Pat Cranham, BTCC Correspondent
Despite carrying maximum ballast, Honda Racing’s Matt Neal has put himself in the best possible position by taking pole position and will start round 28 of the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship at Silverstone breaking the qualifying lap record in the process.
Along with pole position he also secures a vital point and will start the first race of the day 6 points ahead of his team mate Gordon Shedden, who starts 3rd despite holding pole for much of the session, and Silverline Chevrolet driver Jason Plato, who as expected was no match for the turbo powered cars and will start 7th.
I actually can’t believe it.
After qualifying the trio reflected on their day’s work with Neal who hopes to secure his third BTCC crown understandably the happiest as he said, “With the maximum ballast I thought it might be a struggle even to get into the top eight in qualifying but this is sweet. It’s the first step but a lovely step. I actually can’t believe it”
Meanwhile Shedden who is going for his first title knows a lot can happen tomorrow and said, “That was a great lap from Matt with maximum ballast in his car but there’s still an awful lot of racing to be done tomorrow. I’m up at the sharp end which is the most important thing so let’s just see what happens”
Plato knew it would be tough to compete with the Turbos heading into the event and is fully aware just how difficult it will be to compete with the Honda. He said, “It’s a big ask even though I’m right in there with the Hondas on points. This is a circuit where raw power tells and the others all have turbo engines making it very difficult to get near them down the straights but I’ll never give up. With so much at stake and all five of us towards the front anything could happen.”
The other big battle of the weekend is for Independent honours and it is between Airwaves Racing’s Mat Jackson and James Nash from Triple 8. Nash was the first driver to put in a good time to take second at the time until Jackson put in an even better lap to take provisional pole. Neal stole it away from the Ford driver with just 3 minutes remaining meaning Jackson had to settle for 2nd with Nash directly behind him in 4th.
Although slightly disappointed not to take pole Jackson was happy with his day’s work and is just hoping for three good races which will give him the best chances of taking the Independent title although he is aware that the driver’s one is a long shot saying, “I’ve got 36 points to make up on Matt – actually make that 37 because he’s got the point for pole – with a maximum of only 51 available tomorrow so I have nothing to lose. It’s annoying to miss out on pole by such a tiny margin but I mean to win races tomorrow and will put my car where I need to in order to win.”
Nash who was feeling unwell all day was very happy to qualify on the second row of the grid not least because his main Independent rival Jackson was so high up who he leads by 17 points heading into the event is so high up and commented, “I’m not feeling the best but my team has done a great job in helping me get this high in qualifying. It’s massively important because Jackson is also right up there and he’s the driver I’ve got to beat tomorrow. Hopefully the adrenaline will keep me going…”
Alex MacDowall was the quickest normally aspirated driver and will start 5th in the second Silverline Chevrolet and he will have Tom Chilton alongside him in the first Team Aon ‘Global’ Ford Focus. Chilton had topped the first Free Practice session of the day and his team mate Andy Neate also had a good day running inside the top 10 and he will start 8th behind Plato.
The first New Generation Touring Car was Frank Wrathall and he will start 9th in his Dynojet prepared Toyota Avensis with the first Special Tuning Seat of Tom Boardman rounding out the top 10. Just outside the top 10 will be Tom Onslow-Cole in the third Team Aon Focus with Andrew Jordan in 12th in his last race with the Pirtek Racing Vauxhall Vectra.
Dave Newsham shone in Free Practice 2 finishing in an impressive 2nd although he couldn’t make the top 10 in qualifying and will start 13th. He will have Paul O’Neill next to him in the first Go Mobile with Tech-speed Chevrolet Cruze. In 15th, and still within a second of Neal’s pole, is double BTCC champion James Thompson who makes his debut in the Airwaves Racing Ford Focus who has to carry late entry ballast of 45kg as a result.
Next up are the pair of WSR BMW’s with Nick Foster out qualifying his more fancied team mate Rob Collard with Liam Griffin putting in a good performance to qualify the third Airwaves Racing Ford in 18th. Ollie Jackson who starts his second BTCC meeting with Triple 8 will start 19th with a pair of NGTC cars behind him belonging to Rob Austin and Dan Welch in their Audi and Proton’s respectively.
Despite being the first BMW driver to have a Turbo engine under the bonnet Tony Gilham could only manage 22nd for Geoff Steel Racing; 4 places behind the normally aspirated WSR BMW’s. John George will start 23rd in the second Tech-speed Chevrolet Cruze with Martin Byford, who spent most of the early part of the day going sideways, in 24th in the AmD Miltek Golf.
Chris Swanwick is next up in the second Rob Austin Racing Audi A4 with Lea Wood alongside him who makes his last appearance in his car and the last ever appearance in a BTCC–spec car; the same car that took Neal to his two previous titles, the Honda Integra.
Tony Hughes at last got plenty of mileage under his belt in his Speedworks NGTC Toyota Avensis and will start 27th with Chris James in 28th in his ES Racing Chevrolet Lacetti. The final car to qualify was Jeff Smith in the second Pirtek Racing Vectra after he had a wheel related problem that sent him into a spin at Luffield completing just 9laps and ending his session early.
Sadly there will be only 29 cars on the grid after John Thorne, who was expecting to make his BTCC debut in the ‘batmobile,’ and Thorney Motorsport Vauxhall Insignia failed to make it into a session all day and sadly won’t be able to compete in tomorrow’s races as a result.
So that concludes the final qualifying session of the 2011 season. With 5 drivers still in with a chance of the title, 3 drivers separated by just 6 points plus the Independent title to be decided we are certainly in for a thriller. So to find out who will take the drivers crown be sure to return to Motorsport.com to find out the winners and losers from finals day.