Honda's Matt Neal and Vauxhall's Yvan Muller took a victory apiece in today's two Green Flag MSA British Touring Car Championship races at Donington Park in front of 12,000 spectators. Muller's victory moves him tantalisingly close to the title as he now holds a 29-point advantage at the top of the table over team-mate James Thompson with a maximum of only 35 available from the final two rounds at Oulton Park, Cheshire, on 20th/21st September. Vauxhall have also provisionally won the Manufacturers title for the third year in a row.
Meanwhile, GA Motorsports driver Carl Breeze took two Hilton Independents Trophy wins to make it a three-way fight for the title with just the final two rounds to go. Collard Racing's Rob Collard still leads, but he is now just one point ahead of Synchro Honda Racing's James Kaye with Breeze only a further six adrift.
Barwell Motorsport's Luke Hines, though, is the provisional Production class Champion after a win and then a second place behind Team Varta's Tom Boardman at Donington.
Today's first race came down to a straight fight between Neal and Thompson. The Vauxhall driver started from pole position but was passed by Neal in the sprint to the first corner. Neal, though, was delayed during his mandatory tyre change pit stop and Thompson took over the lead heading into the race's second half. Neal, however, hunted down Thompson and with a lap and half to go forced his way past through McLeans Corner to seal a dramatic victory.
"I thought I'd got the corner covered," said a dejected Thompson. "I haven't seen the television coverage yet so will reserve judgement on whether or not I think Matt's move was fair or not."
Neal said: "James left a gap down the inside and I didn't need a second invitation. I think James knows I wouldn't do anything malicious to him."
Behind, Muller finished third thanks to a sensational drive from the back of the grid after his Astra Coupe broke down in Saturday qualifying and meant he never set a competitive lap time.
"This was the best I could have hoped for, but I didn't expect to be this high. I got to 10th and thought maybe a top five was possible but then I saw them all fighting in front of me and just squeezed through. It's a very good result for my championship."
Warren Hughes, in his MG ZS, won the battle for fourth over Honda's Alan Morrison and Vauxhall's Paul O'Neill, the latter slipping back behind Neal for third in the championship as a result. Honda's Tom Chilton was close behind in seventh, with Breeze eighth in his Vauxhall Astra Coupe and taking Hilton Independents honours ahead of points leader Collard and fellow title rival Kaye who completed the top 10.
Hines crossed the line 14th in his Honda Civic Type-R to head home the Production class runners. He had been forced to fight back past Team Varta's fast-starting Jim Edwards who, now up to speed in his Peugeot 307, went on to come out on top of a thrilling battle with Hines' team-mate Alan Blencowe for runner-up spot. Michael Bentwood, in Edenbridge Racing's BMW 320i, was fourth to keep alive his tiny championship hopes moving into the second race.
From pole position, Neal admittedly made a rotten start and was passed by both Thompson and Muller into the first corner. Just two corners later, Muller made his move on Thompson, getting alongside his team-mate exiting the Old Hairpin before nosing ahead into the lead into McLeans and eking out a small cushion prior to the pit stops.
Thompson was the first to pit, but with Muller's stop almost identical in time their positions remained unchanged. Muller once more started edging clear of Thompson whose focus was now not on his team-mate's boot lid but instead his mirrors as MG's Brands Hatch winner Colin Turkington rapidly began closing in with the fastest lap of the day. With five of the race's 25 laps to go, Turkington was right with Thompson and then followed three of the most exciting laps of the BTCC season. After swapping places umpteen times, Turkington finally came out ahead to take second with Thompson third, and, crucially, losing further ground to Muller in the title race.
For Muller, who had missed Friday practice through suspension, it was a dream result. "I never thought after qualifying I would win a race this weekend, particularly as Donington has never been my best circuit," he said. "The title is close - James still has a chance. OK, it's only a small chance, but it's not over yet."
Turkington was delighted with his third podium finish in four races - like Muller earlier, he had started from the back of the grid after mechanical problems in race one - while Thompson acknowledged that virtually all hope of retaining his title is over. "I think I need Paul Daniels to wave his magic wand to make it come back to me now," he said. "I was disgruntled after the first race with move Matt put on me, but this race with Colin I really enjoyed."
O'Neill held off the two-pronged Honda attack of Morrison and Chilton in the closing laps to take fourth - a result that moves him back up to equal third in the championship with Neal who, having kept in touch with both Muller and Thompson in the opening laps, eventually slipped back to 10th with a lack of engine power. Morrison's fifth place, meanwhile, was the result of a terrific comeback drive after he had spun to the back of the field at the opening corner. "It's a great shame that happened because my car was fantastic and had the speed to win," said Morrison.
Hughes took seventh with Breeze eighth for his second Hilton Independents Trophy win of the day. This time, he had Kaye, Team Dynamics' Gareth Howell and Team Halfords pair Dan Eaves and Daniel Buxton between him and Collard, the latter down in 16th after being forced to pit to repair lap one accident damage to the rear of his Astra Coupe. Breeze later admitted: "During the race, a small electrical fire broke out in my car and I just had my fingers crossed that I'd make the finish." The result means Collard still leads the Independents title race on 136 points, with Kaye on 135 and Breeze 129. Eaves, on 108 points, also stands a chance of retaining his crown in Oulton's season finale.
Further back, an emotional Hines crossed the line behind Boardman to take second in Production class and - pending official confirmation - seal the 2003 crown. "It is just amazing - it's still sinking in. I have loved every lap I've driven this year. I moved from single-seaters to Touring Cars for this year and my heart is in the BTCC and I want to be in this championship next year," said Hines, whose Barwell squad also took the Teams title, again pending official confirmation. Blencowe again took third in class to move ahead of Bentwood into second in the Production standings by three points.
Barwell team boss Mark Lemmer said: "Everyone in the team deserves this - the cars have run 100 per cent reliably all season which has allowed Luke and Alan to perform so strongly. This is also the perfect springboard for us to move into the 2004 championship and fight for the Independents title which we came so close to winning in 2002."