Pat Cranham, BTCC Correspondent
Honda Racing duo Matt Neal and Gordon Shedden have come out of Rockingham squared on 204 points while it was Jason Plato, Gordon Shedden and Triple 8 racing’s James Nash who took his debut win during rounds 22, 23 and 24 of the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship.
That win of Shedden had taken him clear in the championship battle but after contact with another competitor in race 3 as well as carrying maximum ballast he limped round eventually finishing in a lonely 23rd. Meanwhile series leader heading into Knockhill Mat Jackson of Airwaves Racing once again had a weekend to forget finishing a best position of 13th losing his Independents lead to Nash thanks to his victory in race 3 to build up a commanding lead of 24 points. While also in the Independent team’s trophy it was a similar story for Jackson’s Airwave Racing team who, despite having 3 cars to Triple 8 racing’s one, lost the lead in the points and now trail the multiple BTCC champions by 20 points.
I can’t see the championship being decided until the very last lap of the season at Silverstone.
It was also a busy scene off track with the decision at last being made regarding Tom Boardman from Knockhill was made where he was fined £1000, given 3 penalty points on his racing licence and given a 6 place grid drop for race 1 though all importantly was allowed to keep his controversial win. Plato and Neal also had to visit the stewards after qualifying due to their contact on track during the session where they amazingly squared up to each other in the pits after with Neal even having his fist raised ready to hit Plato. Both drivers received a £1000 fine, given 3 penalty points and have a 6 place grid penalty suspended sentence until the end of the season.
Meanwhile back on track to race 1. Rockingham always provides plenty of close racing around the oval and tight and twisty infield section and it wasn’t long until collisions occurred. It was Plato who lead from pole with Rob Austin in his own prepared Audi A4 getting into second place passing Plato’s last year car now being driven by Paul O’Neill for Tech-speed. Amazingly all cars survived turn 2 the Sharpe Deene Hairpin but as the cars approached turn 3, Yentwood, was when the first contact of the day occurred.
As the pack slowed up for Yentwood Neal slammed into the back of Nash half spinning both cars. Jackson then went up the back of Neal spinning Jackson as Shedden made contact with him eliminating Jackson for the 4th race in a row after he limped the car back round to the pits. With Neal broad sideways as he collected his slide he was rammed from behind by the unlucky Martin Byford in the AmD Miltek VW Golf causing his bonnet to flip up over the windscreen. There was further contact during the opening lap when O’Neill pitched Austin into a spin for second which O’Neill was given two penalty points for. Andrew Jordan was another driver to get caught up in first lap collisions after receiving a whack from Shedden on the opening corner forcing him to retire on lap 3.
One of the scariest collisions of the day happened on lap 6 between Alex MacDowall for Silverline Chevrolet and Andy Neate for Team Aon. The cars entered the ultra fast turn 1 around the oval banking where contact was made. Neate managed to hold the slide while MacDowall spun at high speed across the grass luckily not coming into contact with anything. MacDowall was given two penalty points and a reprimand for the incident while Neate was given 3 penalty points and a £1500 fine for the incident and subsequent bad language. This wasn’t the end of the contact with Dave Newsham being tapped into the gravel at Yentwood on the same lap. A lap later Rob Collard parked his WSR BMW in the gravel at turn 5, Pif-Paf, after diving down the inside of the Team Aon ‘Global’ Ford Focus of Tom Onslow-Cole who was forced to pit to replace a puncture. Both incidents brought out the only safety car of the day to remove the cars of Newsham and Collard.
After the safety car came in Plato was left to walk away to take his 6th victory of the year with O’Neill taking an easy 2nd place finish and his 1st Independent victory of the season, however less than can be said for 3rd. This proved to be a great battle between the two Hondas, Frank Wrathall in his Dynojet prepared NGTC Toyota Avensis and an inspired Nick Foster for WSR.
Neal originally passed Wrathall on lap 15 before losing the place a lap later as he dived down the inside of Shedden coming out of the second Hairpin at Tarzan. Wrathall was then able to get past Shedden into the Deene Hairpin on lap 17 while on the same lap Neal got past Shedden at Tarzan also allowing Foster through which was how the positions stayed.
Finishing 7th was Austin following his great drive up through the field which included taking Boardman on the last lap who had come up from 23rd following his 6 place grid penalty. Nash would finish 9th as he dropped back being passed by Neal, Foster, Austin and Boardman during the race as his front tyres deteriorated. While the last point went to Michael Caine in his debut BTCC race for Airwaves Racing after he got past Team Aon’s Tom Chilton after he had power steering failure and ran wide at Deene.
Race 2 got under way in the finishing positions of race 1 and unlike the first race the first lap came and went without any contact with Plato in the lead. Now ballast free following his 6th in race 1 Shedden was the man on the move and was 3rd by the end of lap 1. He then took 2nd from O’Neill into Deene on lap 2 repeating the move on Plato for the lead on lap 4 with Wrathall doing the same move on O’Neill as Shedden was taking the lead after Wrathall’s initial poor start.
Wrathall then passed Plato at the same place on lap 6 and was then to be on the tail of Shedden until the rest of the race, although he didn’t want to take any risks and take Shedden out of the championship battle despite the NGTC Avensis being able to look after its tyres better due to being slightly wider than the regular S2000 chassis and settled for 2nd his best BTCC result to date and that of a New Generation Touring Car.
