The double act that carried Ingram to long-awaited BTCC title glory
British Touring Car Championship 'nearly man' Tom Ingram finally cast aside that label in 2022, delivering the first title of the series' hybrid era. His campaign reaped the fruits of a driver-engineer relationship cultivated at Speedworks Motorsport - and it proved enough to get the best from Excelr8's Hyundai package
“I went to the accountant, and everyone who was working at their desks stood up and applauded me as I walked through the door! Weird stuff like that. You don’t realise what a big deal it is, but it took two hours on the Monday to reply to all the messages. You’re just in your own little bubble, cracking on, and then you realise there’s a lot of people watching it.”
This isn’t 2022 British Touring Car champion Tom Ingram talking. Instead, it’s his engineer Spencer Aldridge. You see, the top end of the BTCC is all about such driver/technician double-acts, such as we continue to see with Ingram’s title-winning predecessor Ash Sutton with Antonio Carrozza. They’re like Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, Saint and Greavsie, Simon and Garfunkel or even Morecambe and Wise. Could one do it without the other? Possibly. But maybe the magic wouldn’t be quite there.
To recap, the Ingram-and-Aldridge partnership grew up at Speedworks Motorsport, before commercial reasons owing to that squad’s increased branding from Toyota for 2021 forced a driver who had become known as the BTCC’s ‘nearly man’ to jump ship. He found a home at Excelr8 Motorsport, and here Aldridge joined him.
“That was a really difficult decision to make,” reflects Aldridge of his departure. “I’d been working with Christian [Dick, Speedworks boss] and his dad at his dad’s garage since I was 16, just at nights and weekends while I was at school. But the relationship you’ve got with a driver is so difficult to build, and to sacrifice it seemed like the wrong thing to do.”
At the beginning of last year, the pair ‘inherited’ a Hyundai i30 N Fastback project that had shown only flashes of promise in 2020, its first season – and Excelr8’s second in the BTCC. The car had been conceived by a technical group that included long-time tin-top engineering ace Kevin Berry, but his commitments in the World Touring Car Cup to Hyundai rival Lynk & Co took precedence, and COVID protocols further scuppered his availability and any hope of a decent development programme.
Luckily, Excelr8 chiefs Antony and Justina Williams gave the newcomers their blessing for everything they needed to do.
“Rather than going in with a ‘we’ll see how it goes in the first year and then make changes from there’, Antony and Justina were very much of the opinion to come in with the knowledge that Spencer and I had gained over the years and try to hit the ground running as quickly as possible,” relates Ingram.
Excelr8 gave its blessing to Ingram and Aldridge to make the changes they saw fit to its Hyundai package
Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images
“No one from Excelr8 put up any resistance like, ‘Oh no, we’ve always done it this way’, which was great, because everyone was very accommodating and willing to change, and ready to have a new way of doing it, and that was very much the case not just on the engineering stuff on the car, but also procedural stuff, how we’re doing all the repreps to the stuff that we’re checking and bringing in additional staff if we need it. So really it was almost a restructure. Everything really was greeted with open arms as a ‘yeah, we want to change, ultimately we want to win, so let’s do what we need to win.’”
The Hyundai, says Aldridge, “had potential, but because of the whole COVID situation they hadn’t time to develop it as well they’d have liked to. It was almost like a part-finished project. Everything was working and running as it should, but we almost took it back to the drawing board and started again on some areas. You have to homologate all those parts, and some people when they see the jokers and changes we’ve made to the homologation papers they’re like, ‘Wow, OK, you weren’t messing around, you’ve gone for this!’”
Crucial also has been the role played by veteran team manager Marvin Humphries, on board at Excelr8 since he joined, from the Eurotech Honda squad, for its debut BTCC season in 2019. He and wife Sandra are another renowned double-act of the series.
“A huge part of this has been the consistency of Marvin and Sandra,” bubbles Ingram. “They have been around the paddock for years, and know what works and what doesn’t work, so they were very much part of that change. The stuff that we did want, we sat down with Marvin, Antony and Justina and said, ‘This is what we need to try and make’, and having Marvin and Sandra there has been fantastic because it’s meant that we’ve had the consistency of leadership as well, and that’s been a really important factor.
