GRR

BTCC Donington 2023 | Six talking points

28th August 2023
James Charman

After over two decades of waiting, the British Touring Car Championship finally returned to Donington Park's Grand Prix loop this weekend as the season enters its final chapter. Weather again had a part to play, with race one held under rainy skies and on wet tarmac, before the sun came out for the final two races of the summer holidays. Whatever the weather, all eyes would be at the sharp end of the field to see if anyone could slow down Ash Sutton's stunning season.

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1. Ash Sutton continues BTCC title charge at Donington

Dominance in the way that we’ve been treated to this season by Ash Sutton is a rarity in modern BTCC as once again the three-time champion came away from the weekend with yet another winner’s trophy to add to his collection. This year has been far and away Sutton’s most successful season in the BTCC, hustling his Ford Focus to nine victories after 24 of the 30 scheduled races. To put that in perspective, his previous best was six, achieved in both 2017 and 2018 in the Subaru Levorg.

The NAPA Racing UK driver was, however, unable to convert his win to a double on this occasion, as he has on three previous occasions this season. Complaining of a long brake pedal in race two, the championship leader was happy to finish behind closest rival, and reigning champion, Tom Ingram and minimise the point deficit. It looked like he may drop to third on the final lap, but helpfully placed backmarkers and yellow flags meant that the charging Jake Hill had to back out of a potential move through the GP loop section.

With the biggest shakeup possible to the grid for race three, Ingram got the jump on Sutton at the start to claim 11th. On this occasion, there was a much bigger fightback from the Ford Focus, but try as he might, Sutton could not find a way past the Hyundai i30. That was until he was handed a major lifeline from teammate Dan Rowbottom. Suffering from damage after a heavy shot from the chicane tyre stack, Rowbottom suddenly slowed, conveniently forcing Ingram wide, who would lose three positions while Sutton jumped through in the process. With a 42-point lead in the standings over Ingram, there is a very real possibility that we could be going to Brands Hatch for the final round of the year with no title fight left, should everything go Sutton’s way at Silverstone in four weeks’ time.

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2. Ingram fights back after questionable penalty

The opening race at Donington Park this weekend perfectly encapsulated the difficult title defence Tom Ingram has had to endure all year: Ash Sutton's Ford disappearing while all he could do was watch helplessly. Adding insult to injury, Ingram was demoted to third on the final lap after a duel with the BMW of Jake Hill – a penalty where the word questionable barely does it justice. With Hill trying to hang around the outside of the Hyundai at Goddards hairpin, Ingram held his own, running Hill wide and hanging on to second at the line. He was then inexplicably handed a 0.5-second penalty as a result. 

ITV’s Tim Harvey was seething at the decision, which he claimed was down to both those who wrote the rules and the stewards (who upheld the decision after West Surrey Racing appealed) “not understanding anything about motorsport”. Throwing more fuel into the fire, a near identical incident between the Power Maxed Racing Vauxhalls of Mikey Doble and Andrew Watson was completely ignored by the race officials.

Clearly fired up after losing second place – and two vital points in the championship chase – Ingram was like lightning at the start of race two. The Hyundai was much happier in the dry conditions, and after just four laps chasing Sutton’s Focus, Ingram dived to the inside at Redgate. Having run side-by-side with the Ford through the Craner Curves, Ingram finished off the stellar move at the Old Hairpin to claim the lead. From then on, it was all Ingram as he cruised to only his second win of the 2023 campaign.

Starting from 12th in race three was always going to be an uphill struggle for Ingram, and despite gradually working his way up the order, mechanical issues for the NAPA Ford of Dan Rowbottom left the Hyundai stranded on the outside of Redgate, losing a handful of positions in the process. As a result, Ingram now sits 42 points shy of the top of the table and one of only three drivers still mathematically able to prevent a record-equalling fourth title for Sutton.

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3. Dan Lloyd robbed of first win of 2023

With the top 12 positions reversed for the race three grid, Team HARD’s Dan Lloyd was handed a golden opportunity to reach the top step of the podium for the first time in 2023. From the start, Lloyd used his extensive touring car experience to perfection, controlling the field and seemingly cruising to the chequered flag.

