The sun broke through for the start of the penultimate round of the 2022 British Touring Car Championship, as the title contenders set about ensuring the drama once again went down to the final weekend of the year.
Chaotic Silverstone leaves BTCC title on knife edge
With action peppered across all three races, and the Safety Car driver earning his pay, having been called into action no fewer than five times throughout the day, there were plenty of incidents and observations to keep us talking right the way up to the final round at Brands Hatch in two weeks’ time.
Racing began on Sunday after a moment of reflection on the life of Queen Elizabeth II, with all drivers pausing outside their cars on the grid before a rendition of God Save the King. It’s an interesting footnote to the weekend, and a nod to the longevity of The Queen herself, that this would be the first time the British Championship had ever held a meeting under the reign of a King.
Rory Butcher wins again at Silverstone
Silverstone was Toyota territory when the championship rolled up to the Home of British Motorsport 12 months ago as Rory Butcher converted his pole position into a double victory in races one and two. Fast forward a year and there was a strong sense of continuity as Butcher positioned his Toyota Gazoo Racing UK Corolla at the head of the field once again, beating the BMW of Jake Hill to the top spot by just 0.037 seconds in an extremely close session – the top 23 drivers separated by less than a second.
Butcher enjoyed the perfect getaway at the start of race one, and made the most of his position at the sharp end while the rest of the grid went haywire behind him. Pulling out a gap on Hill while the rear-wheel-drive BMW struggled for tyre temperature, the last thing Butcher would have wanted to see was the Safety Car boards, so would have been less than impressed to see exactly that when Ash Hand was left stranded in the gravel trap at Becketts.
With ten laps left to run as the race restarted, Butcher put in a strong defensive stint as the visibly faster Hill attempted to find a way through. At one point a train of 11 cars were running line astern in the post Safety Car stint, but with Butcher making the most of having the extra hybrid laps compared to his rivals, he came through to secure his, and Toyota’s, first win of the year.
It was almost a carbon copy in race two for the Knockhill native, but an early safety car period (this time for Dexter Patterson’s stricken Infiniti at the exit of Luffield) combined with fewer hybrid laps as a result of winning race one, there was nothing Butcher could do to stop the charging Hill on this occasion. It wasn’t easy for the Gerry Marshall Trophy winner, though, who started his move going into Brooklands on lap 11, before finally getting clear of the Corolla entering Copse at the start of lap 12. Butcher would hold on to second to the chequered flag, before completing the podium trifecta in race three with a third place behind Tom Ingram and Ash Sutton. Despite a strong day in the office, Butcher saw his slim hopes of championship glory vanish, ending the weekend 72 points away from leader Sutton, with only 67 on offer at Brands Hatch.
Colin Turkington loses grip on Championship trophy
The four-time champion Colin Turkington headed into the penultimate meeting of the year holding a slender six-point lead over three-time champ Ash Sutton, with Tom Ingram a further 12 points back in third. However, a nightmare of a race in the opening encounter, and the subsequent difficult day as a result, saw the Northern Irishman not only lose all of that buffer, but leave Silverstone 27 points away from the top spot.
Starting from down in tenth place on the grid, Turkington knew he would have to work hard to limit the damage to his title charge with his rivals all sitting between him and the starting lights. In what was one of the most dramatic opening races for a long time, with almost all of the top ten vying for the same piece of tarmac to take the final spot on the podium in the first three laps, Turkington got caught up in what seemed like an inevitable incident.
Spearing off the road and into the gravel trap, the BMW man was able to re-join the race, but his involvement would only last a further five laps before getting involved in another incident, this time with Jack Butel and Aiden Moffat. Returning to the pits after the impact, Turkington was back on the track for the final few laps, but only for a glorified shakedown ahead of a recovery mission in races two and three.
