COMPROMISE IS KEY AT CROFT, SAY TOYOTA GAZOO RACING UK DUO
As the Kwik Fit British Touring Car Championship heads to Croft this weekend (18/19 September), Toyota Gazoo Racing UK team-mates Rory Butcher and Sam Smelt have pinpointed compromise as the key to success around the demanding North Yorkshire circuit.
Croft invites drivers to attack its on-the-edge high-speed stretches over the opening two-thirds of the lap, before obliging them to slow the rhythm right down to tackle the tight, twisty and technical final sector. That makes free practice all the more vital, as teams seek to strike the best balance when it comes to car set-up.
It is a challenge that Cheshire-based Speedworks Motorsport has conquered on several occasions, tallying four podiums at Croft since 2016 including a hard-fought victory for the British-built Toyota Corolla last year. Even more impressively, that was achieved despite the car starting the day right at the rear of the field after the #80 machine was denied pole position, having failed post-session ride height checks due to a right-front wishbone failure.
Butcher – a former Independents’ Champion and Jack Sears Trophy winner in the UK’s premier motor racing series – has secured seven points finishes from nine previous starts at the track, which the 34-year-old Kirkcaldy native is looking to add to this weekend after climbing up to seventh in the Drivers’ Standings last time out at Thruxton.
Stablemate Smelt, meanwhile, might only have competed at Croft once before – back in his rookie BTCC campaign in 2018 – but the 25-year-old Northampton-born ace has repeatedly demonstrated his race pace this season and is confident that once his qualifying demons have been quashed, he will be a consistent contender for points.
Every moment of Sunday’s doorhandle-to-doorhandle action will be broadcast live and in high-definition on ITV4, beginning at 1135.
“We’ve had a little break since Thruxton, and now we’re all champing at the bit to get back out there and go racing again,” said Team Principal Christian Dick. “Croft is a circuit where we have performed well in the past, and where we know the Corolla is quick – to not only qualify on pole position there last year, but to then battle from the back of the grid at the start of race day to a win at the end of it proves that the Toyota is a force to be reckoned with around the track.
“Having enjoyed a very solid weekend at Thruxton where he showed good speed and scored well in all three races, Rory is primed to maintain his upward momentum at his second ‘home’ circuit, while we have been working hard to help Sam to get on top of the issues that have plagued his qualifying form so far this year, which will hopefully reap dividends as his race pace is unquestionably strong. I think we’re in for a very good weekend, all-told.”
“I really enjoy Croft,” added Butcher. “It’s quite close to Scotland, so I tend to get a lot of my sponsors coming along, and it generates good racing, with a fantastic atmosphere all the way around the lap.
“It’s a circuit of extremes, from the super-quick Jim Clark Esses, Barcroft and Sunny In/Out to the slow-speed complex in the final sector and the tightest hairpin on the calendar. You’re never going to find the perfect set-up, and striking the best compromise is a massive challenge from an engineering point of view, while as a driver, you need to be able to rapidly adapt your approach from one corner to the next.
“The venue has done a brilliant job of resurfacing the track, which has made it much smoother and grippier, but the bumps remain so the car needs to be really well dialled-in to deal with that. We had a good pre-season test there, and the Corolla’s short wheelbase makes it very agile and nimble through the tight, twisty stuff, so I’m confident it will handle the circuit well. Not only that, but one of our main strengths since Oulton Park has been braking performance, and I’m really looking forward to exploiting that again.
“Our potential has been building throughout the year, and after a tricky start to the season, I’ve really fallen in love with the Corolla – we’re best buddies now. Whilst the number one priority at Croft has to be another solid weekend, at the same time, we know we have the pace for podiums so I feel we should be coming away with some silverware. The team is doing a good job, the car is in a great place and I’m feeling strong, so if we can put that all together, hopefully the results will follow.”
“Having only raced at Croft once before, our test there earlier in the year helped to refresh my memory a bit,” admitted Smelt. “It was my first proper full day in the Corolla, so I was probably getting used to the car more than the track, but everything felt very positive and I’m looking forward to going back.
“I feel like a broken record, but we absolutely have to crack qualifying if we want to make progress and score decent points, which I know I’m capable of. Our race pace is strong – we proved that at Thruxton – so the full focus has to be on single-lap speed. The key is to get off to a good start in FP1 so we’re not playing catch-up; the BTCC is so ultra-competitive and we get such limited practice time, that if you begin the weekend on the back foot, it’s very difficult to recover.
“The Corolla is clearly quick around Croft – we saw that in both qualifying and the races last year, as well as in pre-season testing, and that gives us a lot of data to lean upon this weekend. The trickiest thing will be achieving the right balance in terms of set-up to ensure we have enough confidence to push through the fast sections out the back of the circuit and enough grip for the slower-speed end to the lap. That’s a challenge I’m relishing.”