Oulton Park produces best BTCC qualifying session of season so far
Motorbase Performance's Rory Butcher grabbed a second successive pole position amid arguably the most exciting Kwik Fit British Touring Car Championship qualifying session of the season so far.
The top spot changed hands on several occasions with the BTCC's big hitters all playing their part at the picturesque Oulton Park, although several drivers endured off-track moments with everyone on the absolute limit during the 30-minutes of running.
The beautiful Cheshire circuit often plays host to one of the most important qualifying sessions in any campaign, with the tight and twisty 2.23-mile Island layout providing limited overtaking opportunities come race day.
It came as little surprise then that qualifying commenced in frenetic fashion as the likes of Andy Neate (Motorbase Performance), Bobby Thompson (GKR TradePriceCars.com) and championship contender Ash Sutton (Laser Tools Racing) all experienced wild moments across the grass.
Toyota Gazoo Racing UK with Ginsters' Tom Ingram was the first to top the timesheets with a representative lap time, before his session almost came to a complete halt on his next flying tour. With the multiple race winner hauling his Toyota Corolla around Speedworks Motorsport's local track, Ingram closed in on the rookie Ollie Brown ahead of him. The Team HARD driver seemingly didn't see the #80 machine in his mirrors and the pair made contact through Lodge. Ingram immediately pitted and, although he returned towards the end of the session, he was unable to threaten the leading order.
Butcher then looked to be on a P1 run during his early effort before the Scotsman out-braked himself and bailed the attempt through Knickerbrook.
Sutton took a turn at the top before his session slightly unravelled again, whilst title rivals Dan Cammish (Halfords Yuasa Racing) and Colin Turkington (Team BMW) also held provisional pole position at one stage.
Although heavy cloud and rain intervals had showered the venue throughout much of Saturday, qualifying arguably boasted the most consistent conditions of the day. The stage was set for a final flurry of fast laps – with track conditions improving all the time – as almost the entire 27-car field bolted on fresh tyres in the closing ten minutes.
It was to be Butcher's day as his 1:25.734s lap time edged out BTC Racing's Josh Cook, with the latter also producing a stellar effort in the BTC Racing Honda Civic Type R.
Reigning Independents' champion Butcher has now bagged his second pole position of the 2020 campaign, immediately following his Brands Hatch success with another pace-setting performance at Oulton Park.
The lead duo ended up somewhat faster than two of the BTCC's most experienced heads – Turkington and Matt Neal – although both tin top legends will still be delighted with their efforts for different reasons.
Team BMW's Turkington performed brilliantly once more in his ballast-laden 3 series as he managed to keep his title rivals in his sights ahead of tomorrow's opener, whilst Neal enjoyed his best qualifying result of 2020 so far – on the eve of contesting his 700th BTCC race tomorrow.
Neal's result headed a quartet of Hondas with the Japanese marque filling five of the first seven cars on the grid – the trio of Cammish, Jake Hill (MB Motorsport accelerated by Blue Square) and Tom Chilton (BTC Racing) taking fifth, sixth and seventh respectively.
Tom Oliphant (Team BMW) had to settle for eighth at the finish, having briefly topped the times himself, whilst Adam Morgan (Carlube TripleR Racing with Mac Tools) and Chris Smiley (Excelr8 Motorsport) completed the top ten.
Rory Butcher said: "I made it hard work for myself. I didn’t get the first two laps on the first run, I ended up bailing out and starting again. I made a couple of mistakes and then got a banker in. We knew the other guys would find a bit of time and pip me, so the engineer Rich was chasing me down the radio, piling the pressure on. So on that last lap, I threw everything at it and came out with pole again which was fantastic.
"It will be a typical touring car race tomorrow. Over the last few years the grid has been covered by hundredths, thousandths of a second. Having Josh (Cook) right behind me is going to be a tough fight but we raced hard against each other last year so I’m sure tomorrow will be another good day of racing.
"We’ve done a lot of investigating as to what went wrong at Brands Hatch, the car was really fast, but we couldn’t make the tyres last a race distance. So we’ve had to change the geometry and rethink our setup. But the good thing about the car is it’s got such a good platform that you can go in different directions and it still comes out feeling fantastic."
Josh Cook said: "I'm a bit gutted for the guys not to get pole position, but the front row is good. We’ve had a tough couple of weekends so we needed to come here and have a good session today that’s for sure. We need to come out with some points tomorrow so we’re going to be racy. But we know the strength of our cars on a Sunday; we’ve got a real good race setup so we’ll see what we can do against Rory (Butcher).
"I can’t really afford to be too conservative; we need to get some results. The points on the board throughout our team aren’t representative of the pace we’ve got in the car or the effort everyone’s put in – we deserve to be in a better place, the guys have done such a good job. The front row is good but we need to convert it into a win tomorrow.
"Obviously we’re in different positions in the championship, Colin (Turkington) is trying to get some decent consistent results and bag points, which means it’s for him to decide how stuck in he’s going to get because we’re certainly going to have our elbows out."
Colin Turkington said: "I’m happy now, on the cool down lap I was disappointed, which says a lot really, to be disappointed with third with all this weight. Now that the adrenaline is dropping, I’m really pleased to be on the second row. I think that’s a fantastic result given where we’ve been in free practice. Team BMW have done a great job for me once again.
"I’ve already been checking the weather app quite a lot to see what tomorrow is going to bring. I think we may be in for a different day, but it will be the same game plan as always: trying to bring the car home three times, scoring good points and trying not to take too much risk. You don’t need to win them all, just get out there and enjoy it. Oulton Park is such a good circuit, especially in qualifying with new rubber, it’s such a thrill so I‘ve enjoyed my day.
"I think track position counts for a lot, starting at the front, you’ve got a better chance of keeping it there. But I can’t remember the last time we raced at Oulton Park in the wet, it was so long ago, so I don’t really know what the difference is going to be between front-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive cars, but normally if we have a fast car in the dry we’ll have a fast car in the wet, so I still think I’ll sleep well tonight."
2020 Kwik Fit British Touring Car Championship – Qualifying – Oulton Park
1 Rory BUTCHER (GBR) Motorbase Performance 1m25.734s
2 Josh COOK (GBR) BTC Racing +0.089s
3 Colin TURKINGTON (GBR) Team BMW +0.237s
4 Matt NEAL (GBR) Halfords Yuasa Racing +0.252s
5 Dan CAMMISH (GBR) Halfords Yuasa Racing +0.384s
6 Jake HILL (GBR) MB Motorsport accelerated by Blue Square +0.410s
7 Tom CHILTON (GBR) BTC Racing +0.430s
8 Tom OLIPHANT (GBR) Team BMW +0.432s
9 Adam MORGAN (GBR) Carlube TripleR Racing with Mac Tools +0.525s
10 Chris SMILEY (GBR) Excelr8 Motorsport +0.530s
11 Ashley SUTTON (GBR) Laser Tools Racing +0.534s
12 Michael CREES (GBR) The Clever Baggers with BTC Racing +0.785s