Gilham's signature green and pink colour scheme has been a feature of his racing career (Image | vw-cup.co.uk)

Gilham’s signature green and pink colour scheme has been a feature of his racing career (Image | vw-cup.co.uk)

TAP: Tell us a bit about your racing career so far and how you got started, Tony. You came to the sport quite late…

Tony Gilham: We came onto the track in 2005 with the MR2 Championship. Obviously I’d done BMX racing as a kid, and been successful – I was British, European and World champion on two wheels, so I’d always fancied myself as a racing driver. I went on a few driving experiences and so on, and it was then recommended to me that I pursue it as a career, but obviously funds never allowed me to do that. 2005 was the year that my first son was to be born, so I thought this would be my last chance to ever go.

So we literally got a car – an old MR2 Mk1, 100bhp, rear-wheel drive – and nobody else wanted it because it was a T-bar, so it was too heavy! But we took the plunge, bought the car, I ran it myself – I’m not even a mechanic, but I thought I’d have a go – and in the first race we managed to put it on pole and we won the race. We carried on, running the whole year on just one set of tyres, and managed to win the championship in that first year, which was quite an achievement to do that just with a van and trailer.

We then got the opportunity to move up to the VW Cup, and in 2007 we managed to win that as well. It was a good building year for us – I spent 2006 in the VW Cup as well, but we picked up some damage in race one at Oulton Park and missed the first two events. We did score more points than anyone in the remainder of the season but we finished the season fourth in the championship. We came back the next year having built our own car and managed to win the championship in 2007. In the meantime, that year we also won two events in America, and continued to prove ourselves in front-wheel drive cars.

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 was quite a big commitment from myself, with help from my parents and a few loyal sponsors which are still with me today – Design911, Prestige Performance Centre – they are people who have been key to my career. We led the ProAm championship the whole year, which sounds like a bit of a fairytale – but on the last corner of the last lap of the last race, we got crashed into by the person that was due to buy my car at the end of the year. So we lost the championship by one point, the use of a road car, and the sale of a race car!

That was pretty much going to be it, career over. But we managed to find a buyer who took the car as it was, so we got a little bit of money together and returned in 2009 as Tim Harvey’s teammate at Redline Racing. We struggled through the year, taking fewer tyres and a minimal budget, and finished fourth in ProAm. Although it wasn’t massively successful we learned a lot by being part of a big team – where we would need to up our game, starting to get used to the data analysis, becoming more involved in the set-up of the car, and everything else. It was massively beneficial in more ways than one to get that experience of being in a big team.

We came back again with our own team in 2010 and managed to finish third in ProAm, again as just one man and his van, but that’s how we’ve done it. Unfortunately, we weren’t actually able to continue our quest in Porsche any longer, as they wouldn’t allow us to buy a car, so that was where the offer came to join Triple Eight in the BTCC.

TAP: How much of a learning curve was that first year in BTCC, again being part of a big established setup?

TG: That was a very, very steep learning curve, and also one that has made us what we are today. At the time Triple Eight were just off the back of pretty much being a works team, so we saw how they operated, took the positives and the negatives from that, and we’ve moulded it into what we’re doing now.

Even with Geoff Steel Racing at the end of the year, there were things we could take from every experience to try and create our own unique way of doing things, which is what hopefully making us a success now as a growing team. We’ve ironed out what we think we shouldn’t do, chosen what we think we should do, and touch wood it seems to be working because the growth is obvious for everyone to see.

TAP: So entering 2012, even though it was only your second year in touring cars, it was a natural progression to go back to running your own team as you’d done it so much before?

TG: Yeah, I’ve run my own teams for quite a long time and we couldn’t afford to sign for another team. 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. It wasn’t what we were hoping for and from day one we had to do quite a lot of work on it. We didn’t do any testing, we literally didn’t get the car right until Donington [the second meeting of the season], and we lost a big investor right at the start of the year. But we managed to sneak a podium at Donington, and the following race weekend at Thruxton we got a reverse-grid pole.

So we had some strong results but we’d made a business decision early in the season that I would look to get a [paying] driver in the seat as we were already planning for the following year. Due to the sponsor pulling out, I’d essentially become a drain on my own company – for me to remain in the seat, yes we could have had a good year, and yes we potentially could have been right at the top fighting for race wins, but we’d have had one year of racing and that would have been it for us as a team. As hard as it was, I made the decision to step out of the seat and think of the bigger picture rather than just concentrating on that year.

After sitting out several races, Gilham returned towards the end of last season - but in a different car (Image | motorsport.com)

After sitting out several races, Gilham returned towards the end of last season – but in a different car (Image | motorsport.com)

TAP: You had a couple of opportunities with Speedworks towards the end of the year. Did you ever give much consideration to taking the spare seat in their team at the end of the season?

TG: Not really no, we were always looking to build and run our own NGTC cars so I was keen to continue that, and obviously we knew the Thorney’s Insignia had a bit of potential having driven it at Snetterton. The decision to jump in the [Speedworks] Insignia was 1) because it was affordable and 2) because it was part of our plans for the following year. 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.

TAP: How happy were you with last season by the end of the year?

TG: I feel that I’ve got unfinished business with touring cars, which is why it’s difficult for me [personally] to be out of the seat. We showed a little bit of our potential, what we can do, but all the time I was in the seat, I was thinking about other things and I could never just concentrate on racing.

The season could have gone better – I was regularly in the top ten at the start. We got a couple of drivers in, Howard [Fuller] showed a lot of promise, and so did Robb as well with his qualifying, so there’s lots of positives to take from the season as a whole. Yes it could have been better, but looking back now there were lots of things to take from it which we will take forward into this year.

