I thought that I would drop on here and write my second blog to run through how both our pre season testing and first race weekend has gone in the new CUPRA. Everything seemed to have gone into fast forward mode from the end of March until now since we hit the track for the first time and this feels like the first point in the year where we've been able to pop our heads above water.
To begin, pre-season testing was just that - pre-season testing! As with every new car, there will be niggles that need to be ironed out but everyone at Team Hard worked day and night to get the car ready. It's always difficult when it gets to the beginning of March and you see other teams beginning to test as it's a little unnerving when you're itching to get our yourself. But, the new CUPRA did not disappoint when we did eventually hit the track. The car felt very good straight out of the box and arguably what was most impressive was how reactive the car was to small set up changes - that's always the sign of a good car. Minor damper changes were resulting in significant changes to the handling and instantly we started to see a direction in which the car needed to go. Another pretty unusual aspect of our pre season testing was that our car was sent to the 'Four Post Rig', which is effectively a tuning tool for the chassis. The rig is able to simulate bumps and kerb strikes to allow the engineers to see how the car responds to certain set up changes. What I really like about the rig is that it is a controlled setting and the engineers get to have a field day when it comes to trying out new set ups. All of this work helped to speed up the development of the car as it can't be overlooked that we were up against cars which have three to four years of development under their belts.
Our pre season testing program took us to Brands Hatch, Donington, Snetterton and Silverstone and all of which proved to be valuable mileage. Yes, certain days like the Media Day didn't go exactly to plan for myself but the potential of the car was there.
We actually went to Brands Hatch twice, once on our very first test and then a second time as our last test day. To give you some context, when we returned on the second occasion we had found over 0.6 seconds in comparison to the first day...that's pretty much the difference from first to last and it goes to show you how much improvement was made in a short amount of time. But lap times in preseason testing are always hard to read in to as certain teams will run with weight in the car or have the engines turned down - it can be a bit of a smoke and dagger game until you arrive at the first race weekend. For myself, the pre season testing was really a chance to get reacquainted with a touring car, front wheel drive car and even some of the circuits that my former GT programs didn't visit over the last three years. I think I overlooked how much of a jump it was to get back into the BTCC as I expected to feel at home straight away but being honest, I only feel at home now after doing our first race weekend!
Onto Thruxton and the first round of the BTCC! The weekend started off quiet well as I had the opportunity to drop by the Hendy Performance Centre in Eastleigh on the Friday morning before heading to the track.
The place is superb and arguably what struck me the most was the passion that everyone had for their work - it was refreshing to be around and it's very apparent why they have such a good reputation. The performance day on August 8th at Thruxton can't come quick enough after getting to see some of the 'toys' that they have at their disposal. I would be lying if I said that there wasn't a certain amount of nerves going into the weekend when I arrived on Friday morning. It was hard to predict exactly where things would shake out as there are always variables that you can't control. For us, there was a lot more going to Thruxton - firstly, the CUPRA had never been around there, it had never tested on the Hard compound tyre or completed any wet testing and to our dismay every single variable played a role over the weekend. From changing conditions on the Saturday to a wet race three on Sunday. Going into the weekend I really only had one goal - have three solid races, aim to pick up some points and anything after that would be a bonus. I somewhat knew that the first weekend would arguably be our most difficult of the year due to it being at Thruxton and also allowing us to 'settle' into a routine over the course of a race weekend. No matter how much testing that you do there is nothing that comes close to a race weekend, from the nerves to how competitive it is.
The first qualifying session of the year was a little bumpy as it felt as though it was almost scripted against myself. We had a few little issues with the car that prevented us getting to do a proper run on slicks in the drying conditions at the end of quali so unfortunately we ended up P19. I really thought that we had the pace to challenge inside the top ten but on this occasion, it wasn't to be. I also forgot just how competitive the BTCC is until that point but a hell of a lot was learnt from it.
I had a real moment on Sunday morning when I was walking in to the circuit and hear the commentators welcoming everyone to the first round of the '2021 BTCC season.' I wasn't sure if I would ever get the opportunity to do this again and that moment will stick with me all year as it gave me instant butterflies in my stomach and I have missed that! Onto the racing...
Race one was pretty uneventful for myself, as we had to do some guesswork for our first long run on the hard tyre. Thruxton is notorious for punctures which is a direct result of front camber.. The more you run the faster the car is but the more likely you are to get punctures. We probably aired on the side of caution a little bit too much and struggled to maximise the car during the race. Yes, we made a small improvement to P18 but as a driver I wanted a lot more! However, race two provided some of that as it was the first time all winter that I felt 'at home' again in the BTCC as I got to race against the best of the best. While it was only for 15th it did give me a sense of belonging once again as I went toe-to-toe with multiple champions and came out on top. This confidence rolled in to race three where the heavens opened up and we had our best result of P11 which meant we came away from the weekend with two points finishes but more importantly, a clear direction on what the car needs in order to move us up the grid. It is a starting point and the way that I look at it is that we came away from the weekend without a scratch on the car and a better idea of what we need in order to challenge right at the front which to me, is the marker of a successful weekend. It also proved a lot of 'doubters' wrong by getting to showcase the reliability of the new car and it felt like a real coming of age for everyone at Team Hard. It has to be said that my entire car crew were absolutely superb throughout the weekend, it's probably the happiest that I have ever felt in a BTCC team and this is only the start!
I think people look at the BTCC as if we really only 'work' on a Sunday of a race weekend but you have no idea how much goes on behind the scenes at the Team Hard HQ. The guys and girls will be working flat out during this gap to improve the car, from engine performance to body work. It is a non-stop pursuit of performance throughout the year and I absolutely love being a part of it once again. While I loved racing in different championships over the year, there is no way that I would want to leave the BTCC paddock again. It is a championship like no other and I am hoping that this is the start of a long-term return to the championship. I will keep all you guys up to date with the progress throughout the year and hopefully when you next hear from me it will be after our first podium of the season.