Six talking points from BTCC's spectacular 2023 opener

24th April 2023
James Charman

The British Touring Car Championship returned in typical fashion at a wet Donington Park, with the damp tarmac throwing any sort of form book right out of the window. Thankfully for us, it provided plenty to sink our teeth into, as we pick apart the major talking points from the weekend.


1. Cammish exorcises Donington demons

Turn back the clock twelve months and Dan Cammish was having the worst possible start on his return to the BTCC grid. A fire at the start of qualifying put him on the back foot right from the off and he left the Derbyshire circuit with just three points to his name, languishing down in 17th place. This weekend, however, was to be the absolute polar opposite. 

Taking race two out of the equation (and we’ll get onto why later), you could not have faulted Cammish’s performance on Sunday. Starting from fifth in the opening race, Cammish swept up a couple of positions as his NAPA Racing UK teammates Dan Rowbottom and Ash Sutton had less-than-stellar getaways, the latter courtesy of a tap from BMW’s Jake Hill, ending the opening tour in second behind Hill’s Laser Tools-backed 3-Series.

Having hounded Hill for almost the entire race, Cammish finally worked his way through on the 19th of 21 laps, extended from the scheduled 18 due to two safety car periods for the Excelr8 Motorsport Hyundai i30s of Tom Chilton and Nick Halstead. Beginning the move at the top of the hill at Hollywood, the Yorkshireman worked his Ford Focus alongside Hill’s BMW, running side-by-side through the Craner Curves, completing the pass through the Old Hairpin and holding on for the final two laps to secure his first win of the season.

Having equalled his 2022 win tally in the very first race of the year, Cammish was one of many drivers caught out by the conditions in race two. Finishing a lap down, he could only muster a 13th-place finish at the line, promoted to 12th following Ronan Pearson’s disqualification for a ride height infringement. Starting from the pole in the final race of the day thanks to race two winner Tom Chilton shuffling the order in the biggest possible way in the reverse grid draw, a professional drive from Cammish saw him cruise to victory number two of the day and take a seven-point lead over reigning champion Tom Ingram to Brands Hatch in two weeks time.


2. Watson impresses on debut

One of the most exciting aspects of the opening round of the BTCC is seeing how well the newbies get on, with plenty made in the build-up of just how difficult it is to compete in Britain’s premier tin-top series. Someone clearly forgot to give this memo to Andrew Watson, as the Power Maxed Racing rookie hustled his Vauxhall Astra in the opening race of the year and turned many heads in the process.

Working his way up the field in the damp and greasy conditions, Watson slowly but surely saw off many an experienced BTCC competitor, and was hounding the Hyundai i30 of Tom Ingram right up until the final lap. By his own admission, Watson used up his hybrid boost too early, leaving him unable to compete when Ingram powered his way towards the finish line – himself just 0.093 seconds away from pinching second from Hill. Even without the benefit of added horsepower, Watson was able to hold on to Ingram’s tailpipe and finished the race just four-tenths of a second behind the reigning champion.

The fact is, though, that Watson’s impressive debut performance should not come as a big surprise when you factor in the CV that he brings with him. It may have been the best part of a decade since he was part of the BTCC support package, racing alongside the likes of Ingram in the Ginetta GT Supercup, but in that time he has been plying his trade in some of the top GT series on the planet, including standing on an FIA World Endurance Championship podium on two occasions. 

That’s not to take anything away from Watson’s performance in race one at all. It almost goes without saying that driving a front-wheel-drive Vauxhall Astra around Donington Park is a world away from powering a Porsche 911 RSR down the Mulsanne Straight in the middle of the night, yet despite this, Watson has quickly established himself as one to watch on the BTCC grid this year. With a pair of Jack Sears Trophy wins to his name already in races one and three, he’s certainly already staking his claim for overall Jack Sears honours come October.


3. Hamilton’s fairy tale finish

Nicolas Hamilton has endured a lot of stick since his BTCC debut, with certain corners of the BTCC fanbase less than complimentary of his position on the grid each year. In one of the best feel-good stories of the weekend, those naysayers were well and truly silenced in the second race at Donington Park this weekend.

Helped out by the changing conditions and the early decision to switch to wet weather tyres, Hamilton, younger brother of seven-time Formula 1 champion Lewis, found himself running as high as fourth position as everyone in front of him realised that they’d made the wrong choice in running with the slick tyre as the circuit got wetter and wetter. It was an intense race, with over half the field being lapped, and it was almost expected that Hamilton would start dropping down the field as those behind him caught up on their preferred wet-weather tyre.

A slight mistake at the Old Hairpin allowed Sam Osborne’s Ford Focus and Stephen Jelley’s BMW 330e M Sport to sneak past before Hamilton began to be hunted down by Power Maxed Racing’s Mikey Doble. Hamilton played the part of elder statesmen to a tee, holding off the BTCC new boy well, even passing Doble back on a switchback manoeuvre at Redgate in the latter stages of the race. Doble would finally pass Hamilton on the final lap, meaning the Team HARD driver finished seventh at the line (promoted to sixth following Ronan Pearson’s disqualifying), narrowly missing out on the Independents victory.

