Chilton was 17 when he made his BTCC debut, then the youngest driver yet to race in the series…
BTCC stalwart Tom Chilton knows the job of being a racing driver involves more than just doing the business on track. We join him at Rockingham
British Touring Car Championship races are short, intense affairs, around 30 minutes of bumper bashing and battling.
Still, even with three of them in a day, such short races might not seem much of an endurance challenge for a driver. Yet the reality is somewhat different.
Those three races are packed into around six hours. Add in the attention, scrutiny and pressure that come with being part of Britain’s biggest motorsport championship and race day becomes a non-stop, pressure-filled marathon for the drivers, with little time to rest.
Tom Chilton knows that well. The 33-year-old has been racing in top-line touring cars since making his BTCC debut back in 2002. Ten years later, in 2012, he switched to the World Touring Car Championship.
Last year, he competed full-time in both series.
This year, Chilton’s full-time attention is on the BTCC, driving a Ford Focus RS for the Motorbase squad – or Team Shredded Wheat Racing with Gallagher, to use its official, sponsor-friendly title. Autocar shadowed Chilton on race day of the BTCC event at Rockingham last month to find out exactly what a tin-top driver gets up to.
7.50AM, ROCKINGHAM MOTOR SPEEDWAY
Chilton arrives at Rockingham nearly four hours ahead of the first race, with a busy schedule ahead of him. First stop is the Motorbase hospitality unit, where boss David Bartrum leads a team meeting. Bartrum’s motivational speeches are, Chilton reckons, a highlight of the weekend. Today’s is delivered in the style of an ebullient American preacher.
“Some teams are quite strict, but Motorbase make it all very enjoyable,” says Chilton. That family atmosphere is clear when you spend any time with the team – although things get determinedly serious once the racing begins.
It’s off to championship organiser TOCA’s hospitality unit for Chilton’s first official act of the day: a breathalyser test. Every driver must take one on each morning of a race weekend, just to prove they’re absolutely fit to race. Chilton passes – several times, in fact, since photographer Olgun makes him redo the test again and again to capture the perfect photo.
Chilton then heads to a small rest area in the Motorbase truck parked behind the pits to get changed into his race overalls.
He shares the space with team-mates James Cole and Sam Tordoff – the latter trying to catch up on his sleep when Chilton arrives with journalist and snapper on tow.
While some drivers change back into their civvies between races, Chilton prefers to keep his overalls on all day – although he admits they’ll likely smell “hideous” by the end of it.
“Original, Honey and Nut, Barley and Spelt? Skimmed or semi-skimmed?”
It’s breakfast time. Not for Chilton, though: instead, he and Cole are offering free sponsor’s cereal to arriving spectators on a Shredded Wheat promo stand in the shadow of Rockingham’s main grandstand, past which spectators are trickling into the circuit.
The ‘Breakfast Club’ stand includes a small bar, behind which Chilton and Cole stand, shovelling bite-size biscuits of 100% whole grain wheat into bowls, adding milk from a bar pump. There’s limited demand for cereal, partly because there are relatively few spectators at the Northamptonshire track today – a symptom of the poor weather forecast and the circuit’s uncertain future – and partly because the fans seem more tempted by the burger van next door, which has a huge queue. At the Brands Hatch season opener, the team dished out more than 1000 bowls of cereal.
When the milk pump briefly jams, Chilton switches to signing autographs, chatting to fans and posing for photos with a headless cardboard cut-out of himself. “It’s all part of the game of being a race driver,” he says. “Sponsors make the world go round; you’ve got to put the effort in for them.”
It’s impressive stuff to watch while munching on my cereal (original, skimmed): I’ve seen many drivers go through the motions at sponsor events, but Chilton is a bundle of energy throughout.
From there, it’s back to the paddock and finally time to sit down with car chief Nick Silvester to discuss set-up and strategy for the event. Showers are forecast for the day, so much of the chat will be about what set-ups to adopt in differing conditions.
Rockingham has an ultra-wide pit lane, and ahead of each BTCC race the cars are brought out of the garages and lined up in the outer pits. While his mechanics negotiate his bright yellow Focus RS into position, Chilton readies himself, pulling on his helmet and race gloves.
“Just focusing, mate,” he smiles, still ultra-friendly but now clearly with his mind focused on the task in hand. He has qualified a strong seventh for race one and, once he’s driven his Focus onto the grid, he remains cocooned in it, working out his plan for the first corner and beyond.
The Rockingham circuit is a recipe for first-lap drama. Cars blast around the banked first turn and down a long straight before braking heavily into a tight hairpin.
Sure enough, there’s a big pile-up at the hairpin on lap one, but Chilton deftly dodges the mayhem and emerges second, behind the Mercedes of Adam Morgan. To add to the drama, it starts to spot with rain.
After a safety car period, Chilton tries to attack Morgan but is soon focused on fending off the Subaru Levorg of reigning champion Ashley Sutton. The two make contact at one point, which damages one of Chilton’s tyres.
Back in the Motorbase pits, the team, along with a host of guests, watch the action unfold on television. Rockingham has one long pit building, with thin internal dividers between individual garages.
Sutton’s BMR squad is right next door, so when he finally fights his way past Chilton, the cheering from the …read more