BUTCHER AND SMELT ENJOY POSITIVE START TO TESTING
Toyota Gazoo Racing UK began its 2021 Kwik Fit British Touring Car Championship preparations in earnest last week, with three days of testing that left drivers Rory Butcher and Sam Smelt waxing lyrical about the potential of the team’s Toyota Corollas.
No sooner had the wraps come off the two British-built, Speedworks Motorsport-prepared Corollas at Oulton Park than they took to the track at Donington Park and Snetterton. For Butcher, it marked his first run in the car, after the 2019 BTCC Independents’ Champion and six-time race-winner joined the Cheshire-based outfit earlier this year. Impressing the team with his attitude and approach, the 34-year-old Scot swiftly got down to business and it was not long before he was posting extremely competitive lap times.
Smelt – who spent 2020 contesting the British GT Championship behind the wheel of Speedworks’ Toyota GR Supra GT4 – had already sampled the Corolla at Snetterton last November, and the BTCC returnee was similarly quick to settle into the groove. The 24-year-old Northampton native previously competed in the UK’s premier motor racing series in 2018, and is excited to be re-joining the fray this season.
The forthcoming campaign, in which Toyota Gazoo Racing UK will for the first time do battle for all three major titles – Drivers’, Manufacturers’ and Teams’ – after expanding to two cars, will rev into life on 8/9 May at super-fast Thruxton, scene of a superb double victory for the Corolla last September. Every race will be televised live and in high-definition on ITV4.
Rory Butcher, Driver, Toyota Gazoo Racing UK, said:
“It felt great to return to a circuit for the first time in a while and to get my ‘race head’ back on. I always do a lot of preparation and training at home, but there’s nothing like actually arriving at the track and knuckling down to work, and to benefit from a proper block of test days to really get a feel for the Corolla was ideal.
“Donington was effectively a shakedown that quite quickly developed into a more serious test session. We were able to make finer adjustments to the set-up in the afternoon and learn how the car reacts to them, and I got to understand a bit more about how the team operates and start building a real rapport with my engineer and the whole Speedworks crew.
“I’m quite fortunate in that this is the fifth car I have driven in the BTCC in less than four years, and I think that prior experience unquestionably helps. I know what a good car feels like and I know what a bad car feels like and I’ve got to say, the Corolla is very confidence-inspiring, which encouraged me to push the limits and take risks earlier than I had been anticipating, without fearing that it would punish me when I asked for a little bit more. That’s exactly what I want out of a car.
“The Corolla gave me all the right feedback and definitely lived up to my expectations, and after just my first few laps at Snetterton, I came back in and said, ‘there’s really not a lot I would change’ – it honestly felt that good. I came away feeling pretty buoyant, and I genuinely think we’re in a very strong place at the moment.”
Sam Smelt, Driver, Toyota Gazoo Racing UK, said:
“The first few laps after the winter off-season always feel slightly strange, and it inevitably took a little bit of time to re-adapt after a year in the Supra. One thing that was immediately evident, though, was how easily the Corolla instils confidence, which is encouraging, and I paid a lot of attention to what Rory was doing. Given that he has driven some extremely rapid BTCC cars in recent years, the fact that he was happy is a really promising sign.
“We encountered a few teething troubles with my car to begin with, but it was good to get them out of the way earlier rather than later and once they were resolved, the Corolla ran faultlessly. It was a shame that straight after I began my first representative run on new tyres at Snetterton, it began to rain, but it’s important to get wet-weather experience too and I was able to put a fair few laps on the board, which helped me to become more comfortable in the car and establish a good feel for it.
“I obviously know most of the Speedworks guys from last year and I’ve been able to bring my data engineer, Sergio, with me too. Being such an important relationship, that continuity certainly helps, as we don’t need to learn how each other works and can instead just crack on.
“Overall, these first few days felt like a little taster for me, but one that hinted at a lot of potential. I’m very optimistic that we will have a strong all-round package this year, which means it will come down to how quickly I can get up-to-speed between now and the start of the season. I’ll tell you one thing – I already can’t wait to get back out on-track!”
Christian Dick, Team Principal, Toyota Gazoo Racing UK, added:
“It was a very constructive week overall. We put a lot of miles on the two cars and whilst Donington was initially pencilled in as a shakedown, we managed to complete that element pretty rapidly. That allowed Rory and Sam to push a bit harder and meant we could focus more on the detail, playing around with various set-up permutations to better explore and understand what both guys need from the car.
“I have to say, they have slotted in very easily, and it was good for them to get some laps under their belt in a mixture of conditions. Rory felt very comfortable in the Corolla from the outset. You’re always a little bit apprehensive when you change driver after so many years together, but Rory brings with him a first-rate work ethic, a very positive vibe and an open mind, and it didn’t take long at all for him to get right onto the pace.
“Although he has only been in the championship since 2017, he has been able to provide some very interesting feedback from what he has experienced with different teams and different cars, which gives us plenty of food for thought on areas for improvement.
“Sam is re-acclimatising to the BTCC really well. He’s quick with a lot of natural ability, and is massively enthusiastic about the challenge ahead and very excited to be involved in the programme.
“He’s obviously been with us for 12 months already on the British GT side, so there’s not so much adjustment required in that respect, and whilst there are clearly significant differences between the rear wheel-drive Supra and the front wheel-drive Corolla, the more seat time he gets, the more his confidence will grow and the more his confidence grows, the faster he will be. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Sam will spring some surprises this year.”