The result was well received across the entire paddock, and while he was unable to add a second points finish in the final race, Hamilton increased his career points tally tenfold in the space of one race. As a result, he now sits third in the Jack Sears Trophy standings and leaves Donington Park in seventh place in the Independents table, one point ahead of one of the pre-season favourites, Dan Lloyd.


4. Rain wreaks havoc and ends four-year drought

Hamilton wasn’t the only person to benefit from a perfect tyre choice in race two, as touring car stalwart Tom Chilton climbed to the top step of a BTCC podium for the first time since Croft in 2019. Starting from 15th on the grid, Chilton made the decision to dive in for wet tyres at the end of the formation lap, stating that the moment he saw the tyres leaving marks on the road he knew it was time for a tyre swap.

With the safety car deployed at the end of lap one for the stricken Toyota Corolla of Ricky Collard, Adam Morgan led the charge of runners also deciding to dive to the pits to fit a set of wets. Morgan and Chilton would line up 13th and 16th respectively at the restart, but by the end of the first lap of green flag racing would be up to sixth and eighth. It was only a matter of time before they hit the front, and Chilton got the better of the BMW as the duo worked their way through the traffic.

Chilton’s Excelr8 team-mate Ronan Pearson had also launched his way up through the mixed-up field, running third at the finish in only his second BTCC start, before a ride height infringement saw his Hyundai i30 thrown out of the results. The disqualification promoted NAPA Racing UK’s Sam Osborne to third, salvaging some points for the blue and yellow Ford squad.


5. Excelr8 one step ahead as Ford look strong

Having seen the results of qualifying and the performances of the Ford Focuses across the three races at Donington Park, it would be easy to assume that NAPA Racing UK were sitting pretty at the head of the Teams standings, but the consistent results from Tom Ingram, combined with the victory of Tom Chilton mean that it’s actually the Hyundais of Excelr8 Motorsport that come away with a slender four-point lead.

That said, though, it would be a brave person who bets against the Fords working their way to the top of the table sooner rather than later. Three of the top five positions in qualifying were occupied by the NAPA Racing UK squad, and had it not been for Sutton’s off-track excursion before he’d even reached the first corner of the season, you’d bet a large sum of money he’d likely have come away with a victory some 18 laps later. 

A non-score in race one and then being caught out on the wrong tyres in race two, Sutton did what Sutton does best in race three, carving through the field to finish third having started down in 17th. The results leave Sutton ninth in the Drivers’ standings and mark his worst start to a BTCC season since 2017 – his first title-winning year.


Cammish showed just how strong the pace of the Ford can be when everything falls into place, and with Rowbottom also showing strong pace having taken pole position, the trio of Cammish, Sutton and Rowbottom could well be a force to be reckoned with as the season progresses.


6. Toyota struggles to set off

It was supposed to be the season that the Toyotas finally stake their claim at the top of the BTCC, but for Rory Butcher and Ricky Collard, it was a disappointing start to their 2023 campaigns. It almost felt like whenever there was a replay of drivers tangling together, or someone sliding through a gravel trap, chances are you’d see the red and white of Toyota Gazoo Racing on your screen.

The weekend could perhaps be summed up perfectly by the way in which Ricky Collard slammed his door closed after race two came to a premature end for him. The BTCC is a long season, and there are still 27 races to go, but the warning signs were there for Toyota as only Collard could make it through to the top ten shootout in qualifying. Even that didn’t go to plan, as a fuel link issue trapped him in the pits during the qualifying finale, meaning he had to settle for 10th on the grid. Butcher, meanwhile, had to settle for a disappointing 13th while George Gamble could only manage 17th. 

Race one showed subtle signs of competitiveness, as Collard took fifth, while Gamble and Butcher finished eighth and 11th respectively. Only Butcher could finish race two, and was late to the party in pitting for wets so ended a lap down in 14th. A triple points-scoring result in race three salvaged something from the afternoon, but none of the Corollas could break back into the top ten. Toyota now sits at the foot of the Manufacturers' table, 25 points shy of BMW in third – not the ideal start for the all-new Neil Brown-built engine.

There were similar struggles for the rebranded One Motorsport squad, and had it not been for Josh Cook spearing off at Redgate in race one you’d have been forgiven for forgetting they were even on the grid. Still getting to grips with the ex-Team Dynamics Honda chassis, along with the Neil Brown-engineered Honda power unit, Cook admitted that the team weren’t quite working on the minute details that they had been in previous seasons.

If the opening three races weren’t quite action-packed enough for you, then thankfully you won’t have too long to wait for the next instalment. Rounds four, five and six take place at Brands Hatch in just two weeks' time on the 7th May.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images

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