"We hit the button on that quite early, so Swindon almost had six months ahead of the game to kind of get all their stuff ready, which meant we were ahead of time when we actually needed engines in car to begin testing" Tom Ingram
“It’s funny because Marvin was saying, ‘Ah 2022, maybe this will be my last year.’ All right, whatever, he’s been saying that for a few years. And we got to the last round of the season, we won the championship, and it’s, ‘Marv, what better way to retire?’ ‘Well, yeeeaah, we could probably come back and try and win the teams’ as well.’ There we go. He’ll still be doing it when he’s almost as old as Dick Bennetts [West Surrey boss]! He just loves it – you cut him in half and he bleeds it, doesn’t he?”
And so the work that led to this year’s title had begun. The Hyundai was vastly improved, and Ingram stayed in title contention until the final event before placing fourth (‘nearly man’ again) in the 2021 standings, with three race wins. And then the toil started again… For 2022, along came hybrid with all that weight to accommodate. And, simultaneously, Excelr8 had commissioned Swindon Powertrain, which had lost the customer TOCA engine deal to M-Sport, to build bespoke Hyundai powerplants.
In the words of driver and engineer, a test carried out at Snetterton after the end of the 2021 season was key to this year’s success.
“It was crucial to deciding quite a lot of things that we were looking at doing,” states Ingram. “But having all the Swindon stuff going on in the background as well was really important, because we hit the button on that quite early, so Swindon almost had six months ahead of the game to kind of get all their stuff ready, which meant we were ahead of time when we actually needed engines in car to begin testing.”
Ingram praises the input of veteran team manager Humphries behind the scenes
Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images
“I was part of the design team on the initial hybrid car for Speedworks before I left,” says Aldridge, referring to the test Toyota run by hybrid supplier Cosworth as a laboratory project. “We’d sketched out the plumbing and built the test car with the schematic of how the plumbing was going to work, and where the radiators were going to be positioned and all that kind of thing.”
And now, with the Hyundai, “we kind of hit the ground running with that because we could plan it before we had any components. We 3D printed all the bits we needed to fit – the radiators, the motor, we mocked up a battery – just to do our planning side of it, so all that could be made a lot earlier than everyone else I think, because we didn’t have to wait for the actual parts to arrive with us. We could get cracking. In that test we moved weight around to simulate the battery position to the extremes of where we were allowed. We got the balance working quite well with that weight.”
The ’dummy’ hybrid box was the ballast carried on so many occasions in the pre-hybrid era.
“We had to adjust the height, because the mass of the battery is higher than the ballast box,” explains Aldridge. “You can do all the maths and calculations that you want, but with it being a front-wheel-drive touring car sometimes the maths don’t work quite as they would if it was a GT3 car or a single-seater. Sometimes you need quirky weird things to make these front-wheel-drive cars work. It’s not conventional.”
When Swindon’s Hyundai engine made its test debut, Ingram found it very little different to the company’s TOCA unit he had raced since 2014. And that was a good thing – it had powered Sutton to the 2020 and 2021 titles, after all. And the champion gives credit to his new-for-2022 team-mate Tom Chilton, who had experienced the bespoke Ford, Honda and BMW units in recent seasons.
“Unlike Tom and Dan [Lloyd, who also joined for 2022], I’d never driven anything but the TOCA engines,” explains Ingram. “I almost didn’t know what else to expect. A lot was led by Tom. He was quite important with getting that side of stuff set up and running. So between the two of us, I had the feeling of what I wanted, how I like to drive it; Tom would then have the ‘well, when we did this’, so he understands the good and the bad, which is a good place to be.”
Ingram carried that package into a title battle against Sutton, now with the Motorbase Performance Ford Focus squad, and West Surrey Racing BMW 330e M Sport racers Jake Hill and Colin Turkington, once Josh Cook and the BTC Racing Honda Civic Type R had fallen out of the picture. And, while the last-named bemoaned his own lack of straight-line speed, the others made much of the poke of the Hyundai, especially at the Brands Hatch finale. But such things are never as simple as that, and it’s the Fastback shape of the Hyundai that played a huge part.
