Rounds 28, 29 & 30

It doesn’t seem possible that the closing stages of the KwikFit British Touring Car Championship has now reached the grand finale, as the UK’s best racing series arrived at Kent’s wonderful Brands Hatch Grand Prix Circuit.

While some might have been focused on the main protagonists, as they battled it out for Championship honours, our Racing with Wera and Photon Group duo, Sam Osborne and Andy Neate, looked to put in a solid performance in their Ford Focus ST’s and finish the season on a high.

Qualifying

Saturday’s thirty minute qualifying session took place under the sun, and went down to the wire, as the drivers sprinted around the 2.83 miles GP circuit to see who would grab pole position.

That final pole position of the season went to Senna Proctor in his BTC Racing Honda Civic Type R, who nicked the position with a stunning lap in the insanely close field.

The Racing with Wera and Photon Group duo lined up eighteenth (Sam Osborne) and 24th (Andy Neate), with Sam sandwiched between Jason Plato and Rory Butcher. Andy, who announced his retirement from the BTCC earlier in the day, found himself between Sam Smelt and Jade Edwards.

Sam said that he was gutted with his qualifying, as he was 3/10s up on a mega lap, but hit traffic on the second-to-last corner, which killed it for him. He followed that up with another good sector time a lap later, before making a slight mistake in Graham Hill Bend, which killed some of his speed. On his last lap, he rued the traffic once again, saying that he had top-10 speed, but was just unlucky… such is the nature of the BTCC! However, he was happy with the set-up of his number 4 Ford Focus ST and, knowing that the speed is there, was looking forward to Sunday’s races.

Race 1 (Round 28)

Like the previous round, all drivers were using the medium compound tyres once again, as they took their places on the grid for the first fifteen lapper of the day. Both Racing with Wera and Photon Group Ford Focus ST’s got off the line well, with Sam initially getting the jump on both Rory Butcher and Jason Plato, only to see the former’s Toyota Gazoo Racing UK Corolla relegate him back into eighteenth before the end of the opening lap.

Unfortunately, by the fifth lap, Sam found himself further behind after Aron Taylor-Smith (Team HARD Cupra Leon) got by, before Jack Goff (Team HARD with Autobrite Direct Cupra Leon) and Jason Plato (Adrian Flux with Power Maxed Racing Vauxhall Astra) got passed going into Paddock Hill Bend. That was the point when Andy’s race came to an unfortunate end, after the number 44 Ford spun into the Druids gravel trap, having been lightly tapped by Jade Edwards’ PHSC with BTC Racing Honda Civic Type R. With the Ford beached, the Safety Car entered proceedings to allow it to be cleared, thus closing the field back up.

The race restarted on the eighth lap of (extended) 17, and Sam was on the offensive immediately, passing Plato for 20th position. By lap ten, he was in the middle of a four-car battle for eighteenth, as he chased down Goff and Taylor-Smith, while keeping Plato’s Astra behind. By lap eleven Jack Mitchell (Team HARD with Autobrite Direct Cupra Leon) had joined the queue, just as Taylor-Smith dropped it and fell behind to 22nd, thus promoting Sam up to 19th.

Three laps later saw Sam overtake Goff for 18th, before defending well despite locking up slightly as they rushed into the steep Paddock Hill Bend at the start of lap 15. Unfortunately, Goff returned the favour before the start of lap sixteen, leaving Sam to fend off Plato to the finish line. Nineteenth became eighteenth when Stephen Jelley (Team BMW) fell down the order with a problem, leaving Sam to finish where he’d originally started.

Race 2 (Round 29)

The penultimate race of the season saw our duo starting 18th (Sam) and 29th (Andy), with the latter becoming 28th after Jason Plato was relegated to the pitlane with a problem on his Adrian Flux with Power Maxed Racing Vauxhall Astra.

Pandemonium ensued at the beginning of this second fifteen lap race as, first Senna Proctor locked up the brakes on his BTC Racing Honda Civic Type R at Druids to slide into the gravel trap, and then a classic BTCC coming-together occurred as the field raced into Surtees. The crash saw Ollie Jackson (Motorbase Performance Ford Focus), Tom Oliphant (Team BMW), and Adam Morgan (Car Gods with Ciceley Motorsport BMW) all retired from the race alongside Proctor’s Honda, and the Safety Car deployed.

