Pat Cranham, BTCC Correspondent
5 points separate top 3 after Brands Hatch GP circuit
After a topsy-turvy day which took place in front of a packed crowd baked in glorious October sunshine on the Brands Hatch GP circuit, only five points separate Honda duo Matt Neal and Gordon Shedden as well as Silverline Chevrolet driver and reigning champion Jason Plato.
The day started terribly for the Honda duo with the pair getting punctures in race 1 meaning they had to come through the pack in race 2 starting near the back of the grid. Meanwhile Plato cruised to victory in races 1 and 2 before Honda struck back claiming a 1-2 in race 3 lead by Matt Neal during rounds 25, 26 and 27 of the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship.
Realistically I think that’s as far as we can go.
Plato started race 1 alone on the front row of the grid as Andrew Jordan’s recent run of bad luck continued after his stunning qualifying performance put him on the front row but sadly an electrical problem following an engine change prevented him from starting the race.
This meant Plato unchallenged heading into the first corner while his team mate Alex MacDowall was able to benefit from the space vacated by Jordan to take 2nd. MacDowall was clearly the fastest driver through the opening lap although didn’t challenge Plato and quickly Plato was able to control the race.
Struggling with all the various boost reductions and weight put on them by officials Honda had to gamble on a risky set up, which backfired with both cars getting punctures as a result. First Neal did on lap 10 from 3rd before Shedden did on lap 14. It was not a good race at all for Shedden after he had earlier had a half spin at Graham Hill bend after he had put his rear wheels on the dirt dropping him down to 9th.
After his disastrous couple of meetings Airwaves Racing driver Mat Jackson was once again on form and eventually took second. He first benefitted from Neal’s puncture as Independent rival James Nash for Triple 8 was forced to swerve round the slow Honda. Nash went one way but Jackson was able to go the other side to take the place. He later on passed MacDowall who was struggling late on after feeling a vibration in the tyres after running them to hot early on but was able to continue to take 3rd.
Nash finished 4th ahead of Tom Onslow-Cole who was having his best race since returning to Team Aon although he was slightly lucky after he pulled off on the slowing down lap after the chequered flag. Onslow-Cole had earlier passed Go Mobile with Tech-speed Paul O’Neill who finished behind the Ford.
Tom Chilton in a second Team Aon Focus finished 7th ahead of Rob Collard for WSR who had a wheel to wheel tussle with Frank Wrathall which ended in Wrathall braking a rear track rod pitching him into the barriers. Andy Neate insured all 3 Team Aon ’Global’ Ford Focus’ finished inside the top 10 with Nick Foster in the second WSR BMW finishing 10th. Tom Boardman for Special Tuning had been inside the top 10 before a puncture sent him through the gravel at the first corner forcing him to retire.
The second race started in the finishing positions from race 1 meaning Plato was on pole and the two Honda drivers started from 18th and 19th. Plato was once again unbeatable and was unchallenged to take his second victory of the day taking fastest lap once again in the process to provisional lead the championship after round 26. Neal made great early progress getting into 9th by the end of lap 2 but was only able to pass Neate on lap 6 for the remainder of the race apart from the spectacular retirement of the second Silverline Chevrolet after MacDowall blew up heading down the back straight. Like Neal, Shedden found it difficult getting through the field and finished 8th behind Neal getting past Neate after he ran wide at Druids on lap 8; although he would come under pressure from Neate later on in the race.
Once again finishing second was Mat Jackson although he was made to work hard for the result and crucial Independent win from Onslow-Cole who took to the podium for the first time this season but he had the difficult job of trying to attack Mat Jackson whilst coming under pressure from behind from O’Neill who had caught up as a result.
Mat Jackson’s main Independent rival Nash lost further points after he was passed on the last lap by Chilton for 5th into druids while once again Foster was able to take 10th behind the two Honda’s and Neate in the third Team Aon Ford.
Newly crowned 2011 Clio Cup champion Paul Rivett drew out the reverse grid which saw Foster take pole position and meant Plato had to start from 10th on the grid. Foster made the most of his rear wheel drive get away and made a great start leading from Neate.
Neate tried to take the lead for the first time in his BTCC career around Westfield but he slid out wide allowing the two Honda’s past and it wasn’t long until Neal took the lead after he got past Shedden at the start and took the lead at the start of lap 2 allowing both team mate Shedden and Neate through in the process.
Foster was unable to do what he had done previously at Croft in race 3 where he started from the front to claim a podium and lost places to Nash and O’Neill on lap 2, Chilton and Jackson on lap 3. On lap 6 Boardman made contact with him at Sterlings which also let Onslow-Cole through; although he did defend from Plato until lap 9 where he slide wide at the final corner allowing both Plato and Jordan through eventually finishing in 10th for the third time of the day.
