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BTCC Brands Hatch Grand Prix

The potential BTCC race winner trying to make it to the front

A big talent with a small budget and an underdog team - Bobby Thompson is becoming increasingly recognised as a potential British Touring Car Championship star of the future by those in the series. But finding a secure drive in a stable situation is proving the biggest stumbling block of a bright career.

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"I think there’s probably six really elite standout drivers in the championship at the moment, and I’d put Bobby in that six, definitely. He’s very fast, he’s deceptively quick, and he’s got a very calm head on his shoulders. He doesn’t get flustered, he looks inwardly at himself before blaming other things and other people and the car and everything, which is refreshing. He gets on with the job, and he’s a good racer as well.”

That’s three-time British Touring Car champion Matt Neal talking about the current cause celebre of the series, Bobby Thompson. You’ll know the 27-year-old Essex man as the guy hustling around in the middle of the pack in his Team Hard Cupra Leon, sometimes breaking through to the sharp end, often a victim of incidents or mechanical strife. That bloke who is there thanks to the faith of others – principally Team Hard chief Tony Gilham – yet who recently has had to sit on the sidelines when the squad realised the budget he’d been providing wasn’t enough to make ends meet.

Through 2022 and early 2023 there’d been a growing consensus that Thompson, now finally armed with a relatively new car after an early career hauling around the pensionable Hard Volkswagen CC and Trade Price Cars Audi S3, is potentially the BTCC ‘real deal’. Yet he had to stand down during the summer and miss three rounds because Gilham could no longer continue with the heavy subsidisation of his drive. Now he’s back for the final two events: at Silverstone recently, and Brands Hatch Grand Prix this weekend.

With the exit for 2023 of his own Team Dynamics squad, Neal has been “helping out” Team Hard, with his long-time technical director Barry Plowman engineering Thompson and another Dynamics techie, Tom Hunt, looking after the sister Cupra of Dan Lloyd. Thompson lies way down the points table – missing races, plus points penalties for engine changes, haven’t helped – yet he has the eighth best median average ‘supertime’ (each driver’s weekend best lap expressed as a percentage of the overall best) of the season. That’s impressive.

“For me, 2022 was all about trying to give results for Team Hard that they deserve with the work that they’ve put into that car, and showing people that the Cupra can be a really, really good car,” explains Thompson, who returned after a year out in 2021 to win the Jack Sears Trophy sub-division.

“It just needs a bit of love and maybe a little bit more engineering expertise. And I think we achieved that. That’s why on the jump from 2022 to 2023 you saw some new names that maybe wouldn’t have come across to Team Hard joining. That was job done, and the start of 2023 was all about ‘right, we’ve done that, now let’s actually go and fight at the front with this thing.’ And to be honest that’s all we did for the first half of the season.”

Thompson has been trying forge a BTCC career for several seasons

Thompson has been trying forge a BTCC career for several seasons

Photo by: Jakob Ebrey

The liaison with Plowman has been key to this. “Whenever the nose would dive on a touring car it was always a Team Dynamics Honda,” laughs Thompson. “You could always see its front splitter dragging on the ground on entry to corners. When Barry came along from Team Dynamics, I knew I was going to have a car that does just that. There’s no getting around it – we lucked into having these guys, and I was lucky enough to get Barry.

“At the start, like any relationship, he doesn’t know if I’m an annoying diva race driver, and I don’t know how he looks at motorsport, so in that first day or two in the car you’re more or less trying to work each other out and see what each other’s goals are. And I think by our first session we were well into what we needed for each other, and we’re quite similar. We all throw our toys out of the pram when things don’t go our way, but he’s quite relaxed how he looks at motorsport in a very objective way, and I think I am too.”

“The chassis and Barry’s efforts – absolutely faultless. I said a number of times that I feel we have the best front-wheel-drive traction on the grid, absolutely incredible" Bobby Thompson

There have been some great performances. Thompson qualified in the top six at Brands Indy and was second to Ash Sutton in the reversed-grid race, all with what was perceived as a down-on-power engine; he was fourth quickest on the Saturday at Oulton Park, and looked set for a strong Sunday before getting taken out at the start of race two in a clash with Josh Cook, who at the time he was potentially fighting for the Independents title.

“If I didn’t either have an engine go, I throw it off or we get taken out, we were in the top five at the start of the year,” muses Thompson. “The chassis and Barry’s efforts – absolutely faultless. I said a number of times that I feel we have the best front-wheel-drive traction on the grid, absolutely incredible.

“Yes, we did have engine issues, but I don’t think that’s a fault of M-Sport’s [the customer TOCA engine supplier] at all – I’d say that’s more they’re trying as much as they can on my car to get me further than where I already was, and with engines the more you push it the more they’re going to go bang. When you’re playing that game you’ve got to accept there’s going to be a risk of failure.”

