Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
Marcus Simmons

Why TOCA is right to avoid parity tweak in Sutton BTCC domination

It’s around 10am on Saturday 22 April at Donington Park. The first British Touring Car Championship free practice session of the season is nearing its end. The rhythm of rasping BTCC cars bombing downhill through the Craner Curves to the Old Hairpin is becoming almost hypnotic. Suddenly, a blue-and-yellow projectile comes into view, carrying what must be impossible speed into the right-hander at the bottom of the hill. There’s no way it can make it through…

It does. Comfortably. Ash Sutton and his newly massively developed Motorbase Performance-run Ford Focus ST end that session nearly half a second clear of the opposition. The progress of what is, let’s not forget, a front-wheel-drive machine carrying a base weight of 1340kg has been extraordinary. So too is the three-time champion behind the wheel.

At this point, Autosport concludes that Sutton will, in 2023, claim his fourth BTCC crown before the teams even rock up at the Brands Hatch season finale in October, becoming the first man in series history to have won titles with front and rear-wheel-drive weapons.

Friday favourite: The "lazy V8" Rover that took on Europe's giants

Well, sometimes we can get things wrong! Owing partly to his ill-advised first-lap incidents at Oulton Park and Croft, Sutton has a ‘mere’ 42-point advantage over reigning (outgoing?) champion Tom Ingram heading to Silverstone for this weekend’s penultimate round. He needs to leave the Northamptonshire venue with a 67-point buffer and, with Ingram’s commendable penchant for harvesting strong results (“pointsy”, as the man himself would impishly proclaim), that’s unlikely, though not impossible.

Of course, Sutton didn’t claim pole that weekend at Donington; instead it was team-mate Dan Rowbottom, even if the bearded Midlander’s lap to top the second phase of qualifying wasn’t quite as rapid as Sutton’s Q1 standard. Next time out, in the wet at Brands Hatch, it was another Ford on pole in the hands of Dan Cammish. From the remaining six race weekends, Sutton has topped qualifying in five of them, the exception being Croft, where Cammish was superb.

So that’s eight poles out of eight for the Motorbase Fords. It’s led to calls in some quarters for the Focus to be slowed down – this is a performance-balancing formula, after all. Some within West Surrey Racing, whose lead drivers Jake Hill and Colin Turkington currently lie third and fourth in the points in their BMW 330e M Sports, point out that when they introduced the 3-Series in 2019, such was the early-season pace of Turkington and Andrew Jordan that they had the boost turned down. Surely, therefore, the same should happen with the Fords.

Sutton has scored nine wins so far this season and looks odds-on to claim a fourth title (Photo by: JEP)

Yet it’s not as simple as that. The winter development of the Fords (and their Mountune-built engines) kept the cars carefully within the parameters set by the technical team of BTCC organiser TOCA. And if you look at the 2023 average ‘supertimes’, where each driver’s fastest lap of the weekend is calculated as a percentage of the overall quickest, it paints an interesting picture.

Sutton, naturally, is supreme, with an average of 100.021% over the eight weekends. Then we get Excelr8 Motorsport Hyundai star Ingram on 100.397 and Hill on 100.398 – almost inseparable. Josh Cook is on 100.528 with his One Motorsport Honda Civic, with Turkington on 100.569. So we have four different models of car in the top five, and the only duplicate is… the BMW.

Cammish is on 100.786, behind Speedworks Motorsport Toyota Corolla racer Ricky Collard (100.751), with Rowbottom next on 100.819. Such was Cammish’s pace in his Team Dynamics days that you would have expected him to have a better average in that team’s Honda. Rowbottom, who effectively replaced Cammish at Dynamics, would likely have fared similarly with that team. So does that mean that the Motorbase Focus is only as good as, if not worse than, the Dynamics Honda?

Of course, it doesn’t, but such is the very special talent of Sutton – a driver who two-time BTCC champion Alain Menu hails as easily as good as any of the superstars from the Super Touring era – that he can regularly take a machine to extremes that are inaccessible to others. And it is apparent that, for possibly the first time in his BTCC career, he is not fighting a car disadvantage.

You can twist statistics to tell any story you want, but the black-and-white numbers give a hint as to how TOCA could have been treading in murky waters by ‘turning down’ the Fords

Even if you go into median averages to minimise the effects of outliers (for example, Turkington’s Oulton Park qualifying exclusion and Cammish’s crash in qualifying at Knockhill), it affects things only slightly. Sutton leads here on a perfect 100.000 to the 100.382 of Ingram. Turkington moves up to head Hill and Cook (the only non-Motorbase driver to have a weekend fastest lap, with his free practice effort at Croft), all in the 100.4s. Cammish moves ahead of Collard, but only onto 100.644 – still behind his expected Dynamics figure from 2018-20.

Looking at it by team and manufacturer, WSR and BMW (Hill has been fastest of the team four times, Turkington on three occasions and Stephen Jelley once) move ahead of Excelr8 and Hyundai (for whom Ingram has done all the heavy lifting and has been fastest every time, ditto Cook with the One Honda equipe): 100.303 to 100.382. Yet we hear theories that the rear-wheel-drive BMW is now only the third fastest car in the series.

Of course, you can twist statistics to tell any story you want, but the black-and-white numbers give a hint as to how TOCA could have been treading in murky waters by ‘turning down’ the Fords. Slowing Sutton by almost 0.4% to give parity with Ingram and the BMWs might make the title race closer, but it could have dropped Cammish and Rowbottom into Power Maxed Vauxhall/Hard Cupra territory, and Sam Osborne into the bottom six on the grid. None of them would deserve that. Instead, it’s better to applaud the remarkable Sutton.

Car advantage? Possibly. Driver advantage? Certainly.

Sutton leads the way at Donington, just as he has for the majority of the season (Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images)
Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.