Knowing Silverstone has very few overtaking opportunities to make the most of, it was always going to be a tough ask for Turkington to salvage anything from the weekend. An impressive slog from last to 13th secured a potentially important three points, but importantly meant that he missed out on a spot in the reverse grid pot by just 0.153 seconds – not that it made a difference as number eight (Josh Cook) would eventually be pulled out by series organiser Alan Gow.
There were to be no similar heroics from Turkington in race three, with any potential improvements hampered by the safety car neutralising the field for almost a third of the race. Only managing to gain one position to finish 12th, Turkington left Silverstone 27 points back from points leader Ash Sutton, and is now the last person who can still mathematically take the trophy at Brands Hatch. While you can never predict anything in the BTCC, everything will need to fall into place for Turkington if he wants any real chance at that record-breaking fifth title.
Sutton remains winless at Silverstone, but takes championship lead
Silverstone has been somewhat of a bogey circuit for Ash Sutton, having only ever enjoyed two podium finishes at the home of the British Grand Prix, and both of those had come on the bottom step. Silverstone also holds the distinction of being the only circuit on the BTCC calendar that Sutton has yet to taste victory at (he’s also never won a BTCC race at Brands Hatch’s shorter Indy layout).
Despite his lack of silverware from previous visits to the Northamptonshire circuit, Sutton put in a strong performance across race day. His lowest finish was fifth place in race one. He had held fourth at the start before being pushed back a spot by the Team Dynamics Honda Civic Type-R of Gordon Shedden. His elbows were firmly out at the start of race two as Sutton attempted to make the most of superior tyre temperature in his Ford Focus against the rear-wheel-drive BMW of Jake Hill. Unable to get past the 3 Series, Sutton then found himself locked in a defensive drive against the charging Tom Ingram and Adam Morgan, holding firm to finish fourth.
Starting race three from fifth on the grid, Sutton pounced at the opportunity to leapfrog a couple of positions in the madness of a chaotic opening few laps. Working his way up to second, Sutton had his mirrors full of race one winner Rory Butcher. Soaking up every ounce of pressure that was applied, the reigning champion came home to secure his best ever Silverstone result in second place. More importantly, Sutton secured his spot at the head of the points table with just three races to go.
Race three does what race three does best
It’s a well-known fact among BTCC followers that race three is often the most likely to throw up some excitement. A partial reversed-grid, along with a couple of weeks to repair cars as opposed to a couple of hours, means that there’s often quite a lot of caution being thrown into the wind. This weekend provided the perfect example of that theory.
The action started before the field had even made it to Copse Corner on the opening lap. A strong start from Dan Cammish’s Ford Focus in second, paired with a sluggish start from Josh Cook on pole saw Cook attempt to squeeze Cammish out of the move. While the latter did happen, there was just enough contact between the two cars to loosen the rear of Cook’s Honda Civic, and he slid across the circuit, almost collecting Adam Morgan, who had started from third. Luckily the two avoided any further impact, in what would almost certainly have been the largest start line accident since Hunter Abbott’s camera tower destroying incident at Snetterton in 2016.
That wasn’t the end of the action for Cook and Morgan, however, as the Ciceley Motorsport BMW slid into the back of the Honda at the second ‘proper’ corner of Becketts. Both cars slid wide and threw away any opportunity for the two to capitalise on their reversed-grid fortune. Meanwhile, Rick Parfitt Jr., Jade Edwards and Will Powell had an accident of their own at the back of the field at the same corner.
In one of the best displays of racing all day, Dan Cammish and Josh Cook’s battle reignited on lap five, with the two going side-by-side from Copse all the way around to Brooklands. Almost immediately after their battle had reached its conclusion, the safety car boards were thrown for the fourth time of the day, following yet another accident at Becketts. This time the collision saw the end of the race for Ash Hand and Ricky Collard (whose Speedworks mechanics had worked wonders to get him back on the grid having retired due to a fire in race two), and also involved Adam Morgan, whose race three went from bad to worse.
The safety car was back out again within a lap of racing being reinstated for the stricken Cupra of Nic Hamilton, and from then on it was a relatively tame affair compared to the opening stages.
