Ingram closes on championship lead as Speedworks make best of 'below-par' weekend
Speedworks Motorsport tallied another points-scoring hat-trick as the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) returned to action in dramatic fashion at Snetterton, with Tom Ingram making the best of an uncharacteristically off-colour weekend to close in on the top of the title standings.
Having stolen the show at the two-day Dunlop tyre test at Snetterton a month earlier – where Ingram comfortably set the pace come rain and shine and smashed the lap record in the process – Speedworks headed back to the high-speed Norfolk circuit in confident mood but right from the outset, the plucky independent outfit struggled to unlock the same kind of form from its #80 Toyota Avensis.
After placing inside the top eight in both free practice sessions, talented young Bucks ace Ingram proceeded to qualify fourth amongst the 31 high-calibre contenders – some of the very best touring car protagonists on the planet – but was left ruing a mistake that arguably cost him a third pole position of 2016. Nonetheless, his performance reinstated the 22-year-old as the season’s best average qualifier to-date, having missed the top five just once in six attempts.
Carrying more success ballast than those around him on the grid with 33kg in the Avensis, Ingram found himself shuffled back to sixth as the pack jostled for ground on the opening lap of race one in the immensely popular, ITV4 live-televised BTCC – commonly regarded as the world’s premier and most fiercely-disputed tin-top series. Thereafter, he had his mirrors – and hands – full with two-time champion Jason Plato’s super-fast and weight-free Subaru Levorg, not to mention an unwelcome vibration.
Despite valiantly defending his position under tremendous pressure, the Speedworks man was forced to concede on the penultimate lap, but he subsequently staved off championship leader Sam Tordoff to the chequered flag and a late puncture for Ashley Sutton secured him his eighth top sixth finish of the campaign. The fact that he was only able to set the 15th-quickest lap time underlined how hard he’d had to fight for it.
A rapid getaway in race two saw Ingram swiftly settle into the top five with a gap back to the chasing pack, but a multi-car shunt further down the order littered the track with debris and brought out the red flags. The British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC) Rising Star lost a couple of spots at the re-start, but he soon regained seventh place and was pushing Matt Neal for sixth when a squabble directly ahead delayed him and dropped him behind his earlier nemesis Plato.
With his Avensis now sporting several battle scars, Ingram tried to attack whilst at the same time remaining mindful of Tordoff in his slipstream, and he ultimately crossed the finish line seventh to secure more valuable points and a front row grid slot for the finale.
Surrounded by fast-starting rear wheel-drive machinery, the KX Akademy graduate and MSA Academy member got an excellent launch to hold position but the red flags immediately flew once more for a frightening-looking accident on the pit straight that thankfully yielded no serious injuries. After losing out slightly at the re-start, Ingram was then unceremoniously removed from podium contention by an overly-aggressive Mat Jackson, who sideswiped Adam Morgan’s Mercedes, which in-turn ricocheted into the Toyota, sending it bouncing across the grass and down to 14th.
The three-time Ginetta Champion and former British Karting Champion evinced good pace as he recovered to 12th at the flag, in so doing continuing to close in on the overall championship lead and maintaining his title bid in the Independents’ Trophy. Speedworks, meanwhile, advanced from seventh to sixth in the Teams’ classification and consolidated second place in the Independent Teams’ Trophy.
“Given everything that went on around us, that was a comparatively quiet weekend from our point-of-view!” reflected the Northwich, Cheshire-based squad’s Team Principal Christian Dick. “We still haven’t been able to put our finger on why we weren’t as strong as usual – yes, we started out with more weight in the car than at any other stage this season and yes, temperatures were lower than at the tyre test, but it wasn’t all down to that. We just couldn’t find the sweet spot and there always seemed to be something missing.
“We progressively chipped away and sixth in race one was a solid result, although Tom was unlucky that both races two and three were red-flagged after promising starts – without that, we could have been talking about a very different outcome.
“That said, we’ve got to be happy to come away with three points-scoring finishes and to have actually gained ground in the championship – if that’s a bad weekend, we’ll definitely take it! Not only that, but with a tight turnaround before the next round at Knockhill, to have incurred no major damage is a real bonus – particularly given the condition in which a number of cars concluded the weekend! It was a huge relief to see everybody walk away from such a big accident in race three.
“On paper, Knockhill is not the kind of circuit that is best-suited to the Avensis, but by the same token, Snetterton should have been tailor-made for it so it’s fair to say the BTCC formbook has been completely thrown out of the window this year and it’s impossible to make any kind of predictions. One thing’s for sure, though – if the racing is anything like it was last weekend, it will be vital to stay out of trouble!”
“We felt really positive about our prospects going to Snetterton after the tyre test, but right from the outset, the car just didn’t feel the same and we’re not sure why,” echoed Ingram, who will travel to Knockhill sitting seventh in the Drivers’ standings and second in the Independents’ Trophy. “The Avensis had been awesome during the test, but straightaway in FP1, it was like a totally different animal and we hadn’t changed a thing. The cooler conditions probably played a small part, but I don’t think that fully explained our loss of pace so there was a fair bit of head-scratching going on.
“That was then compounded by my error in qualifying, which cost us a shot at pole but fourth was far from a bad place to start in the circumstances – it put us ahead of most of the guys directly around us in the championship, while the three drivers in front of us were all carrying less ballast. We were hopeful of being able to push for the podium from there – but unfortunately, that never really happened.
“Midway through lap two in the first race, I picked up a huge vibration through the steering and we were effectively fighting a losing battle from that point on. I held Jason at bay for as long as I could, but he’s a wily old fox and I could see he was getting increasingly feisty so in the end I decided to let him go rather than risk an accident – and with Sutton suffering a puncture, we didn’t actually lose a position.
“I got a really good start in race two that was undone by the red flag, and having taken a lot out of the clutch first time round, I knew the second one would be somewhat compromised – and sadly, I was proved right. It turned pretty messy in the early laps, and after getting stuck behind Plato, we didn’t really have the speed to properly attack him. Following some changes, the car felt better in race three and I made another cracking start before the red flag – but at the re-start, exactly the same happened as in race two and then Jackson went for a very ambitious move that ruined our chances.
“Overall, it was a pretty below-par weekend by our recent standards, but in this game, the key is to make the most of those weekends so to come out of it having taken three points finishes and actually closed on the championship lead wasn’t too shabby. Saying that, it was the first time all season that we’ve not really had podium-challenging pace, so we have plenty to go through between now and Knockhill to try to get to the bottom of it and ensure we come back fully on-song – and that’s exactly what we’ll do.”