SPEEDWORKS HEADING HOME WITH GREAT EXPECTATIONS
Toyota Gazoo Racing UK is ready to renew battle in the Kwik Fit British Touring Car Championship at Oulton Park this weekend (31 July / 1 August), as the team targets a home circuit celebration at Speedworks Motorsport’s local track.
The UK’s premier motor racing series is preparing to resume from a five-week summer pause for the fourth outing on its 2021 schedule – although the break was interrupted by a two-day Goodyear tyre test at Oulton, during which Rory Butcher and Sam Smelt were consistent front-runners.
Former BTCC Independents’ Champion Butcher twice put the British-built Toyota Corolla GR Sport inside the top four on the timesheets amongst the 27 high-calibre contenders, while his young team-mate Smelt ended three of the four sessions ensconced within the top ten – outpacing the likes of current championship leader Ash Sutton and four-time title-winner Colin Turkington in the process.
Between them, the Toyota Gazoo Racing UK pair put some 235 laps on the board, and they both have strong previous form around the undulating and challenging Cheshire circuit.
Scotsman Butcher has ticked all three boxes at Oulton in the past – pole position, fastest lap and race victory – and the 34-year-old Kirkcaldy native was the highest scorer in the BTCC field there last season. Moreover, it was the scene of the finest finish of Smelt’s rookie campaign in the series in 2018, as the 24-year-old Northampton-born ace gained no fewer than 11 places from his grid slot around a track at which it is notoriously difficult to overtake.
That leaves Northwich-based Speedworks – two times a BTCC Independents’ title-holder – in bullish mood returning ‘home’, with every moment of the wheel-to-wheel action set to be broadcast live and in high-definition on ITV4 on Sunday (1 August), beginning at 1150.
“Our home race weekend is always a special one for us, and it will be even more so this year with – hopefully – a full complement of fans cheering us on from the side of the track,” said Team Principal Christian Dick. “Oulton Park is obviously somewhere we know well and whilst it does tend to favour the rear-wheel drive brigade, we have been successful there in the past. It’s a real drivers’ circuit – tight, twisty and technical – and the tyre test earlier this month gave us plenty of cause for optimism.
“Over the course of the two days, Rory was able to confirm the step forward he had made in race three at Brands Hatch last time out, while Sam showed much improved speed and featured regularly inside the top ten, which is the kind of form we all know he is capable of producing. That should give him a real confidence boost, and we look forward to seeing both cars competing up at the sharp end this weekend.”
“I left Brands Hatch last month with a much more positive feeling, and the test at Oulton allowed us to experiment a little bit more,” added Butcher. “The weather did its best to disrupt proceedings and dry track time was limited which meant we only managed one proper new tyre run, but it was a productive couple of days nonetheless and I was pleased with the way the Corolla felt in all conditions – in the wet especially, our pace and consistency were really encouraging.
“Although we aren’t sure exactly where we stack up in relation to our competitors as you never know what kind of programme other teams are following, I feel confident that we are in a very good place with the Corolla right now. Myself and my race engineer Paul [Ridgway] are vibing extremely well, and I’m really beginning to get my head around the car – it no longer feels like we’re missing something.
“I have to say, Oulton Park is an awesome circuit and I love going there. It offers an incredible challenge and being so narrow, the barriers always feel extra close and that really gives you a sense of the speed. The layout of the lap also makes it tough to overtake – you either have to line moves up from several corners in advance or try to force the driver ahead into a mistake.
“Track position will be crucial on race day, so qualifying is key, and the circuit’s steep gradients and undulations mean carrying ballast will hurt. Fortunately, we have very little ballast on-board at the moment, so hopefully we can really hit the ground running from the outset and then just focus on fine-tuning, with the firm aim of putting the Corolla right up at the pointy end of the grid.”
“We definitely took a solid step forward at the tyre test,” reflected Smelt. “From the first session, things just seemed to ‘click’, and we were quick in the wet and the dry. It was the most comfortable I’ve been in the Corolla yet, which enabled me to push harder, and that was reflected on the timing screens. The car felt generally very strong, and I see no reason why we shouldn’t reproduce that form at the race weekend.
“With Oulton being Speedworks’ local track, we have even more motivation than usual to put on a good performance, and I’m sure we’ll be able to rely upon plenty of ‘home’ support. We got a taste of what it’s like having spectators back at the Goodwood Festival of Speed a few weeks ago, and it will be fantastic to see a full BTCC crowd again for the first time in a long time – at the end of the day, the championship just isn’t the same without the fans.
“I enjoy the challenge that Oulton presents, and I’ve always tended to go pretty well there. It’s a very full-on lap without much opportunity to take a breath – a really physical, fast and flowing layout – and it’s immensely satisfying when you get it right.
“It’s invariably a tough weekend on drivers and cars – Oulton really puts the tyres and brakes through their paces – and qualifying will be even more meaningful than usual given the difficulty of overtaking, so that’s where a lot of our focus will be. Saying that, I feel more confident than ever at the moment, so hopefully we can nail that aspect and then move onwards and upwards from there.”