BUTCHER RACES TO ROSTRUM AT SNETTERTON
Rory Butcher returned Toyota Gazoo Racing UK to the Kwik Fit British Touring Car Championship podium at Snetterton last weekend (13 June), as the Scot tallied a trio of strong points-scoring finishes in Norfolk behind the wheel of his British-built Toyota Corolla GR Sport.
Following a challenging Thruxton curtain-raiser five weeks earlier, Toyota Gazoo Racing UK travelled to Snetterton targeting a solid weekend – and came away with its first silverware of the season.
Around the longest circuit in the country, qualifying would prove to be a somewhat dramatic affair for Butcher. After losing his early lap times to track limits penalties during the initial qualifying session, as the clock ticked down, the 34-year-old languished in a lowly 28th on the timesheets, but – showcasing both his and the Corolla’s raw pace – he leapt up the order into fifth with just two minutes of the session remaining.
An excellent effort under intense pressure, Butcher’s gritty performance secured him a slot in the Top Ten Showdown, in which he produced another rapid lap to line up third on the grid.
Bolting the soft ‘Option’ tyre onto his Corolla for the opening encounter, despite grappling with a race-long gearshift issue, the former BTCC Independents’ Champion and Jack Sears Trophy winner artfully held off the fast-starting rear-wheel drive cars behind him at lights-out and thereafter maintained his position in front of the live ITV4 television cameras and 4,000-strong trackside crowd. Pulling away from the pursuing pack, he duly cemented his first rostrum finish for Toyota Gazoo Racing UK in only his fourth start with the Speedworks Motorsport-run squad.
Carrying 57kg of additional success weight in the second contest, Butcher lost out to Ollie Jackson on the first lap and subsequently had to cede to a charging, ballast-free Ash Sutton. After that, he focussed his attentions on fending off BMW pair Stephen Jelley and Tom Oliphant, which he successfully did all the way to the chequered flag for fifth place and another very solid points haul.
From third on the partially-reversed grid in the day’s finale, the Kirkcaldy native once again ran confidently in the lead group throughout, inevitably having to give best to several lighter cars on soft tyres but impressively staving off race one winner Colin Turkington to complete a hat-trick of top six finishes, in so doing vaulting up the Drivers’ title standings from 15th ahead of the weekend into sixth.
Continuing to re-acclimatise to the ultra-competitive, cut-and-thrust nature of Britain’s premier motor racing series following almost three years away, team-mate Sam Smelt improved his lap time by more than two-thirds-of-a-second between FP1 and FP2 in the sister Corolla – outpacing four-time champion Turkington in the process – before going on to qualify 24th in the high-calibre, 29-car field.
He held station for most of race one, right in the thick of the action, only to slip to the tail of the order towards the end due to a delaminated tyre, while a great opening lap in race two saw the 24-year-old Northampton ace gain six spots to 23rd, ultimately winding up 26th after struggling with handling issues caused by an oil leak. Smelt’s luckless day would unfortunately continue in race three, as a still-to-be identified problem prompted an early bath, leaving him fired up to fight back next time out at Brands Hatch on 26/27 June.
Toyota Gazoo Racing UK heads to the Kent circuit’s short ‘Indy’ loop having climbed two spots to eighth in the Teams’ table, with Toyota occupying third position in the Manufacturers’ rankings.
“That was a much better weekend all-round – exactly what we needed after Thruxton,” said Team Principal Christian Dick. “I’m very happy. We took no risks, put nothing on the line and came away with three very solid points scores, which had been precisely our objective arriving at Snetterton.
“Overall, we leave with a great bank of data to analyse, which will help us to double-down on the detail and improve our performance to ensure we can continue fighting at the front every weekend from here on in. We know what we need to focus on, and that gives us a lot of reason for optimism going forward. Onwards and upwards to Brands Hatch!”
“After the tough weekend at Thruxton, I was keeping my expectations in check heading to Snetterton and our main goal was simply to score some solid points,” said Butcher. “I didn’t feel 100 per cent comfortable in the car following practice, but equally, you can usually find an extra couple of tenths in qualifying just by holding on for dear life!
“On the warm-up lap ahead of race one, I noticed a technical issue with the gearbox. It wouldn’t shift up unless I lifted completely off the gas, which hurt my straight-line speed and meant I wasn’t able to take the fight to the two guys in front, but other than that, the Corolla performed fantastically and the ‘Option’ tyre held on nicely. I was absolutely delighted to get our first podium on the scoreboard and bag some good points.
“In race two, I had to manage the heat while at the same time managing the BMW boys behind, who kept me on my toes the whole way through and certainly made me work hard for my fifth position. It was really challenging in such high temperatures, which affects the balance of the car and put a lot of stress and strain on the tyres. Not only that, but it was upwards of 50 degrees inside the cockpit, and we were wearing fireproof underwear, a three-layered race suit, helmet, balaclava and gloves!
“We shed a little bit of ballast for race three, and to finish the weekend with another strong points result marked a huge step forward from where we were after Thruxton. The whole team did an amazing job to give me such a good car, and it was great to be on the pace throughout. We’re back in business!”
“It was a difficult weekend, unfortunately,” reflected Smelt. “I felt quite happy with the direction we were pursuing after free practice, but I didn’t get a decent lap in on my first run in qualifying and we ran out of time at the end, which meant we didn’t maximise the session. We were chasing the set-up a bit and overall it was just very scrappy and never really came together for us, leaving us on the back foot again. And then obviously Sunday was a shocker…
“For the first third of race one, things were going ok but after that, I began to hear a rattling noise at the front, which turned out to be a delaminated tyre. It got progressively worse, which meant all I could do was try to hang on and nurse the car home.
“I made a good start in race two, but a few laps in, I was struggling with the front end again and had a lot of understeer. It transpired after the race to be an oil leak, which we think was going onto the tyres, so that was frustrating.
“In race three, I then had the same feeling again and as we weren’t really in the mix for any points, we decided to park it and save the car so we can properly investigate what was going on and resolve the issue before Brands Hatch. Hopefully all of our bad luck is out of the way now!
“On the positive side, my starts and opening laps were pretty solid – I was a bit more aggressive than I had been at Thruxton, and that definitely paid off – and I’m increasingly settling back into the BTCC, both from a driving perspective and also in terms of the whole rhythm of the race weekend, which is fairly full-on. Everything felt a lot more natural this time, and at the end of the day, the more seat time I get in the Corolla, the more confident I’m going to be to push to the limit.”