BUTCHER AND SMELT TEAM UP FOR TOYOTA GAZOO RACING UK TITLE CHALLENGE
Rory Butcher and Sam Smelt will spearhead Toyota Gazoo Racing UK’s assault on Kwik Fit British Touring Car Championship glory in 2021, after the team confirmed that the former Independents’ Champion and series returnee will pilot its pair of Toyota Corollas throughout the forthcoming campaign.
With five podium finishes from the last six races, the Corolla was the highest-scoring car during the closing stages of the 2020 season and, with a second Toyota now added to the Speedworks Motorsport stable, sights are firmly set on fighting for all three major crowns over the coming months – Drivers’, Manufacturers’ and Teams’.
That effort will be led by Butcher, who will make his 100th BTCC start in the opening race of the campaign at Thruxton on 9 May. One of the most highly-rated drivers in the paddock, the 33-year-old from Kirkcaldy has to-date achieved six victories, 14 podium finishes, three pole positions and five fastest laps, and has been a title protagonist in two of his three full seasons in the UK’s premier motor racing series.
The 2019 Independents’ Champion and Jack Sears Trophy winner has placed inside the top five in the overall standings in each of the past two years, and entered the current off-season on a high by winning the final race of 2020.
Butcher’s move to Toyota Gazoo Racing UK will mark his debut for a Manufacturer-backed outfit, and he will be partnered on the driving front by Smelt, who previously competed in the BTCC in 2018, only his second season out of karts.
The 24-year-old Northampton-born ace has since been honing and refining his racecraft in the British GT Championship, most recently behind the wheel of Speedworks’ new Toyota GR Supra GT4. A double podium finish, pole position and fastest lap showcased Smelt’s raw speed in the fiercely-contested series, and having sampled the Corolla at Snetterton last November, he is now looking forward to reigniting his BTCC career with Toyota Gazoo Racing UK.
“We’re all delighted to welcome Rory and Sam to the team for the 2021 campaign,” said Team Principal Christian Dick. “We believe they represent the perfect blend of youth and experience and that they can help to drive us forward as we target all three titles for the first time in the BTCC.
“Rory’s calibre is clear to see. It’s easy to forget sometimes that he only has three full seasons in the championship under his belt, because he drives with all the confidence and panache of somebody that has been involved in the BTCC for much longer. His progress has been highly impressive – what he has accomplished since making his debut in the series is quite remarkable, and to already have two titles in his pocket is a phenomenal feat. Hopefully we can achieve the next one together.
“We have had many on-track battles with Rory, and he has always been a very hard but fair racer who leaves nothing on the table, so we are really looking forward to having him in the team. He brings with him a fresh perspective and new ideas, and he is a hard worker with an exemplary attitude. I have no doubt that he will be pushing for race wins in the Corolla right from the outset.
“Sam is somebody with whom we have forged a strong relationship during the past 12 months. He has been a huge asset to our British GT programme, both in terms of his performance inside the cockpit and his developmental skills out of it, and from talking to him over the course of the campaign, it became obvious just how much he wanted to return to the BTCC.
“He is the first to admit that his rookie season in the championship was a tough one – it’s never easy for anybody to step into the BTCC, particularly when you only have one prior year of car racing behind you, and he probably wasn’t as prepared for it as he would have liked to have been. The intervening period has done him the world of good in enabling him to learn and improve away from the spotlight, and he showed a great deal of potential when he drove the Corolla at Snetterton. I honestly think he will surprise people this year.”
“I’m super excited about this new challenge,” exclaimed Butcher. “Moving to a Manufacturer-backed team has been a goal of mine ever since I joined the BTCC, and I have no doubt that this will give me my best chance yet of truly fighting for the championship. I feel hugely proud to be wearing and defending the Toyota Gazoo Racing UK colours and will give it my absolute all both on and off-track.
“I’ve known Christian [Dick] for some time, going back to when we raced against each other in British GT in 2010. We battled it out for the GT4 title that year, so I’ve always had a lot of respect for him and have taken note of what Speedworks have achieved in the BTCC, especially in recent seasons. Over the past couple of years, we had a few casual conversations about maybe working together at some stage, and when the opportunity finally presented itself, I jumped at it. I’m also immensely grateful to my personal sponsors for their ongoing support in helping to make this deal possible, particularly during such tough economic times.
“Despite 2021 being only my fourth full season in the BTCC, the Corolla will be the fifth touring car I’ve driven so hopefully I can bring some of that knowledge to its continued development and perhaps even improve it further. It was arguably the most competitive car on the grid by the end of last year – the team definitely seems to have a proper handle on it now in all conditions and both with or without ballast, so I can’t wait to get behind the wheel to experience it for myself!
“Over the past 12 months, I really feel like I’ve matured as a driver, and I’m now much more capable of looking at the bigger picture and putting a championship campaign together. I obviously had a good crack at that in 2020, and whilst things didn’t ultimately go my way, that’s just part of the learning curve and it has unquestionably made me stronger. It’s all about racking up the points in this game – the podiums and wins are a bonus – and there’s no reason at all why we shouldn’t be fighting at the front right from the start.”
“I’m massively excited to be returning to the BTCC,” confirmed Smelt. “And to be doing so with such a strong car and team is the icing on the cake. It was always my objective to get back into touring car racing, because I certainly have unfinished business in this championship. It was a tough baptism in 2018, and I’m determined to show I’m capable of an awful lot more than what I achieved that year. The BTCC is so ultra-competitive that you need more than a single season to get to grips with it all. I wanted a second year to be able to take advantage of everything I’d learned, but unfortunately I didn’t get that chance. Now I have.
“I’m definitely a very different driver to the one I was back then. I’ve improved a lot over the past couple of years in GTs, especially last season competing consistently towards the front and I return with far more experience of high-level racing. I also have a much better understanding of how to guide and shape the development of a car. It’ll obviously require a little bit of adaptation to re-adjust to the style of racing, but I’m confident that won’t take long and that I’ll quickly settle back into the groove.
“It will be fun to be reunited with Rory, too. We were team-mates back in 2018 and we had a strong relationship, so I’m looking forward to working with him again. I’ve always rated him highly as a driver, and he has shown over the past couple of years just what he can do.
“I really enjoyed my season with Speedworks in British GT and I followed the team’s BTCC progress closely, culminating in the opportunity to test the Corolla myself at Snetterton a couple of months ago. Even though it was a wet day, the car felt great and I was able to get an initial impression of it. It was good to be back in front wheel-drive machinery and whilst there was nobody else there to gauge myself against, I got a decent amount of mileage under my belt and everything seemed very positive.
“I’ve done quite a lot of jumping around in recent seasons, so to have the continuity of staying with the same team – albeit in a different championship – is great. I know the way everybody works, and I’ll be going into a familiar environment, which will hopefully allow me to hit the ground running. I can’t wait to get started!”
The team’s double-whammy driver reveal leaves its livery unveil as the next big announcement to come from the Speedworks Motorsport-run outfit, before the 2021 BTCC season gets underway at Thruxton on 8/9 May.