“Yes, the engine has been strong, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the thing that’s won us the championship by any means,” declares Ingram. “There’s a lot of other stuff that’s had to play in. The shape of the car does play a massive variation to it.
Experienced Chilton helped the team sort its Swindon engine after experiencing many more suppliers than Ingram
Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images
“The only thing I can reference to that is when I went from [Toyota] Avensis to Corolla. I remember one of the first tests in the Corolla and it was, ‘Ahh, something’s lacking in it, it just feels a bit flat.’ You’d get to fourth gear and suddenly you just don’t feel like you’re pulling through as much. And it was absolutely aero. A lot of work has been done to the shape of the car in terms of the bodywork, the cooling, the holes and the openings in the front, all sorts of other bits and pieces to maximise every area that we could.”
“Excelr8 had obviously chosen that i30 N Fastback platform before we arrived exactly for those reasons – for the shape, the fact it’s almost like a mini-saloon, it’s got quite a sloped rear screen,” adds Aldridge. “And all the teams and engineers can see the windtunnel data – they know it’s a low-drag car so no one should be surprised it’s fast at the end of the straight. It was in 2020 and it was in 2021 as well.
“I think it’s only the 3-Series BMW that’s equal or slightly better in road trim. In terms of drag coefficient it’s quite a bit better than any of the hatchbacks. In cornering performance and handling, we’ve tweaked away at that and improved it massively as well. We’ve got the chassis working quite well, the engine has obviously given us the consistent performance, and that low-drag platform means the whole package is very competitive.”
"The other drivers being competitive – Chilton’s had some bad luck but he’s been fast at times, and Dan Lloyd’s been quick at times as well – shows we’ve got the car working well. We’ve not just built a car around Tom, anyone can get in there and be quick" Spencer Aldridge
The Hyundai looked quite lurchy in 2020; not so since Ingram’s arrival. He enjoys a lively rear end, is fantastically late on the brakes, yet is still pinpoint on the apexes. Is that something he’s worked on with Aldridge for some time?
“I’ve got to be careful how much I give away here…” pauses Aldridge. “Toe-in, geometry and set-up, that’s how we get the car working for him. He likes the car to rotate, not slide, so we’re trying not to have the rear tyres sliding. We’ve worked hard and chipped away at that for years. The other drivers being competitive – Chilton’s had some bad luck but he’s been fast at times, and Dan Lloyd’s been quick at times as well – shows we’ve got the car working well. We’ve not just built a car around Tom, anyone can get in there and be quick.”
The result was a car that was stunning at Oulton Park and Brands Hatch GP, two circuits that reward a great chassis and a top driver, and scene of Ingram’s two pole positions plus four of his six wins this season.
“It was absolutely sublime,” enthuses Ingram. “At Brands Hatch especially because it was just unbelievable. In the years that I’ve been racing, it’s probably only once that I’d gone, ‘That is just the dog’s bollocks’, when you get out of it and go, ‘There is nothing more I want from that, that is perfect.’
“Granted, it wasn’t quite as good at Oulton as it was as Brands because we refined it more, but to have had two commanding poles this year is fantastic, and they’re circuits that are chassis performance. Oulton was great, because it has been rubbish for me in the past, so to come out of it with a pole and double win was, ‘This is pretty good, this is’.”
Ingram was on superb form in qualifying at Oulton Park to snare pole and parlayed that into two wins
Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images
Another hugely important weekend was at Snetterton. BMW men Turkington and Hill dominated in the baking heat, while Sutton won the reversed-grid race, but Ingram was the only realistic front-wheel-drive challenger to the rear-wheel-drive machines.
“Those weekends are really important, because although there’s not a lot of glory in the sense that you’re not winning races, actually it’s the grind of it that has pulled you through,” he says. “We had an engine let go in qualifying on Saturday, so we had to do a full change. The guys and girls didn’t leave until about two o’clock in the morning, so in that regard it was a tough weekend and actually very rewarding.
