Menu and Thompson the Brands Hatch victors
Live BBC TV cameras and a trackside crowd of 37,000 enjoyed a vintage display of Auto Trader RAC Touring Car Championship action at Brands Hatch today (Sun), Alain Menu winning one of this afternoon's twin races to extend his and Renault's championship lead and James Thompson taking victory in the other to record his debut win for the Honda team.
Rounds seven and eight of the Auto Trader Championship marked the first live TV coverage of the series, the BBC's flagship sports show Grandstand being hosted live from the Kent track.
Round seven of the championship was another Alain Menu demonstration run his and Renault's fifth victory of the season. The 33-year-old UK-domiciled Swiss took control at the green light, his Laguna beating off a strong challenge from the fast-starting Honda of Thompson into Paddock Hill Bend and easing into a one-second lead within a couple of laps.
Menu opened out his advantage over Thompson to nearly three seconds by mid-distance and did not look under great threat, even when a mistake four laps from home cost him a second or so.
The battle for second was the dice of the race: Thompson looked well in control until the late stages, when a vibration problem began to afflict his Honda Accord. Menu's Renault team-mate Jason Plato had been his race-long pursuer and moved in to threaten what would be Thompson's best race placing of the season as the chequered flag loomed closer. At the end Plato was just four-tenths of a second behind, with Nissan's David Leslie right on his tail.
Drive of the race came from Nissan's Anthony Reid, who fought back from a tardy start 10th on the opening lap to claw his way up the order and past Honda's Gabriele Tarquini into fifth with seven laps remaining. Total Cup Independents victor was 12th-placed Robb Gravett (Honda).
There was woe for the Peugeot and Ford squads: Patrick Watts pitched his 406 out of seventh place and into the gravel while team-mate Tim Harvey's engine expired. Will Hoy's Mondeo was black-flagged from an early sixth after his side window came loose and Paul Radisich went out with transmission failure.
Round eight was another copybook performance this time from Honda's Thompson, 23, who outgunned his pole-sitting team-mate Tarquini away from the lights to take command. 1994 champion Tarquini slotted into second ahead of Menu, Volvo's Rickard Rydell and the Nissans of Reid and Leslie.
With only a couple of seconds covering the top six or seven, the action on the tight and twisty Brands Indy circuit was intense. Reid was the first of the front-runners to break the status quo, moving into fourth past Rydell just after mid-distance. The Swede's hold on fifth faltered a few laps later with a puncture.
Reid's attempt to dislodge Menu from third place was less successful, however. With eight laps to the flag, the duo touched at Clearways corner and both were pitched into a spin; Menu got going again behind team-mate Plato in fifth place but Reid rejoined at the back of the pack. "I am not impressed," said Menu, "he just took me out." Reid admitted his error: "I braked too late and just clipped the back of the Renault. It wasn't intentional."
Thompson held on to record the third BTCC victory of his career and the first in 1997 by a British driver, finishing five seconds ahead of Tarquini. Leslie inherited third and Menu was sportingly handed fourth by Plato on the final lap. Gravett was once again the Total Cup victor, moving him into the points lead of the Independents division.
Menu's driver championship lead is now extended to 44 points, with Tarquini taking over second place overall ahead of Rydell. Renault leads Honda in the manufacturers' battle by 25 points.
Auto Trader RAC Touring Car Championship, round 7 Brands Hatch, 18/5/97, 38 laps/45.6 miles 1 Alain Menu Switz Renault Laguna 29m 07.076s 94.24mph 2 James Thompson GB Honda Accord +4.780s 3 Jason Plato GB Renault Laguna +5.194s 4 David Leslie GB Nissan Primera +5.491s 5 Anthony Reid GB Nissan Primera +5.704s Fastest lap: Menu 45.107s 96.05mph (record)
Round 8 38 laps/45.6 miles 1 Thompson 29m 03.363s 94.44mph 2 Gabriele Tarquini It Honda Accord +5.261s 3 Leslie +8.741s 4 Menu +13.136s 5 Plato +13.537s Fastest lap: Menu 44.907s 96.48mph (record)
Championship positions DRIVERS 1 Menu, 107 points; 2 Tarquini, 63; 3 Rickard Rydell, 52; 4 Plato, 46; 5 Leslie, 40; 6 Thompson, 39, etc.
MANUFACTURERS 1 Renault, 105; 2 Honda, 80; 3 Volvo, 75; 4 Nissan, 60; 5 Audi, 56; 6 Peugeot, 43; 7 Vauxhall, 38; 8 Ford, 37.