Neal was also able to join Shedden on the podium getting past first O’Neill on lap 7 and then passing Plato on lap 14 surprisingly without any resistance following their on track collision the day before. In fact Plato had put up little resistance dropping back to 4th in a car with full ballast which he knew would be no match for the Turbo cars and settled for 4th.
Once again Foster was able to take a fine 5th. He had been 3rd into the first corner but lost time early on as the rear wheel drive BMW takes time to build up tyre temperature before coming good later on during the race. This was indeed the case as he was able to first pass Nash surprisingly at turn 6, Gracelands, not a usual overtaking place and then O’Neill around the outside of Tarzan. Nash was also able to get past O’Neill to take 6th with Jeff Smith putting in a great drive to take 8th his first point for several meetings at his home circuit.
One man in the thick of the action was Austin who eventually finished 9th. After his battling drive from race 1 after his opening lap contact he was forced to do it again in race 2 after he didn’t make the grid in time and had to start from the back of the grid. He managed to get past both Jackson and Jordan in one move as they held each other up on lap 9 before having a good battle with MacDowall. Going into Deene, Austin tried an outside line to get a cut back but this allowed Jackson up the inside and as Austin came back he made contact with the luckless Jackson with the contact opening his left rear door forcing him into the pits after receiving the black and orange flag. He then made contact with MacDowall who has also endured a rough time as late spinning him round at Tarzan as MacDowall got held up by the cars in front.
Collard took the final point after battling through following his early retirement in race 1 and this proved to be pole position for race 3 after double BTCC champion James Thompson drew out the reverse grid.
Collard lead from pole but he was passed at Deene on lap 1 by Austin with Nash moving into 3rd from 5th after slight contact with O’Neill. Nash clearly had the fastest car early on and past Collard on lap 2 at Turn 1 around the oval banking before passing Austin on lap 4 at Deene who like Collard is rear wheel drive meaning his car was better in the latter stages of the race.
Come midrace Nash had indeed built up a 1.4second lead but by lap 12 this had vanished as in the other races Nash’s front tyres had gone. But despite this Nash was able to hold onto 1st to take his first BTCC victory despite winning on the road two years ago at Snetterton before being disqualified after contact with Collard. Austin also drove brilliantly and very fair as the pair enjoyed a great clean battle to also take his best ever BTCC finish matching the best result for an NGTC by Wrathall from race 2.
Nash however was delighted to have finally broken his duck and said after his first race victory, “my tyres were shot with three laps to go and I just wanted the race to be over! But it's been a long overdue win and it feels great - I've finally got the monkey off my back, as they say."
Austin was also delighted to take second and was quick to praise Nash as well as his team after the team’s rapid progress through the season and said, “It was a really good race with James who drove the perfect line. To finally get here, on the podium, is a great reward for everyone in the team who have worked so hard to develop the car. When you consider where we were at the start of the season... it's just beautiful to drive now."
Collard was able to take 3rd right behind Nash and Austin at the flag although he first had to get the better of O’Neill after a great battle. O’Neill had past Collard on lap 13 but Collard re-passed as the cars entered the last lap following a great exit from the final Chicane.
Plato as in race 2 took 4th to reignite his championship hopes ending the day 24 points behind the two Honda’s. After a successful weekend Plato said, “We’ve probably got more out of the day than we anticipated which is extremely pleasing. But although I think we can be strong again at Brands Hatch I still don’t see how we’ll be able to match the turbocharged cars at Silverstone. We’ll of course give it everything but it’s really for the Honda drivers to lose now.”
Plato put in a good move on Smith around the outside heading into the final Chicane while his arch-rival was able to get the better of Smith on the run up to the line to beat the Pirtek Vectra by just 0.028 seconds after he had earlier got past the other Pirtek Racing Vectra of Jordan on lap 8.
Race 3 however was a race to forget for Neal’s Honda Racing team mate Shedden. He was hit early on by Foster at Yentwood and then struggled on with his car suffering the effects of this as well as carrying maximum ballast of 45kg eventually limping round to 23rd. Foster was penalised for the incident while he was also involved in another potentially scary incident on the final lap as he banged wheels with Boardman on the final lap down the straight between Tarzan and the final Chicane. Despite the cars coming together a number of times both cars stayed on track and Boardman would take the last point with Wrathall unable to match his earlier heroics as he took 9th.
Now the series heads to the legendary Brands Hatch GP circuit in 2 weeks time with the two Honda drivers inseparable at the top of the standings. Speaking at the end of the day Shedden was delighted at having taken race 2 victory but left frustrated by race 3 and said, “I keep saying it but today again has shown just how quickly it can all turn around. I hadn’t expected to win here but the car was dynamite in race two and I took my chance. Going into one corner in race three I was ahead of Matt and on for more decent points and 20 yards later I’ve been knocked aside and everyone has come sailing past. I can’t see the championship being decided until the very last lap of the season at Silverstone.”
Neal also agrees with his fellow Honda driver and is now also looking back at the threat of Plato and said, “Gordon is absolutely right. Yet again we’ve seen more teams, cars and drivers becoming increasingly competitive in shaking up the order. Nor can we discount Jason – he’s taken a fair chunk out of us today. He’s still a little way back but we’ve seen him make up more than that sort of ground in the final two rounds before.”
So at the end of the day the two Honda drivers cannot be separated. As already mentioned the BTCC returns in just 2 weeks time for the penultimate race meeting of the season around the world famous Brands Hatch GP circuit. So for all build up to the event, be sure to return to Motorsport.com for all your BTCC news for that crucial weekend.