I’ll just let that sink in.
Alain Menu. Voted by his peers last year as the greatest driver of the Super Touring era of touring car racing, and commonly regarded as one of the best touring car drivers ever…is returning to the BTCC full-time for the first time since 2000.
For non-BTCC fans, I’ll explain the significance – this is on a par with Michael Schumacher coming out of retirement to return to F1. This is absolutely huge.
In the Super Touring era of BTCC, such was the level of competition that many of the sport’s top drivers failed to win a single championship.
Menu won two.
More staggering was his consistency – from his debut full season in 1993 through to 2000, he finished 2nd in the championship three times in a row, and won at least one race in every season.
Now you see why people are excited.
He was the master of extracting the most out of a car. When his car was bad, he made it good. And when his car was good – as it was in 1997 – there was no stopping him.
In the 1997 season he achieved a scarcely believable 21 podium finishes from 24 races, including a jaw-dropping 12 victories and 13 poles. His closest opponent Frank Biela finished a massive 110 points behind – when 15 points were awarded for a win. This was not a title victory. This was laying the smackdown.
And yet no-one begrudged him for it, or booed him on the podium. And there are a few reasons for that.
The main complaint most people have about Sebastian Vettel is that his title successes have come in easily the strongest car on the grid – victory is effortless for him. When Menu won his first title in easily the best car on the grid in 1997, no-one had such complaints. Because for three years previously he had taken an under-performing car, the Renault Laguna, and challenged for the title when it had absolutely no right to do so. If anyone deserved to finally have a car worthy of success, it was him. He earned his stripes. He proved his talent once again in 1998 and 1999, first in a valiant defense of his title before moving to the mediocre Ford team. The Mondeo was as fast and reliable as my internet connection, but that didn’t stop Menu; once again he performed way beyond the limits of his car.
2000 looked to be a repeat of 1997, where once again he was blessed with the best car. After years of failure, Ford were determined to finally take victory. And unlike in 1997, where Menu’s rookie team-mate Jason Plato was no contest, his teammates in 2000 were Anthony Reid and 1998 champion Rickard Rydell. There was no question of team orders or number 2 driver here. It was every Ford driver for themselves – beat the other teams first, then each other.
And who prevailed in a season-long battle that went to the final round of the season?
You guessed it.
Then after a few years came a third manufacturer transformation, this time with Chevrolet in the World Touring Car Championship. Once again he achieved race wins consistently and grew a team from mid-table to champions, although he himself never quite took a title; his team-mates Yvan Muller and Rob Huff always had the slightly better luck and pace. Nevertheless, it remains another impressive achievement on his CV.
So his talent has never been in question. And what makes his return to the BTCC significant is not just his awesome performances, but his infectious character. Whilst Vettel coldly dominates all before him with the personality of a bowl of porridge, Menu is a charming, smiling assassin. Many who have met him will attest to his confidence and character. When an interviewer asked him at the start of the 2000 BTCC season who he thought could win, he calmly replied ‘if I had to pick someone, it would have to be me’ with a grin and a cheeky wink. Only he could get away with that. And the fact that he then proved this prediction correct largely sums the man up.
He’s joining an ambitious young team, Team BMR, and will have promising youngsters Warren Scott, Aron Smith and Jack Goff as team-mates. Clearly his new employers have seen his awesome track record for helping teams climb to the top of the championship, and will hope he can muster that magic up once again – whilst at the same time mentoring his youthful stablemates. The Volkswagon Passat CC he will be driving was fast in patches last year in the hands of Tom Onslow-Cole, so strong results could be possible. A championship may be out of the question, as he will be lacking the financial clout of the manufacturer titans Honda and MG. But the performances of the independents West Surray Racing and Pirtek Racing – the latter winning the championship with Andrew Jordan – proves that nothing is ever predictable in BTCC.
His return to the BTCC is a complete surprise. When it was announced yesterday, social media exploded. Despite being out of the British scene for over a decade, there is an entire generation of fans with fond memories of his racing; and a younger generation like myself who have watched with awe his previous successes on old season review tapes and DVDs. His presence alone has upgraded the BTCC to must-see status. The obvious fear is that this could be a Schumacher Mk: 2, where the current driver just can’t live up to the legend. The fact is, even if Menu doesn’t live up to hype this year, his mere presence has shot a bolt of lightning through the BTCC world. It has galvanized the paddock.
And when Schumacher returned to F1 in 2010, the season that followed was one of the best in recent memory.
Welcome back, Alain. We’ve missed you.