Following an outstanding performance from both Avensis models in the first official test day of the new 2017 Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship, the independent Toyota teams no doubt felt a weight of expectation ahead of the opening three rounds last weekend.
Last year, Tom Ingram of Speedworks Motorsport wowed the crowds with scene-setting pace, topping the timesheets in Free Practice before going on to win the first round. Would Tom’s performance be repeated in the team’s facelifted Avensis, or could Rob Austin and the Handy Motorsport team steal a march on their rival?
The initial answer to these questions was delivered in the crucible of Brands Hatch Indy circuit.
Brands Hatch Indy – Free Practice and Qualifying
Echoing last year’s performance, Ingram wasted no time setting a championship-leading pace, despite being ill with a cold. In the first practice session his fastest lap was set early on, while others slowly increased their pace toward the end of the 40-minute period. This was reversed in the second session, the Speedworks team choosing to refine the car’s settings before waiting until the closing minutes to set another benchmark hot lap.
Despite suffering some superficial contact damage from another competitor during the first session, Rob Austin’s opening shot was tenth position – less than four-tenths of a second behind Ingram’s effort. However, his finishing position improved to fifth in the second session, the Handy driver shaving more than a tenth from his previous lap time.
Qualifying was a more fraught affair, with inclement weather and a number of on-track incidents to shake up the order. Under these circumstances, Ingram secured second place on the starting grid and Austin – after fixing the door catch and finally gaining entry to his car – took eighth.
Brands Hatch Indy – Round 1
Although sitting in the outside lane, lightning reactions and the pace of the Avensis led to Ingram getting the better of pole-sitter Jeff Smith before Paddock Hill bend. Now leading the pack and staying clear of the start-line carnage, Ingram was able to maintain his position for the rest of the race.
In so doing, 23-year-old Ingram repeated his 2016 result by winning the opening race of the season for Speedworks Motorsport.
“That was absolutely fantastic! How do you put it into words?” beamed Ingram. “Two years on the bounce – it’s the best way to repay all that hard work over the winter. We had to try and get the jump on Jeff [Smith] off the line, and it was just about as perfect as it could have been. From there, I just tried to build as big a gap as I could.
“It’s a heck of a result but now we’ve just got to ensure we don’t do what we did last year. We were pace-setters but lost a lot of points over the races. If we can make amends there, we will be in contention.”
An impressive start from the fourth row of the grid helped Austin gain a place before Paddock Hill bend, and soon afterwards avoid a tangle to climb into fifth. On lap 15, Austin saw an opportunity to pass pole-starter Jeff Smith and capture fourth place, although four laps later Smith’s team-mate Jack Goff edged him back to fifth, where he stayed to the flag.
Brands Hatch Indy – Round 2
Problems hampered the beginning of Round 2 – an issue with Ingram’s car forcing an aborted start, and an incident at the restart forcing a red flag. Fortunately, the drive-through penalty given to Ingram as a result of the aborted start was annulled by the red flag incident, which allowed Ingram to start once again in pole position.
Once the race eventually got going, the success ballast in Ingram’s Avensis was clearly slowly him down, which allowed Gordon Sheddon to slip past on the second lap. Nevertheless, Ingram hung on gamely to second until the final lap, when Rob Collard nudged him through Paddock Hill and held the inside line down Hailwood Hill to wrest second place by Druids. Ingram crossed the line in third place, a little over 2.5 seconds behind Sheddon.
Meanwhile, a little further down the pack, a number of other battles were ongoing. Austin had managed to avoid getting tangled up in the start-line incidents, rocketing into third from fifth on the grid. Ongoing tussles with Andrew Jordan and Adam Morgan saw the Handy man edged back into fifth before he eventually clawed his way back into third on lap 21. Unaware that final move took place while the race had been paused under a yellow flag, Austin was unfortunately excluded from the results.
Brands Hatch Indy – Round 3
Despite having all results from Round 2 deleted by the Clerk of the Course and being relegated to last on the grid in the final round of the weekend, Austin channelled all his energy to produce a superb display of driving skill. Starting in 32nd on the grid, he climbed 16 positions through the race to finish in 18th position.
Handy Motorsport team principal Simon Belcher remains positive, commenting: “It’s been great to come to Brands in a positive mood, knowing our pace was solid and consistent. To qualify eighth, despite the problems we had, and take away a top five proves we’ve got the pace to challenge. It’s been a much better start than 12 months ago!”
Struggling to maintain position laden with success ballast, Ingram’s Avensis slipped down the grid in Round 3 and completed the race in 11th position.
2017 BTCC: driver standings
|2||Tom Ingram||Speedworks Motorsport||42|
|13||Rob Austin||Handy Motorsport||11|
2017 BTCC: team standings
The 2017 Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship returns in a fortnight, touching down at Donington Park circuit on the weekend of 15-16 April for rounds four through six.