John Cleland – 25 Years after Winning the BTCC

10th September 1995 – the day John Cleland won his 2 BTCC title at Oulton Park in his synonymous Vauxhall Cavalier. 25 years to the day, we sat down with John and recount that iconic year in BTCC history.

John! Thanks for joining us today – can you believe it’s 25 years since you won that 2nd BTCC title at Oulton Park?

Although its 25 years I remember it like it was yesterday and crossing the line to win that day was a massive release of the pressure built up all year with 1 aim to win!

As a result of the controversies in 1994, all the cars had developed front splitters and rear wings for 1995. What effects did they have on the cars from the cockpit?

“I had done all the aero testing on the car pre homologation and agreed with the final aero as being the very best that we could achieve. However, we still used to fine tune the feeling of the car on high speed tracks by winding the rear windows up or down depending what we wanted – not many people believe that story!”

Your first tests in the Cavalier were at Brands Hatch I believe, how quickly did you realise that you had a championship winning machine in your hands?

“That first day of testing at Brands, I went out on scrubbed tyres and immediately went faster than all the guys on new rubber. At that point, I told Phil Barker – who was my engineer, to clean it, put it back in the truck, bring it to the first race at Donington and we will win this championship no problem. Confident or what?!”

You had a new team mate for that season, what was James Thompson like, compared to Jeff (Allam) who had been your team mate for the previous 4 seasons? How was your relationship?

“When James joined the team, he was just a kid. A very quick one though! The only good thing about having him around, was that all the young girls that used to follow him around would bring their mothers – and they were more my age!  He was very quick, but also wild. That led to his accident at Knockhill, which put him out for the rest of the year. So we probably never saw the best of him that year, until he matured a bit more!”

Donington Park hosted the first meeting of the season and you won the first race of the season, beating Rydell off the line. Then for race two the positions reversed. was it good to confirm your pace at the first meeting and compare it with your rivals?

“I was never concerned at my pace or my confidence to beat whoever came to the front to fight for wins. But, I am pissed off that I didn’t win the second race that day. I had bet on myself to win both and had I done so the winnings were £25k from Ladbrokes!”

The next meeting was the first of three visits to Brands Hatch that season. This was an extremely wet meeting and the scene of your only two DNFs that season. Both involved big incidents at Paddock Hill.  What were the cause of the two incidents?

“In the second race, I had a big shunt. I had been a bit ambitious going through Surtees and gone off. What I didn’t know was that the off had fractured a brake pipe, so when I arrived a high speed to Paddock, I had only rear brakes. This meant I was heading for the Dartford tunnel at high speed – were it not for the gravel trap! Race 1 was just me being a twit and ran out of skill momentarily!”

The championship then moved to Thruxton where your teammate, James Thompson, takes his first ever BTCC win. The meeting was marred by a huge accident suffered by Charlie Cox. What were your thoughts on these two events?

James getting his first win was never in doubt. It was only a matter of when it would happen! Charlie’s accident was one of the biggest I think I have ever seen. I was so relieved to see he was shaken not stirred and still alive. He was so far off track, he had to pay to get back in the circuit!

Next few meetings – no wins, but rarely off the podium. Renault and Menu in particular getting stronger and starting to win regularly – did you start to get worried about threat of the Renault?

Uh, no! I was just giving them a chance! You don’t have to win them all to win a championship, just be mega consistent and reliable. Ray Mallock’s team were so good at that.”

Brands Hatch – soaking wet race – possibly wettest in BTCC history? There was an infamous Clerk of the course bollocking after FIVE race starts. What was that race meeting like?

“That was some meeting! I went on to win the race after the very public school-boy bollocking we all got – in plain sight of the main grandstand!! I accused the Clerk of the course of being on drugs that day, if he didn’t realise how hard it was to stay on track – the conditions were that bad! We were not all jumping off track deliberately! Obviously, that got me in the shit, since it hit the press the following day! Whoops!”

Oulton Park started a run of 7 straight podium finishes – including 4 straight victories – huge step towards the title?

Yes – I had decided the others had had enough chances! So now I was going to head off into the distance and put this championship beyond doubt.”

Knockhill – James had huge testing accident prior to the meeting meaning Jeff Allam was back as your team mate. Good to have him back alongside you?

Jeff was the best team mate I had throughout my career, because he was about my age and also a car dealer – so we had a lot in common! He had huge experience from his times with TWR and he liked a wee glass of red wine!

Brands DNFs aside, Knockhill was worst result of the season – any reason for the comparative Knockhill struggle, compared to the rest of the season?

“The irony of Knockhill is that they had been a personal sponsor of mine throughout my BTCC career – but Knockhill was my bogey circuit for some reason! All my team mates could kick my arse here for no apparent reason – I could never get it right.”

Mike Briggs joined you for the rest of the season – what was he like? The public didn’t really get a chance to get to know him during his brief spell in the championship.

“Mike was a great mate and I had raced in South Africa with him a few times in the past. He had just won the SA championship in a Cavalier, so he was the ideal candidate to join the team as back up. It was hard for him to come to circuits he had never seen though and entering the toughest saloon championship in the world, but he did a great job and he loved his time here.”

Snetterton began another run of 5 podiums & you finally won the title at Oulton Park. How did it feel to win the championship in such a tightly contested season?

“When I crossed the line to win that day, 25 years ago, it was a massive relief. I had fought off the best drivers in the world in saloon cars to win the most prestigious championship in the UK for a 2nd time! It was also the perfect reward to the team and Vauxhall, who worked so hard to make it happen. I was actually stuck for words that day and smiled for a month after that!”

How different was it to your 1989 success?

“1989 was a class win championship, but it had always been that. For that reason, I never felt like I truly had won, since the highest I had finished in a race was probably 10-11th. Still, it was nice to have my name on the trophy alongside my hero Jim Clark I am very proud to have achieved this!”