Tony Gilham, former world BMX champion and MMA fighter, has turned successfully to motorsport in recent years (Image | MJP Media)

Tony Gilham, former world BMX champion and MMA fighter, has turned successfully to motorsport in recent years (Image | MJP Media)

This season will see Team HARD., led by former BMX world champion and professional cage-fighter Tony Gilham, attempt the unprecedented challenge of running four cars simultaneously in the British Touring Car Championship having run just one until the last round of last season, when they fielded two.

Just in case that doesn’t sound enough of a test, let me elaborate – HARD. will be running two different cars. One of those, the VW Passat CC, will be making its touring car debut. Only one of the five drivers signed thus far by the squad has previous experience of a complete BTCC season. Then there’s the sponsorship and backing for four cars to find, the logistical nightmare to sort out, the cars to finish building before the campaign starts – and yet the squad are looking at adding a fifth entry to their record-breaking endeavours.

Sounding difficult yet?

Team boss Tony Gilham accepts that his team are entering uncharted waters in 2013, but insists that that is part of the attraction.

“I think it’s a very bold thing we’re trying to do, running four, maybe more cars”, he told thearmchairpundits.com editor Rob Schatten in an exclusive interview last week. “We do appreciate that; we’re not taking it lightly and we know there’s a big job to do.”

“But at the same time the investors and the people that are involved with us like that –  the more they hear about it, the more they want to keep it going.”

Last season saw Team HARD., which started the year as Tony Gilham Racing before investment arrived, run a single, somewhat outdated Super-2000 Honda Civic. Gilham started out as the driver, in his second season in the series, before Howard Fuller, American Robb Holland and Aaron Williamson took the hot-seat for several rounds beginning at Knockhill. By then, Gilham was already planning for the trial ahead.

“We managed to find an investor who would help us in the purchase of the Civic, but unfortunately it didn’t really go to plan with the car,” he explained. “It wasn’t what we were hoping for and from day one we had to do quite a lot of work on it.”

Gilham did manage one podium, a third-place at Donington in the second race weekend, but admits that he could never fully focus on the moment.

Last year, Team HARD. ran a lone Honda Civic which struggled to keep up with newer rivals ( Image | Dennis Goodwin)

Last year, Team HARD. ran a lone Honda Civic which struggled to keep up with newer rivals ( Image | Dennis Goodwin)

“All the time I was in the seat, I was thinking about other things and I could never just concentrate on racing. I won’t be doing any touring car driving [in 2013], which is hard for me but at the same time when I look around at the premises that we’ve put together, the team we’ve put together, that’s very satisfying.

“The second half of last year was all about building for this year. It was always a business decision, a commercial decision – everything we did, there was a reason for it.”

The key to attracting the necessary sponsorship in as competitive an environment as national-level motor racing is to make your project stand out, and Team HARD.’s plan of running such an expanded fleet of cars does just that.

“It wasn’t a conscious decision, originally we were just going to run the two Insignias,” Gilham admitted. “But once we got deeper into discussions with Tom [Onslow-Cole], the opportunities were coming thick and fast and there was lots of driver interest.

“It’s never easy to get sponsorship or investors, but if you’ve got something to offer or you’re offering something that no-one else can, then it does make it a little bit easier. We’ve found a little niche in the market which no-one else is doing, which is why we’ve got so much interest from drivers. If I had 20 cars, I could fill 20 cars with drivers.”

The signing of Onslow-Cole, a seven-time BTCC race winner who has driven for some of the best teams in the series, was a definite statement of intent. To have the former West Surrey Racing man sign a three-year contract was another powerful signal – the team are here for the long haul.

“This is Tom’s seventh year in touring cars so he’s a good name for us to get involved with,” Gilham agreed. “It works for us on and off track, and we’ll be looking for Tom to really take the fight to the bigger teams.”

Then there’s the cars. The Vauxhall Insignias, part of the Next-Generation Touring Car (NGTC) era of the sport, have thus far failed to match the achievement of the Toyota Avensis, which appeared at the same time. But Gilham is confident that the potential is there.

