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‘NEAR-PERFECT’ SILVERSTONE WEEKEND FOR TOYOTA GAZOO RACING UK

Rory Butcher stormed to a dominant double victory for Toyota Gazoo Racing UK in the Kwik Fit British Touring Car Championship at Silverstone last weekend (25/26 September), as the Speedworks Motorsport-run outfit fulfilled its potential in fine fashion at the famous British circuit.

Fastest in both free practice sessions behind the wheel of the Toyota Corolla GR Sport, Butcher lapped more than a quarter-of-a-second quicker than anybody else around Silverstone’s short National Circuit in FP2 and duly carried that momentum forward into the two-part qualifying session.

Belying a sore back, the Scot again leapt to the top of the timing screens amongst the 30 high-profile protagonists in the country’s premier motorsport series, with his final effort enough to secure a fourth career pole position – his first in Toyota Gazoo Racing UK colours.

Despite having to contend with a slippery patch of asphalt directly in front of his grid slot at the beginning of the curtain-raising contest – the legacy of an oil spill in an earlier support race – Butcher only conceded one place when the lights went out. In front of the live ITV television cameras and a huge trackside crowd, the 34-year-old then wasted little time in reasserting his authority, diving down the inside of Tom Ingram into Brooklands on lap three to reclaim the lead.

After swiftly making his escape, Butcher went on to take the chequered flag more than three seconds clear of his closest pursuer courtesy of a truly imperious performance.

With 75kg of success ballast added to the British-built Corolla for the day’s second outing, the Kirkcaldy native knew he would have his work cut out to repeat that result, but he was leading by just over two seconds when the safety car was summoned to deal with an incident further down the order.

The neutralisation might have erased his advantage, but the unflappable Butcher mastered the re-start and artfully fended off a flying Josh Cook in a much lighter car in the closing stages, with the pair heading onto the last lap separated by a scant 0.147 seconds. Not putting so much as a wheel out-of-place, the Toyota driver confidently withstood a late attack to make it back-to-back triumphs and increase his victory count for the season to three.

From 11th on the partially-reversed grid for the day’s finale and surrounded by a gaggle of much lighter rivals, the former BTCC Independents’ Champion and Jack Sears Trophy winner then capped his weekend with a 13th-place finish on maximum ballast to cement ‘top scorer’ status at Silverstone and rise to seventh in the standings with two events on the 2021 calendar remaining.

In the sister Corolla, stablemate Sam Smelt showed promising pace throughout free practice, lapping eighth-quickest in FP1 and 11th in FP2, but the Leicester-born ace was unable to quite reproduce that form on new tyres in qualifying and ultimately slipped to a frustrated 18th – a single tenth-of-a-second shy of progressing through to the Top Ten Showdown in the ultra-tight field.

From there, Smelt found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time in the opening moments of race one as he was the innocent victim of another driver’s accident, ending his challenge on the spot. Further misfortune was to follow in the second encounter, with the 25-year-old returning to the pits less than a lap in due to a misfire.

After rejoining the fray, he went on to briefly set the race’s fastest lap, only to have to park up a few minutes later with alternator issues. From 27th on the grid in race three, Smelt then fended off multiple BTCC Champion Gordon Shedden for an encouraging top 20 finish.

“We had an intense week leading up to Silverstone,” said Team Principal Christian Dick. “The short turnaround after Croft and debuting the BTCC hybrid car added an extra layer of pressure, so to knock it out of the park like we did was incredible – and immense credit to each and every single member of this team.

“It might look like this success has all come at once, but the momentum has been building over the last few weekends and had it not been for the engine failure in qualifying, Croft could have been a very similar story – this is payback for all the pain that everybody in the team went through there.

“Rory was simply outstanding and didn’t put a foot wrong all weekend. He is in a place now where he is super comfortable in the car, and to top every session on Saturday and triumph twice on Sunday was just amazing. The BTCC is so ultra-competitive that to win two races on the same weekend – one of them with full ballast on-board – is a rare achievement and very special indeed.

“Sam was also quick in free practice and was more than capable of making it through to the shootout as well, but unfortunately, he didn’t quite manage to maximise qualifying. When it’s as close as it was at Silverstone, that was enough to drop him a fair way down the order and leave him on the back foot for Sunday, when he was at the mercy of the kind of midfield incidents that happened in race one.

“He was just desperately unlucky yet again, but his pace in race two showed how well he is gelling with the Corolla now, and it was no mean feat at all to hold off a driver of the calibre of Gordon Shedden in race three. Sam has made tremendous progress since the start of the season, and we know the performance is in him. I have absolutely no doubt that things will turn around for him soon.”

“I enjoyed pretty much every single lap over the weekend,” said Butcher. “The Corolla was such a pleasure to drive and is giving me so much confidence right now – it’s doing exactly what I want it to do. We’ve increasingly built up to this point throughout the season and developed the car more around me, and since Oulton Park, that has really shone through.

“It was certainly interesting sitting on the grid ahead for race one with a big damp patch of track ahead of me; I had to accept I might not lead on lap one, which turned out to be the case, but I knew we had the pace to get back past Tom [Ingram] and that’s exactly what we did. We had great consistency and the Corolla felt fantastic.

“Things were tougher with a whole chunk of ballast on-board in race two, but the team managed to get the car into such a good window, and I was amazed by how well it handled.

“I could see Josh [Cook] in my mirrors over the closing stages and knew he was gaining by a tenth-of-a-second or so every lap so the pressure was definitely on, but fortunately we were able to narrowly hold him off. The team have given me such a superb car over the last few weekends, and it was really special to be able to reward everybody’s hard work like that.

“Starting down in the pack in race three with full ballast, the difficulty level went up another notch again. I didn’t want to take any risks, and the plan was simply to stay out of trouble and bring it home. Fairly early on, I could tell we didn’t quite have the same performance as in the first two races and being tucked up behind other cars caused the brakes to overheat a bit, but we bagged a few more points so overall, it was a near-perfect weekend…

“I felt well-prepared arriving at Silverstone and was looking to build upon the step forward we had taken at Croft,” added Smelt. “The Corolla felt great during practice, but qualifying was the first time we had run four new tyres and that ended up generating too much grip at the rear, which made the car too tight.

“We were so close to making the top ten showdown, which was annoying because I felt we should definitely have been in there with the pace we had, but around the National Circuit you really do need to extract every last hundredth-of-a-second and ultimately, we were so near yet so far.

“Still, I was confident we would be strong in the races and could move forward. The aim was very much points-scoring finishes, and then on the first lap of race one, [Gordon] Shedden got a tag from behind that sent him spearing into the side of my car – one of the perils of starting further back in the pack.

“The impact did a fair bit of damage, and from that moment on, we had niggling problems all day. The Speedworks guys did a great job to get me out again for race two and the Corolla felt mint going round on the formation lap, but then we developed a misfire in the engine, which was probably a hangover from the earlier accident. After pitting for repairs, I was able to rejoin and set fastest lap before the alternator belt fell off and I lost all the electrics.

“We still had a small issue with the engine in race three, which stunted my progress, but the bottom line is that it all came down to qualifying again so that’s something we absolutely have to address ahead of the next event at my home track of Donington Park.”

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