TOYOTA GAZOO RACING UK BUILDING ON ‘GOOD RHYTHM’ AHEAD OF BTCC FINALE
There was more silverware for Toyota Gazoo Racing UK in the Kwik Fit British Touring Car Championship at Donington Park (9/10 October), with a pair of podium finishes for Rory Butcher seeing the Scot continue his climb up the order as the country’s premier motor racing series’ 2021 campaign comes to its conclusion at Brands Hatch this weekend.
Buoyed by his commanding double victory at Silverstone three weeks earlier, Butcher travelled to Donington in bullish mood but, having progressed safely through to the ‘Top Ten Showdown’ in the two-part qualifying session, an air jack failure threatened to scupper his chances of a good grid slot.
Fortunately, the Speedworks Motorsport crew sprang into action to rectify the issue in double-quick time, enabling the former BTCC Independents’ Champion and Jack Sears Trophy winner to pull an excellent lap out of the bag in the closing stages and vault up to fourth among the 29 high-calibre contenders, notwithstanding the 27kg of success ballast he was carrying aboard his British-built Toyota Corolla GR Sport.
In the curtain-raising contest, Butcher outfoxed two-time title-winner Jason Plato for third on the opening lap and would remain in the lead battle throughout, ultimately taking the chequered flag just two-and-a-half seconds adrift of the winner.
Despite the weight in his car increasing to 57kg for race two, the Kirkcaldy native went immediately on the offensive, rising to second at the start before relieving brother-in-law Gordon Shedden of the top spot heading down the Craner Curves.
A counter-attack saw him cede the position again and he subsequently also had to give best to a ballast-free Tom Ingram, but after settling into third place Butcher then fended off some late pressure from multiple BTCC Champion Colin Turkington to seal his sixth rostrum appearance of the 2021 campaign.
From ninth on the partially-reversed grid in race three, the 34-year-old once more set his sights on moving forward and duly scythed through to a fourth-place finish that has elevated him to sixth in the Drivers’ standings, almost within touching distance of the top five.
In the sister Corolla, Sam Smelt showed a promising turn of speed in practice, lapping fifth-fastest in FP1 – right behind his Toyota Gazoo Racing UK team-mate – but a troubled qualifying saw him slip to 24th.
The 25-year-old Leicester-born ace improved to 21st in race one following a number of hard-fought scraps, with a similar story in race two yielding 22nd place at the flag as he lapped barely a tenth of a second away from Butcher’s best. Not only that, but his results helped to secure Toyota the Manufacturers’/Constructors’ trophy in both high-speed bouts.
Any hopes of a positive end to the weekend in race three, however, were dashed by first lap contact that put him out on the spot – leaving Smelt fired up to bounce back with a strong finish to the campaign in the Brands Hatch GP finale this weekend (23/24 October).
“It was fantastic to come away from Donington with two more podiums,” said Butcher. “We’re definitely building momentum now and have got a really good rhythm going. We’ve just kept our heads down and focused on our own performance, and I’m very proud of everybody in the team.
“The Corolla felt great in qualifying, although it all got a bit stressful in the second part of the session! We went out to warm the tyres up, came back in to cross them over and the air jack failed on me. By the time we had sorted that out, there were only four minutes left on the clock and it was a bit of a case of all or nothing. Luckily, I found some clear track and was able to put in a lap time good enough for P4, which gave me a lot of confidence going into Sunday.
“I knew there would be an opportunity to take a risk around the outside of Redgate at the beginning of race one, but I didn’t think I’d have to do it at the Old Hairpin as well! Still, I settled into third and felt comfortable where I was. We probably didn’t quite have the pace to attack for second, but I was really happy to get off to a positive start, and that obviously set us up well for the rest of the day.
“I had another good first lap in race two, but Gordon [Shedden] made a superb move down at the Old Hairpin that I really didn’t see coming. I then tried to hold off Tom [Ingram] as best as I could, but with no ballast, he was able to just out-brake me and pull away. It was tricky fighting against some of the top championship contenders when they weren’t carrying much weight because they were very fast, but I was absolutely buzzing to score a fourth podium in five starts.
“We made a few more changes and got the Corolla really hooked up for race three, and with everybody ahead of us on the grid being lighter, I gave it a bit more of a push to get through the field. The car was consistent and quick, and it was great to sign off with another really strong points finish. I couldn’t be happier.”
“Donington was a similar story to recent weekends, to be honest,” admitted Smelt. “The Corolla was strong straight out-of-the-box in free practice, and I actually felt like I’d left a little bit on the table in both sessions so I knew there was more in the tank. That gave me a lot of confidence going into qualifying – but unfortunately, everything went downhill from that point on.
“I made a couple of errors on my quickest lap and it was generally just a scrappy run. We were at least two-tenths of a second away from where we should have been, which would have put us a fair chunk further up the grid, so that was frustrating but I was optimistic of moving forward in the races.
“I got a really bad start in the first of them but managed to fight back through and was pretty pleased with my performance, and we made a change to the car for race two which improved it even more but I couldn’t exploit it. I got caught up in traffic and battles early on, from which I struggled to break free, and once things settled down, everybody was quite evenly matched.
“Then in race three, I received a tap at the rear going through the first corner, which sent me sideways across the track into Jack Butel, who was simply minding his own business. That did quite a lot of damage to both cars, which was obviously far from an ideal end to the weekend, so hopefully we can go to Brands Hatch and really take advantage of the pace we’ve shown in recent events to finish the season on a better note.”