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TOYOTA GAZOO RACING UK RETURNS TO HAPPY HUNTING GROUND FOR 2021 OPENER

With just a handful of days left until the Kwik Fit British Touring Car Championship revs into life at Thruxton (8/9 May), Toyota Gazoo Racing UK has its sights set on a strong weekend to kick-start its bid for the biggest prize in national motorsport.

The 2021 campaign marks an expansion to two cars for the Speedworks Motorsport-run outfit, which will field a brace of British-built Toyota Corollas in the UK’s premier motor racing series – one for 2019 Independents’ Champion and six-time race-winner Rory Butcher, and the other for BTCC returnee Sam Smelt, who competed for the Cheshire-based squad in the British GT Championship last year behind the wheel of the Toyota GR Supra GT4.

The pair have completed a solid pre-season testing schedule, and the next time they take to the track will be for free practice at Thruxton – the fastest circuit in the country, and one where the Corolla last year sped to a famous double victory.

Butcher has similarly shone around the popular Hampshire venue’s flat-out sweepers, with the 34-year-old reaching the rostrum there in each of the past two campaigns. Young team-mate Smelt has only raced there once – during his rookie BTCC season in 2018 – but the Northampton racer is excited to re-acclimatise himself with its demanding 2.36-mile layout, characterised by 11 challenging corners all calling for maximum commitment.

Every moment of the wheel-to-wheel action will once again be broadcast live and in high-definition on ITV4, from 1050 on Sunday, with Saturday’s qualifying available at itv.com/btcc from 1435.

“It’s been a long winter, but by the same token a very productive one,” said Team Principal Christian Dick. “With a phenomenal effort from the whole team building the second Corolla and a positive testing programme with both cars – we are finally ready to go racing!

“I think both drivers can justifiably feel very optimistic going to Thruxton. Rory has impressed everybody with his excellent work ethic and the input he has had into the Corolla’s ongoing development, while Sam has been getting faster with every test and will be a dark horse this year. He had a difficult first season in the BTCC through no real fault of his own, but he is a very different and much more rounded competitor now.

“Thruxton as a circuit is unique, which is part of its enduring appeal. It has been kind to us in the past – particularly last year – but there’s obviously no guarantee that we’ll be able to replicate that performance. I’m very confident that where we ended up [at Season Launch] was not at all representative of our true pace, and that qualifying at Thruxton will reveal an altogether different picture. We can’t wait to get there!”

“I’m absolutely raring to go!” announced Butcher. “I feel very well-acquainted with the team now and I’m increasingly comfortable in the car. It’s fair to say we’ve still got a tiny bit more pace to find, and we’ll discover this weekend exactly where we slot into the current pecking order, but we are chipping away and I’m pretty confident we will be in the mix.

“There’s no other circuit like Thruxton in the world – it’s old-school, bumpy and abrasive and just so, so quick, which makes it a massive challenge for drivers and teams alike. You really need a good, stable chassis underneath you to deal with the fast corners and I think we can take a lot of encouragement from knowing how well the Corolla went there last year. Significantly, one of the car’s biggest strengths is the way in which it looks after its tyres, which is hugely important at Thruxton.

“Ultimately, I would love to score a podium in my first event for Toyota Gazoo Racing UK. To leave the circuit with some silverware on Sunday night would make me a very happy man travelling back up to Scotland.”

“I’ve had a lot of very constructive seat time recently,” added Smelt. “Whilst of course you always want more, I can’t complain. I’m continuing to gain confidence and speed and take steps forward every time I go out.

“Thruxton is a track I enjoyed when I raced there before. It’s ultra-fast and very much a confidence circuit, and if you don’t have complete faith in the equipment underneath you, it can definitely be a bit of an eye-opener. The Corolla obviously performed extremely well there last year, so I’m optimistic we will have a strong package.

“Overall, we’re happy with the progress we have made over the winter, and going into the season, I think we are pretty much where we were hoping to be. I don’t want to set any particular objectives for the first weekend because I’m aware I’ve not raced in the BTCC for two-and-a-half years and I haven’t been to Thruxton for even longer, but at the same time, I clearly want to be as far up the field as I can and realistically, I’ve got to be targeting three decent points-scoring finishes.”

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