Interview with former BTCC racer – Craig Baird

Craig Baird joined the British Touring Car Championship in 1998, signing for Ford and replacing fellow Kiwi, Paul Radisich, who was leaving the Blue Oval to join Peugeot.

He spent 18 races racing the uncompetitive Mondeo, standing down for Nigel Mansell at Donington, Brands Hatch and Silverstone. He led his final ever BTCC race at Knockhill, with the Ford’s wet weather performance allowing Craig to showcase his ability.

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22 years after his BTCC adventure, we caught up with Craig to chat about his short time in the series.

Craig, thanks for joining us today! You joined the BTCC after 6 years of racing touring cars, giving you 4 New Zealand touring car titles. What were the differences between racing in the BTCC and the other championships you competed in?

“Well, front wheel drive was a big culture shock for me! I was coming from single seaters and rear-wheel drive BMWs and had never raced a front wheel drive car before.”

How tough was it to switch to front wheel drive?

To be honest, when I first drove the ’97 Mondeo, I really liked it! In fact, I believe we set the fastest ever lap at Donington  in that car & I thought it was going to be an easy transition to front wheel drive.

That ’97 car had a really good balance to it though. It may not have been quick enough outright, but it did have a good balance and that meant it was easy to drive, it felt like it almost wasn’t front wheel drive, so my first taste of it was not bad.

However, when we got into the ’98 Mondeo, it defintely had certain problems, a lot of that being the engine weight. I never really had a balance in the car that I was comfortable with & that meant I never really built any confidence with the car.”

Craig spent the pre-season testing the 1997 Mondeo, only getting his hands on the 1998 car at the season opener at Thruxton.

You were the last works driver to be confirmed for the 1998 BTCC season, with your drive being announced in the January, but when did the discussions start for you to move to the BTCC?

“We were very late with the announcement, yes. Discussions really came after I won Bathurst in ’97 in the BMW. There were a lot of British Touring Car teams and people at that race, so putting on a good display there helped, even though we were eventually excluded from the result – it showcased what I could do in a Super Touring car. Betweeen that and an F3 test with WSR in the past, I had the full support of Dick Bennetts.

It was late, but was very happy to get the call up from the team!”

Craig crossed the line 1st at Bathurst in 1997, winning for BMW, but was later removed from the standings due to breaking rules regarding driver hours.

Once the season begun, it was clear that the Ford was not a competitive car in dry conditions, but came to life in the wet. What exactly made the car so good in the wet, yet particularly poor in the dry?

“As soon as the season began, we soon realised the car wasn’t where we wanted it to be. The ’98 car was very late, in fact, I didn’t even drive the car. Will took the first car and there were problems in assembly, all the way up until we departed for the first meeting of the season at Thruxton – I had only been testing the ’97 car.

In dry conditions, the ’98 car certainly wasn’t quick, but in wet conditions it came alive, mainly because of the weight of the engine at the front. It also had a very easy power delivery too, which suited the wet conditions and it did make it easy to be competitive in those conditions.

No matter where we went in the wet, the Mondeo would normally be towards the top of the timing sheets. The UK can be a wet and cold place at times, I really could have done with it raining at every meeting!

1998 Rounds 3 and 4 Silverstone
Baird chases down eventual 1998 champion, Rickard Rydell

The second Donington meeting of the season was the famous wet race that Nigel Mansell starred in. How did you feel having to stand down for Nigel at that event, which turned out to be one of Ford’s most competitive showings of the season?

“Nigel Mansell moving into the team for those three meetings (Donington, Brands Hatch and Silverstone) was probably good for us in some ways, but having a F1 world champion floating around also meant people tended to listen to him more than Will and I.

Nigel had an extremely competitive showing at Donington, but to be honest – it was the same weekend as the Goodwood Festival of Speed, so I was driving a Bruno Thiry Escort WRC at Goodwood, so I didn’t really have a heap of time to think about it!

