BUTCHER AND SMELT OVERCOME ISSUES FOR POINTS-SCORING END TO THE SEASON
Following 30 races at nine different circuits, the 2021 Kwik Fit British Touring Car Championship reached its conclusion at Brands Hatch last weekend (23/24 October), with Rory Butcher and Sam Smelt both scoring points for Toyota Gazoo Racing UK in the final event of the season.
Butcher got proceedings off to a promising start in the first free practice session by posting the second-quickest lap time amongst the 29 high-calibre contenders, barely 0.1s adrift of the outright benchmark – but the switch to new tyres for qualifying adversely affected the balance of the team’s British-built Toyota Corolla GR Sport, leaving the Scot languishing in an uncharacteristic 19th place.
No shortage of midnight oil was burned in a bid to get to the bottom of the problem, and despite there being scarce real action in Sunday’s first race, Butcher nonetheless made up three spots to finish 16th, just outside of the points-paying positions.
In race two, the former BTCC Independents’ Champion and Jack Sears Trophy winner navigated his way carefully through an opening lap melee to rise to eighth, only to subsequently find himself squeezed off-track by Aiden Moffat at Druids as he attempted an overtake.
To his immense credit, Butcher kept his foot firmly planted and saved a squirrely slide to successfully execute the manoeuvre and snatch seventh place, but his brief ‘lawnmower’ moment left him with grass in the radiator. That sent his engine temperature skyrocketing and forced him into a defensive drive for the remainder of the race, withstanding relentless pressure from behind to cling grittily onto his position right to the chequered flag.
From third on the partially reversed grid for the day’s finale, the 34-year-old Kirkcaldy native was confident of a podium push, but a wheelspin-afflicted launch cost him ground and thereafter he struggled for pace. A ninth-place finish was nevertheless sufficient to cement seventh spot in the overall Drivers’ standings at the end of his maiden campaign with the Speedworks Motorsport-run outfit in the UK’s premier motor racing series.
In the sister Corolla, Sam Smelt wound up less than two tenths-of-a-second behind Butcher in qualifying to seal 23rd position around Brands Hatch’s famous ‘GP’ layout, and he similarly kept pace with his more experienced team-mate in the curtain-raising contest on race day, advancing to 20th by the conclusion of the 17-lap race.
In race two, the 25-year-old Leicester-born ace then pulled off a number of impressive passes to break into points-scoring territory with a 13th-place finish – in so doing, finally ending a luckless run stretching all the way back to Thruxton in May – although his hopes of cracking the top ten in race three were scuppered on the first lap, as he dropped to the very tail of the field following an incident with a rival, from where he recovered to 21st at the flag.
“There’s no bones about it – we had a tough weekend at Brands Hatch,” admitted Team Principal Christian Dick. “We were quick in free practice, but when we bolted fresh rubber on for qualifying, it changed the balance of the car in a way we hadn’t anticipated. That caught us off-guard and there was a lot of head-scratching to try to figure out the reason why.
“We made some solid progress before race one but couldn’t really demonstrate it given how little movement there was throughout the field, and we improved the Corolla even more for race two, when Rory did a great job considering the engine problems he was battling. We were constantly monitoring whether we would need to pit, knowing that if we did we would be consigned to the rear of the grid for race three and if we didn’t, we risked blowing the engine – it was that critical, and we were very relieved that he reached the finish.
“On the other side of the garage, Sam produced a really strong performance to score three thoroughly well-deserved points, which was great to see. He’s certainly had his fair share of knockbacks this year, but he has increasingly shown what he is capable of, and that result was long overdue. His pace in race one was virtually on a par with Rory’s, and he is coming on in leaps and bounds so we were all extremely pleased for him.
“Looking back as a whole, we came into this season having made a lot of changes, from the expansion to two cars to a shake-up of the engineering team, two new drivers obviously and a whole raft of new staff – it was a huge upheaval, and it inevitably took a little bit of time for everything to ‘click’. Since that has happened, I think we have proved we are a match for anybody else in terms of raw pace, and with some more time to fine-tune everything now over the winter, we can’t wait for 2022!”
“That was hard work!” added Butcher. “We were chasing our tails all weekend and never able to pinpoint quite what was wrong – given the Corolla has been absolutely on fire in recent events, the lack of speed was unexpected, to say the least.
“Several big set-up changes between qualifying and the races seemed to bring some sort of resolution, but in so doing, we ran into other issues – we just never found the sweet spot and were particularly struggling over the kerbs out on the ‘GP’ loop. It was difficult to stay consistent and to have the confidence to really attack.
“The car was probably at its best in race two, but the grass in the radiator caused the water temperature to shoot skywards. That meant I had to back off and cruise around at nine-tenths to make sure I was looking after the engine, and I came under increasing pressure from behind as the race progressed. I managed to get to the end without losing any positions, which was a great result – although it also went to show what might have been achievable without that problem.
“Starting from third on the grid, I felt really hopeful for race three, but we simply didn’t have the pace we thought we would. It was obviously disappointing for the team not to end on a high after all the effort that everybody has put in, but ultimately, that didn’t detract from a brilliant second half of the season overall.”
“As a team, we struggled with the balance of the car at Brands Hatch and were generally lacking rear stability,” said Smelt. “We’d had a few difficulties around the ‘Indy’ circuit earlier in the year too, so we made a lot of changes after qualifying and whilst it still wasn’t quite right, the Corolla felt a lot better on Sunday.
“The first race was pretty decent – we had good pace and were in the mix, although there weren’t many opportunities to make up places – and then race two was really enjoyable. I was so pleased to finally get back into the points and to achieve my best finish of the season on the last day – it felt like it had been a long time coming, and it was great to be able to give something back to all the Speedworks guys and girls for their hard work.
“I was optimistic of moving forward again in race three, but Carl Boardley lost the rear of his car on the first lap and speared into me, which dropped me down the order and knocked my rear tracking out. I managed to regain some of the lost ground although, in truth, it was my own bad start that had put me in that position in the first place so I also have to shoulder part of the blame.
“It’s clearly been a tough year, but it was encouraging to end on a high with some more points and in many ways, it’s a shame we’ve got to stop now as I just want to keep going! Still, we’ve got some really positive momentum to take with us into the winter, so onwards and upwards from here.”