British Touring Car Championship 2010 season in review, part 1
Once again the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship has lived up to expectations and proved why it is the best National Touring Car series in the world. This was no more evident as approaching the final meeting of the year as Jason Plato, Matt Neal, Gordon Shedden and Tom Onslow-Cole were all separated by just 24-points. Throughout the year all four drivers had suffered various highs and the lows but in the end it was Silverline Chevrolet's Plato who took his second BTCC crown.
During part 1 of the season review we look at how the championship was won and lost by looking at the teams and drivers at the sharp end of the field.
The big news over the winter was that Chevrolet would enter a full works team for the first time in their history run by RML, the men behind their World Touring Car Championship programme, with the Cruze they had successfully introduced in the WTCC in 2009. Plato was confirmed for his second season with RML and unsurprisingly was instantly installed as clear championship favourite heading to Thruxton, the first race of the season.
At Thruxton Plato and Chevrolet took the conservative approach and as others suffered punctures, Plato was able to take two podium finishes for 2nd and 3rd while in the other race taking 4th. Rockingham was next up and although the Chevrolet would not be the car to beat, Plato did earn the Cruze's first victory along with a 3rd and a 5th to take an early championship lead.
After the first win much was expected at Brands Hatch but Plato was to suffer a nightmare of a weekend. A low key qualifying where Plato placed 7th on the grid was followed by and 8th in race 1 in torrential rain. Worse was to follow in the other two races with mechanical issues eliminating him early on in both, putting him on the back foot.
Oulton Park was a weekend of highs and lows. A better qualifying position of third couldn't prevent yet another bad first race where he finished a disappointing 10th following contact with another competitor. He made up for it in race 2 winning forcefully when taking the lead, hitting heavily the back of the Ford of Onslow-Cole and leaving the front of the Chevrolet badly damaged. He finished the weekend with a fairly low key 6th. Two podium finishes at the next wekeend in Croft wasn't a good return but a 16th in race 3 after a puncture left Plato trailing heading into the mid-season break.
This amazingly proved the turning point for Plato, with the team able to look at the data and understand the car more, which was running on Dunlop tyres for the first time.
They also enjoyed a successful test at Snetterton, which showed when the cars went there for real just a week later. After qualifying second Plato dominated the first two races with him finishing 5th in the 3rd race. With others suffering problems Plato at last was able to take the championship lead for the first time since leaving Rockingham, which he was never to lose.
At Silverstone Plato couldn't continue his form from Snetterton but a 3rd, 4th and 9th was enough to maintain an at least one race advantage over the pack.
Of course now this meant he was carrying full weight heading into qualifying and the first race of the day, which hampered his race pace during race 1 at Knockhill where he would finish in 6th. With the weight off Plato was able to take a podium finish for 3rd in race 2 before finishing the weekend in style, winning the third race.
During the first race at Donnington it looked like it had all gone wrong for the 2001 champion after he triggered an incident at the chicane and ending up in the gravel. This meant for race 2 he started off at the back of the grid but a superb drive saw Plato carve through the field to take 3rd. He matched his result in the 3rd race meaning he would take a 17-point lead into the final race at Brands Hatch.
If he felt the pressure at Brands it didn't show. Plato and the Chevrolet enjoyed a dream weekend. He chose the perfect time to take his first pole position of the season and no one could come close to him during the first two races. Plate won botch comfortably while not only taking the title but equalling the all time BTCC win record held by Andy Rouse at 60 wins.
With the job done Plato headed out for race 3 with a hat trick and the record in sight, taking an aggressive approach. Sadly it didn't work and Plato took 9th but this did not matter, he had already secured his second BTCC crown.
Plato was joined at Chevrolet by 2009 Clio Cup runner up Alex MacDowall. Throughout the year MacDowall clearly proved he had the pace to be in the BTCC by taking two pole positions and actually out qualifying Plato 6-4, although question marks still remain over his race craft in the big time.
A poor qualifying at Thruxton in the wet finishing 15th was followed by 3 rather low key points finishes with a best of 6th. At Rockingham he secured a superb 3rd on the grid but was caught out by the weather after an early rain shower. MacDowall decided to start on wets but clearly the circuit was suitable for slicks and struggled round for 12th. He finished in 12th in race 2 again but a non-finish in race 3 set the pattern for a hugely promising weekend ending in disappointment. He managed to finish ahead of Plato, overtaking him on the way to 7th in the pouring rain at Brands Hatch which was followed by a third place after disqualification to the race winner Tom Chilton, before Chilton hit MacDowall into the gravel in race 3.
At Oulton MacDowall took 7th after qualifying in 4th for race 1 with him taking a further two points in 9th for race 2 after innocently hitting Rob Collard when he was tapped into a spin at the hairpin, causing heavy damage to the front of the Chevrolet. MacDowall was rewarded with the reverse grid for race 3 meaning he had a great opportunity starting on pole but this was to end on just the second lap, pulling off with mechanical issues.
Yet again he produced a good effort in qualifying at Croft finishing in 4th but yet again that was as good as it got. Race 1 saw him struggle in the race going through the gravel a couple of times and losing a number of places, finishing out of the points in 13th. Race 2 saw MacDowall sneak into the points taking 9th posistion before taking 10th in race 3, like he had just escaped a bank robbery with smoke pouring and heavy damage after hitting a Honda at the last corner.
