By Mick Palmer
Since this article was first published polesitter Brad Kent has been sent to the back of the grid – with an addition of the obligatory 10 second delayed start.
The big question over the winter months had surrounded the question of whether the new generation of TCR cars, that are essentially untested on British soil, can usurp the knowledge base that has been built up by teams that have kept older machines on the grid for 2023. After the first qualifying session of the new season the answer was that neither would take first blood. Bradley Kent, in the Essex and Kent run Hyundai Veloster – which in effect is a Gen 1.5 machine – took the honours in a qualifying session that many had predicted would be a hands down rout at the hands of multiple TCR champ Josh Files in the new to the UK Hyundai Elantra.
Despite having three lap times scrubbed from the board Kent – in the Veloster which for all intents and purposes is about 75% i30N – managed to push his way to the top of the pile right at the end of the session by lapping the Snetterton 300 layout 0.078s faster than Files, to take the first six points on offer for the year, and a grand in cash.
“It was a very good start, I can’t ask for much better than that,” Kent said of his timesheet topping performance. The Hyundai racer was visibly on the limit around the Norfolk circuit as he took the car to the limits in the session. On a number of occasions the rear tyres on his machines spat a little smoke as they brushed the track circuit, but rather than being a lock up Kent explained it was related to the balance of the car.
“It’s a case that it’s a light locking the rears where the front sits down quite a lot. Under braking It picks a rear wheel up, and, where the wheel is in the air, it’s just dragging on forward, then that causes it to spin. I mean, it’s not harming the tires, I don’t mind it locking a little.”
All of the pace setters found the session challenging in terms of picking their way through traffic and finding that right lap, but Kent found two right at the end that were quicker than the cancelled times. It sets him at the head of the field for the first races of the season, and he is adamant that he is not going to sit back and just try to pick up points.
“We’ve clearly got the pace to take the first race and I think, for myself, I know that I can overtake people as well,” he explained. “First race we can take it and the second, even if we’re starting 10th isn’t a big problem. The thing about this track as well is the case if it’s quite long. And there are a lot more opportunities for passing (than than on the 200 layout raced last season.)”
For many drivers it was a case of what could have been. The likes of Lewis Brown had a number of fastest sectors turn out to be meaningless as traffic interfered with their attempts to take pole. Even Josh Files found it limiting the reaches of both himself and a car he knows well. But it didn’t blunt his take on his raceday plans.
“I’m putting everything out there, we’re here to try and win,” he remarked. “It was a shame about qualifying a little bit because every lap I was absolutely flying there was either traffic, a red flag or more traffic. And I was catching it all horrible places as well, and I think we’ve been found another half second, to be honest, so what could have been?”
The British races has 100 TCR starts to his name and 25 wins, but this is his first time on home turf in the category which has him fired up to push to the limits. “Win the race. As simple as that,” he reiterated about his goal, but with TCR UK hosting two races it isn’t a simple case of hoping to grab a good start and waltz to the silverware. “The first one- go for glory. The second one – see where I start. And see what happens.”
Files has been overseeing the talent at Area motorsport where he is racing as a coach, and their four entries grabbed second, third, fourth and sixth. 2021 runner up Bruce Winfield took third on the grid with the car that he ran for the first time at Snetterton last season. A 1m 56.882s in the i30N completed the Hyundai hat-trick with all three of their machines grabbing the top three spots. Again traffic was problematic, but Winfield was a little more pragmatic in his approach to planning for the race. “If the win is on I’m going for it!” he said. “I’m not going to risk it all though,” he continued. “It’s a case of trying to maximise the points and not take risks, I’ve got to look at the bigger picture. If you look at Issac Smith last season he was in the mix because he was thereabouts all year, and even when he wasn’t at the front he was picking up useful points, I’m not going to try anything silly.”
Joining Winfield on row two will be Adam Shepherd. “I was a bit disappointed,” he said of his fourth fastest position. “We were a bit quite a bit quicker than what we showed. I think I made a mistake on my best lap, and I think we had enough for pole in the car.”
After taking his first win in the series last term, Shepherd looked to have made the decision to sit out for 2023, but he committed to a return prior to the TCR Media Day, and his first dry run in the car since last year came on Friday, but he was quickly up to speed. “I was about two-and-a-half, three tenths up and made a mistake that was my fault. There’s definitely more to come,” he explained. “I’ll probably go for race one out and out to win.”
Defending champion Chris Smiley didn’t quite slot in where he wanted, but fifth wasn’t so bad. “We’ve had a few electrical problems with it,” he said of the new FL5 Honda Civic Type R that he is debuting on an international level. “We’ve probably only had somewhere between 15 and 20 push laps in the car the whole time we’ve had it so, I don’t think it was a bad effort for the first time.”
Smiley picked up the JAS built machine last week and shook it down at Donington on Wednesday before a truncated test on Friday at Snetterton, but it obviously has a lot, lot more in it yet, although Smiley admitted some aspects of the car that he’s already discovered bears no relation to the Generation One machine he raced last year. “It’s completely different,” he pointed out. “It’s completely, completely different. It runs different dampers, it’s different car altogether.”
A candid and down-to-earth angle came from the champion as he measured up his race day plans: “They are long races. They’re 25 minutes each. Anything can happen there. So we’ll just have to wait and see.”
The driver with the most wins in 2022 – Alex Ley – celebrated his 18th birthday by getting his Area Motorsport i30N into obtuse angles at every opportunity. “ I struggled to warm up my rear tyres,” he said of his wayward machine that seemed to want to pitch him off at every turn.
Ley got his fastest lap on the board early in the session and more than most was thrown by the red flag thrown when George Jaxon was left stranded in the final turn. Building up from scratch with the tyres didn’t come on quick enough in the final six minute blast, but he is taking note of his first ear of education in the series. “We struggled with this (qualifying) last year a little bit, but today we’re in a decent position, so, yeah, it’s good. For the races I’m going to try and get in the top five. I think I need to just do top fives for the throughout the year to get good points. For a chance to win the title I just need to say consistent.”
While the top six will mix it up for the opening face-off of 2023 the lower reaches of the top 10 and beyond will already be hatching plans for a race two assault. Lewis Brown and Callum Newsham have row four with Jenson Brinkley and Joe Marshall filling out the top 10 (with 10th offering the race two pole.) All of those placed 11th and beyond will have their eyes on that position to finish the day off, but the intriguing prospect is Rob Boston Racing Audi driver Jac Constable. After engine maladies he missed out in qualifying, but at the Snetterton finale last year he started race one from the back of the field after a qualifying failure, but finished race two in second. What chance a repeat?