Finally… the British Touring Car Championship is back! Have we all missed it? I know I for one have!

Since the 2016 season finished we have been keeping ourselves busy – all the way through the off-season. We’ve moved workshops, redeveloped the Toyota, put the work in to get our sponsorship in place, decided on colour schemes, clothing and all the little things that are easily forgotten. There is so much more preparation behind the scenes than many people realise and with it being so busy in-season the off-season prep is extremely important. The better you prepare the better your season is likely to be.

Having ended the season with a front row qualifying and a podium finish we didn’t try to reinvent the wheel and focused on perfecting what we have. I’ve never been in this position going in to a season in the BTCC before where everything has been so carefully organised, well supported and with such a proven competitive car. My Audi was always too heavy and too long so last year we had a big learning curve to go through with our Toyota. This year, though, we have all the ingredients for a very strong campaign and I’m very excited about it.

Having said that, we still have some learning to do and that showed in free practice at Brands Hatch a fortnight ago. We had made a couple of small changes to the car based on what we had learnt from our pre-season testing and they just upset the car a little. Still, we were inside the top ten which was our target for the weekend but it just took the edge off our raw pace. For qualifying, we figured this out and I could feel it as soon as I left the pitlane. Suddenly the target of top ten turned to top five (in my head anyway).

Unfortunately, just as my expectations went skywards, the passenger door flew open and I had to pit. The team slammed the door back shut and sent me out but it flew open again at the bottom of Paddock Hill Bend and I had to return to the pits. Evidently, there was something wrong with the latch so the team tapped it shut but despite some help from a bit of duct tape, it only held for the out lap.

A red flag gave us chance to fix the latch properly but all the while, I still hadn’t completed a timed lap. The rain was falling and my heart was sinking. Fortunately, the rain eased off just enough for us to fit one slippy lap in which was good enough for eighth. Far from ideal but a darn sight better than dead last where we could so easily have been having missed the dry running at the start of the session.

Race one started well and we made a couple of places off the line but after very mixed-up qualifying session, we were bottled up behind Jeff Smith. With his soft tyres we just couldn’t find the traction to make a move in the early stages. Eventually, I managed to cut back under him at Paddock and a couple of corners later he had an issue, allowing the rest of the pack to be released, including a very spritely Jack Goff. Having taken a lot out of my tyres trying to pass Smith I was unable to hold Jack back but we were reasonably happy with our fifth place.

Race two, and I made a mega start! I’m pretty proud of it – jumping us from fifth to third by turn one. The BMW’s were flying in the early stages, though, and there was no holding back Rob Collard and Andy Jordan. I then had an altercation with Adam Morgan at Clearways, unfortunately they didn’t show that on TV, but sods law they got a great shot of me returning the favour at Druids!

None of that mattered in the end because with three laps to go I messed it all up. We were all queued up behind Ingram and I was so focussed on the back of Jordan’s car I completely missed the yellow flags. Having seen the flags, Andy didn’t cover his line and I snuck up the inside. Now in my defence, had the yellows not been there it would have been a clean move. However, because there were yellows Andy wasn’t expecting anyone on his inside so took his line and with me being there contact ensued, sending him sideways. Andy’s always been very clean with me and I respect him as a driver so when it looked like he was going round my reaction was to keep my foot in and drive at his front right, I successfully straightened him up but having seen the pictures, it really didn’t look pretty.

After the race I was called to the TOCA bus. I went there with absolutely no worries at all and felt safe in the knowledge that I had done nothing wrong. They quickly pointed out the yellow flags to me and I instantly felt sick! The flags are there for everyone’s safety, so obviously overtaking under caution is a big no no. I knew instantly and quite rightly that it meant exclusion, a big slice of humble pie and a trip down the pitlane to apologise. To me though, it also means that I let down my team, my sponsors and my fans. I am still kicking myself now.

Race three – from 32nd on the option tyre with fourth place ballast. It was always going to be a long shot to get any points – 18th was about all we could expect in that situation really.

So, a bad weekend overall thanks to my silly mistake but we do have loads of positives to take from it. We had a solid top ten car all weekend and we definitely had the potential for three top five finishes. It proves that our winter work has paid off and we have a solid package, we knew that the nature of Brands Indy wasn’t going to be best suited to the setup we have developed but looking ahead to Donington Park I think we should be very strong so I’m really looking forward to getting there.