For the first time in more than 30 years, three giant-killing MG Metro Turbos will take to the track at the Silverstone Classic later this month (29-31 July). Adding to the sense of history, the evocative, three-pronged attack is being masterminded by touring car hero Patrick Watts, who himself will race one of the trio of pocket rockets in the Historic Touring Car Challenge at the Classic on Tin Top Sunday.
The ever-effervescent Watts, now 59, has a special relationship with these cars having been an integral part of the ARG (Austin Rover Group) factory team back in the early eighties. Such is his indefatigable passion that he has spent the past few years tracking down and restoring three of the five esteemed racers originally built in period.
“The cars are jewels,” he enthused. “The first one was built at Cowley alongside the 6R4 Group B rally car, with which it shares some design features. Thereafter, the project was handed over to Roger Dowson Engineering, which built a further four cars in its workshop at Silverstone – three of which will return to where they were born 33 years ago for the Classic. Sadly, Roger himself is no longer with us but I’m hoping his family will join us to share in the very special moment.”
Dowson was charged by ARG to run the turbo cars in the British and European Touring Car Championships. The first one made its debut in the hands of ARG rally ace Tony Pond at Brands Hatch in April 1983 and, as was to become the norm, proved impressively fast but incredibly frail with a mixture of gearbox, overheating and tyre problems all too often undermining promising performances.
With his reputation for racing Minis, Watts joined Pond later in the campaign and a third car was entered for the Silverstone season finale for Martin Brundle. It was to be the only time three MG Metro Turbos ever lined up together in the UK (until this month’s Classic, that is), but once again the escapade ended in ignominy when all three Unipart with Daily Express-entered machines suffered similar tyre troubles at exactly the same corner on the same lap!
A pair of cars returned briefly with Computervision liveries in 1984 with Watts now joined by Robin Brundle but, despite showing some improved class-winning speed and stamina, ARG pulled the plug on the programme mid-season following a row with the authorities over the legality of its Rovers.
Though their presence was short-lived, the MG Metro Turbos made a big impression. Touring car fans have always loved David versus Goliath encounters and the sight of these little 1275cc (albeit with around 190bhp), front-wheel-drive hatchbacks battling against much bigger-hearted Rovers, Capris, Monzas and GTVs really caught the public’s imagination… and will do so again in the two-driver, HTCC showdown at the Classic featuring many of the same cars.
In fact, thanks to modern technology, the Metros are more competitive today than ever before. “It’s actually more capable now than in period due to the tyres; back then, sometimes they’d only last three or four laps, but now we have no problems,” reported Watts.
The revitalised gems are also more powerful and more reliable, as the boyishly enthusiastic Watts points out. “The Metro Turbo was always ahead of its time and, in many ways, was a mini Super Tourer – very light, very fast and beautifully built. But now, with the advantage of better knowledge of A Series engines, improved intercooler cores and the use of high-tech materials, Nick Swift (of Swiftune Engineering) has rebuilt these engines to run more boost, without any problems – so far so good, anyway!” joked Watts, who believes he will have more than 220bhp under his right foot come Tin Top Sunday at Silverstone.
He will be sharing one of the cars with Swift, while Malcolm Harrison and Paul Taft, another Metro Turbo racer from the eighties, will share the second Computervision-decaled car – recently uncovered in Greece by Watts. The third car – repatriated from Germany – will run with a period Massa Real livery and also has a bond with the past. It will be driven by Till Betchtolseimer, whose grandfather’s company sponsored this very car when raced by Armin Hahne in the 1984 German Touring Car Championship.
And the storyline might not stop here, as you can’t keep the Tiggerish Watts down – he is already hot on the trail of the two remaining Metro marvels.
“It’s a long story, but there is one car we are hoping to retrieve from the USA where it ran in the IMSA series in Budweiser livery, and the last one is in the UK, and I am close to finding it,” he grinned.
Tin Top Sunday boasts many other great features, too. In addition to all the other on- and off-track excitement, the Mike Brewer Car Clinic presented by eBay, the Blades aerobatic display and the HSCC 50th Anniversary Parade featuring a fabulous array of 50 hand-picked competition cars will all be exclusive to what is clearly going to be a spectacular Tin Top Sunday.
For those wanting to experience these plus the magic moment when all three Metros go racing again at Silverstone after an absence of more than three decades, adult admission for Tin Top Sunday is priced at £54, with £6 admission for accompanied children aged between 6 and 16-years-old.
A wide range of weekend, camping, VIP hospitality and Family Tickets – all of which must be purchased in advance – are also available. Adding to the festival’s immense appeal, tickets include free entrance to both racing paddocks, trackside grandstands and live music concerts on Friday and Saturday evenings. Full details can be found on the official www.silverstoneclassic.com