As the author of this article, I first met Ashley Sutton in person at the Autosport show in January 2020, at the NEC. Little did any of us know then what 2020 would hold for us, in more ways than one. I was also surprised at meeting Ash. He was a really down to earth guy, almost embarrassed by all the attention but at the same time he exuded this confidence that you could feel through the team.
When I arrived at the NEC on the opening day of the show, the RCIB sponsored Infiniti was so fresh off the ramps at Laser Tools Racing HQ, that the graphics were literally still being applied 15 minutes before the doors opened to the public. On the way up to Birmingham, emails were being exchanged with Ashley as we discussed how the big ‘reveal’ was to be made. Perhaps alarm bells should have started to ring at this early stage as to the attention to detail that Ash liked to strive for. ‘Good’ was never good enough. Nothing bar excellence would do.
So, roll on a couple of months and the world had gone mad. Covid 19 was no longer a small news article contained to just a City in China but suddenly it affected us all, and with that, the threat of a cancellation or at least a change of plan for the pending 2020 BTCC season which was now just a couple of weeks away. We know the rest; Boris announced a lockdown and the start of the season was curtailed.
We don’t know how any professional racing driver must have felt, when after a long winter raising sponsorship and mentally preparing for the season ahead, it’s suddenly, seemingly cancelled indefinately. But imagine it for a driver, new to a team and new to a car that had never graced the British circuits before. Frustration couldn’t have been a more apt description.
Of course, as summer came, lock down became ‘eat out’ and with it hope of races returning and possibly too fans, a postponed series commenced but fans were told to stay away. Perhaps all of us were greatful for the excellent, and at times humourous commentary that we’ve all now become used to on ITV4 (and on occasion ITV2).
Ash started the year at Donnington almost looking like he’d used race time to practice. His first race left him mid table in 14th but in Race 2 he’d made it up to 5th before winning Race 3. Even at this early stage it was obvious that his arch foe this season was going to be Colin Turkington who got off to a flying start with a 2nd, 1st and 10th placed finish.
The season then became a yo-you or roller coaster with Ashley grabbing the points lead one weekend before Colin fought back a week or two later. With several ‘back to back’ weekends whereby teams went from one track to another in order to facilitate a shorter season culminating in a late autumn finish, the tension grew as the sun started to give way to the rainy season. Suddenly though, the competition expanded to 2 other drivers who were technically in with contention, Dan Cammish who surely will become the series Champion before too long and also Tom Ingram who really discovered his mojo mid season. In fact, it wasn’t until Race 2 in the final weekend at Brands Hatch that the competition was whittled down to just 3, with Tom and also Rory who statistically could also have won at this stage, not making enough points to keep them in the game for outright title.
We all know that Race 3 at Brands at the end of the season is typically when the championship is always decided. On paper, with great results in Races 1 and 2, Ashley only needed to stay out of trouble and reach a Top 7 finish if Colin didn’t win that final duel in Race 3. As the race progressed Ashley moved up from his reverse grid start position of 12th to rear up behind Colin. Anybody watching on television must surely have noticed the in-car footage of Colin constantly checking his mirrors. The duel of course was on. Even though at this stage Ash could have comfortably cruised in behind Colin and taken the title, he wanted to prove a point. He wanted to get past.
If we said at this stage we weren’t starting to weep a little and utter ‘why, why, why’, we’d be lying. But the professionalism of Colin as 4 time championship winner himself, is undisputed. Colin allowed the overtake fair and square and Ash was in front, nice and cleanly.
It wouldn’t be right or proper to finish this report, and this season, without a mention of Ashley’s team mate, Aiden. Aiden had started Race 3 on pole and of course, he was there to help his team mate to championship glory. But after slipping back through the field, Aiden saw the duel unfolding a few cars ahead between his team mate and Colin Turkington. Catching up and starting to take back some of his lost positions, Aiden’s appearance must surely have signalled to Ashley to take more chances with late braking into corners knocking him wide on occasion. Ashley always looks for the overtake in places most of us wouldn’t, even if that means mid-corner overtakes. Aiden’s appearance eventually gave Ash the confidence and ability to guide the reliable and trusty Infiniti ahead and past Colin and beyond. But to prove a point and almost as a guardian for his team mate, Aiden pushed on too. Many have commented as to how this was arguably the most mature and controlled drive by Aiden of his BTCC career. Aiden was no longer the lone driver for the team, he graduated 2020 as a loyal and supportive team mate.