BTCC hybrid seems ineffective
It’s been a talking point all season, but Silverstone really seemed to showcase that the hybrid boost system does very little to balance the performance when compared to the success ballast system of years gone by. In the past, a car bolstered with an extra 75kg was visibly slower and it was incredibly difficult to squeeze successive strong results out of a car.
This season, however, once you know the result of race one, it’s very easy to predict how the front few spots in race two will be filled, barring any major incidents on track. This was evidenced in the closing stages of race one when Jake Hill – running with a reduced number of hybrid boost uses available owing to his position as a championship front-runner – was able to comfortably maintain his position ahead of Rory Butcher and Adam Morgan, both of whom were making use of additional hybrid power. If there hadn’t been an on-screen graphic telling you so, you would have assumed that no-one was using the hybrid at all. Similarly in race three, Josh Cook was using his hybrid to defend from Jake Hill in race three, and while hybrid light could be seen flashing enthusiastically, Cook barely pulled ahead of the hybrid-less BMW.
The lack of hybrid power seemed to have a better effect on the qualifying results, particularly at a circuit where there were such fine margins in deciding the grid for race one. Turkington, who had the strongest hybrid penalty by virtue of being the championship leader, could only manage tenth on the grid, while the rest of his title rivals filled the top ten places, averaging out a reverse of their championship positions. Once the race started, however, that was when it became a lot less clear as to who was running with what kind of penalty.
At times the success ballast system was criticised for having too much of an impact on results, but with 27 races now in the book, the hybrid system has arguably gone too far in the other direction. While it’s nice to see the top drivers regularly at the front of the field, the unpredictable nature of the BTCC was a major selling point of the championship. It's clear there's going to have to be some work put in over the winter to restore a fraction of that unpredictability, with BTCC chief executive Alan Gow already confirming there will be changes to the hybrid deployment system for 2023.
BTCC title will be decided at Brands Hatch
With just three races to go, leaving 67 points on the table, only four drivers now have a chance at lifting the trophy at Brands Hatch in two weeks’ time. Ash Sutton’s strong performance has seen him turn his seven-point deficit to a five-point lead. While he was hunting the BMW of Colin Turkington, there’s another BMW driver now in second, with Jake Hill inheriting that spot after an impressive day at Silverstone. Tom Ingram lies third, just two points back from Hill and seven behind Sutton, while Turkington was the biggest loser of the day, 27 points adrift of the points lead – a 33-point swing in very much the wrong way.
Turkington’s bad day not only hurt his own title aspirations, but saw NAPA Racing UK leapfrog Team BMW in the Teams’ Championship, the former holding a 42-point lead going to Brands Hatch. BMW, meanwhile, has a firm grip on the Manufacturer’s standings, with a commanding 73-point lead over Ford. Hyundai, Honda and Toyota look like they’re firmly set in third, fourth and fifth respectively, 40 points being the smallest gap between any of the marques.
While Josh Cook is now mathematically out of contention for the overall title, he leaves Silverstone as the Independents’ Champion elect. With no bonus points available, as opposed to the overall crown, Cook’s 92-point lead is more than enough to secure the title for 2022. The same cannot be said for the Independent Teams’ title, though. Cook’s BTC Racing squad sit atop the table, but Adam Morgan’s Ciceley Motorsport are just 25 points back, with 60 still to play for.
A triple Jack Sears Trophy victory at Silverstone for Bobby Thompson has all but confirmed he will be receiving the largest trophy on offer at Brands Hatch, holding a 49-point advantage over George Gamble. Thompson has only failed to score twice in the Jack Sears Trophy this season, and the lowest he has finished has been third, and with fourth being all he needs in race one at Brands Hatch to secure the crown.
As the BTCC rollercoaster draws to its conclusion at Brands Hatch for another year, there’s bound to be yet more drama waiting at the site of 12 British Grands Prix and two European Grands Prix in two weeks’ time, with fireworks guaranteed both on and off track.
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.
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