But getting stood down, it obviously hurts, no matter if you’re a soccer player, rugby player or race car driver. It is very hard to get yourself back on track after being stood down.”

On your return, you secured your best finish of the season with 6th place at Snetterton. Do you think you’d have continued that improvement had you remained in the car for the rest of the season?

“Yes, we got a sixth at Snetterton. Normally, I don’t think I could ever say I was happy to be 6th, but I probably was there! We were improving though and I was getting more competitive – I was changing my driving style to improve our competitiveness, but the combination was only going to get so far in the dry, Will was no different, we just weren’t fast enough.

I certainly think I’d have improved – I don’t think anyone can go across to a new championship and learn a new craft in half a season – and that’s what it was. Not only was it a new car, it was a new drivetrain and new circuits. For anyone to expect to be thrown in and win races, well they’re not on the right track.

That is why we signed a 2 year deal, but obviously West Surrey Racing lost the Ford contract for the second year of the deal. 

Your most competitive showing was in your final BTCC appearance, where you led the Feature race at Knockhill as, once again, the Mondeo came to life in the wet conditions. Fond memories of that weekend?

“Knockhill… that weekend it was actually a combination of sleet, snow and rain! It was nice to lead a chunk of the race – the Mondeo again, was great in the wet. It was great to have a chance to showcase what I could do & a few people still comment on that drive to this day!

Craig leads the feature race at Knockhill. The Ford became a different beast in the wet conditions.

Mansell returned for the following meeting at Brands Hatch and was due to race at Silverstone in the finale too, but at Oulton Park, the penultimate meeting, Ford ran only one car for the weekend – why didn’t you return?

“I think Ford probably felt that they would get more coverage with Mansell, after all – he’s one of the biggest names in British motorsport, so I do understand where Ford went with that. 

Looking back, what are your thoughts on your BTCC adventure as a whole? Any regrets?

No, I don’t have any regrets about it. I do wish that I had more time and wish that I had positioned myself in a better car. Not in a better team, the team was fantastic and worked really hard, but the car itself wasn’t great. It was a Reynard car and there’s no doubting we got it wrong, but that’s motorsport!

So no regrets, I just would have liked to have been around a little bit longer on that side of the world!

Your main team mate for the season was the late Will Hoy – one of the most popular drivers of the Super Touring era of the BTCC. What was Will like as a team mate – how well did you work together?

Gentleman is probably the only word that you can use to describe Will. He was just an all-round good guy and took me under his wing. He looked out for me, even down to where we stayed on a race weekend! He would tell me not to worry too much about booking hotels and that he would do it for me as he knew the best places to stay.

We played a lot of golf together, I was really lucky as I got on really well with Will. He was such a popular figure in the paddock, got on well with everyone, especially the likes of Derek Warwick, Rickard Rydell and John Cleland. We would often be playing golf or going for dinner and having a glass of wine together – they all treated me really well!

I guess in that era, there was a bit of an old boys club and I was lucky enough and very proud to have become a part of it. We had a lot of fun and a lot of laughs, sadly just not enough results! 

Craig with team mates Hoy & Mansell at the launch of the 1998 Ford Mondeo

What happened for you after the BTCC? 

“As I said earlier, no regrets! You move on and I came back to Australia and started a career in Supercars – as one door closes, another one opens!

Motorsport has treated me very, very well for a long period of time! I started racing when I was five years old in karts and I have just turned 50 and still get the opportunity to work within motorsport!

I’ve been working as the driving standards advisor for Supercars and  I am still lucky enough to jump into the Mercedes Benz with STM in Australian GT – dusting off a few cobwebs here and there!

Now that I have turned 50, I get a downgrade in my driver rankings, meaning I become ranked Silver. I’m happy about that, nodoby wants a 50 year old Gold or Platinum driver! It’s nice to know that there will probably be some opportunities to come my way as a Silver driver in the endurance GT events. Hopefully I will still carry on for a few more years yet, as I still enjoy it!