A capacity grid of 32 cars, and some of the closest competition the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship has seen in its history, is set for the throwback speed test offered up by Hampshire’s Thruxton Circuit – the fastest circuit in Britain – over the weekend of the 6/7 May.
The opening six rounds of the 2017 campaign have each thrown up thrilling encounters, producing five different winners. With six different marques also represented on the rostrum from those six races, the depth of quality and competition is plain to see, though Thruxton offers a completely different proposition to what has come before – high speeds of up to 160mph and sweeping curves over the course of a near flat-out lap.
Last year, the circuit was bathed in sun with thousands descending on the banks and grandstands of the famous Hampshire venue. It’s a favourite on the calendar for many a driver and for hoards of the championship’s most ardent fans. Huge crowds are a given and the spectacle is unlike any other on the BTCC’s ten-race tour. Once again, as per every BTCC event, ITV4 will be covering all of the unmissable action live.
Testing the form book
What is usually a pre-season test at Thruxton, where teams put their plans into place ahead of the forthcoming campaign, took place just two weeks prior to the race meeting itself this year, giving an indicator as to what might happen when the BTCC returns in anger next weekend. Two-thirds of the grid were out in force to gather data on, new-for-2017 upgraded components as well as new Dunlop rubber around a circuit that throws up challenges unseen elsewhere over the course of the campaign.
Eurotech Racing’s Jeff Smith, already a pole-sitter in 2017 after his Brands Hatch heroics, steered his Honda to the benchmark time on the day with an average speed over more than 111mph and a lap under that of the qualifying lap record set last year by Tom Ingram in the Speedworks Motorsport Toyota Avensis.
“The car felt good and to be honest with you, there’s still some more in it,” said Smith. “We’re fairly close to where we want to be.”
The Midlander was joined at the top of the time-sheet in the first session by Ciceley Motorsport’s Adam Morgan – a couple of tenths shy in the Mercedes-Benz A-Class – and Jake Hill rounded out in third spot as he continues his impressive vein of form in the TAG Racing Volkswagen CC. The former currently lies third in the overall standings and is also duelling for top spot in the Independents’ standings. With a stunning win and two podiums to go with it last season at Thruxton, Morgan will surely be eying the top of the charts once again.
Session two was something of a boon for the Honda runners, who already rest in the knowledge that the marque has enjoyed a strong recent history in Hampshire – victorious in some 50 per cent of the rounds at Thruxton over the past six years. Each of the top four were driving the Japanese marque’s potent Civic Type R, with reigning champion Gordon Shedden joining Smith inside Ingram’s lap record time.
Experienced racer Matt Neal brought his Type R around in fourth spot and it is safe to say the Halfords Yuasa Racing duo will be looking for better in Hampshire this year after race one contact put paid to both their weekend’s efforts. Jack Goff holds sixth in the overall standings and will be encouraged by third in testing as he looks to push on from what has been a solid starting point this year in new surroundings at Eurotech.
Fifth spot in the afternoon session went the way of Aiden Moffat. The young Scot steered his Laser Tools Racing Mercedes-Benz A-Class to a maiden BTCC win at Donington Park and the chassis is one that traditionally suits the high speed test offered up by Thruxton, as evidenced last year by Morgan in the sister Mercedes.
Raw pace, however is not always the priority on days like these as teams search for setup solutions and gather information that may help their cause come qualifying and race day. How the front-runners carried their success ballast can also be an indicator – ninth spot in the second session for the championship-leading Toyota of Tom Ingram, for example, could well be a positive sign for him.
Similarly, Team BMW’s Colin Turkington, currently second in the overall standings, rounded out each session at the test inside the top ten. The BMW 125i M Sport has proven a capable machine over the years in the BTCC and in the hands of Turkington, it has already been led to a title. 2017 is shaping up to be another strong campaign for the rear-wheel drive specialist.
Winners here last year, Andrew Jordan and Mat Jackson will be looking for more as they look to right the wrongs of mixed Donington Park weekends last time around.
Josh Cook has strung together a positive start to the championship, notching two best-yet finishes for his new outfit’s colours. The Team Parker with Maximum Motorsport man scored seventh at the season-opening Brands Hatch weekend, followed by fourth at Donington Park – a real source of encouragement for the green half of the upwardly-mobile Independent outfit. Bath’s Cook, a podium finisher in the BTCC, has settled into new surroundings in double-quick time and is encouraged by what he has seen so far after some hard work behind the scenes.
“We’re well on our way from where we were before the start of the season,” said Cook. “We had a few pre-season test days just trying to develop the car and get it a bit further towards where we knew it needed to be – that took a bit of time.
“Brands was quite a tricky one to settle into qualifying. That didn’t go to plan because of the rain and we lost out. At Donington Park though, we put everything we could into qualifying and that was a truer representation of where we could be. It put us just ahead of the Motorbase cars, which was our benchmark. We had three top ten finishes and if there was any opportunity we certainly tried to capitalise on it.”
Eversley racer Rob Collard once again lines up for West Surrey Racing in 2017 as the outfit welcomes full BMW manufacturer backing this year. Collard enjoyed perhaps his strongest season to date in 2016, sealing two race wins and stepping onto the podium on four further occasions as he battled for Drivers’ championship honours right down to the wire. Once again, he is within touching distance of the standings leaders, fifth in the running following a podium at each of the first two meetings.