As racing resumed on lap four (of 17 now), Sam found himself in a respectable 13th, while Andy was up to 22nd. The charging Tom Ingram (Ginsters EXCELR8 with TradePriceCars.com Hyundia i30N) got past Sam after the restart, before the recovering Jake Hill (Motorbase Performance Ford Focus ST) caught and got by on the sixth lap. However, Sam was soon promoted to 12th when both Aiden Moffat (Laser Tools Racing Infinity Q50) and Chris Smiley (EXCELR8 Motorsport Hyundia i30N) both dropped down the field.

While Sam’s battle with Jack Goff continued, Andy’s Ford picked up an unfortunate problem, and he entered the pitlane to retire from the race. Just as Sam was getting into his rhythm on the track, the Safety Car was deployed after Nicolas Hamilton binned his Team HARD-backed Cupra Leon in the Westfield gravel trap on lap 13. With the entire field bunched back up and the hazard removed, racing restarted on lap sixteen of the (now stretched) 18, sparking a mad dash to the finish.

At the restart, Sam was hung out to dry on the outside of Druids, whereby the charging Tom Ingram’s Hyundia got by, before Sam Smelt’s Toyota Gazoo Racing UK Corolla pushed Sam back to fourteenth later in the lap. Sam continued battling with the Corolla together with Carl Boardley’s Laser Tools Racing Infinity Q50 to the chequered flag, where he earned two more championship points.

Race 3 (Round 30)

Not only was Race 3/Round 30 the final race of this 2021 thrilling KwikFit British Touring Car Championship, it was also Andy’s final race before retiring from the series. And I’m sure that everyone within the series and Racing with Wera and Photon Group Team wished him well with his future endeavours. He’d line up 25th for this final race, while Sam started in fourteenth.

The number 4 Ford got a good start, jumping up a position before settling into 12th when Colin Turkington (Team BMW) spun down the field before entering the pitlane with broken suspension. Andy, meanwhile, held station in 25th. The familiar sight of the Safety Car materialised once again on the sixth lap, after Jack Mitchell’s Cupra Leon ended up stuck in the gravel trap. With the lap-count increased to 18, racing resumed on lap ten with Andy now sitting in 22nd place. Stephen Jelley’s BMW was then turned around by Jake Hill’s Motorbase Performance Ford Focus ST after Graham Hill Bend, which promoted Andy up to 21st and Sam up to 11th, before Sam got passed by both Moffatt and Oliphant in a hectic restart.

Sam Smelt’s Corolla got by Andy on the 12th lap, while Sam was fighting hard with Adam Morgan and Senna Proctor. Two laps later saw Andy having a good old ding-dong with Nicolas Hamilton, in a battle that would see the number 44 Ford Focus ST win and maintain 22nd position to the end.

Meanwhile, with the beautiful sight of brake discs glowing in the fading sunlight, Jade Edwards and Aiden Moffatt joined the raging battle between Adam Morgan, Senna Proctor and the number 4 Ford of Sam, as the latter tried to close in on Tom Oliphant’s BMW. Unfortunately, Morgan managed to get his Car Gods with Ciceley Motorsport BMW 330i by the Ford on the penultimate lap, leaving Sam to finish outside the points in 17th.

As the dust settled on another thrilling BTCC season, not to mention, Andy’s career, he said that his weekend was obviously an emotional one, but he was proud of his achievements (and so he should be), despite not getting the results he really wanted. He was, however, pleased to have ended his BTCC career with such a good team behind him, which he’ll never forget.

Sam, meanwhile, was somewhat disappointed with his afternoon in the number 4 Ford, believing that something was lacking but wasn’t sure what, yet knew that he was struggling to maintain the balance with the car. He had amazing speed in the races, but was suffering with a bit of understeer, not to mention a little bad luck with the Safety Cars and faster cars behind. However, he was positive and looking forward to progressing up the field next year.

By Chris Palmer