It was never going to be straightforward. Scripts for the British Touring Car Championship tend to be written with scant regard for the form book.
Arriving at Brands Hatch, there was, at least, some clarity as to what the weekend might deliver. Four drivers stood a mathematical chance of claiming the coveted drivers’ crown, but in reality, only two, Ash Sutton and Colin Turkington, would go head-to-head.
Sutton carried the advantage, with a 10 point lead in the championship and 6 race wins to 3, but nobody would discount former double-champion Turkington, remembering that this time only a year ago, the Northern Irishman raced to two stunning victories to pile the pressure on rivals Gordon Shedden and Sam Tordoff.
Likewise, with the Independent Drivers’ Championship, Speedworks’ Tom Ingram and Eurotech’s Jack Goff would continue the thrilling duels that began at this same Kent circuit just six months earlier. Ingram was primed. He’d already taken eight Independent (and four outright) wins in a season that has seen his status grow. But Goff, too, has seen his star rise since joining Eurotech. Never short of pace, the former Clio Cup champion had gradually wrestled-away the advantage of the works Hondas to stake his claim as a genuine title race contender.
There is perhaps no greater challenge on the BTCC’s calendar to car, engineer and driver than the Brands Hatch Grand Prix Circuit. Sweeping corners, changing cambers and rising apexes that work every sinew of man and machine. Tree-lined and narrow, there is no rest, even on the long back straight. Speed gathering on the climb out of Surtees before the abrupt plunge down Pilgrim’s and then the immediate ascent towards Hawthorn. It’s fast, tough, demanding, and most of all, unforgiving.
It’s also a track which suits our rear-wheel drive protagonists, although throw in some rain and the front-wheel drive cars reign back the advantage, provided they can warm up their rear tyres before entering Paddock Hill Bend..
Saturday morning’s free practice sessions provided glimpses of the pace we would come to see from the Mercedes of Aiden Moffat and Goff’s Honda, but with changing conditions, most teams covered their hands, focusing more on understanding where they would need to go with set-up if the predicted rain fell.
By mid afternoon, just as the green light shone to signal the start of the final qualifying session of the year, so the drizzle came. Fearing a downpour, cars scrambled to get an all-important banker-lap-in, but waning grip found early victims in Brett Smith and then Josh Cook.
The red flags were waved and as the session recommenced, so the track dried, allowing Goff to stretch his legs, but there was no such luck for Turkington. His BMW 125i M Sport refused to start and as the West Surrey Racing team worked furiously to rectify the problem, others exploited their familiarity with the conditions to gain pace.
By the time Turkington emerged from the pit lane, his session was already compromised. Pitched into a pack that was now up to speed, it was a battle just to find clean space and get on with the job in hand. Time was against him, and as the chequered flag fell, it was Goff who took pole whilst Sutton eased into third; the BMW, however, could only struggle to a lowly 17th.
Sunday – Race Day
It was 6.50am when I arrived at the circuit and already, crowds and clouds were gathering. Die-hard fans were swapping banter and prizing-open steaming flasks, whilst from behind the garages, crews were assembling to the smell of sizzling bacon and RainX.
Race 1: If I have one criticism of Jack Goff, it’s that he sometimes appears to hesitate. I see it, and his fellow drivers must see it too. So a sluggish start off the line handed an immediate advantage to Moffat, the young Scot who had lined-up alongside him. Seizing the opportunity to hold a steady line around the outside at Paddock Hill, the bright blue Mercedes left little room for Goff to straighten his wheel and the pole man slowly felt his traction give way, sending him first sideways, then backwards and into the barrier.
It was the perfect birthday present for Moffat (who had just turned 21 two days earlier). With his head down, and knowing that a great result here could help take him to a top team over the winter, he guided the Laser Tools car forward, using his weight advantage to push away from every corner ahead of Sutton and Ingram. The three soon broke-free, eventually opening a 13-second gap to the 4th placed car of Mat Jackson, and whilst Ingram, who thrives at the Kent circuit, first challenged, then took Sutton for position, Moffat remained in charge, leading to the line to take the second win of his young BTCC career.
Third for Sutton handed the Subaru driver 15 points, while Turkington who had been unable to make any significant progress, finished 15th, and in the last of the points scoring positions. The gap between Sutton and Turkington had now stretched to 24 points – surely the BMW driver’s title chances were now over?
