Neal & Muller share spoils in front of mammoth Brands crowd.
Honda's Matt Neal and Vauxhall's Yvan Muller shared the victory spoils in today's (Monday) action-packed third and fourth rounds of the Green Flag MSA British Touring Car Championship at Brands Hatch that had a mammoth crowd of 40,000 spectators on their feet with excitement.
Muller's victory in the second race, that resulted in a Vauxhall 1-2-3, puts him to the top of the championship standings and also helped the Luton marque, aiming for a clean sweep of titles in their centenary year, stretch their lead in the manufacturers and teams' points tables.
In the Hilton Independents Trophy for privateer Touring class teams, GA Motorsports' Gavin Pyper, in his Vauxhall Astra Coupe, and Synchro Honda Racing's James Kaye, in his Honda Civic Type-R, took a win apiece. In the BTCC's Production class, Edenbridge Racing's Michael Bentwood opened up a sizeable points advantage over his rivals with two well-earned victories in his BMW 320i ahead of the Barwell Motorsport Honda Civic Type-R of Luke Hines.
The three-day event, which also featured America's high-powered Champ Car series, attracted a total of 58,000 spectators.
Both today's races ended in controversy, the first when Neal barged his Civic Type-R past Paul O'Neill's Vauxhall Astra Coupe in a final corner lunge. O'Neill, who had led after the mandatory tyre change pit stops, slid sideways across the track and Neal was able to sneak past for victory.
MG's Warren Hughes tried to take advantage of O'Neill's problems but his ZS - which set the race's fastest lap - snagged the Astra and careered off the track before smashing into the barriers. The lurking Muller, who had dropped to fourth after a collision with Hughes sent him off the track at Graham Hill Bend, was able to outrun his delayed team-mate in a dramatic sprint to the line to take second. Muller at one point had opened both his Astra's windows as smoke, caused by damage from the contact with Hughes, began filling his cockpit!
MG's Anthony Reid and Colin Turkington were fourth and sixth, the pair sandwiching reigning champion James Thompson, fifth after starting the race, his 200th in the BTCC, from pole position.
The talking point, however, was the incident that decided the outcome of the race between Neal and O'Neill.
"I don't believe Matt would ever hit me deliberately," said O'Neill. "Maybe his brakes failed or something. If I'd never won a race before, I'd have been furious, but even though it wasn't the result I had hoped for I'm still content to be on the podium."
Race-winner Neal said his car's brakes had not failed and added: "I saw a gap and tend to go for those. As I said before the race, if the Vauxhalls left a door open I would be in there."
Alan Morrison took further valuable points for Honda - the team down to just two cars following a heavy qualifying crash for their teenage signing Tom Chilton - in seventh, ahead of Hilton Independents Trophy winner Pyper. Trophy leader Rob Collard had run as high as fifth overall at one stage but dropped back to 13th with a suspension problem on his Astra Coupe.
In the Production class, Team Varta's Jim Edwards led the first half lap in his Honda Accord but an engine misfire soon enabled his rivals to overtake him. Bentwood eventually ran out the winner after managing to find a way by Hines who was just three seconds behind at the flag.
In the second race, controversy surrounded a collision between Thompson and Turkington as they battled for second position on the penultimate lap behind runaway winner Muller.
Through Graham Hill Bend, their cars banged into one another twice and Turkington's ZS exited right into the Cooper Straight barriers. Thompson, who had been waved past O'Neill to attack Turkington, thus took second with O'Neill in third as Vauxhall filled the three podium places.
Turkington, who set the race's fastest lap, said: "I am absolutely gutted. Second place or at least third was mine and then this happened. I don't think what James did was fair. I'm devastated ..."
Thompson refused to be blamed for the incident and added: "He left a gap and I had a look and he left me no room. I don't know why he hit me a second time, but that's what sent him off the track."
The day, however, had ultimately belonged to Muller who with second and first place finishes in the two races has taken over the championship lead from Thompson. "Obviously, I'm very happy, but on the last lap in the second race I had a big scare," admitted Muller.
"A big piece of rubber off the track came up into the wheel arch and made a very big bang. I thought I'd had a tyre blow-out and for a moment was very worried, but then it was OK and I could start smiling again!"
Vauxhall's performance in both races was even more astonishing as all three cars had run heavy on success ballast all weekend following two race wins in Mondello Park's opening two rounds a fortnight earlier.
But warned Thompson: "This will not be a Vauxhall walk-over. OK, we won despite the weight handicap, but I think a lot of that was down to the fact that Yvan and I have been in the team for some time now and know how to work with the team to get the best from the car in all conditions. Vauxhall's pit work was also excellent.
"But at one stage in that second race I was down to eighth place and both MG and Honda have been quick all weekend. None of us expect an easy ride this year."
Reid again took fourth with a fast-closing Hughes in fifth. David Leslie racked up more points for Petronas Syntium Proton with sixth in his Impian. Neal and team-mate Morrison were seventh and eighth ahead. Both Hughes and Neal, who had started the race from pole position thanks to his earlier victory, were left to rue what could have been: their car's engines had stalled as they exited the pitlane following their tyre changes under a Safety Car period, caused by a heavy crash into the pit wall by the Production class Alfa Romeo 156 of Chris Ryan, and fell to the back of the field.
Ninth was the jubilant Kaye, who ensured himself and his team of a maiden Hilton Independents Trophy win after passing Carl Breeze's very impressive Team Halfords Peugeot 307 in the closing stages. With Collard and Pyper both retiring from the race with mechanical problems, the Trophy's top three - Collard, Pyper and Kaye - are covered by just 10 points.
In Production, Bentwood again proved unstoppable as he chalked up his third straight class victory to move 17 points clear of nearest challenger Edwards. Hines, who once more finished second, has moved up to joint third overall in class following two non-finishes in Mondello, tying with Barwell team-mate Alan Blencowe.