Toyota’s trio of independent BTCC racers endured a rollercoaster ride of mixed fortune at Brands Hatch today, accidents and mechanical mishaps marring what had promised to be a promising start to their Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship campaigns.
However, through the drama came Frank Wrathall to score his first points of the season for the Dynojet Racing team, with Speedworks Motorsport Avensis pilot Tony Hughes claiming his first-ever championship point. Unfortunately the championship’s newest recruit, Adam Morgan, had nothing to show for his fine efforts but a severely damaged car.
Saturday’s qualifying session went well, with 25-year-old Wrathall an impressive eighth fastest in his brand new and largely unsorted Toyota, and Morgan an excellent 13th. The Dynojet Racing crew had toiled until 4am in the Brands Hatch pits to ready the car for its competition debut.
Wrathall’s performance was all the more impressive given the lack of testing time available prior to hitting the track in Kent. “We gave the Toyota a brief shakedown on Friday on the way to the circuit,” said Garstang-based Frank. “The first free practice session on Saturday was the longest time I had sat in the car, so I’m made up with eighth. To bring a car here with no testing and to qualify eighth, less than five-tenths off pole. it’s unbelievable. And the good thing is that there is huge room for improvement - it’s not like we can’t go any quicker; there is a lot more to come... It’s a great effort all round by the team, and I can’t thank them enough for all the hard work they have put in.”
Though promising, the new Toyota’s race debut was brief, with a gearbox problem after a couple of laps forcing Frank to retire to the pits. “Third gear broke up,” he said. “It’s something that has never happened before, and who could have predicted it? It’s a shame because that was probably my best-ever BTCC start. I got off the line well and in the first couple of corners was battling through. I was in quite a good position, then it started vibrating and when I hit third gear it just exploded.” Unfortunately the mechanical damage done necessitated a complete gearbox change, and that meant Wrathall had to sit out race two while the work was completed.
He could consider himself lucky compared with Morgan, however. The Ribchester racer, 23, learned the hard way about life in the BTCC, with his debut outing in the Ginetta-backed Speedworks Toyota lasting only as far as the first corner at Brands Hatch. “My initiation into touring cars - about 300 metres, I think it was,” said Adam, who was tapped from behind by the MG of Andy Neate, which in turn had been hit by another. “I got an OK start and was heading for Paddock Hill Bend and the next thing I know I get a smack on my left hand door and I’m heading for the wall. We were three abreast into Paddock and I don’t think the guy on the outside saw me; it was a chain reaction thing.” Morgan also was an enforced spectator in race two.
Morgan’s Speedworks team-mate Hughes fared better. Cheshire-based Tony, 54, sped from 21st on the grid to 16th in race one and placed 16th again as the sole Toyota representative in race two. He professed himself pleased with the way his car was handling after winter works to its balance, but less happy with the amount of power his new-spec Swindon TOCA engine was producing.
The Brands Hatch finale provided a heady dose of BTCC drama, with a multiple crash on lap three after oil went down at the Druids hairpin which accounted for five cars and brought out the red flags to halt proceedings. Unfortunately, two of the cars in the Druids gravel trap were Toyotas - Hughes’s car and Morgan’s, the latter badly damaged again. Wrathall escaped the carnage by the skin of his teeth: “I piled into the back of Dan Welch’s car, which stopped me going into the gravel,” said Frank. “It was a shame, though, because my first start was really good and had the race continued I could have been up there.”
Wrathall and Hughes both made the grid for the restart, but then Frank’s luck took another turn for the worse, with the Dynojet car refusing to fire up. A bump start got him underway from the tail of the field but he was further penalised with a drive-through penalty. Wrathall put the problems behind him to battle on to 13th place. “At least we got a finish,” said Frank. “The car just wouldn’t fire up, so I got a bump start and as a result of that we got a penalty, which was harsh. The Toyota wasn’t in top form - it had taken a couple of knocks in the earlier crash and wasn’t handling brilliantly.”
Hughes cannily avoided major damage in the Druids spill: “I saw the yellow flag, saw the oil, saw them all parked and didn’t want to pile in the back, so I took my foot off the brake, losing a little bit of braking, but I was able to steer into the gravel and avoid the other cars.” Tony raced on to 15th by the end and his very first BTCC point. “I’m really pleased with the way the Toyota is handling,” said Hughes. “What I need now is more power.”
Morgan was disappointed for the Speedworks Motorsport crew after their superhuman efforts to get his Avensis on the grid after its first-race accident. “It couldn’t really have been much worse for a debut, really,” said Adam, “but I can at least take a positive from the accidents that neither was my fault. It’s such a shame because the team did a superb job to get me out there and the car felt OK. I could have had a good race but then the oil went down and it was game over.”
Donington Park in a fortnight’s time (15 Apr) holds the promise of better things for all three Toyota independents.