The Ash factor – the making of a champion   2 comments

As Ashley Sutton raised the 2017 BTCC championship trophy in a cascade of tickertape behind him, Tim Harvey announced during ITV’s coverage that Ash had ‘crept up under the radar’ whilst the more established stars we’re fighting for honours. Really? To me and many others who’ve witnessed his rise it came as no surprise to see him in the thick of the title hunt.

I was given a unique privilege to see the Sutton phenomenon at it’s very beginning, and looking back on that day the early signs of champion DNA were evident.

Arrive

March 2010 was an important month for me. Already a middle-aged bloke, I was about to embark on my first competitive season of Formula Vee, and had arranged a test session at Snetterton with the OSport team, run by established Vee frontrunners Jake and Tony Oliveira. I would be testing one of the teams Storm cars, and I turned up for the test ahead of the team truck, so waited in the paddock car park for its arrival.

In the meantime, a flatbed with a trailer had parked a few metres away. On the trailer sat a red Storm, similar to the car I’d be using. From the Veecentre online community I’d learned that this was the car bought by the Suttons for the coming season after a successful spell in karts. I also knew that OSport would be running Ash alongside me at the test, so I stepped out of my car and made my way over to introduce myself.

I leaned through the drivers window. Ash’s dad Warren was behind the wheel and turned to speak. After a few seconds a fresh-faced 16 year old leaned forward into view from the passenger seat opposite, the now famous grin framed by a mop of blonde hair. ‘You must be Ash?’ I said. I don’t recall his reply, but I remember thinking ‘this kid’s gonna get a big wake up when he leaves the pitlane today!’

Drive

The first session loomed. Ash was fairly quiet in demeanour but attentive to everything that was going on. The first thing that struck me was the close bond between Warren and his son. They had a synergy that’s hard to explain, and I think Warrens pride and confidence in Ash must have had an energising effect.

We strapped in to the Vees and made our way line astern out across the paddock and onto the circuit, Ash ahead and me following closely. The out lap was predictably cautious – we were in a string of cars, and as we made our way out of the Russell chicane at the end of the lap Ash signalled me past and peeled off into the pitlane. I stayed out and gunned it for several laps, came back in and hopped out of the car. In the meantime Ash had gone back out, turned in some laps and came back some ten minutes later. I was pleased with my first efforts in the Storm. I’d shaved a few seconds already off my previous times at the same track, set the previous year in the OSport Sheane car. I compared my times to Ash, and was deflated to find he was comfortably much quicker than me. It dawned on me that he’d used the first out lap simply to assess the car, and it was all he needed. On his return he was able to report back the cars behaviour in astonishing detail, and his instinctive racing brain belied his young age.

The rest of the day followed a similar pattern. I made marginal gains but in truth lacked the technical ability to feed anything useful back to Jake and Tony, other than the odd bit of mid-corner oversteer or understeer. Ash on the other hand had grasped every nuance of the car and delivered it with a calm assurance the like of which I’d never witnessed from one so young.

I left the circuit that evening having been given a masterclass in how to approach a test session, delivered by a 16 year old, and it was obvious from this moment that AS had the right stuff.

Thrive

For the record, by the time we got to round four at Brands Hatch (we’d both made our debut at  round 3 at Mallory Park in April) Ash was comfortably in command of his driving, and his competitive instinct was potent. We did a track walk on the morning of the race, and whilst Ash pointed out the characteristics of each corner in encyclopedic detail I struggled to take it all in, not able to process much more than the turn-in and braking points. In qualifying I threw the car into the Paddock Hill gravel trap after one flying lap, and spent the rest of the session watching the red Storm mixing it right at the sharp end, and he never looked back. His maiden victory came at the same circuit a little later after a fierce battle with Martin Farmer. He went on to win twice more that season, and had it not been for a blown engine at Cadwell Park I’m convinced he’d have taken the title in his first year.

Since that year I’ve watched Ash’s progress closely, and have genuinely never, ever seen him make a mistake. The assured, confident approach to his racing has endured throughout, and has culminated in a dream realised.

We had a conversation during the Snetterton test day. “So Ash, what’s the plan, F1?” “Nah, not bothered about that. I want to race tintops. My aim is to be a touring car driver”.

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2 responses to “The Ash factor – the making of a champion

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  1. Great piece! Hopefully this is the start of you blogging again, too?

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