Currently reading: Sutton talks up hybrid as he tops BTCC test
Three-time champion gets a boost at the final pre-season test at Thruxton

Ash Sutton declared that the British Touring Car Championship’s new hybrid system has “met if not bettered my expectations” as the reigning champion topped the final pre-season test before beginning his title defence.

The three-time champion has gone from his rear-wheel-drive Laser Tools Infiniti Q50, in which he claimed back-to-back titles, and switched to a front-wheel-drive Motorbase Ford Focus for the new era, as he bids to equal the record of four titles jointly held by BTCC legend Andy Rouse and current rival Colin Turkington.

That bid has got off to a strong start despite the teams having a limited amount of running with Cosworth’s spec hybrid system, which represents the start of a new era for the series. Sutton followed tests at Croft and Donington Park by setting the pace as the teams gathered at Thruxton this week, ahead of the first round at Donington on 23/24 April.

“So far, I even said it to [BTCC boss Alan Gow], I’m pleasantly surprised,” Sutton told Autocar. “The hybrid has met if not bettered my expectations. It’s good leaving the pitlane on electric power only. We only had a small teething issue at the very beginning but, touch wood, no issues. Once out on track, you get a nice little push from the hybrid.”

Sutton set a best time of 1min 15.607sec at Thruxton, which dipped well below the existing lap record – 1min 16.206s, set by Tom Ingram in 2020. Jake Hill, who has also switched teams this year and now races a WSR-prepared BMW 330e M Sport, was fastest in the morning session at the Hampshire circuit.

Sutton says he is looking forward to sampling how the hybrid will affect the racing this year. The system offers a power boost to drivers of up to a peak 50bhp and has replaced the old weight-based success ballast formula as a means of performance equalisation: the more successful a driver is, the less amount of hybrid boost per lap they have on tap.

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“We’ve got to look at it that it’s not a boost: it will just make passing a little bit easier,” said Sutton. “It won’t ever complete a pass. It may just assist you getting there, help you get alongside. But until we actually get racing, no driver will have practised that on track.

“Qualifying will be interesting at round one because we’re all allowed the full allocation boost. Race one, the same again. But from that point onward, seeing how it’s implemented in terms of the reduction that each driver will get for winning a race [or scoring points] is again going to be another insight into what’s in store for the future.”

Sutton was considered a master of finding consistency with whatever success ballast he was running but now faces the reality that he has lost that edge. “Unfortunately!” he said. “It’s now about balancing the lack of hybrid we’ve got. The base weight has gone up [1340kg for FWD cars, 1370kg for RWD]. The cars haven’t become dull, but they are a little bit heavier, close to what they were on full ballast anyway. In some ways, that’s good because going from race to race you haven’t got a big difference in weight and you haven’t got a car that’s 70kg lighter coming at you. We’re all the same weight now, although rear-wheel drive is a little bit heavier. Seeing how we manage that hybrid is going to be interesting.”

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He added that adapting to front-wheel drive, following his switch to a Ford Focus, which he hasn’t raced in the BTCC since his first season in 2016, hasn’t been a problem. “Driving the car, in my eyes, is the easy bit. But mechanically understanding how changes affect the car is different. A rear- and front-wheel-drive car react differently to certain changes, so we almost have to build a new knowledge toolbox. I haven’t got to bin off everything I’ve learnt, but perhaps adapt it to suit.”

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