Star of the last two meetings Wrathall ended his weekend to forget after he ended up off track for the 4th time during the weekend, this time ending up in the gravel at Graham Hill bend while another driver to hit trouble was O’Neill whose driveshaft broke whilst challenging Nash for 4th.
Meanwhile at the front the two Honda drivers had no such worries to take something out of a challenging weekend with Neal leading home team mate Shedden to take a 1-2 and end the day 5 points ahead of both Shedden and Plato. They even had time on lap 12 to let Shedden past Neal to give Shedden a crucial extra point for leading a lap of the race with Neal picking up an extra point for fastest lap.
Finishing 3rd was Nash to crucially take Independent victory after losing valuable points earlier in the day to Mat Jackson. Neate had held 3rd for the majority of the race until a spectacular moment on lap 13 running wide out of Sheene sliding down and ending up in the gravel and Sterlings. Then as Neate re-joined he did so right in front of Boardman meaning the Seat driver had to go off track to avoid him letting Plato past to 6th after he had earlier got past Onslow-Cole on lap 11 into Surtees. Neate had to retire as a result with Boardman finishing in 9th behind Jordan.
Chilton finished in 4th right behind Nash while Mat Jackson finished in 6th and can be delighted after 3 top 6 finishes, 2 seconds and 2 Independent victories to give him a chance of Independent glory after a run of just 1 point for fastest lap in 6 races.
However all eyes will be on the main championship battle heading to Silverstone in two weeks time with Neal, Shedden and Plato all separated by just 5 points. Both Honda drivers have felt very hard done by with Toca penalising them throughout the season by carrying an additional 20kg of weight plus the Turbo boost reductions as well as the championship success ballast they have had to run. However despite this Neal was just glad to have got the 1-2 in race 3 to lead the championship despite the penalties he know that this will face and said after the weekend, “A 1-2 in race three is a relief because at one stage today it really looked like the title was slipping through our fingers through some bad luck. Being back in the lead means my car will start the Silverstone weekend carrying the maximum 45kgs of success ballast, but I’d rather have points in the bag any day.”
Shedden was also relieved to take some good points in race 3 and expects a tense finals day and said, “Today hasn’t been an easy ride for us, but everyone in the Honda team has dug deep and it’s great to end the day on a high. I have experience of being involved in the title fight on Finals Day from last year, but I’m still sure it’s going to get a bit tense on the day between the five of us.”
Despite all Honda’s penalties and his excellent recent form Plato expect Silverstone to be a bridge to far for the Normally-aspirated Chevrolet Cruze due to 85% of the lap being on full power and admits unless some rain hits the Northampton circuit he will be lucky to make the top 10 and said after the weekend, “Realistically I think that’s as far as we can go. We’ve made up some massive ground today, but Silverstone is going to be ideally suited for cars with turbo engines, which we don’t have. It will need something very strange to happen there to stop the Hondas, but never say never.”
As already mentioned there will also be another big battle at Silverstone for Independent glory between Nash and Mat Jackson with 17 points separating the pair. However both drivers are also in with a slim chance of outright glory and remain hopeful if not expectant of the main glory setting their main sight on the Independent trophy with Jackson who is 36 points behind Neal at the top of the standings saying, “It’s game on, isn’t it? I think Silverstone will really suit our car, the Focus, and while beating James to the Independents title would be nice it’s the big prize we’re all after.”
Nash also admits while Independent honours are his main goal he hasn’t given up on bigger things heading to Silverstone and said, “We consistently keep picking up strong results which will be important on what’s probably going to be a very unpredictable day at Silverstone. My main goal has to be the Independents championship, but you never know.”
This weekend has also seen BTCC debuts of Ollie Jackson for Triple8 Racing and 17 year old Chris Swanwick for Rob Austin Racing. Swanwick kept his nose clean to take 3 finishes as did Jackson although a best position of 11th in race 1 was a crucial result for his Triple8 racing team as he picked up 2 Independent points in the process as they continue their teams battle with Airwaves Racing for the Independent teams award to lead by just 15 points heading into the final meeting. Also deserving of a mention is Dan Welch in his Welch Motorsport Proton Gen-2. Welch qualified best New Generation Touring Car in 11th and had briefly broke into the top 10 in race 1 before retiring with a broken steering arm and despite just missing out on an outright point in race 3 for 11th was able to pick up good points in the Independents for 8th.
So that concludes the full round up from Brands and sets up the last race at Silverstone very nicely indeed. For Silverstone we expect the debut of yet another new team Thorney Motorsport in a NGTC Vauxhall Insignia to boost the grid up to an incredible 30 cars. So for all your news and previews prior to what promises to be a grandstand finish, be sure to return to Motorsport.com prior to the event.