“The two Insignias have undergone major redevelopment,” he said. “As everyone knows, they weren’t really right last year, so we’ve taken them back to pretty much nothing. They needed to be completely reworked, which we’ve done, and they are now progressing quite nicely.”

In its world touring car debut, the VW Passat will have many questions to answer - but Gilham is confident his team have chosen well (Image | autosport.com)

In its world touring car debut, the VW Passat will have many questions to answer – but Gilham is confident his team have chosen well (Image | autosport.com)

If the Insignia is a potential unknown, the decision to run the VW Passat, a car which has never set foot in a top-tier touring car series, was completely out of the blue.

“Based on all our homework, all our development, research and everything else, it seems to tick all the boxes,” Gilham counters. “It’s probably one of the only cars on the grid, possibly apart from the Insignia, that really does fit what the NGTC was originally supposed to be.

“When we put it in the wind tunnel the results were very good, so we have got high hopes for the car. We do know that there’s going to be some development to do throughout the season but we’re hoping that we can get it right from the start and that we can really hit the ground running.”

Onslow-Cole will pilot one Passat, with Holland and Fuller returning to split a season in the second. The Insignias, meanwhile, are in the hands of two immensely talented BTCC rookies in reigning Clio Cup champion Jack Goff and former Formula 2 racer James Cole.

“Obviously Jack’s proven himself on the TOCA package,” said Gilham. “Winning the Clio Cup is a massive achievement because you need to do a season-long job and he’s now used to the hustle and bustle of close racing. James brings raw pace from single-seaters, so he may take a little longer to get accustomed to [driving saloons] but I definitely feel that both of those drivers have got massive potential.”

Many elements of this challenge, then, are brand-new to a squad which has only one season of BTCC running to its name – new car, new sponsors, new drivers. But Gilham’s ascent up the motor racing pyramid has involved plenty of new challenges, along with several opportunities to run his own outfits at different levels. He’s won the MR2 Championship and the VW Cup under his own banner, and raced for two years as a privateer in the Porsche Carerra Cup either side of partnering former BTCC champion Tim Harvey at leading team Redline Racing.

“We came onto the track in 2005 with the MR2 Championship,” Tony elaborated, “running the whole year on just one set of tyres, and managed to win the championship in that first year. We then got the opportunity to move up to the VW Cup, and in 2007 we managed to win that as well. At that stage we couldn’t afford to go to Touring Cars, so we decided to go down the Porsche Carrera Cup route. At the time we still had no funds, and I had to sell my house to buy a Porsche race car.”

That kind of commitment might raise eyebrows with some, but it’s the dedication that is required of anyone who wants to survive, let alone succeed, in high-level motor racing during tough economic times. And Gilham’s past experiences of running a tight ship have stayed with him in the BTCC era.

The first three drivers to commit to Team HARD., l-r: Jack Goff, James Cole, Tom Onslow-Cole, with Tony Gilham (Image | tonygilham.com)

The first three drivers to commit to Team HARD., l-r: Jack Goff, James Cole, Tom Onslow-Cole, with Tony Gilham (Image | tonygilham.com)

“If the demand is there, and it makes business sense, and there’s people that are looking to support you, then I don’t see any reason why you don’t keep pushing forward,” he pointed out. “There’s no boundaries – we like to be ambitious, we’ve got big plans, we’ve got a lot of loyal people involved with us, I’m very driven and I’ve got good people around me. So while we didn’t say “we want to run five cars”, it’s just that the team has grown into that.

“We’ll only have five if it makes sense to do so. We’d only have four if it made sense to do so. We’re not going to punch above our weight, do anything ridiculous or out of our depth. We’ve taken on a lot but we feel in control of it.”

With the confidence this team is exuding about their bold new adventure, though, the BTCC’s best and brightest might be looking anxiously over their shoulders come the first round of the season at Brands Hatch, on March 31st. Gilham and Team HARD. are suddenly the greatest unknown in the series –  and the potential is there for some stunning upsets in 2013.

Please click here to read the full interview with Tony GilhamTAP would like to thank Tony for taking the time to speak to us and Ben Kattenhorn of Team HARD. for his help in arranging this interview. 

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