Tears and cheers as Sutton claims emotional BTCC title

The tears told their own story, as Ash Sutton sank into his father’s arms after a typically tumultuous final day of the BTCC ended with the youngest champion of the modern era.

It was dad Warren who sowed the seeds of the 23-year-old’s touring car triumph when he bought his then six-year-old son a go-kart and first let him loose on a circuit.

So as Sutton junior, elated and emotional in equal measure, jumped down from the roof of his title-winning Subaru Levorg at Brands Hatch on Sunday, he made a beeline for the man who’s been there for him for every mile of his rise to the top.

Tears of joy as Sutton embraces dad Warren

“My dad started this journey when I was six, when he sat my bum in a kart,” says Sutton, back at work at the Rye House kart track teaching tomorrow’s stars.

“I jumped off the top of the car and the first person I went to was my dad, to thank him for everything. He was already in tears when I got there, so I gave him a big hug and then went over to the team. I could not stop letting the emotions run wild. I was constantly crying!”

For Sutton senior, on the sidelines and powerless as his son endured yet another rollercoaster ride on a day of high drama, the tension had been almost too much to bear.

After a first race in which the Adrian Flux Subaru Racing youngster appeared to have the title almost in the bag, finishing third to open up a 24-point lead over struggling rival Colin Turkington, he had dared to dream that the end was in sight.

“I think we can do this now,” he said, letting out a deep, stress-relieving breath.

But the Ulsterman is not a two-time BTCC champion for nothing, and he improbably scythed through the field to take race two from 15th on the grid, with Sutton struggling and falling back on the hard tyre.

On the grid preparing for race two

“I knew I was always going to go backwards, because six cars directly behind me were all on the soft tyre, and we knew how strong it was in race one,” says Sutton.

“I was always going to have to sacrifice some positions, but when that BMW got behind me I knew I was not going to keep it there. When he got in front I accepted it was going to go to race three.”

The lead was down to six points, and the title was once more in the balance.

But with the rain starting to fall, and Turkington down to 10th on the reverse grid – just two ahead of a ballast-free Sutton – there remained cautious optimism that the BMW driver’s 75kg of weight would prove too much.

Dad Warren, who refused to buy his son a set of wet tyres for his go-kart “until he was good enough without them”, the persistent drizzle was more welcome than it was for fans in the grandstands.

“One of his nicknames when he was karting was Nemo, because he was so good in the rain,” he says. “There was no way Colin was going to beat him in the wet.”

Sutton, who had been a picture of composure all day, was similarly upbeat about his chances.

“The fact we had no ballast, and he had full ballast, and that it was wet and past experience showed we would be stronger in the wet than he was meant I went in quite positive,” he says.

“The team just said to go out and be yourself, this is all or nothing now. There was no being conservative, I knew I needed to be either directly behind Colin or beating him. I was back in my comfort zone, living life on the edge, getting stuck in.”

Nevertheless, Warren could not bear to watch in the thronged Team BMR garage, where team, family, friends and sponsors had gathered to, hopefully, cheer their hero home.

“To begin with I watched it outside on my own,” he says. “I saw Ash coming out of Graham Hill Bend, and he was over-taking cars. I didn’t see Colin get tagged as I was watching Ash, and I think he’d have overtaken him anyway.

“When I saw that Colin had been tagged I just breathed a massive sigh of relief.”

Back in the car, Sutton was initially unaware that Turkington was out of the race.

“We went into Graham Hill Bend in the same place and on the exit, I could see there was some contact to my right but I was focused on trying to make sure I got ahead and didn’t see who it was,” he says.

“Half a lap later, I got the call that I could relax and I had to double check with the team as I didn’t believe them at first. When they said Colin was out of the car, I knew it was true.

“It was an odd situation. David from ITV came over the radio during the race under the safety car and said ‘how does it feel to be the 2017 British Touring Car Champion?’ Yes, I realised it was happening but at the same time I still had a job on hand.

“I wanted to get on top of that podium and at that point I was in fourth so I brushed it off, a bit short and sharp. I was just focused on trying to pick up another trophy and get on the podium.

Emotion in the Team BMR garage

“I let it all go on the last lap when I realised we had achieved what we wanted. I gave it one last push to try to get second off Jack Goff but I didn’t have the tyres. I spent the last lap having a bit of fun, came through Paddocks with opposite lock on. It was nice to just soak it all up and enjoy the last lap of the 2017 season.”

In the garage, the ‘Ash Sutton BTCC champion’ t-shirts were already on and the team was making its way to the pit wall to cheer their champion towards the chequered flag.

Ash Sutton victory t-shirts

Finally able to relax, Warren was locked in an embrace with the other major influence on his son’s career, Team BMR boss Warren Scott.