You may be getting the impression that Thompson is highly philosophical about his racing. In his financial situation, what can be controlled is very limited. He doesn’t lose any sleep; it’s just the way this sport is. Take his enforced absence from three rounds this summer.

Thompson lost out on a strong result at Oulton Park with this off

Thompson lost out on a strong result at Oulton Park with this off

Photo by: Jakob Ebrey

“Obviously I dislike the decision, but everyone expects me to dislike the team and maybe have a bit of bad blood, but there wasn’t at all. Motorsport’s a cruel game, and everyone on the grid, all 27 of us, we’re all there on our own specific little deals. Whether they’re fronting the cash themselves or whatever, there’s some crazy deals involved to enable you to drive around 10 times a year. My one is I’m there as part of Team Hard, and eventually when the team’s pot of cash goes dry something’s got to give.

“Tony’s got six cars on that grid and if one of them’s not bringing as much cash as someone else, that’s the one that’s got to go. I understood that risk when I signed at the start of the year. I think I was more gutted that we were going for an Independents championship. In terms of motorsport and leaving, that wasn’t too much my worry – I do this every day; I’m always going to drive a race car, it just wasn’t a touring car for a couple of rounds.”

Ah yes, he’s referring to the other string to the Thompson bow: his successful driver coaching business. “Most of my work is Ferrari Challenge, Radicals… usually your gent driver market,” he says. That can lead to opportunities… “To be honest I’m just going with it, going with the flow, doing whatever I can to stay working within the sport because I realise how lucky I am just to earn a living out of it. Even if that’s not driving a race car, but still doing the cool things that go with it.

“I’ve got customers that I can probably lean on a bit harder and go, ‘Come on, let’s go and do some pro-am stuff’, but this bloody touring car thing’s got me all wrapped up. I just want to have a crack at the Independents. I mean, everyone says they want to have a go at the proper championship, but it’s hard, isn’t it? I just want to keep up the old touring car bit whilst I’ve still got age on my side.”

Thompson’s end-of-season BTCC reprieve came in the wake of Nic Hamilton leaving Team Hard in July. Rob Huff filled in at Knockhill, and Gilham needed to keep the car on the grid to not forfeit the TBL entrants’ licence. But it does mean Thompson is in the well-worn 2021-built Hamilton Cupra rather than his new-for-2023 machine of the early season. Most drivers would use that as an excuse. Not him though.

“From the moment I got let go I said I wouldn’t jump back in the car unless it was my one with Barry,” states Thompson. “But the mechanics I keep in contact with all the time at the team assured me that there’s nothing wrong with it [the Hamilton car], it just needed a bit of work here and there to adapt it back after Nic’s equipment [to allow for his disability] was on it.

Thompson is set to race in the BTCC season finale at Brands, where he got a podium earlier in the year

Thompson is set to race in the BTCC season finale at Brands, where he got a podium earlier in the year

Photo by: Jakob Ebrey

“It felt exactly the same. To be honest, for Silverstone I think we were just slightly out of the window set-up wise. I think we had something that was a little bit too on edge – it turned really well, maybe too well. Now I wish we’d maybe numbed the car down a little bit and focused on keeping a higher minimum speed. But at least I know we’ve got something good for Brands.”

Brands GP is where, in 2022, Thompson was running a genuine second in a non-reversed-grid race, a fly in the ointment of the overall title battle, “when I had an engine blow up. I think we’ve got some unfinished business, myself and M-Sport, just to get the job done that didn’t get quite finished last year. I’m just going to try and put on a good show."

“He’s like the George Russell of touring cars – how George was [at Williams]. Everyone knew he was pretty quick but didn’t know how quick he was" Matt Neal on Bobby Thompson

"This for me is to ensure I get a seat next year really. The trouble I’ve got is you’re up against people who are able to bring in a lot of sponsorship or personal money, and at the moment I’m not lucky enough to do that, so I’ve got to make teams believe that it’s worth having me. We’re all just marketeers at the moment in touring cars. Everyone on that grid, Monday to Friday when they’re not at the circuit, is on laptop and emails, making sure they can just keep their bum in the seat.”

If Dynamics was still in the BTCC, would Neal as a team boss be open to recruiting Thompson? “I’ve watched him over the last few years, and he got into a few accidents, but that’s almost a victim of being in the middle of the pack,” ponders the lanky Brummie. “It’s not pretty racing there, and you get involved in so many other people’s melees. Before this year would I have entertained him? Maybe not. After spending a season with him? Definitely. I like him. He’s a nice guy, nice family, he’s got a good attitude.

“He’s like the George Russell of touring cars – how George was [at Williams]. Everyone knew he was pretty quick but didn’t know how quick he was. Tony’s been fantastic in giving Bobby opportunities, as have others, but he’s never been able to get his arse in a frontrunning car and really show that.” Let’s hope that, one day, he finally can.

Can Thompson make it to the front in the BTCC?

Can Thompson make it to the front in the BTCC?

Photo by: Jakob Ebrey

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