A spanner was then thrown into the works when the safety car was deployed for debris after Jake Hill made heavy contact with the chicane tyres. With the field now neutralised, and with just a handful of laps to go, Lloyd found himself desperately trying to hold off the charging Toyota Corolla of Rory Butcher. Desperate to put on a good showing at Toyota’s home race, Butcher was all over the back of the Cupra Leon, but to no avail.

Having held off the Corolla’s challenge, everything looked to be in the bag for Lloyd for the second time of the afternoon. That was until a mechanical failure on the exit of McLean’s left the Cupra facing the wrong way in the Coppice gravel trap, handing victory to Butcher and heartbreak to everyone in the Team HARD garage.

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4. Hill carves through the field – and the tyre stack

Jake Hill’s season, and that of the West Surrey Racing BMWs in general, has been one of those frustrating years where they’re always there, but just not quite doing enough to mount a realistic charge. Hill, and team-mate Colin Turkington, are two of only four drivers still in the hunt for the drivers’ crown, but with 62 and 99-point deficits respectively, nothing short of a miracle will result in this year’s champion coming from behind the wheel of a BMW.

Despite that, we’ve been treated to some tremendous displays from the team’s youngest driver across the year, and race one at Donington Park was very much one of them. Starting down in ninth position, Hill was driving the Laser Tools-backed BMW like a man possessed, slicing through the field at times like a hot knife through butter. 

Finishing up second, thanks to the dubious penalty applied to Tom Ingram, the BMW held on to third in race two, before being stuck in the reverse grid pack for much of race three. Although languishing at the lower order of the top ten, Hill still played a part in the overall story of the race, as the debris he left littering the track after smashing into one of the tyre stacks brought out the only safety car of the day.

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5. Brake failure ends Cammish title hopes

A noticeable absentee on race day was the fourth NAPA Racing UK Ford Focus of Dan Cammish. The Yorkshireman had set the pace in the first practice session on Saturday morning, but unfortunately that would also be where his weekend would end. Brake failure heading into McLeans – the very same corner where a fire ended his weekend in 2022 – saw the Focus flying into the gravel trap and straight into the barriers.

Thankfully for Cammish, the car spun through 180 degrees and went in backwards, avoiding a driver’s side impact in what was a 30G crash. While Cammish walked away unhurt, the same could not be said for his car, which was written off even at that early stage of the weekend. As a result, he now sits 144 points away from his teammate at the head of the points standings, mathematically out of reach.

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6. Donington GP layout a damp squib

Much had been said in the buildup to the 2023 season about the return of the Grand Prix layout at Donington Park. Britain’s premier tin-top series hadn’t raced around the scene of Senna’s 1993 heroics for over 20 years, and there was much excitement to see the field heading down towards the Melbourne loop.

Unfortunately, save for a couple of daring moves, the racing across the three races was lacklustre at best. It says something when more cars were being damaged by the tyre stacks at The Esses than through hard racing the BTCC is known for. The tyre stacks also provided problems for the support series, with a MINI ending on its roof having clipped the inside on entry. Now, I’m all for the track finishing at the white line and track limits being policed correctly – but drivers don’t need to have their car written off for a minor mistake, particularly those who don’t have the luxury of large pots of sponsor-provided money. Gravel traps, yes. Car killers? No

When it comes to the lacklustre racing, however, it seems to be par for the course for the season as a whole, and it’s hard to imagine this year going down as a classic. Considering this seems to be a recurring theme for 2023, maybe it's not the circuits, and maybe something else needs to change. Once again the hybrid boost seemed to make no difference whatsoever, and there was little to no unpredictability that the BTCC was once famed for.

While Sutton is dominating at the top of the Driver's table, it's a similar story in the battle for almost every other trophy going. NAPA Racing UK now holds a daunting 141-point lead in the teams' standings, while Josh Cook and One Motorsport continue their stranglehold on both Independent Driver's and Team's title races. BMW now take a 10-point lead over Ford in the Manufacturer's table into the final two meetings, and Andrew Watson sits 14 points ahead of teammate Mikey Doble in the Jack Sears Trophy.

A small break now awaits the teams and drivers, with four weeks before the series visits Silverstone for the penultimate round of the 2023 season.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images

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