EXCELR8 agonisingly close to BTCC breakthrough at Donington Park
EXCELR8 Motorsport came within a whisker of securing its maiden Kwik Fit British Touring Car Championship points during a trio of hard-fought races across the second round of the season at Donington Park.
Considering EXCELR8 is brand new to the BTCC, with two rookie drivers and learning the running of two MG6 GTs, there was no mistaking the improvement the squad had made from its series debut at Brands Hatch last month.
Both Rob Smith and Sam Osborne acquitted themselves well and showed distinct steps forward, with Smith coming within a lap of achieving the milestone of getting the team onto the scoreboard for the first time, in just its fourth BTCC race.
Following on from the mixed conditions sessions at Brands Hatch, qualifying at Donington was a similarly mixed bag. With both free practice sessions being wet, qualifying marked the first time the MGs had run on fresh slick tyres, making setup tricky.
A handful of red flags during the session made it hard for the drivers to find a rhythm, but Smith and Osborne brought the cars back in one piece with minimal drama – Smith in a fine P23 and top rookie, just 0.8s off the top 10 times, and Osborne in P28.
Smith set the tone for the weekend early on in Sunday’s races, with a battling performance that came agonisingly close to netting the team’s first BTCC points. After the changing conditions of Saturday, Sunday’s races took place on a fully dry circuit. Smith got a decent start to race one to hold off the attentions of Michael Crees’s Volkswagen into Redgate, but the order was shuffled by a multi-car tangle at the Old Hairpin right in front of him.
With cars spearing left, right and centre, Smith kept his head and darted through the chaos to emerge in 16th. Osborne did likewise, controlling his wheelspin off the line to run 22nd as the safety car was called to clear the debris.
When racing resumed a handful of laps later, Smith could smell points, and piled the pressure on Jack Goff’s Volkswagen ahead, while holding off Dan Rowbottom’s Mercedes behind. Some further attrition helped Smith into P14, and a points finish was on the cards, until his tyres began to wilt in the closing laps. Aiden Moffatt and Goff eventually snatched the final points-paying places on the final lap, leaving Smith 16th. Regardless, the team had shown its intent.
Osborne also enjoyed a clean race, running as high as 19th and battling hard with drivers such as Mark Blundell, who he successfully held off to the flag to secure 22nd.
Race two proved a more bruising affair, particularly for Osborne, who was dumped through the gravel at the chicane after contact with Mark Blundell’s Audi at the end of lap two. After being hit, Osborne kept his foot in to drag his MG back to the pits but, with the bent bodywork preventing the safe closure of his passenger-side door, his race was sadly ended early.
With just one car left running, all eyes were on Smith. Both MGs started on the harder option tyre, hoping to save the faster rubber for the weekend’s finale. With the time deficit being around one second per lap to the softer Dunlops, Smith had his work cut out. The struggle came early, with Smith admitting to pushing a bit too hard on the cold rubber and losing grip through graining, but he recovered well and survived a race of attrition to bring the car home in 18th.
Things looked bright for the weekend’s finale, with Smith starting 18th on the optimum tyres, with only five of the cars ahead of him also on the faster rubber. However, it just wasn’t to be his weekend. After battling hard with three-time BTCC champion Matt Neal, he was restricted to 19th place in a race afflicted by a lengthy safety car after three Volkswagens hit trouble on the opening lap.
The raw pace was in his MG, but fading brakes toward the end of the day meant he was just out of reach of the top 15.
With Osborne’s car patched up, he put in a strong drive to climb from 28th on the grid to finish 23rd and continue his BTCC education.
While points were so near and yet so far, the team leaves the second round of the season content with its early performance, having shown itself to be well and truly in the fight.
Rob Smith said: “It’s been a weekend of positives, but also a few negatives. We’ve shown a lot of potential, but we’re just lacking in our knowledge of the car, and that will only come with mileage.
“The pace to be consistently in the points is definitely in the car, but we’re just missing that final little bit of knowledge of how to make the car consistent, not through a race, but through a Sunday. But still, it’s only our second weekend and I’m disappointed at just missing out on points in the BTCC, that’s not half bad.”
Sam Osborne said: “We’re definitely getting there with the car and I’m getting more and more comfy in the car each time I go out. We’ve made a setup breakthrough on this car and it feels totally different now. Previously, going into heavy braking zones I couldn’t get the car to settle when the weight was on the nose, which made corner entry difficult. But the guys have looked at the suspension and it’s now so much better.
“It felt great leading Blundell to the flag in race one. It’s not every day you can say you beat an ex-F1 driver and Le Mans winner… It was just a shame I got torpedoed in race two! The last race was about going out and getting stuck in again and continuing to learn. Overall it’s been a positive weekend.”
EXCELR8 team manager Oliver Shepherd added: “We showed some good pace and got some solid results this weekend, and that progression is all we’re looking for in these early rounds. To be so close to a points finish in weekend two is great and it shows we’re understanding more about the car and that the drivers are too.
“We worked hard on refining the setup for Sam’s car and finding the balance that he wanted and today proved that we found a good step forward. For Rob it’s just about pushing the envelope that little further and finding the small tweaks that can help him get the moves done on track that will make the difference. But we’re doing the right thing: bringing the cars back in one piece because you definitely don’t get any points if you’re in the grass. It would have been nice to achieve the milestone of becoming BTCC points-scorers, but there’s always next time”