had announced that Snetterton would host the first ever BTCC night race, to be held on 18th of July that year. Snetterton was seen as the ideal venue – its remote location, well away from any residential areas made it the obvious choice.
It was a gamble – there were a couple of doubters before the meeting, including some drivers. Some questioned how they would ensure that no dirty tricks would be played, how would the officials ensure there were no naughty moves?
There were also worries about the weather – what if it rained heavily? Thankfully, when the weekend of the meeting arrived – the weather was perfect. Clear skies and hot temperatures ensured a carnival atmosphere – it drew large crowds to the South East venue, more than 30,000 spectators taking in the first ever night race.
Snetterton had to undergo some small changes to be ready for the night race, with floodlights being placed at the stadium section and the pit straight, with the remainder of the track largely left in total darkness. ToCA spent over £50,000 on the lighting rigs, which were more at home at Cricket venues than at Snetterton.
It wasn’t just the track that underwent some changes. The teams had to fit a different standard of headlights to each car, with teams also adding tint to the rear windows of the cars to counter dazzling. Each car was also fitted with mandatory titanium skid plates, to add to the spectacle – the cars sparking as they hit the kerbs and the floor. Each car was also fitted with a new reflective livery, which glowed in the dark, allowing some incredible photo opportunities.
This would be the longest ever day in touring cars. As usual, the two qualifying sessions would take place during the day, with the two races taking place later that evening. The Sprint race at dusk, with the feature race taking place in the total darkness of the night.
It was only until the evening arrived, did the atmosphere truly take hold. Instead of everyone starting to filter out, as they would normally on a Saturday evening, the spectator areas were filling up, with the smell of barbercues starting to linger. Whilst it was not quite Le Mans, the sight of the grid forming under floodlights as the sunset coloured the Norfolk sky bright orange, it was a pretty unique feeling.
The first race got underway and was particulalry busy – championship leader Laurent AIello dropped out of the race on lap 2 with a slipping clutch, leaving team mate David Leslie to coast to a simple victory, followed by the Volvos of Rydell and Radermecker.
Behind them, it was chaos. Renault team mates Jason Plato & Jean-Christophe Boullion were locked in a battle with Yvan Muller and James Thompson, who was recovering from starting at the back after a late driveshaft failure. The four were fighting for position down the Revett straight, with Plato and Muller making contact, damaging the rear wheel of the Vauxhall. Into the Esses, Muller’s damaged car went off and out of control, hitting Thompson’s car in the process. Muller apologised, but Thompson was furious.
Will Hoy, who returned to the grid for this weekend, finished an impressive 10th in the independent-run Renault Laguna, scoring a point on his return. This was after notably out-qualifying both Fords, the marque he drove for in 1998.
As Leslie crossed the line, the darkness was setting in & after being treated to a superb firework display, the drivers were soon lining up on the grid for the feature race. Despite it being the first night race in the BTCC, all but one of the factory drivers had experienced night racing before, Jason Plato the only one who was totally in the dark on the night.
As the race started, Leslie took the lead, followed closely by both Honda drivers and his team mate, Aiello. Problems soon struck for both Aiello and Thompson. The Nissan driver had a bonnet pin fail, which required a pit stop to repair, whilst at the compulsory pitstop, Thompson’s rear wheel was not properly attached and fell off when he returned to the track. This left Leslie and Kox to battle out for the victory.
Disaster struck for Leslie, five laps from the flag, as his front suspension collapsed after a heavy hit on one of the kerbs, leaving Leslie limping and Kox pounced on the penultimate lap, taking his first and only BTCC victory.
Whilst the fans enjoyed the fireworks in the sky, there were fireworks at the post-race press conference as Peter Kox shot a barb at Yvan Muller, who had finished 3rd in the second race, by suggesting that the lead battle was clean because he wasn’t involved in it. This led to the Frenchman swearing at him & suggest he wasn’t as intelligent as team-mate Thompson.
The night race was a roaring success, with a repeat of the event in the following season’s calendar confirmed less than a week after the meeting. Drivers loved it, the spectators loved it and ToCA loved it. So much so, they’d introduce a second night race at Silverstone for the 2000 season.