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SOLID START FOR BUTCHER AND SMELT IN THRUXTON CURTAIN-RAISER

Rory Butcher and Sam Smelt both scored points for Toyota Gazoo Racing UK in an eventful Kwik Fit British Touring Car Championship curtain-raiser at Thruxton (9 May), as the 2021 campaign got underway with a thrilling trio of races around the high-speed Hampshire circuit.

Instantly demonstrating the pace and potential of the Speedworks Motorsport-prepared Toyota Corolla GR Sport, Butcher mastered wet-but-drying conditions in qualifying to launch to the top of the timing screens with seven minutes left on the clock as competitors switched over to slick tyres.

As the breathless 30-minute session neared its conclusion, the flying Scotsman remained at the summit. With several drivers still on quick laps and the track surface increasingly drying out, the times continued to tumble as the chequered flag appeared, but traffic in the chicane scuppered Butcher’s hopes of improving further, leaving him fifth in the final reckoning amongst the 29 high-calibre contenders.

In the opening encounter – the 34-year-old’s 100th in the cut-and-thrust BTCC – he survived a lively first lap to hold position, before coming under intense pressure from Jason Plato. Artfully fending off the attentions of the two-time BTCC champion throughout, fifth place cemented a strong start to the season for the Toyota man.

Race two was almost immediately red-flagged for a multi-car collision towards the back of the pack, and after making a bright re-start – vaulting from fifth to third – cold tyres then unfortunately caught Butcher out at Noble and resulted in a hefty impact with the circuit’s unforgiving barriers.

Following a stellar repair effort by the Speedworks crew, the Kirkcaldy star began the final contest from the rear of the grid, and in a wet-dry-wet affair, he was inching ever-closer to the points-paying positions when contact with the Infiniti of Carl Boardley ended Butcher’s race on the final lap.

Making his return to the UK’s premier motor racing series and in only his second-ever visit to Thruxton, team-mate Sam Smelt inevitably required some time to re-acclimatise to the circuit’s ultra-fast nature. After lining up 26th on the grid for race one, the Northampton-born ace avoided the early drama and gained three positions to finish 23rd, before progressing again to cross the line 20th in race two.

Smelt saved his best until last, however. With rain beginning to fall as the cars took to the grid for race three, tyre choice was the key question, but he judiciously elected to bolt wet-weather boots onto his Corolla and reaped the benefits. In tricky conditions, the 24-year-old gained four positions within the space of a single lap, thereafter producing a mature performance to take the chequered flag 14th – in so doing, registering his first BTCC points.

With a five-week break now until the BTCC resumes at Snetterton in Norfolk on 12/13 June, Butcher and Smelt occupy 15th and 22nd positions respectively in the Drivers’ Championship, with Toyota Gazoo Racing UK tenth in the Teams’ table and Toyota third in the Manufacturers’ classification.

“Despite the disappointing outcome, I genuinely feel there was a lot of cause for encouragement at Thruxton,” reflected Butcher. “I’ve got my starts dialled in now in the Corolla and I learnt more about the car throughout, but it just didn’t translate into the results we deserved.

“We had a very steady first race and collected some decent points, which was our goal, and I definitely feel like we improved the car for race two, but the accident obviously put paid to our hopes of another good score. It was just unfortunate; I lost the rear through Noble and couldn’t gather it back up. That was frustrating, because I’d made a good start and was confident I could go on the attack.

“In race three, we then got caught up in another driver’s incident, which clearly wasn’t the way we wanted to end the weekend. As I came around the corner, Boardley was rolling backwards and in that kind of situation, you make a split-second decision. It is what it is. Let’s keep our heads up and move on. I feel like the car is giving me all the right feedback, so next time out, I want to exploit that good feeling and get some results for myself and the team.”

“It was nice to finish the weekend on a high by scoring my first BTCC points,” added Smelt. “I think even if it had been consistently dry throughout, it would have been challenging coming back to Thruxton after three years and with no prior testing at the track, but the changeable weather in every session made it more difficult still.

“We just tried to stay focussed on what we were doing and keep gaining experience and, following a bad qualifying, the plan was to chip away in each race, which is what we did. It was good to actually get stuck in and fight with some other drivers in race three, because in the first two, it felt like I had been hanging on a little bit. It was nice to finally be able to show what I can do.

“With the rain starting, stopping and then starting again, I didn’t know how much I needed to look after my tyres and in hindsight, I could probably have pushed a little bit harder in the middle phase of the race, but it paid off in the end and it was great to get the monkey off my back.”

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