“It’s certainly not going to be the same, that’s for sure.”
Twelve months ago, Fifer and local hero Rory Butcher stormed to a stunning British Touring Car Championship victory at his home circuit, Knockhill, in front of around 20,000 Saltire-waving fans roaring him home. This weekend, as the BTCC makes its annual pilgrimage to Scotland, those same bankings surrounding the circuit will be empty. Why? One word: Covid.
“Because the BTCC is deemed as an ‘Elite Sport’, we can’t have any spectators at any of the circuits this year because of Covid,” the 33-year-old from Kirkcaldy explained.
“And that really impacts on Knockhill, which is renowned for having the best fans in the country and generating a brilliant atmosphere. It’s a real amphitheatre. You have a small venue but with thousands of Scottish fans who only get one opportunity each year to see the fastest saloon cars and drivers battling it out bumper to bumper.
“This year they’re not allowed in because of social distancing requirements. It’ll make a huge difference to the weekend, because one of the big things about the BTCC is the passion of the fans. The amount of people who come to our race weekends to support the teams and drivers is huge. We’re really missing that element, but we know they’ll come back when we return to normality.”
For Butcher, there is already an air of normality. He heads to Knockhill this weekend lying third in the championship, just 22 points off second, and fresh from a win and a second place last time out at Oulton Park five days ago.
And while this season will be fought out ‘behind closed doors’, at circuits with no fans, Butcher is just delighted to be back racing.
“The championship and everyone involved in getting us back on-track while the pandemic is still ongoing deserve huge praise,” he explained. “ In terms of the race weekend, we’re all basically in a bubble.
“But inside the car, nothing’s changed. I’m driving as focused as I ever have been and I don’t even notice there isn’t a crowd there. However, as soon as I get out of the car and I’m in the paddock, the atmosphere is weird. It simply doesn’t exist. There’s no buzz. No roar of the crowd. It’s eerie.”
This season Butcher is back with the Motorbase team which gave him his BTCC debut at Knockhill four seasons ago in August 2017. After two years at different teams, the Scot has returned more rounded, more experienced and ready to battle it out for the championship.
“Motorbase gave me my first opportunity in touring cars, and it’s something I’ll always appreciate. But if I’m honest, there was a bit of pressure on my shoulders,” Butcher, whose brother-in-law is three-times BTCC champ Gordon Shedden, admitted.
“The team was trying to build something for the future, and looking back, the step up into one of the most established teams in BTCC was such a big learning curve. I didn’t have enough time to get my head round the front-wheel drive of the Ford Focus, and the type of close-up racing in the BTCC.
Butcher did the last four rounds of the 2017 season with Motorbase, then decide to, essentially, serve his BTCC apprenticeship over the next couple of seasons with different teams.
“That was a good decision,” he continued, “racing for another great team and building my experience a little bit under the radar with the MG. Then getting an opportunity in another good car with the Honda last season.
“I’ve now come back to Motorbase full of confidence and it’s just a completely different feeling. We’ve got a fast car; the team is really doing a great job; and it’s all working well. It’s a big team effort.”
And that effort, which included first building, and then the ongoing race-weekend development of the all-new Ford Focus, could have been even better. But for two front-left punctures at Brands Hatch a fortnight ago, he would have another two race wins tucked under his belt.
“It was just very unfortunate,” Butcher stated. “It was a very hot weekend. Track temperatures were almost 50 degrees. We normally race the Grand Prix circuit in October, when it’s cold.”
That combination, allied to “exploring the boundaries of the car’s set-up”, contributed to the tyre failures. Notes taken, those boundaries were pulled back a bit for Oulton last weekend, and the car ran like a dream. Not surprisingly, Butcher is confident the Ford will perform well again round the 1.3-miles of Knockhill’s iconic, tight and undulating circuit.
“The car gives me a lot of confidence. One of its strongest points is its ability to strike and cope with kerbs. It really does handle kerbs really well. One of the key elements to Knockhill is being able to ride the kerbs, come off them, settle quickly and get back on the power. I’m actually really excited at the prospect of getting loose on the circuit with the Ford.”
The burning question though is, can he win the championship? Just 22 points behind second-placed Ash Sutton, Butcher is 41 adrift of championship leader, and four-time champ — including 2018 and ’19 — Colin Turkington, with six rounds and 18 races remaining.
Butcher, who won the BTCC Independents’ title last year, admits he’s now very conscious of Tarkington’s approach to winning the title.
“Colin’s doing his normal, super professional thing; racking up the podiums and points. He’s the man to beat again,” the Scot said. “He has a hugely professional approach. I can sense already from him, when we’re on-track, that he’s taking the podiums — the second and the thirds — plus a win or so, and banking the points. That’s what Colin does so well.
“He’s not taking risks. For example, in race three at Donington, then again at Brands Hatch, he saw those as bonus races and was just staying out of trouble and harvesting points.
“Now I’m definitely thinking of the bigger picture in every race. Maybe in the last couple of years, because I’ve been trying to establish myself in BTCC, I’ve been going for individual results. There’s a completely different mentality focused on building the points and going for the championship rather than just race wins.”
And is another Knockhill win on the cards?
“That’s definitely the goal,” Butcher, who qualified on pole position in the last two weekends at Brands Hatch and Oulton, smiled. “I’ve got to go out there with the aim of getting pole again, dominating the opening race, and then hopefully race two as well. But I know it’s not going to be easy.
“I’m feeling very, very focused. My head is set on fighting for this championship. But it’s the BTCC, so you just never know what’s going to come round the corner, as I saw at Brands. All I can do is my job and get the most out of the team, the car and myself. Can I win the title? Ask me going into the final round, and we’ll see where we are.”