“Coming down the pit straight everyone’s hanging on the pit wall, even ex teammate Josh Cook, cheering me on,” says Sutton.

Team BMR’s pit wall celebrations

“That, straight away, got me going. They were straight on the radio congratulating me ‘you are the 2017 BTCC champion’. I just let go, all the emotions flooded out and I burst into tears and spent the whole in-lap crying to myself.

“David from ITV came on the radio but I was lost for words, I couldn’t talk to him, I was just choking on my own words. Pulling in to park and seeing all the guys there and that experience of getting out of the car, it was really, really nice to see that it meant as much to them as it did me.”

This is what it means to Team BMR

Dad Warren said it was “the proudest moment of my life”, and paid tribute to both Scott and teammate Jason Plato, whose help and experience as a double-champion himself had a part to play in his son’s triumph.

“It was very emotional,” he adds. “The family has suffered more stress than Ash throughout Sunday – we were more nervous than him. Even on Sunday morning he was just Ash, focusing on the job he had to do.

“Me and Warren were more flustered than he was. Warren’s worked so hard to get Ash to where he is, it’s been four years of hard work and to win it for the team was fantastic.

“Jason’s been brilliant too. They’ve shared data and done everything together. They’re always laughing and joking and there’s been a nice atmosphere all the time.”

Sutton is congratulated by teammate Jason Plato

After the mother of all celebration parties, followed by media duties on Monday, Sutton says winning the title in only his second season in the BTCC was only just starting to sink in by the time he was back at work on Tuesday.

“It’s still not totally sunk in, but it’s starting to,” he adds. “I’m noticing more and more everyone’s saying well done to me everywhere. When I start getting all the newspapers and things contacting me you start to realise it’s a big deal. I’m over the moon with the outcome, it’s a fantastic achievement. It’s been a long-term dream to pull it all off.”

The moment a dream came true

It’s a dream that started when a young Ash first sat in that go-kart and got a taste for speed.

Warren, who competed in drag racing for three seasons before Ash was born, says his son was hooked after being put on the back of a motorbike on his grandparent’s farm.

“The karting just started off as a father-son bonding thing, and after 18 months of having fun just going round and round the track we started doing it competitively,” he adds.

At the age of eight, Ash finished fifth in the British WTP Cadet Championship, two places ahead of IndyCar driver Jack Harvey, and third in his second year.

Ash went on to win the Super 1 National Rotax Mini Max Championship and Stars of Tomorrow titles, won rookie of the year in the single-seater Formula Vee Championship in 2010, and was running fourth in the Ford Fiesta ST Cup when a road accident in 2011 nearly put paid to his racing career almost before it had really begun.

A punctured kidney kept Sutton off the track from the start of 2011 until December 2013.

“The doctors said I’m not going to be able to race again,” he says. “It threw a real spanner in the works, but then eventually they gave me the all clear, and the aim straight away was to get to where we are now.”

Sutton had been combining his job at Rye House with a carpentry apprenticeship at his dad’s company when he was offered the chance to drive in Formula Ford.

“He met someone at Rye House who offered him a silly deal to drive in Formula Ford,” says Warren. “He came home and told me, we phoned a few friends up and scraped enough money together to get him the drive.”

Sutton finished third in the championship that year, taking five wins, 16 podiums, four pole positions and 10 fastest laps, before he was spotted by Scott.

“Mr Scott, bless him, spotted Ash in Formula Ford and, in the close season 2014, he kept pestering him at work, asking ‘will you to drive a tin top for me in the Clio Cup?’

“Ash kept coming home saying this bloke keeps asking me at work, keeps offering me these silly deals. I thought I’d better meet him. It was a good deal and we shook hands on it. It was supposed to be a two-year deal but Ash smashed it in his first year so we sat around the table again.

“Warren said we could go British Touring Car Racing now for x amount of money. We dug deep, and Warren found other sponsors to fill the holes.

“After a good rookie year (Sutton won the Jack Sears Trophy for MG) he said to us last year how do you fancy a seat next to Jason because Colin is leaving? We were not going to say no to that. We had to rally round again, finding a bit more sponsorship money.”

Even before Ash had turned a wheel in a Subaru, his father was confident a title tilt was realistic.

“I thought he could win it,” he says. “I’ve seen him start in 32nd on the grid in karts and drive through the field up to second. And when he was testing Clios, Mark Hunt who runs Pyro Motorsport, said to Warren ‘you are wasting your time – you want to put this kid straight into touring cars because he’s got raw speed.’”

That raw speed has been much in evidence throughout 2017, with six victories and nine podiums adding up to a 21-point winning margin as Sutton secured a historic BTCC title.

And the good news is that Sutton will back in a Subaru next year to defend his crown.

Roll on 2018.

Pictures by Jakob Ebrey and Simon Finlay.

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