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BUTCHER GETS THAT WINNING FEELING ON SPEEDWORKS’ HOME SOIL

It has been, by his own admission, a ‘tough’ start to the 2021 Kwik Fit British Touring Car Championship season for Rory Butcher in his maiden campaign with Toyota Gazoo Racing UK, but a brilliant victory at Oulton Park last weekend (31 July/1 August) ignited the Scot’s title challenge and proved that a corner has well-and-truly been turned. 

Buoyed by an encouraging performance at the pre-event Goodyear Tyre Test, Butcher was on the leading pace from the outset in Cheshire – home soil for Northwich-based Speedworks Motorsport. After lapping second-fastest amongst the 29 high-calibre contenders in free practice in the UK’s premier motor racing series, he proceeded to qualify his Toyota Corolla GR Sport an excellent third, less than a tenth-of-a-second adrift of pole position having briefly held the top spot himself. 

As the only driver inside the top five on the grid to begin race one on the less favourable medium-compound tyres – saving his softs for later in the day – the former BTCC Independents’ Champion and Jack Sears Trophy winner produced a commendable defensive effort to secure fourth place at the chequered flag in front of the live ITV4 television cameras and, for the first time in almost two years, a full trackside crowd. 

In race two, with 48kg of success ballast now on-board and the softer rubber bolted onto his British-built Corolla, Butcher made a great start to outfox Adam Morgan for third on the run down to Cascades, before getting up the inside of both Gordon Shedden and Dan Rowbottom into Island Bend for the first time and holding his nerve to complete the pass into Hislops Chicane. 

After snatching the lead in such spectacular fashion, the 34-year-old pulled seamlessly away, establishing a margin of more than three seconds over his closest pursuer before backing off towards the end to secure his breakthrough triumph with Toyota Gazoo Racing UK – the seventh win of his burgeoning BTCC career. 

That commanding performance meant Butcher would have to carry 75kg of additional weight in the day’s finale, but from ninth on the partially-reversed grid, he was on-course for a third consecutive points-paying finish when he was wiped out by the brakeless Infiniti of Carl Boardley with less than three laps remaining. Disappointing as that was, the Kirkcaldy native’s earlier score was nonetheless enough to slash the gap to the top of the title table from 56 points entering the weekend to just 32, with his home track of Knockhill next up in a fortnight’s time. 

In the sister Corolla, team-mate Sam Smelt similarly enjoyed his most competitive weekend of the season so far. After putting more than 40 confidence-inspiring laps on the board during practice, the 24-year-old qualified a career-best 15th – ahead of two-time series champion Jason Plato, amongst others. 

A mistake on the opening lap of the curtain-raiser unfortunately relegated Smelt to the rear of the field, and with the difficulty of overtaking at Oulton, he took the flag a frustrated 23rd, posting his personal quickest lap of the race right at the very end in evidence of his continued progression. 

The Northampton-born ace advanced to 19th in race two – less than three seconds shy of the points-scorers –  before surviving light contact in a multi-car incident that brought out the red flags at the beginning of race three to take the re-start and go on to finish 18th, with the seventh-fastest lap once more underlining his potential. 

“This has been a long time coming!,” said Butcher. “I had a little spring in my step arriving at Oulton after taking such a big leap forward at Brands Hatch and the tyre test, and we really hit the ground running in free practice. I went into qualifying in optimistic mood, and managed to piece together a very good lap on my second run. For a moment, I thought we were on for pole, but my brother-in-law (Gordon Shedden) had to go and ruin it for me, haha! Still, I was really pleased to line up third on the grid in such a close session. 

“After taking a solid fourth place in race one, I got alongside [Adam] Morgan at the beginning of race two and Dan [Rowbottom] and Gordon [Shedden] then left a bit of a gap approaching the hairpin, with the extra traction from the soft tyres enabling me to out-drag them both on the exit. Once I had established a decent margin to the guys behind, it was plain sailing, to be honest, and over the last few laps, I reined it in a bit to make sure I brought it safely home. 

“It’s no secret that it’s taken me a while to get to grips with the Corolla and that’s it’s been a tough season so far. It was hard not being where we felt we should be and I was definitely lacking confidence at the first few events, but everybody in the team has been hugely supportive so big thanks to them all. I feel like I’ve really found my feet in this car and that we’ve genuinely turned a corner. 

“The Corolla’s quite different to how it started the season because we needed some time to adapt it to my requirements, and I’m just so much more comfortable in it now and am really enjoying driving it. It’s talking my language and we’re finally in tune with each other, which is enabling me to go on the attack and I was absolutely buzzing to get my first win for Toyota Gazoo Racing UK. 

“What happened at the end of race three was obviously disappointing. We were in a good points-scoring position, but unfortunately Carl’s brakes failed going into Druids, causing him to tag the rear of my car and send me into the barriers at the fastest part of the circuit. Still, staying positive, it’s my home track next and I’m really excited to go racing in front of a full crowd in Scotland. Hopefully we can carry this form on to Knockhill. Onwards and upwards!” 

“After lapping quickly in all conditions in practice, I was really angry with myself at the end of qualifying, even though it was my best starting spot of the season so far,” admitted Smelt. “The top ten was definitely achievable, but I didn’t manage to hook a complete lap together, which cost me. 

“Still, a couple of months ago, if you’d told me I would qualify 15th, I would have snapped your hand off whereas I was disappointed with it at Oulton, so I guess that shows the progress we are making and I was optimistic we would have strong race pace and would be able to move forward on Sunday. 

“Unfortunately, it turned out to be a bit of a nightmare on the results front. We were fast in races one and three, but my mistake on the first lap of race one put us on the back foot for the rest of the day. I tried to hold on around the outside of Cascades but because it had been raining and the track was a bit green, I couldn’t make it stick and ran out of road. That undid all the good work from qualifying and with it being so difficult to overtake at Oulton, it was hard to fight back. 

“The tyres went off quickly in race two which left me hanging on a bit, but on the softs in race three, the Corolla felt really strong. I can’t quite believe the mechanics managed to get me back out again for the re-start after picking up damage in the first lap collision; everybody pitched in and I owe a big ‘thank you’ to them all – for the car to still feel so good afterwards was testament to their skill. 

“It was a great weekend for the team overall, and the aim now is to keep this positive momentum going and really build upon it. Despite not coming away with the results to show for it, my performance gave me a good confidence boost and next time, hopefully, we can qualify up the order again and really capitalise on that.” 

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