Like Plato, he was given a great car at Snetterton, which he repaid by taking pole position, becoming the youngest person to do so in BTCC history. Sadly for MacDowall he was to endure a terrible weekend. In his bid to get a quick getaway his gear lever came off in his hand on his up change from first to second and his race was over. He suffered more problems in race 2 getting involved in back markers with a bouncy trip across the grass ending in retirement. In race 3 at least he got to finish all be it down in 13th.
At Silverstone he faired better again, out qualifying Plato to take third but he was to lose out to his teammate in the race, having to settle for 4th although not letting Plato escape. Races 2 and 3 were not to go as well taking 9th in race 2 before finishing 10th in race 3. Although the fact he finished at all was a miracle after stalling on the grid and being collected by another competitor, turning his Chevrolet into a compact!
Knockhill saw his best performance of the season, again starting on pole and even though he had to settle for second in the race he showed a very good account of himself. A poor first lap in race 2 saw MacDowall finish in 9th before ending the day in 7th.
After a poor qualifying at Donington he managed to avoid the carnage to claim a good 4th but that was as good as it got for the weekend with an 11th place finish, which was followed by a non finish in race 3.
Hoping to end the season in style MacDowall started and finished race 1 in a good 4th place. In race 2 he made a great start to briefly get into second before being spun out onto the grass after a late lunge by Neal, hoping to gain ground on Plato. Although he continued in trying to get past the pack, a trip into the gravel after making contact with Lea Wood ended his race before in race 3 and he could only finish outside the points in 11th.
Despite not winning this year MacDowall has proved he has the pace to run in the BTCC and after a mixed first year this could only benefit the youngster, especially learning off the best in the business in Plato and surely if given another chance a first win can't be far away.
This season saw Neal return to his family run team after two years away with the factory Vauxhall team. Much work was put into the little Civic and at last with the return of a full works entry by Honda both drivers were able to put in a strong title challenge.
At Thruxton the Civic was clearly the quickest car out there but being too harsh on tyres was its downfall. After qualifying 3rd Neal had to pit with a puncture from 2nd, eventually finishing out of the points in 12th. He then produced a stunning drive in race 2 to claim second after a bit of contact with his old arch enemy Plato, although Plato this time would admit it was his fault with no hard feelings from either party. Race 3 and again Neal was on fire but an over ambitious move at the chicane trying to overtake two cars around the outside ended in Neal taking to the air across the chicane and subsequent damage forced his retirement.
After taking blame for the incident and receiving a fine Neal was back to his best at Rockingham taking 2 victories and a 9th place, equalling his entire race tally of victories in one race weekend than he did in 2 years at Vauxhall. The first race the former double champion got his tyre choice dead right and simply drove away from the rest of the field.
Brands Hatch saw Neal take 5th in race 1 before he failed to finish in race 2 after mechanical issues while in a good points scoring position, which proved costly especially as Plato failed to finish as well. Race 3 saw Neal produce a stunning drive to take second from the back of the field. For much of the day Brands was drenched in heavy rain but starting from the back Neal took a gamble with slicks at the front. With every passing lap the circuit got dryer and Neal was passing more and more cars, eventually taking 2nd on the last lap. Neal just narrowly missed out on victory but this was enough with Plato's issues to take the points lead.
At Oulton an average 8th in race 1 with full ballast was followed by 2nd in race 2 and a victory in race 3 to stay in the points lead. Croft started well for Neal finishing ahead of Plato in both the first two races in 4th and 2nd but race 3 was one of Neal's biggest disappointments and missed opportunities of the season. With Plato already out of the points with a puncture Neal suffered the same fate and failed to finish, meaning he lost valuable points, which at the time would have extended his point lead.
This was to prove even more costly at Snetterton where Plato really took charge in the championship and Neal suffered yet another puncture finishing outside the points for the first race. Neal did well to finish just inside the points in 9th for race 2 before finishing second in the final race of the day but the damage was already done.
Silverstone was always going to be one of Honda's hardest meetings of the year and, as expected Honda weren't really quite on the pace. Despite finishing twice inside the top 5 on races 2 and 3 and an 8th place finish in race 1 Plato still outscored Neal and pulled further away in the championship battle.
If Silverstone was a circuit that didn't suit the Civic Knockhill was completely the opposite. Neal was the highest points scorer from the weekend and was able to retake second in the championship, after losing it at Silverstone. Neal took 4th in race 1 and victory and 2nd in races 2 and 3 but with Plato continuing to score well he wasn't getting any closer to the Chevrolet man.
At Donington it really looked like Neal was likely to get back in the championship battle. With Plato not finishing during the first race and Neal finishing 5th not only had he already gained 8-points but things looked good ending into race 2. Neal was clearly eager to gain on Plato but he was a little too eager jumping the start and receiving a drive through penalty. Helped by a safety car he was able to take 8th getting the benefit of a front row start in race 3 which he turned into a victory to take the battle to the last meeting.
Although Neal took two podiums in the first two races at Brands Hatch Plato was in a different league and took the title after the second race of the day. This was just as well after Neal's third race didn't even last a lap. He had to pull into the pits on lap 1 after suffering mechanical issues off the start line.
See also: BTCC 2010 season in review, part 2