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EXCELR8 BTCC team battered and bruised, but still fighting after Oulton Park

EXCELR8 will bounce back from a bruising British Touring Car Championship round at Oulton Park last weekend, during which the team’s technical staff shone during difficult circumstances.

Hopes were high ahead of the fifth round of the campaign at the Cheshire track as, after three consecutive rounds of having to learn new circuits, Oulton Park at least represented a familiar venue for the team. However, three bruising races presented the team with the biggest technical challenge of its BTCC life so far.

On paper, the Oulton Park results don’t reflect the team’s work. But under the surface both the team and drivers made big steps this weekend in terms of both driving style and set up. The drivers are starting to understand the handling characteristics of NGTC hardware, and the requirement to give the front tyres an easy life. This, combined with setup changes, have allowed the outfit to reduce the lap time deficit to the frontrunners by about 25% compared to the start of the campaign, and are now within 0.6s of the works Toyotas and Vauxhalls. If that rate of improvement continues across the second half of the year, the team has high hopes of fighting well within the top 15.

EXCELR8’s engineers have been chasing an improved high-speed balance in the twin MG6 GTs across the first half of the year, attempting to find a setup that can give both Rob Smith and Sam Osborne more confidence in their cars’ behaviour and feel through quick turns, without compromising outright performance.

The team made solid progress through Saturday’s free practice sessions, but the rising track temperature for qualifying didn’t help matters. Both drivers felt the balance changed and struggled in the highly competitive session. Smith would start a disappointed 28th on his home track, with Osborne in 29th after losing two of his fastest times.

The team went back to the drawing board for Sunday, making positive changes to try to get more out of the Dunlop tyres and dial out understeer through the quick corners.

Smith opted to take the option softer tyres for race one, diverging strategies with Osborne, who would start on the prime medium rubber. Smith engaged in a great battle with Mark Blundell’s Audi, both cars running off the circuit at Lodge at one point as Blundell defended solidly from Smith’s attack, allowing Osborne through.

A mid-race safety car period allowed both MG drivers a chance to cool their tyres. With Smith’s softer rubber benefiting from the break, he launched a series of great attacks over the race’s second half to move up to 25th by the flag, with Osborne following him home in 26th.

After the cars’ improvement, both drivers were keen to push into the top 20 in race two, but neither really got the chance to show what they could do after two damaging incidents brought about the team’s first double retirement.

It all started so well, with Smith dodging the debris of a chaotic opening lap, which included Jack Goff’s Volkswagen ploughing into the side of Chris Smiley’s Honda at the hairpin and scattering the pack. When things shook out after the resulting safety car period, Smith ran 19th with eyes on fighting for the team’s first points finish. However, his medium Dunlops simply ran out of grip towards the end and a last-lap battle with Michael Crees’ Volkswagen ended in disaster, with Smith being put into the tyre wall hard at Dear Leap corner after contact between the two on the run to the flag. The stricken MG was returned to the garage but, with a short turnaround between races, little could be done to get the car into a competitive, and safe, shape for race three.

With Smith sidelined, the team suffered a double-whammy when Osborne pitted from race two with a mysterious knocking at the rear. Contact in the race had dislodged his rear splitter, but there as something amiss with the suspension also. Osborne rejoined without the broken bodywork, but later lost control out of Old Hall corner, clattering the barriers.

With two broken cars, EXCELR8’s engineering team jumped on Osborne’s machine, just managing to complete the necessary repairs in time to get him to the collecting area for the finale. Osborne repaid the team’s hard work by climbing from 27th on the grid to finish 21st after a fine battling drive, despite his car still carrying some handling issues as a legacy of the earlier accident.

While the season is now in a summer shutdown until Snetterton in August, the team will be back in action for a two-day Dunlop tyre test at Snetterton later this month.

Rob Smith said “Obviously the weekend was very disappointing for a few different reasons. Qualifying was tough as we simply went the wrong way on setup, but we made some good changes for Sunday and we’d found a direction to follow across the day. The car was better to start with but went off a fair bit in race two. I think the soft tyre was actually very good this weekend, and perhaps our medium tyres weren’t as good as we thought they would be. But then I got into a fight with Michael Crees. He lunged me at the hairpin and I fought back at the last corner and got alongside. Then – well, I’ll reserve that judgment for the clerks. But the big shunt means we’ve got a hell of a lot of work to try and get the car straight for the Snetterton test, and that could be huge for us. Two full days of open pit-lane running could be key to us making some big gains.”

Sam Osborne said: “I feel like I’ve been in the ring with Mike Tyson this weekend! We’ve certainly learnt a fair bit from this one. We’ve gone forwards, and backwards… luckily we finished the weekend by moving forwards. In race two I had some damage on the rear-left, which I had to carry through race three also. It meant that every time the car hit a bump it would try to weave to the left, and it was a handful through each right-hander too. We’ll have to go away and unpick the suspension to see what’s wrong. We made a few changes to mask the problem for race three, but it just hindered the overall performance. But we gave it all we could and got the car home in one piece. The boys did a great job to even get me back out there.”

EXCELR8 team manager Oliver Shepherd added: “Oulton was disappointing overall for us, we expected a bit more from the weekend, but there’s still some positives to take away. The way the team worked all weekend was fantastic and, when faced with two badly damaged cars and only an hour to try and make repairs, we got Sam’s back out and finished the last race higher than we started. That’s the result of the work we’ve been doing to strengthen and organise the team better, and it was great to see. We’ll have to strip down Rob’s car to fully assess the damage, but first impressions are that it’s not as bad as it looks. The mid-season break comes at a good time. We’ve now got two days of no-pressure testing, where I reckon our drivers will really show what they can do. Each weekend so far they’ve had to go through various processes and also learn new tracks. This will be about pure driving and I think we’ll all benefit from it.”

Full results and timing from the Oulton Park BTCC round are available via tsl-timing.com. The next round of the championship takes place at Snetterton on August 3/4.

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