TAP: What brought about the decision to go from running one, occasionally two cars last year to five this year?

TG: Basically it wasn’t a conscious decision, originally we were just going to run the two Insignias. 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 (we’ve stilll got lots of driver interest). Obviously we’ve announced three already, plus Robb Holland as a part-time driver.

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. 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 up to this stage – so hopefully we’ll keep that mood going forward.

TAP: I’m not aware of any team having run five cars, not just in BTCC but in any one series – have you given much thought to that?

TG: I think the previous biggest team in touring car series worldwide is three cars – Chevrolet ran three in the WTCC – so I think it’s a very bold thing we’re trying to do, running four, maybe more cars. 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. It is a big project, there is a lot we have taken on, but we do feel that we can do a good job.

We also realise that year one will be a development year. We’d be lying if we said we didn’t want success, we do; but we appreciate that other people have been doing it a lot longer so that’s why we’ve got drivers on long-term contracts. We want them to grow  with us, and hopefully we can move forward together and prove ourselves as one of the best teams out there.

The arrival of familiar BTCC face and multiple-race winner Tom Onslow-Cole is a big step forward for Team HARD.

The arrival of familiar BTCC face and multiple-race winner Tom Onslow-Cole is a big step forward for Team HARD.

TAP: You’ve been pretty proactive so far in hiring drivers, with two very promising youth talents [Clio Cup champion Jack Goff and former Formula 2 racer James Cole] and one very experienced man in Tom Onslow-Cole. What do you need from them, how important will Tom be for data input and setup?

TG: I want all the drivers to work together. Obviously Jack’s proven himself on the TOCA package, 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 and will be right up there this year.

This is Tom’s seventh year in touring cars so he’s a good name for us to get involved with. It works for us on and off track, and we’ll be looking for Tom to really take the fight to the bigger teams. Expectations are quite high, but all the drivers are very professional so I don’t see that as a problem at all. I’m very confident that they’re quick enough and they’re more than capable of fighting for some silverware. As long as we can get the car right and we can provide them with what they need, there’s no reason why they can’t be as good as anyone else out there.

TAP: So you’ve confirmed the three of them, you’ve confirmed Robb Holland doing a part-season again… I presume that’s in the Civic is it?

TG: No we’ve sold the Civic, Robb wants to drive an NGTC car, he wants to drive a Passat really. He can’t commit to a full season, but he’ll be sharing a car with another driver who we’re soon to confirm [later revealed to be Howard Fuller]. That will be our fourth car, and if and when we decide to build another car it will be for a full-time driver, and it will only be if something we are planning happens in the next couple of weeks, because we need to know if it’ll come off. As soon as we know, we’ll let everyone else know.

TAP: And at this stage, how much driving are you looking at doing yourself this season?

TG: I won’t be doing any touring car driving at all, 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. I still think I’ve got unfinished business so I wouldn’t rule out coming back to a seat in the future, but definitely not this year. We’re looking at building something and I need to concentrate on the job in hand.

TAP: Your sponsorship needs have doubled in terms of the amount of car space you’re trying to sell, how hard – or how easy – have you found it to bring in sponsorship this season?

TG: It’s been fairly easy to get 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 once you get to sit in front of these people. The hardest thing is getting people to commit time to you to hear what you’ve got to say, so that you can show what you can do for them. Once you’ve met people, then we can turn the interest into good hard backing.

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. Because of how I’ve [learned] for myself, I can help other drivers do it, and the way that we work makes everything possible.

TAP: Have you found the Team HARD. academy is much of a boost in terms of bringing partnerships in, because obviously there’s more scope for them to work with you?

TG: Yeah that’s been very good, the scholarship has been amazing so far. We’ve got the next round coming up on February 16th -it was due to be in January, but was cancelled due to weather – and the scholarship has been good. We’ve got some good young drivers coming through the VW Cup, and a very good mix of drivers. It’s exciting, and the sponsors are keen to see who we’re involving – we’ve got some young people now who will make it to touring cars with us. So they see how we can bring drivers through from the beginning to the very top. I’m not sure there’s any other team that is bringing people all the way through in that manner.

Driving one of the new Passats will be another opportunity for Robb Holland to return to the BTCC. He's the series' first American competitor since 1975 (Image | tonygilhamracing.com)

Driving one of the new Passats will be another opportunity for Robb Holland to return to the BTCC. He’s the series’ first American competitor since 1975 (Image | tonygilhamracing.com)

TAP: How confident are you that all four of your cars will be ready for testing and pre-season?

TG: We want them all out at media day [March 21st]. The two Insignias have undergone major redevelopment – as everyone knows, they weren’t really right last year, so we’ve completely taken them back to pretty much nothing. They needed to be completely reworked, which we’ve done, and they are now progressing quite nicely. The Passats are now both at a very developed stage too, so by the end of February we should be in the installation stage. All the parts are ordered and we’re just waiting for them.

It is long-winded, there’s a lot of work to do, but we feel that we’ve got a very good chance of them all being out at media day.

TAP: What are you hoping to see from the Passat in its BTCC debut?

TG: Based on all our homework, all our development, research and everything else, it seems to tick all the boxes.  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; a lot of people have gone away from it with the Focus, the Honda – small hatchbacks which [the new rules] weren’t intended for. We’ve chosen to go down this route because we thought it could work and that we could do a good job with the car. We think it’s going to look the part as well as being useful on the track.

TAP: So if it has the same success as, say, the Toyota Avensis did, that would be a good starting point?

TG: That’s where we’re aiming it, and at the MG, which is also a big car, but the Passat is more streamlined and a lot lower. 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.

TAP: We hope you can too – thanks so much for lending us your time Tony, and all the best for the 2013 season!

TG: Not at all, and thanks very much.

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