BTCC Greats - John Cleland
This week’s BTCC Great needs no introduction to fan’s of the sport, he is simply the two time British Touring Car champion, John Cleland.
One of the most charismatic and talented drivers to grace the series, Cleland was known for his flair on and off the track. Fan’s grew to love the Scot over his illustrious career especially enjoying when it was time for him to rant about an incident or celebrate one of his many victories.
The Scot started off his motorsport career in autocross and hill climbing in the 1970’s thus then moving on towards the British Production Car and Thundersaloon championship. Then in 1989, Cleland joined Vauxhall to compete in Britain’s premier tin top series.
When Cleland entered the championship, the BTCC was still under the four tier class ruling. Each class were effectively in their own race but they all scored points for the overall title. In his debut season, Cleland won 11 of his 13 races in class C, which were for 1.5l machinery. This made him champion of the series in his very first season. The 1990 season saw Vauxhall look ahead to the coming 2.0l format we now know today, by introducing their new Cavalier.
The defending champion could only muster a solitary second in class which transferred to finishing fifth in the overall championship. The 1991 season saw the dawn of a new era for the BTCC and is now seen by fans as one of the highest points the championship has seen with the cars and drivers that participated. Class structures were now a thing of the past and at Thruxton, Cleland took his first ever outright victory in the season. Two more wins followed in 1991, however it wasn’t to be enough as Will Hoy clinched the title with the Cavalier man in second place.
Ask any BTCC fan to pick out a memory of John Cleland and a great percentage will say the series finale in 1992. In fact the 92′ season had boiled all the way to the final event at Silverstone. Defending champion Hoy as well as young charger Tim Harvey were in with a shout of glory with Cleland trying to ensure it would be his time. Cleland won the opening rounds of the season but could only pick up one more over the course of the season as the racing intensified.
Enter the final round at Silverstone and Hoy, Harvey and Cleland could all win the championship. As the lights went out, battled ensued with major talking points still yet to be settled to this day. In the early stages of the race Harvey’s team mate Steve Soper saw half his car smashed in after being caught up in an incident, but even with the damage he was able to force his way through the field and support his team mate. By the time he arrived on the scene there were only a handful of laps to go and Hoy was out of the battle.
Soon though positions had changed and it was Cleland ahead of Harvey after an incident with Hoy. Soper was able to push his way past Cleland to play rear gunner for Harvey and everyone saw on the TV coverage that Cleland gave him the middle finger from his cockpit. As they entered the arena section of Silverstone, Harvey dived down the inside of Cleland at Bridge corner and in doing so snuck past Soper who quickly defended the line against the Scot.
Cleland then dived down the inside two corners later and sent his Cavalier onto two wheels momentarily whilst pushing Soper wide. As they both headed to the long last sweeping corner it was Soper on the inside who gave no room for Cleland and they both spun off into the gravel trap gifting Harvey his first BTCC title. The feud was not over yet though as Cleland got out of his car and made his way to Soper shouting a tirade of abuse. After the race Cleland was quoted calling Soper ‘an animal’ and ‘that this wasn’t stock car racing’.
The 1993 and 1994 season’s would be difficult ones for the Vauxhall outfit and Cleland. Both BMW and Alfa Romeo entered the series over the two years with cars that seemed far superior to that of the rest of the field. Three wins over the two seasons for Cleland showed how far back he and the pack was from the front runners. In the end fourth place overall was the best Cleland could settle for in both years.
However in 1995, Cleland would finally climb the BTCC mountain again. After several years with the Cavalier, this year proved to be its breakthrough season, ironically with it being its last in the series. Competition in the series was growing, with the emergence of Rickard Rydell and Alain Menu pushing Cleland hard for the title. Six victories, four of which came back to back at the mid point of the season gave the Scot the upper hand over his rivals. In the end it was Cleland’s consistency allied with just two retirements that allowed him to capture his second BTCC title.
Out with the old and in with the new was the motto for 1996 as Vauxhall said goodbye to the Cavalier. In its place was the brand new Vectra, however it proved to be a problematic package. The defending champion could only muster a eighth place championship finish as Frank Biela won his and Audis first title. The 1997 season was even worse for Cleland and Vauxhall as they continued to struggle with the Vectra. Last place in the constructors championship and 12th in the drivers wasn’t the season Cleland had expected. The only good news to emerge in 97′ was the birth of the ‘good old boys’ as Derek Warwick joined the team to be the Scot’s team mate.
After two years of despair, Cleland finally returned to the sharp end of the grid in 1998, which was one of the best seasons in the series. Two wins at Donington Park showed that the Vectra and Cleland still had the speed to cut the mustard at the front. The Scot’s second win of the season was from the famous wet race that saw Nigel Mansell make a name for himself in the BTCC. His 1998 season sadly was ruined by a crash at Snetterton which saw Cleland injured and having to miss a few rounds.
The 1999 season was to be Cleland’s last season in the championship after ten years at Vauxhall. No victories would fall his way as he had to play second fiddle to his faster team mate Yvan Muller. Cleland’s final race took place at a wet Silverstone where he managed a tenth place.
From 1989 to 1999, Cleland amassed 17 outright victories with a further 15 in class. The Scot also had 98 podium finishes, 19 pole positions and 11 fastest laps.
Fans of the championship got to see Cleland rubbing panels with some of his former foes in 2004 when the championship ran a Masters race after the final round of the season.
The double champion will take to the tarmac again in 2013 as he is reunited with his faithful 97′ Vectra. Cleland will participate in selective rounds of the HSCC Super Touring Car Trophy. Cleland will go down as one of the greatest drivers to grace the BTCC and there won’t be many more like him.
Article originally written on Saturday, 13 April 2013. Read more articles from the BTCC Crazy Archive.