BMW and WSR locked out the third row of the grid in an ultra-tight qualifying session as the British Touring Car Championship leapt back into action at Croft on Saturday.
Title contenders Colin Turkington of Team BMW and Jake Hill of Laser Tools Racing with MB Motorsport qualified fifth and sixth in their BMW 330e M Sports in a session that was adversely-affected by a red flag during the closing stages.
Kent racer Jake – the top-scorer at Oulton Park last time out – was the first to show his hand as he went quickest of all early on; a position he strengthened with a slightly quicker time that kept him at the head of the pack until 20 minutes of the half-hour session had passed.
A likely quicker time was on the cards as the red flags were shown with five minutes to run however, and with his tyres past their peak condition when the session resumed, an improvement was not possible.
Four-time champion Colin, who is fourth in the points – one place behind Jake – was, however, able to improve after the stoppage; the Northern Irishman, who has a record 13 wins at Croft, finding a fractional improvement that moved him into fifth place.
‘King of Croft’ Colin’s best time was just four hundredths of a second quicker than Jake’s; the pair both less than four tenths from pole at a track where they’ve both been winners in the past.
Team BMW’s Stephen Jelley will make his 250th BTCC start on Sunday from a season’s-best ninth place on the grid after setting an identical time to the driver in eighth – but ending up behind because he achieved it later in the session.
His team-mate Adam Morgan had been eighth-quickest in FP2, but lost ground in qualifying owing to a couple of minor errors at key moments that denied him the chance to qualify higher than 14th.
The Lancashire racer remains confident that his race pace will be far stronger and that he can make significant on-track gains during Sunday’s three races, which will be screened live on ITV4 from 1130.
Colin Turkington (Team BMW) said: “That’s as much as we had today and fifth isn’t too bad either. Normally at Croft we expect a bit more than that, but it’s probably a reflection of the season so far that it’s about where we slot in. Tomorrow’s a long day though and it’s when it really counts, so we’ll try to chip away. We have to run all three tyre compounds tomorrow and I have a pretty good idea about what I want to do with tyre strategy, but if it rains then that all changes. We’ll just aim to keep scoring well with the BMW and see what we can do.”
Stephen Jelley (Team BMW) said: “It’s good to have my best qualifying of the year. I’m kicking myself a little because I left a bit on the table, but it wasn’t easy with the red flag, some mud and gravel on the track and even a bit of oil down at the beginning from one of support races. From ninth I’m high enough up the grid that it’s possible to do something with the tyre strategy that could have a real impact on my race day, whereas if you’re at the front or in the bottom part of the grid it’s pretty obvious which way you go. Tomorrow’s going to be interesting, whatever the weather does.”
Adam Morgan (Team BMW) said: “It’s been hard work today. I was pretty cautious in FP1, but in FP2 the speed and balance was good on new tyres. Qualifying just didn’t go our way. I had a lock-up into Tower on my first run and for the second run I just couldn’t hook a lap up. The good thing is I know there’s more pace in the BMW than I was able to extract today, so that means I should be able to move up in the races. It’s not like I’m at the ceiling of the pace, so I’m sure we can have a much better day tomorrow. It’s the only track where I’ve never been on the podium in the BTCC so it would be good to put that stat right.”
Jake Hill (Laser Tools Racing with MB Motorsport) said: “It’s been a solid day. Yes, I’d have hoped to be higher up than sixth, and I think I would have been if the red flag hadn’t come out on what was looking like it was going to be my best lap and could have been worth at least a tenth – and a row of the grid. The BMW’s felt good in all the sessions and I’m sure the race pace will be strong tomorrow. We have to prepare for every eventuality as the weather forecast seems to change every five minutes, but I’m ready to get stuck in.”
Dick Bennetts, Team Principal, said: “It’s been mixed. On the one hand, three BMWs in the top 10 is decent and the times are pretty close at the front, but this is a track that has traditionally suited rear-wheel-drive cars like ours, but just doesn’t seem to anymore. Stephen potentially lost out a bit with the timing of the red flag and we can see that on theoretical bests Jake was second, so there’s good inherent pace and that’s something we’ll try and maximise on race day. Tyre strategy is going to be very important, but how important will probably be dictated by if and when we get rain.”