After a slow start to his second season in the British Touring Car Championship, Ashley Sutton heads into the final round of the year top of the order and with more wins than anybody else.
Since switching to Team BMR at the start of the season, Sutton has taken six wins and 13 podiums. Despite leaving the opening round without a single points, the reigning Jack Sears Trophy winner is 10 points ahead of his closest rival with only one round remaining. It has been far from a perfect year for Sutton, with a number of penalty strikes costing him valuable points late in the year.
Subaru’s problems seemed to be back in the opening round of the season. Jason Plato was the only Subaru driver to take points from Brands Hatch, with a 12th place in the opening race but retired from race two and couldn’t start race three. Sutton’s best finish of the weekend was a 16th place in the opening race, retiring from race two and finishing 21st in race three.
Things improved for Sutton at Donington Park. He was excluded from qualifying after failing the technical scrutiny, putting him on the back for row of the grid, but Sutton climbed up through the field to finish 13th, taking his first points of the season. Another storming drive in race two put Sutton third by the midpoint of the race. He closed in on Rob Collard and was on the BMW’s tail in the closing stages, but a strong defence from Collard kept Sutton third.
Sutton spent the majority of race three battling with pole-sitter Dave Newsham for what was third on track. The pair swapped positions back and forth, allowing Adam Morgan to close in on the fight. The Mercedes passed both on the final lap to take the chequered flag third, ahead of Sutton and Newsham. Gordon Shedden’s post race exclusion promoted all three up a position, handing Sutton his second podium of the weekend.
There would be no podiums at Thruxton, but Sutton did take a hat-trick of points finishes from the Hampshire track, promoting him to eighth in the championship before a thrilling round at Oulton Park.
Battling up through the order in race one was far from easy for Sutton. Whilst he could pass Shedden and Colin Turkington with relative ease, Laser Tools’ Aiden Moffat put up more of a fight for the final step of the podium. Sutton was pushed wide onto the grass, allowing Turkington to pass the Subaru and rejoin the fight but two moves around the outside allowed Sutton to sweep past both drivers in only a handful of corners. He claimed the podium five and a half seconds ahead of Moffat, putting him third on the grid for race two.
Sutton took a comfortable victory in race two. After snatching second off of the line, the Subaru driver quickly chased after pole sitter Andrew Jordan to take the lead the following lap. From there, he remained unchallenged, building up a gap of two and a half seconds by the end of lap seven. BMW’s Rob Collard set about closing the gap in the second half of the race, but finished more than a second adrift.
Fourth followed in the final race of the weekend. Starting sixth in the reverse grid, Sutton spent the race defending against Collard and Turkington and fell away from those ahead of him. He took the chequered flag ahead of the two BMWs, promoting him to sixth in the title fight.
In a dramatic shortened qualifying, Sutton took his first pole of the season. The 23-year-old topped the times in the first 10 minutes before a multi-car accident brought out the red flags and ended the session. He converted the pole to a win the next day, defending against “King of Croft” Turkington to take his second win of the season.
Turkington fought back in race two, pulling alongside Sutton at the start and snatching the race lead. Sutton managed to both attack and defend (from Collard close behind) but was never able to get back past the two-time champion. Another second followed in the final race of the day. Starting eighth, Sutton charged up the field in the first half of the race and was soon on the tail of Rob Austin. An impressive move around the outside of turn one promoted him to second, four seconds behind race leader Mat Jackson. He immediately began to close the gap and was close enough to make a move on the final lap of the race. Jackson held strong though, and Sutton had to settle for second.
Now fourth in the standings, Sutton was just 20 points behind championship leader Shedden at the summer break but, so far, his team-mates hadn’t faired too well. BMR conducted tests over the break to try to figure out why Plato’s car wasn’t nearly on the same level as Sutton’s. Both drivers drove the other’s car to try to solve the problem in the hopes Plato might be able to join Sutton at the top of the order in the second half of the season.
The tests, according to Sutton, revealed problems with both cars, and the team turned up to Snetterton after the break improved. Though it was another poor weekend for Plato, Sutton was back to winning ways in the opening race.
Sutton was running second after a mistake from Turkington dropped the BMW out of the lead. He closed up to Jack Goff’s Honda and, taking advantage of a small error from the pole sitter, took the race lead on the penultimate lap.
He claimed his second win of the weekend in race two, pulling away from Goff and Jordan when the pair started to fight for second. It was a relatively simple race for the Subaru driver, who finished nearly three seconds ahead of Turkington in second, but the win put him eighth on the grid for race three.
By this point, Sutton was top of the championship order, but a retirement on the opening lap of race three, whilst Shedden took the race win, dropped him back down to fourth.
Bouncing back at Knockhill, Sutton claimed second in the opening race behind team-mate Plato. The changes finally seemed to have worked in the Plato’s favour as the two-time champion took his 50th pole of his career at the Scottish track with Sutton close behind in second.
The pair pulled away from the rest of the field, building up a strong enough gap to swap positions late in the race in attempt to allow Sutton to lead a lap and take the extra point that would come with it. They misjudged the timing of the move and Sutton had to hand the position back before completing a lap, but Sutton still took the points for second and started on the front row for race two.
Sutton claimed his fifth victory of the season the following race, moving past his team-mate on the 11th lap. Plato stayed close behind him but there were few serious challenges for the lead and Sutton took the win just two tenths of a second ahead of him.
Neither Subaru would finish on the podium in race three, but a fourth place finish elevated Sutton to second in the championship standings, just four points behind Turkington. He wouldn’t stay there for long.
Second in the first race at Rockingham was enough to put Sutton at the top of the order and a comfortable victory in race two allowed him to extend the lead. Fifth in the final race put him 12 points ahead of Turkington and more than 50 points ahead of Shedden in third, but the championship leader found difficulties at Silverstone.
A less than perfect qualifying put Sutton 10th on the grid for the first race and, though he managed to move forward to finish fifth, he lost points to Turkington, who finished just ahead of him. Keen not to do the same in race two, Sutton battled to find a way past his title rival throughout the race. The pair were fighting for third when, on the final lap of the race, Sutton pushed his way past the BMW. He took the chequered flag ahead of Turkington, but was later given a time penalty for the move, dropping him back to fourth.
It was Sutton’s third penalty strike of the year, meaning he would have to start the final race of the weekend from the back of the grid with success ballast. That didn’t stop him taking points from the race, though. Sutton quickly worked his way up through the order and was inside the points by the end of lap 17. He finished the race 11th.
If Sutton can take the title this weekend, he will make history as the first driver to take the BTCC crown in a Subaru, as well as becoming the first driver since Laurent Aiello to take the title so early in his touring car career.
Image credit: Caroline Rhea