Race 2: At a circuit like Brands Hatch, the addition of ballasted weight wrenches tenths out of each corner’s exit. With 75kg on board, Moffat was going to find himself under attack, whereas with no weight added, Turkington knew that if he was going to take the fight to Sutton in race 3, he had to conjure something pretty special.
As it was, Moffat led from pole with the confidence of a multiple race winner. He had Ingram then Mat Jackson piling-on pressure in a race where the pack grew more persistent with each passing lap. Sutton, however, succumbed to the challenges that were being fired at him. He knew that he couldn’t afford to DNF and he knew that those around him were aware of this too. But as soon you start to go backwards in racing, so the tide turns harshly against you.
Sutton was losing too many places and falling ever more surely into the sights of Turkington. The BMW driver, on the other hand, was on a mission, scything past opponents into corner after corner. By lap 7, the two were together and as they crossed the line at the start of lap 8, Turkington placed his car right into Sutton’s rear camera, ready to make his move. Sutton defended and Turkington took briefly to Hailwood’s grassy perimeter, but you could see that the BMR man knew that it was better to fight later on track than later in the steward’s room.
Turkington was now free to press-on. Goff, Neal, Shedden, Ingram, Jackson. All are proven winners, yet one by one, Turkington lined them up and made the pass. Only Moffat now stood between him and a remarkable win.
With three laps to go, time was on Turkington’s side, but when you’re on a roll, you’re on a roll. Again as he rose-up the straight towards Paddock Hill, he tucked in behind the Scot. Moffat saw him coming and moved to defend but Turkington was already carrying his speed and the BMW hit Moffat hard, sending the Mercedes wide and the Ulsterman into the lead. Shedden, Neal and Jackson all followed.
It was heartbreak for Moffat. He’d done everything and more to secure back-to-back victories. And despite being later penalised with a fine and points sanction, Turkington kept the win and with it, presented a packed Brands Hatch with the finale everyone had been hoping for. There was now just 6 points between Turkington and Sutton.
Race 3: The calculators were working overtime in the media room. Turkington would start race 3 two places ahead of Sutton (p10 and p12 respectively). If he finished three places ahead, he’d be champion, or if they both made great progress and he finished third or better, then he only needed to maintain the 2-place gap to achieve what just a few hours earlier had seemed impossible. It was race-on!
But with 75kg of ballast, this was never going to be an easy race for the West Surrey man. He was pitched into the midfield and Sutton, now ballast-free, was directly behind him. At the front, it was a first reverse-grid pole for Team Hard’s Mike Epps but with drizzle once again starting to fall, getting off the line was going to be tricky.
As the lights went out, Epps struggled for grip, allowing Rob Austin to immediately challenge through Paddock and on the run-up to Druids. Behind, Turkington and Sutton also found their starts less than ideal as their rear tyres struggled for traction.
This was the final race for Austin with the Toyota Avensis and he could clearly sense the opportunity presented to him. He made his move and got his head down. Turkington and Sutton were also now pressing on and by the end of lap 1, it was Austin, Epps, Ingram, Jackson, Turkington, Goff and Sutton.
Jackson was looking particularly quick and wanted to end a difficult season on the high that he and his team deserved. Lining-up Ingram, he went ahead out of Druids. The two ran line-astern down towards Graham Hill bend but Ingram was carrying too much speed and nudged Jackson onto the grass mid-corner. Turkington, who had been watching from behind took to the inside and passed both but as Jackson returned to the circuit, his Focus clattered into the the rear of the BMW and broke its suspension. And that was it. Game over; championship over. Turkington limped into the pits and the winning t-shirts were passed around in the BMR garage.
Unleashed, Sutton raced on towards the flag, with Austin maintaining his lead and giving Simon Belcher’s Handy Motorsport squad its maiden BTCC win. Jack Goff capped his season with a drive to P2 and an ecstatic Sutton, at just 23, delivered a championship winning performance, finishing 3rd and completing an outstanding year with his 14th podium (6 wins) and the justified acclaim of both paddock and fans.
To cap off another brilliant season, Ingram secured 3rd in the overall championship to accompany his Independents crown and there was even some silverware for Turkington to hold as the celebratory fireworks marked the end of another great season of racing – Team BMW (Turkington and Collard) were crowned Teams’ Champions while BMW secured the BTCC Manufacturers’ crown.
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Pictures: Steve Hindle(The Black Stuff).