Ten years is an awfully long time in motorsport. A decade ago McLaren was the top team in F1 and Mika Hakkinen was well on his way to a second title; Tommi Mäkinen, meanwhile, was heading towards a fourth consecutive WRC title in his Mitsubishi Evo VI, and the British Touring Car Championship was at the height of its powers with a multitude of big-budget manufacturer entries fighting for showroom sales by swapping paint on the racetrack.
If you’d gone to one of those BTCC meetings and wandered the spectator banking you may have spotted a wild-haired teenager with his family, dreaming of being out there himself. That boy was Tom Chilton. Today, deep into his eighth BTCC season, he’s one of the most experienced drivers in the field, though he’s still not old enough to qualify for the car insurance discount you get when you hit 25!
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Back in 1999, aged just 14, Chilton became the youngest driver to be granted a motorsport licence. After a couple of seasons cutting his racing teeth in T-Cars (a series for drivers aged 14 to 17, using cars based on production models), he got his first drive in the BTCC in 2002. In 2004 he became part of the Arena team and after the Silverstone round he added the words ‘youngest ever BTCC race winner’ to his CV. But even though Tom had arrived in record time, the Championship had moved on from the heady days of the ultra-expensive Super Tourers he used to dream of, and he never got the chance to drive one. Until now.
This season, still with Arena, Chilton can be seen wringing the neck of a Ford Focus, moving it further forward through the grid at every round as he and the team develop a brand new car. With everything now heading in the right direction it seemed appropriate for him to take some time out and pop his Super Touring cherry with another Ford: an ex-Rickard Rydell Mondeo. But before we get there the boy needs a history lesson. The British Touring Car Championship is more than twice as old as Tom, and Ford has been part of it for most of those years, so as well as the Mondeo we’ve gathered together some of the Blue Oval’s most successful racers, all of them dating from the years before our young friend was born. (We’d booked a Sierra Cossie too, but the day before our test the owner cried off with swine flu!)
In 1963, Jack Sears (now a knight of the realm) took the then British Saloon Car Championship title for the second time. He drove a variety of cars throughout the year, but for the backbone of the season he was at the wheel of a Galaxie 500, and never has a car been named more aptly, for this monstrous 7-litre Ford is the size of one. Tom’s jaw nearly hits the floor when he sees it for the first time and he can’t stop laughing. ‘This is real dinosaur stuff,’ he chuckles, although I think there may be a few nerves hiding behind the smiles too, partly because this leviathan has over 500bhp and saucer-sized brakes, and partly because some early morning drizzle has added an extra slippery element to proceedings.
Tom will get five laps of Mallory Park in each of the cars here and my job is to grab his thoughts the moment he releases all that hair from the confines of his helmet. His modern race suit and multi-coloured chromed helmet look a touch incongruous inside the Galaxie, but once Tom’s as comfortable as he’s going to get behind the big, thin-rimmed wheel, he burbles down the pitlane, dwarfing the Ginettas and Fiestas also taking part in this general test session. From the pitwall we watch him come through a tricky left-hander appropriately called Devil’s Elbow – it’s fast, bumpy, slightly off-camber and if it does catch him out he’ll be joining us on the pitwall…
The 2.3-ton Galaxie appears to wallow and lurch uncomfortably through here on its narrow cross-ply tyres, and a few minutes later TC confirms this. ‘That was scary!’ he exclaims with eyes still out on stalks. ‘I can’t believe they used to let these things race! It feels like you’re only doing 10mph in the corners, but as soon as you squeeze the throttle that huge boot comes round. It’s like you’re floating on air – you don’t get any feel for what’s happening at track level. In my race car you feel every stone chip on the ground, but in this you could run over a boulder and not know about it. And it wanders about on the straight too.’
It looked as though Tom couldn’t get out of there quick enough, but as well as the Galaxie’s terrifying vagueness his keenness to move on could have something to do with the fact that next up is the iconic Lotus Cortina. He has trouble folding himself behind the wheel, but he instantly looks more at home. Sears drove one of these in that ’63 season, and Jim Clark three-wheeled his way to the title in one the following year. Tom’s a lot happier too. ‘It’s completely different,’ he says when he gets back to the pits after his laps. ‘I mean, it’s a third of the weight of the Galaxie for a start, a little go-kart in comparison, and I can understand why people still race them. I didn’t fit inside properly, so it was tricky to work the pedals and on the first lap I half-spun at the hairpin as I couldn’t get the wheel round quick enough because my knee was jammed against it!
‘Its general attitude is one of understeer so to get around this you unbalance the rear as you turn-in and control the slide with your right foot. When you get it right it’s the coolest thing ever, and now I understand why, when you look at all the period photographs, they’re all drifting. It’s the only way to go round the corners quickly.’
