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Sitting at the back of the grid, staring at the 29 cars ahead of him, Ash Sutton had hit rock bottom.
The BTCC championship leader faced the prospect of slipping behind in the title race thanks to a controversial penalty for contact while overtaking main rival Colin Turkington in race two at Silverstone.
But in a rollercoaster of a weekend, Sutton’s furrowed brow quickly relaxed when the Ulsterman’s BMW was seen limping to the pits with heavy damage after an incident on the second lap.
After storming through the field to claim an unlikely 11th place and valuable points, it all left the Adrian Flux Subaru Racing driver with a 10-point lead going into the final meeting at Brands Hatch.
Such are the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in the BTCC.
Sutton’s manoeuvre on the final corner in race two was the main talking point of a weekend when neither he nor Turkington had the pace to win races around the fast Northamptonshire circuit.
After nosing down the inside of the BMW into Luffield, Sutton completed the pass on the approach to Woodcote to snatch third from his rival and claw back the two points lost in race one.
But a protest from West Surrey Racing was upheld by the stewards, the places were reversed and, as it was the 23-year-old’s third penalty strike of the season, he was shuffled to the back of the grid for the final race.
It left last year’s leading rookie with a mountain to climb.
“I thought ‘well, I’ve just made my Brands weekend a lot harder’. I sat in the garage, spoke to a few of the guys, they all reassured me and I got great support in every manner,” he says.
“I was kind of at rock bottom, thinking if I hadn’t done it I would not be in this position, I would have lost two points – which I lost anyway – and there was a lot of emotion.
“It gave me a headache! I was sat on the grid calculating everything to work out what I need to try to achieve. I was aiming for the top 15 for some points to counteract what Colin was going to be scoring.
“I just had to forget about it and crack on again and make that hit as small as possible.
“To be sat on the grid with all that running through my mind and then to be overtaking my rival on the second lap, I’d gone from rock bottom to thinking ‘there’s no need to panic, just bring it home.’
“I was relieved. My facial expressions showed that anyway. There was a big sigh of relief.”
While he had no alternative but to accept the steward’s decision and move on, Sutton maintains his move on Turkington was legal.
“I still think that now. Going into the race Colin was on the hard tyre and I was on the medium compound, so I felt I had a better set up for that particular race. Once in clean air I hunted down Colin, and pulled off a move I must have used four or five times in race one to gain position,” he says.
“All I was doing was replicating something I’d been doing all day. The difference was this time I was assisted off the circuit. When there’s an overlap you’ve got to allow a car width of room. I was not given that and there was contact at the final corner.
“Do I regret it? No, I don’t. I’m a racer and stand by what I do. I won’t ever do anything that I think is not acceptable.
“I had that same sort of move done to me by Adam Morgan and gave him the room – as I’ve said before, it’s about accepting you’ve lost that battle sometimes. He didn’t want to accept that because of the situation of the championship.
“I think when you look at it from BMW and Colin’s point of view, I knew they were going to protest that. If it had been the other way round we probably would have, it’s just the nature of things now we’re coming to the end of the season. Every point counts and it was always going to get looked at.”
With its emphasis on straight-line speed, Silverstone was always going to be tough for the Subarus, and Sutton was pleased to qualify in 10th with maximum ballast.
“To be honest with you that full ballast was hurting me more than anyone, as we are particularly slow in a straight line anyway,” he says, with another reduction in boost ahead of the weekend adding to the sense that it was never destined to be a high points-scoring meeting for Team BMR.
“You throw another 75 kilos on and it’s like someone’s pulled the handbrake on. At Silverstone we could gain a 10th of a second through the corner, but lose two on the straight. I was aiming for the top 15 to start at least in a points position, so I was over the moon with 10th.
“Race one was a tricky old race because of the conditions, it started to rain halfway through, which threw a spanner in the works for us all.
“For me, it was about starting off and getting a few clean laps under my belt and staying out of trouble. At one point I had five cars between me and Colin, so I had to get my head down and push on. I pulled some blinding moves off to make it as small a hit as possible, it was good to finish right behind him. I was aiming to have no more than one car between us so I was happy with that.”
So now it’s all down to Brands Hatch, where it all started back in April on the Indy circuit, and a track better suited to the Subaru’s cornering strengths.
“Last year’s performance from the guys was very strong, especially Colin in that car, so I’m going there knowing I’ve got a good car under me, assuming there’s no further reduction in boost,” says Sutton.
“At Brands there are three or four corners before you get to a straight, which makes life a little bit easier for us.
“I’m feeling surprisingly OK. Ask me on Sunday morning, the nerves may kick in then. Brands GP is my favourite track of the year, I’ve got nothing to lose, so I’ve got to just crack on, keep my nose clean and my head down.”
The final weekend of the season can be seen on ITV4 on September 30 and October 1.