It’s the news that touring car fans have long hoped for. Chris Smiley will be back on the BTCC grid in 2020 and he’s ready to prove just what he, Excelr8 Motorsport and the sensational Hyundai i30 Fastback N are capable of.
It’s been a hard winter for Smiley and those close to him. When I spoke to him at the end of last season, he felt sure that his place in the BTC Racing squad was secure; when I spoke to him just before Christmas, he was looking forward to a full pre-season testing programme and developing the pace from the FK8, but motor sport is a funny old business and when big budgets are dangled, even the strongest of bonds can break.
But that was then, and if there’s one thing I know about Chris Smiley, he lives for ‘now’: And now, in this case, is an ambitious team, embarking on a carefully engineered programme that will bring one of the world’s most determined automotive brands into the hearts of thousands of touring car fans around the UK and Ireland.
There’s no works involvement yet from the Korean manufacturer but you can be sure that executives in Seoul and Alzenau (its motor sport base) will be watching closely. And for Smiley and teammate Senna Proctor, two young drivers with exceptional talent, the opportunity is now in their hands to prove their worth, not only behind the wheel but perhaps more so with Excelr8’s engineers to create a race car capable of starring in the BTCC’s forthcoming hybrid era.
There will be very clear challenges ahead, but everybody involved in this project understands that they’re building for the future. Of course Smiley and Proctor want to be out on track before Silverstone’s Media Day test, and hopefully they’ll have the chance to shake-down the chassis’ at Snetterton in a few weeks time, but I’d rather this not be a headline-splashing debut. The most important thing right now is to build two reliable cars that will give the team the time to understand the best way forward. As I said to Smiley this morning, “It’s Year One: Focus on small positive steps, build the cohesion in the team, develop the car and ignore everybody else’s bullshit.”