“No massive glory – it was three thirds, just bloody consistent. That a lot of the time is what gets it for you, just grinding through a weekend when you know you’re not necessarily going to win it, scoring big points – that’s big value.”
On the other hand, both Thruxton weekends were a letdown. In the first, he went off early in race one avoiding a Dan Cammish/Dan Rowbottom collision and had to pit to have grass removed from the radiator. The second? Just a really tough weekend. But at each, the points he scored are more than the margin by which he won the title…
“That second Thruxton, we picked up an engine issue in qualifying, so we had to go back to the spare, and we were also nursing an issue in that one as well,” recalls Ingram. “Naturally the issue with doing your own engine project is that it’s bits and pieces that you learn over the course of the year, and the spare engine that we had at Thruxton was the one that had let go in qualifying at Snetterton. So we were on tenterhooks all the way through the day, going, ‘This could be the championship unravelling, there’s so much that we have no control over.’ It was just a nerve-wracking day.
“We then ended up with a gearbox issue in race three. But that day – nothing spectacular, nothing to shout about, just a consistently OK day. I remember Andrew Jordan saying at the end of 2013 that maybe it was the bad weekends that won the title for him, and not necessarily the good weekends. I think it rings true in that regard. Maybe we won the championship at Thruxton, because that was going to be our worst day and actually we did alright.”
Apart from the Oulton and Brands victories, the remaining two came in the very first race of the season at Donington, and towards the end of the year in the reversed-grid finale at Silverstone. The former, it seems, set the tone for 2022: “That was it! Colin, Jake, myself, Ash, all four of us going wheel to wheel on the opening lap of the opening race of the year.”
Thruxton weekend was a struggle, but Ingram still picked up important points that were crucial in the final reckoning
Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images
Silverstone’s success, on the other hand, came after incidents earlier in the day with Hill and Sutton in which, in each case, the aggressor immediately gave back his ill-gotten gains: “I think a lot of that has come from we’ve all raced against each other for years. Jake and I have had our incidents over the years, we’ve fallen out, Ash and I have fallen out, but as you grow older and you get more experience you just learn to understand your battles, and sometimes they’re faster, sometimes I’m faster, sometimes I can’t get past, sometimes I can get past, but you know that it’s going to come back around at the next one.
“So all that happens is by me firing off Jake, I know he’s just going to come back twice as hard at the next one. What’s the point? You just understand that these tit-for-tat things end up causing chaos, so you just have a bit of respect. We’ve all got respect for each other now, which is nice to see.”
"There’s another eight circuits there that we can do even better at. By no means have we extracted the absolute most out of this car and I still think there’s more to come" Tom Ingram
Perhaps Ingram’s biggest mistake of the season was an ill-advised lunge at Knockhill on home hero Gordon Shedden, who you could say is one of the last bastions of a bygone era of elbows-out racing.
“I watched it back recently, and I was still just as pissed off as I was at the time,” he grumbles. “I had to go for the move, I just wasn’t left the space to complete the move, so I think in realistic terms I’d try the same move again on somebody else, and get through fine. I think it’s just the fact that it was Gordon and he was putting up a bit of a stern defence that it was a little bit difficult. But that’s the sort of stuff you learn – you pick your battles. But at the same time I’m a racing driver and I want to go for gaps.”
In the meantime, preparations are ongoing for 2023.
“For the races that were fantastic – Oulton and Brands GP – there’s another eight circuits there that we can do even better at,” asserts Ingram. “By no means have we extracted the absolute most out of this car and I still think there’s more to come.”
“Tom’s a class act,” adds Aldridge. “He comes to my house and we sit there for a day and go through every piece of video and data that’s ever been recorded from a particular circuit, so we turn up with the car in the right window.”
Such is the closeness of double-acts, and how BTCC titles are won.
Engineer Aldridge celebrates as Ingram crosses the line to secure the 2022 BTCC title at Brands Hatch
Photo by: Excelr8 Motorsport
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