It’s fair to say that Tom’s been looking forward to the Falcon. When all the cars were lined up this was the one he went and sat in first. And with good reason. It may be larger than the Cortina, but at 1010kg it’s only just over 250kg heavier, and where he had 177bhp to play with in the Lotus, he now has 400. When you hear stats like that, it’s no surprise to discover that Frank Gardner took the title in one in 1967, and that this car still wins Goodwood Revival races on a regular basis.
Out on the track, you can see from the body language of the Falcon that it’s a proper racer. It’s much faster than anything we’ve seen Tom drive so far and he’s able to lean on it harder through the Elbow. I reckon he’s enjoying it too. Either that or he has lost the ability to count, as five laps have become eight.
‘Wooh, yeah!’ he whoops as the lightweight door swings open. ‘Out of all the cars so far, that is the best by a long way. It’s set up very well, and it oversteers progressively. The Galaxie was dangerous, I wouldn’t even drive it on the road, but this is so completely different you would think there were 40 years between them rather than four. It’s top fun and it’s easy to see why it has won so many races – it’s fast, you can feel the tyres on the road, it responds to the inputs you’re giving it and you can drift it with pin-point accuracy. In short it’s brilliant. Can I have another go please?’
The answer is a polite no, but only because time is pressing on and he still has two more cars to go. The first of which is the only one here that didn’t win the BTCC championship outright. The Capri did, however, win its class in 1973 in the hands of a man who became a Ford legend, Andy Rouse. For Tom, though, it’s a drop in power as the Capri, at 185bhp, has less than half the total of the Falcon.
There’s less drifting now. The Capri looks locked onto its line but it still appears to be lapping quickly, and Tom confirms this once he’s back in the pits. ‘You can see the progression because the Capri has the highest mid-corner speed of all and it’s possible to brake a lot later and turn in with confidence,’ he says. ‘The car doesn’t move around anywhere near as much as the others, and it may only have 185bhp, but it’s very efficient and uses it all. It could handle a lot more power, as much as another 100bhp, I reckon. Both this car and the Falcon are exciting to drive, but I do like power. Mind you, as I go through the years I’m finding they’re far less scary to drive. I’m not shaking any more because I’m not getting into them thinking I’m going to die. I know with the Capri that I can turn into a corner and come out the other side!’
So now, after making him wait all morning, Tom finally gets to clamber through the cage of the car he’s been dying to try: the Rapid Fit Mondeo. After getting himself acclimatised to the ways of the ’60s and early ’70s, this 27-year leap forward in time will probably come as a shock. The Mondeo looks impossibly low, even compared with Tom’s current car, the Focus; the floorpan almost skims the tarmac, while the wheels barely fit inside the arches. After the converted road car look of the classics, this is a pure racing machine from the ground up and Tom can’t stop smiling. ‘Back in the day,’ he begins while tightening the harness, ‘they looked seriously fast and the engines screamed so hard it seemed impossible that they wouldn’t blow up. These were Touring Cars right on the limit of everything, with some of the best drivers in the world driving them. For me these cars are like girls – no one just wants to see them on a TV screen, you want to go out and touch them.’ And with that he slams the door shut and sets off in a wail of revs and the clunk and whine of a Hewland sequential gearbox.
After a few laps to warm everything up, Tom screams past the pitwall far faster than in anything we’ve seen him drive so far today. This is perhaps unsurprising, but what is rather unexpected is that on his fifth lap he matches the time he set in his Focus, something he knows like the back of his hand.
Once again Tom’s ability to count seems to have deserted him, but eventually the session ends and he comes back in, beaming once more. So, how was it? ‘Mega! Some proper money was spent getting 320bhp from those 2-litre engines. All the grunt comes at top revs, you can’t even pull away without 6000rpm dialled in, but when you’re in the power-band you only have to prod the throttle a millimetre and the thrust instantly pours on. In my car I have to make a much larger movement.
‘The chassis is a lot stiffer than mine too and it relies a lot more on aerodynamics, so it’s very stable in the high-speed turns but you have to keep off the kerbs. It’s much harder to be accurate than in the Focus, as without power steering it’s very susceptible to being thrown off line by mid-corner bumps. Damping technology has moved on a lot since then. The modern car gains under brakes and over kerbs, whereas this car’s strengths lie in the engine and aero package. It must have been awesome to race these things.’
So, out of all the cars Tom has driven today, which would he take home? ‘That’s easy,’ he says. ‘The Falcon. No question. All the others are too scary or too serious; the Falcon is the most fun by a long way. I’d love to race it.’
See video footage of Tom driving the classics.