Toyota Corolla's scintillating speed unrewarded on challenging Croft weekend

Toyota Corolla's scintillating speed unrewarded on challenging Croft weekend

21.09.2021: Toyota Corolla unleashes eye-catching pace in North Yorkshire Rory Butcher fights through the pack after engine failure in qualifying Sam Smelt denied points-scoring finish by late-race puncture

•    Toyota Corolla unleashes eye-catching pace in North Yorkshire

•    Rory Butcher fights through the pack after engine failure in qualifying

•    Sam Smelt denied points-scoring finish by late-race puncture



Toyota Gazoo Racing UK’s Corolla GR Sport was arguably the fastest car in the field in the British Touring Car Championship at Croft last weekend (18/19 September), and whilst mechanical misfortune meant the team did not come away with the results it deserved, all sights are now set on a champagne celebration at Silverstone in just a few days’ time.
 


Right from the word ‘go’ at Croft, the British-built Corolla was on the money. Former BTCC Independents’ Champion and Jack Sears Trophy winner Rory Butcher led the way in opening practice amongst the 29 high-calibre protagonists, with young team-mate Sam Smelt going quickest of anybody through the long middle sector to put both Toyotas comfortably inside the top five on the timesheets.
 


The pair backed that form up in FP2, with Scotsman Butcher again placing inside the top three – despite admitting to not hooking the full lap together – and Smelt outpacing championship leader Ash Sutton in ninth. Hopes were high for a competitive qualifying, but unfortunately, that was where the weekend began to unravel for the Speedworks Motorsport-run outfit.
 


A rare engine failure on his first ‘flying’ lap consigned 34-year-old Butcher to the very back of the grid, while after featuring confidently inside the top ten for the majority of the session, Leicester-born Smelt got caught up in traffic in the closing moments, with a flurry of late improvements shuffling him down the order to 18th.
 


In front of the live ITV4 television cameras the following day, Butcher gained six positions on the first lap of race one, going on to battle his way through to 19th at the chequered flag. Having conceded some ground at the start, 25-year-old Smelt crossed the line barely a second behind the sister Toyota in 21st.
 


Butcher’s bad luck returned in race two, as the Kirkcaldy native found himself on the receiving end of a clash just ahead that put him out on the spot. Smelt advanced two places to 19th, and looked set for a points-scoring finish in the day’s finale until a puncture on the very last lap dropped him to 16th.
 


There was, however, a brighter ending for Butcher, who produced a superb charge from 29th to 11th, consolidating his top ten position in the championship standings as the UK’s premier motor racing series travels next to Silverstone this coming weekend (25/26 September) for the eighth outing on its 2021 schedule.
 



Christian Dick, Team Principal, Toyota Gazoo Racing UK, said:
 


“First and foremost, I want to pay tribute to each and every member of this team, because they all worked their absolute socks off not only to replace Rory’s engine after qualifying but then to repair his car after race two, when he was an innocent bystander in somebody else’s accident. It was a phenomenal effort, and I am hugely proud of them all.
 


“For an event that started out with so much promise, Croft clearly failed to deliver in terms of results, but we can take immense positivity from the speed shown by both drivers all the way through. I have no doubt that Rory would have been well in the mix for pole position in qualifying, which would have changed the whole complexion of the weekend, and his drive in race three was testament to what the Corolla is capable of – to gain 18 places over 15 laps was a remarkable achievement.
 


“I was particularly pleased to see Sam running consistently up at the sharp end in free practice; had it not been for traffic at just the wrong moments in qualifying, he would have been a points contender all day long, which is a significant step forward. He was desperately unlucky not to score in race three, but he can now carry that renewed confidence on to Silverstone where I have no doubt that both he and Rory will be right on the pace. Bring it on!”
 



Rory Butcher, Driver, Toyota Gazoo Racing UK, said:

 

“I felt really confident going to Croft. Given the circuit’s proximity to the Scottish border, I had fantastic support and the Corolla was in great shape, as we proved in practice. The engine failure in qualifying then came completely out-of-the-blue. Christian [Dick] said to me afterwards that it was the first time this season he had believed we were genuinely on for pole position. We had so much speed in the car, and it was just such a shame we couldn’t exploit it.
 


“Starting dead last in race one, we knew we had our work cut out. Being at the back of the grid, the aim is obviously to fight your way through, but you also have to be mindful that you are much more susceptible to getting caught up in other drivers’ dramas – as we discovered to our cost.
 


“It’s such a competitive field in the BTCC, so we bolted the soft tyres on for the first race as we thought they would be faster, but it turned out that the car actually felt stronger on the medium compound. I climbed as far up the order as I could, and the plan was to do more of the same in race two but then I got taken out on the opening lap – simply wrong place, wrong time.
 


“That meant we had to try to do it all over again in race three, and following a stellar repair job by the Speedworks mechanics, the Corolla was really on its tiptoes and I could keep on pushing the whole way through. I managed to steer clear of all the incidents this time and whenever I had clear air, I was able to rapidly catch the cars ahead and very nearly snuck into the top ten on the last lap.
 


“It was unquestionably a weekend of ‘what could have been’, but it was nonetheless a great feeling to see all the behind-the-scenes development converted into on-track performance and progress. We didn’t get the results we deserved at Croft due to circumstances beyond our control, but we certainly showed what we are capable of and everybody in the team should feel extremely proud of their efforts. Roll on Silverstone!”
 



Sam Smelt, Driver, Toyota Gazoo Racing UK, said:

 
“I’d only raced at Croft once before, so I wasn’t too sure what to expect but the weekend got off to a good start straight out-of-the-box. Our pace was really strong in practice – we extracted much more performance out of the tyres over a single lap, which marked a big improvement on previous events – and I was happy with how the car felt in qualifying. Unfortunately, I got baulked on three of my quickest laps towards the end of the session when the track was at its best, which knocked us down the order when I felt we should definitely have been inside the top ten.
 


“That was obviously frustrating, but I knew we had good speed and should be able to move forward. I got a decent start in race one, but it was a bit of a scrappy first lap. I was stuck on the outside through the opening sequence of corners and got tangled up with somebody else which cost me a few places, and once things settled down, it was a bit of a procession – nobody was doing very much overtaking and it was hard work to gain ground.
 


“We chipped away in race two, and in the last one I had a good start and worked my way up to 12th until we had some contact at the hairpin three-quarters of the way through. Then on the last lap, one of my tyres let go at the Jim Clark Esses, which really isn’t the kind of place where you want that to happen! I managed to hold onto the car and bring it home, but it dropped us out of the points, which was annoying.
 


“Still, the most important thing to take away from the weekend is the speed we showed throughout, and now we need to take that forward with us to Silverstone. Unlike Croft, it’s a circuit I know well so I’m feeling confident. It’s always super-close there and every little detail will make a difference, but if we can qualify well, there’s no reason at all why we shouldn’t score good results.”





Russell Atkins -photos J. Ebrey




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21.09.2021 / MaP

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