BTCC: Croft Vauxhall Motorsport race report

<pre> 2001 www.theAA.com MSA British Touring Car Championship Rounds 17 & 18 - Croft - Races - 12 August </pre> The British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) battle between the two Vauxhall Motorsport Astra Coupes of Oxford's Jason...

<pre> 2001 www.theAA.com MSA British Touring Car Championship Rounds 17 & 18 - Croft - Races - 12 August </pre>

The British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) battle between the two Vauxhall Motorsport Astra Coupes of Oxford's Jason Plato and Frenchman Yvan Muller hotted up at Croft circuit near Darlington on Sunday. Plato started the weekend with a points lead on Muller; dropped to equal pegging after a penalty was imposed; moved ahead after a Sprint race win only to end the day three points behind as the Feature race chequered flag dropped on a winning Muller, all watched by a soaking wet 12,000 crowd.

Jason Plato retook the championship lead with a win in the handicapped 19-lap Sprint Race taking the chequered flag ahead of teammate Yvan Muller and giving him overall second place behind the Production class car of Roger Moen. Egg Sport Astra Coupe driver, Phil Bennett made the best of the first pole of his touring car career to lead from the start whilst the Lexus of Thomas Erdos also got a cracking start to lie in third place behind Bennett and fellow front row man, Plato, as they headed for the first corner.

However, the Safety Car came out at the end of the first lap when a backmarker spun blocking the first corner, and as both Muller and Thompson had taken the Lexus, it was an all Vauxhall line-up convoying the official car. This was to cause some confusion as the Touring Car drivers were all expecting the Safety Car to either pull out in front of the Production Cars, which had started 27 seconds behind, or to wave them by. Despite calls into the pits none of the drivers seemed any the wiser and each dealt with the problem in their own way. With Bennett still leading, Plato made sure he stuck on his tail, whilst Thompson, who was lying fourth behind Muller, used the opportunity to cool his engine.

After three laps behind the Safety Car, the race finally got under way and it wasn't long before Plato made his move on race leader Bennett, taking him at Tower Bend. Muller also saw his chance, diving inside the Midlander at the hairpin to take second. Bennett retook the Frenchman at the next corner only to be repassed again by Muller who went on to keep his second place to the end of the race setting fastest lap on the way. Bennett then suffered further misfortune, picking up a front left puncture when he went off avoiding a wayward part of the tyre barrier left in the middle of the track. A visit to the pits saw him rejoin the race but he was unable to mount a real challenge from then on.

The Feature race started in the wet and worsening conditions brought out the Safety Car of three occasions, but not until after Thompson had lost his race leading advantage over Muller due to a lengthy pitstop when a front wheel change proved problematic. That was after 9 laps and saw Muller holding a six seconds advantage over Thompson, Plato and Bennett as the first Safety Car period started halfway through the race. It lasted for three laps and at the restart Muller held on to an advantage over Thompson with Plato challenging strongly behind. Bennett and Steve Soper (Peugeot) touched several times during the restart lap, ending with harder contact in the complex at the end of the lap. Soper's car showed front damage, Bennett's was damaged all over after additional contact with Tom Ferrier (Alfa) - but before the following lap was completed, Bennet was off through the gravel, bringing out the Safety Car for the second time in as many laps.

Meanwhile Plato passed Thompson for second, while Muller saw his two seconds advantage disappear behind the Safety Car. At the restart Muller maintained his advantage, outdragging Plato into the first corner with Erdos and Ferrier behind. Within a handful of laps the Safety Car was again brought out and with just four laps remaining the race restarted with Muller maintaining his lead over Plato and Thompson to the final flag.

Jason Plato, Car 5 - Vauxhall Motorsport Astra Coupe Grid: Sprint - 2nd, 1st Touring; Feature - 2nd "The restart was a bit strange. I asked over the radio what was happening, whilst I kept right up with Phil ahead of me. When we were racing again, I passed Phil at Tower for the lead, it was a clean move. The traffic wasn't very kind to me. I'm very pleased to have taken 2nd in the Feature Race especially as I had all sorts of problems in the first stint. I had a set up more suited to the dry and although I had wets on, I couldn't really change my set-up. I deliberately cooled my rear tyres during the Safety Car period and that helped a bit. I was never going to be as quick as Yvan although I was pleased to have got James at Tower. He had made a mistake at the chicane and I managed to get past. It was a bit touch-and-go for the last two laps as I'd hit the kerbs and thought I had a puncture but really I'm just pleased to take second and the points."

Yvan Muller (F), Car 4 - Vauxhall Motorsport Astra Coupe Grid: Sprint - 3rd, 2nd Touring, FL - 1:26.894; Feature - 1st, FL- 1:38.346 "Not a very good Sprint start and Erdos passed me. In the following chicane he slid wide and I passed him. I had a big fight with James (Thompson) with no contact for 3 corners, then we were behind the Safety Car. The restart was difficult, it caught us all out and we heard over our radios that we were racing for real. I caught Phil (Bennett) along the straight, but a yellow flag in the first corner caused a bit of confusion as neither I nor Phil knew who was ahead at that point, but I slowed and let him go ahead briefly. I thought I might catch Jason towards the end but the flag came just too early for me. It's good to be three points ahead after the Feature Race, I'm very pleased to have won that. I did manage to soften my set-up a bit on the grid before the start as it was raining, although I knew James would be strong at the start of the race. With three safety car periods you really have to keep your concentration and after the third it was just push, push, push!"

James Thompson, Car 9 - Egg Sport Vauxhall Astra Coupe Grid: Sprint - 5th, 3rd Touring; Feature - 3rd "What can I say, there was a lot of confusion with the Safety Car and for me, the race was finished. Very difficult, I didn't know we had restarted and I had dropped back to cool my engine down a bit, I wasn't alone, I think Erdos did the same. I tried to push as hard as I could from then on, but we should all have been together for the restart, very frustrating, but not just for me only. It all went awry in the Feature. I thought I had a puncture, but it was just the conditions. I lost the windscreen wipers when I was back in third and just couldn't push. Bit of a disaster that race really."

Phil Bennett, Car 27 - Egg Sport Vauxhall Astra Coupe Grid: Sprint - 19th, 7th Touring; Feature - DNF "My Sprint start was good and I led, but the Safety Car came out at the end of the opening lap. The restart was a shambles, we didn't know if we were racing or not. I let Jason and Yvan through, without any contact, they were catching me. I went off avoiding tyres in the middle of the track and picked up a front puncture. I really didn't have a good Feature Race so I think I'd best go home!"

-VM

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