The British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) marked its return to the Donington Park GP circuit with another action-packed Bank Holiday weekend - it's first competitive outing on the extended loop since 2002 - as top title rivals Ash Sutton and Tom Ingram shared the spoils in the first two races of the day.
Championship leader Sutton started the weekend on a high by maintaining NAPA Racing UK's 100% qualifying record by securing his fifth pole position of the season during Saturday's qualifying round, pipping Ingram to the post by only 0.182s to set up a most intriguing front row for race one.
Race One (Round 22)
A blistering start saw Tom Ingram (Bristol Street Motors with Exceler8 Motorsport) make good of his second-place start, powering into the lead past Ash Sutton off the line. Ricky Collard (Toyota GAZOO Racing) also followed suit, instantly knocking Sutton down to third within the same manoeuvre.
Sutton, however, would gain a place back on Ricky Collard by the end of the first lap and powered past Ingram a lap later to reclaim the lead. As the rain once again threatened to upset the balance, Sutton pulled clear to leave Ingram having to battle to defend his second-place from other championship rival, Jake Hill (Laser Tools Racing with MB Motorsport).
Hill had already turned in a masterful display to ascend from ninth, taking places from team-mate Colin Turkington and the valiant Ricky Collard in the process.
Sutton cruised to his 34th career win but the battle for second would continue until the final moments as Hill and Ingram crossed the line door-to-door, with Ingram nudging over the line first by a mere 0.049s. In similar fashion to race one a fortnight ago at Knockhill, Jake Hill would be awarded the position later, however, after it was adjudged that Ingram failed to leave one car's width to the edge of the circuit whilst defending.
CarStore Power Maxed Racing's Árón Taylor-Smith bested rival Josh Cook to the Independent Driver's victory by crossing the line in seventh.
Race Two (Round 23)
Ash Sutton made up for his sticky start in race one to maintain his pole position from Jake Hill but Tom Ingram was soon on his tail after taking second from the Laser Tools with MB Motorsport man. A beautiful play on Sutton going into the Old Hairpin soon after saw Ingram snatch the lead, leaving the NAPA Racing UK driver to immediately having to fend off further challenges of the BMW's of Jake Hill and Colin Turkington.
Jake Hill, very much refusing to be written out of this year's championship battle just yet, showed the same determination as in race one by continuing to scrape and push to get his nose past the #116 Ford Focus ST. However, it was Sutton who crossed the line behind Ingram, with Hill claiming his second podium of the day and fourth out of the last five races, ahead of team-mate Turkington.
One Motorsport with Starline Racing's Josh Cook claimed the Independent Driver's victory with his fifth-place finish.
As the victor, Tom Ingram was the man to make the reverse grid draw and went for maximum impact, pulling 12th-place Daniel Lloyd (Autobrite Direct with Millers Oils) onto pole position for the final race of the day.
Race Three (Round 24)
Chasing his maiden with in the Team HARD. Racing-run Cupra Leon, Dan Lloyd made the perfect start by holding on to pole position from Exceler8's Tom Chilton, who was handed a five-second penalty early due to being out of position on the grid at the start of the race. Árón Taylor-Smith also ensured to hold on to the third-place position he was handed as part of the reverse grid draw.
Lloyd was putting space between himself and his nearest rivals until Jake Hill clipped the tyre stack on lap seven, summoning the safety car due to debris that was left on the track as a result, cancelling out the 1.9s lead Lloyd had on Toyota GAZOO Racing's Rory Butcher who had powered up from fifth to second.
Further back in the field, Ash Sutton had sliced through the pack from eleventh to take sixth from Colin Turkington by lap fourteen, with championship rivals Tom Ingram and Jake Hill in ninth and tenth respectively. Stephen Jelley was hanging on in eleventh whilst the fourth and final Team BMW car was making a play for a podium finish as Adam Morgan kept the pressure up on Aron Taylor-Smith going into the final lap.
Hope turned to heartbreak for race leader Dan Lloyd, however, as his Cupra's driveshaft failed with only five corners to go, sending the #123 machine spinning off into the gravel and gift-wrapping the race win for Rory Butcher. The disappointment was only too visible on the Yorkshire driver's face in post-race scenes after putting in an incredibly inspirational drive.
The result secured Toyota GAZOO Racing's first victory of the season and a highly emotional one for Butcher in a race where he and Lloyd clearly showed the passion and drive that exists amongst the Independent teams in the BTCC this year, and the importance of each and every chance of victory.
Rory Butcher said: “We joked about it – ‘you’ve done this before. You can do it again. We’re not leaving Donington without silverware.’
“That’s the teamwork we’ve got back at base. So happy to see Ricky [Collard], the way he is driving at the moment, and George [Gamble] is on the cusp there of making a breakthrough as well. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. We share data, we’re really open, we champion each other. It’s great.”
Árón Taylor-Smith crossed the line in second to earn not only his second Independent's trophy of the day but his first outright podium finish in seven years. It was also the second straight meeting that saw Power Maxed Racing finish on the rostrum, after Andre Watson's second-place at Knockhill.
Championship Standings - Summary
The weekend's performance saw Ash Sutton narrowly extend his lead at the top of the Driver's Championship standings to 42 points ahead of Tom Ingram with six races to go. Jake Hill's valiant efforts at Donington GP see him still with a fighting chance of mounting a title challenge, 62 points behind Sutton.
Ash Sutton said: “Getting past Tom [Ingram] in race one, I just wanted to make sure it was one hundred percent right before making the move. We saw what we were missing last year, and we have really chased things like traction and looking after the tyres.
"We still had some performance in the car until the very end and that just proved that the guys and girls at NAPA Racing have done an incredible job. The championship is on our mind now, so we’ll keep pushing, but we were also careful in those final two races to bring home some solid points.”
Team BMW maintain their lead in the Manufacturer's Championship but their lead over Motorbase Performance/Ford is cut to only 10 points after this weekend. Team BMW also leapfrog Bristol Street Motors with Exceler8 Motorsport into second in the overall Team's standings but trail leaders NAPA Racing UK by 141 points.
One Motorsport with Starline Racing and CarStore Power Maxed Racing are still battling in out in both the Independent's Driver's and Team's standings.
Another stellar showing by CarStore Power Maxed Racing sees both Aron Taylor-Smith and Andrew Watson jump above Aidan Moffat in the Independent Driver's standings, in second and third respectively. Independent's leader Josh Cook extends his lead in the standings to 97 points, whilst One Motorsport still lead the Independent's Team's table by 32 points.
Power Maxed Racing's Andrew Watson has now taken over at the top of the Jack Sears Trophy standings, 14 points clear of team-mate and former leader Mikey Doble.
BTCC Journalist @ F1 Journal