Honda's Matt Neal and Vauxhall's Yvan Muller took a win apiece as the Green Flag MSA British Touring Car Championship raced for the first time at Rockingham Motor Speedway today (Sunday) - and provided the 14,000 crowd with some of the closest BTCC action in recent memory. Rob Collard was a double Hilton Independents Trophy winner, while Team Varta's Tom Boardman and Barwell Motorsport's Luke Hines shared the Production class honours.
Honda were the class of the field in the opening race, Neal and team-mate Alan Morrison's Civic Type-Rs running ballast-free and easily able to outsprint their rivals.
The pair excitingly fought briefly over first position after their mandatory tyre change pit stops, but Neal, as in the first half of the race, had the measure of Morrison, who had started the race from pole position.
Their one-two result was major relief for Honda who have seen their drivers, Neal in particular, robbed of vital points in the last four races through some cruel luck. "I had to beat Alan off the line at the start, otherwise he would have been gone," said Neal later. Morrison added: "It's a great result for Honda, but I'm a bit disappointed it wasn't me who won."
There was enormous excitement surrounding the fight for third position, as six drivers repeatedly swapped places in their efforts to win the final place on the podium.
It eventually fell to championship leader Muller, who, despite MG driver Anthony Reid's best efforts to hang onto the place, managed to wriggle free of the queue and add to his points advantage. Reid then lost out in a final corner reshuffle, his ZS tumbling to sixth behind Honda's charging Tom Chilton and Vauxhall's James Thompson.
Independents winner Collard, in his Vauxhall Astra Coupe, was just a whisker behind in seventh, ahead of MG's Warren Hughes. Right behind him, in GA Motorsports' Astra Coupe, came Independents runner-up and points leader Gavin Pyper and Vauxhall's Paul O'Neill.
For one glorious lap, Tom Boardman, on his way to his third Production class win this season, had led the race overall in Team Varta's Peugeot 307 as the Touring Car drivers entered the pits for their tyre changes! Boardman headed home Alan Blencowe, in Barwell Motorsport's Honda Civic Type-R, and Team Varta team-mate Jim Edwards' Honda Accord.
The second race saw the Hondas of Neal and Morrison, starting from the front row of the grid, again lead away, but both would retire at the side of the track with mechanical problems.
With the mandatory tyre stops out of the way, Reid, with a handy lead over Muller, appeared to be heading for MG's first BTCC race win of the season. But then came the incident that changed the face of the race, as the Edenbridge Racing BMW 320i of Production class leader Michael Bentwood and Boardman's Peugeot made contact through Rockingham's high-speed, banked final turn and crashed into the wall. With Bentwood's battered car blocking the start-finish straight, the BTCC's Safety Car was used to slowly bunch up the field, while the wreckage was cleared. Bentwood himself walked away from the accident without injury. Boardman was later excluded from the results for his part in the incident.
Once the Safety Car returned to the pitlane, a five-lap sprint to the chequered flag followed and, with up to a dozen drivers suddenly sensing a chance of victory, the action became more frenetic than ever. Reid held his lead for just a few seconds more until running wide off the track and allowing Muller, Thompson and Hughes to pass him. He was soon back up to second, but could do nothing to catch the fleeing Muller. Hughes also bullied his way past Thompson to steal third place.
"I really did not think I could win - the MG had so much pace. But when I saw Reid make his mistake, of course I took my opportunity!" said Frenchman Muller, who now leads the championship on 142 points, 31 ahead of team-mate and reigning champion Thompson.
Reid added: "Hands up, it was my mistake. I braked too late and went off the track and the next thing they were all past me. OK, there was a bit of contact between a lot of us in both races today, but that is what makes the BTCC so exciting and I'm sure it will look fantastic on television. We're certainly all still on first name terms!"
Collard, with Independents rivals Pyper and Synchro Honda Racing's James Kaye both out of the race, wisely chose to hang back from the leading quartet to take fifth. O'Neill, Chilton, Phil Bennett in his Proton Impian, and Carl Breeze and Dan Eaves, finishing second and third in the Independents Trophy in their ever-improving Team Halfords Peugeot 307s, completed the top ten.
Collard said: "I think those were the two hardest races of my life. In the last two laps of the second race, my car's engine had a small misfire and I couldn't quite keep up with the others. In a bizarre way, I'm happy I had that problem as it held me back from getting involved in something I might have regretted! Overall, though, it's been a brilliant weekend."
Proton's David Leslie and MG's Colin Turkington would have also surely fought for top ten positions had their cars not broken early in the race. Leslie, in a much more positive weekend for Team Petronas Syntium Proton, had been as high as sixth during the early running. For the gutted Turkington, the retirement was his second of the day.
In the Production class, Hines headed home Blencowe in a Barwell one-two, with Paul Wallace in GA's Alfa Romeo 156 promoted to third and Edwards fourth following Boardman's exclusion. With Bentwood not scoring, Hines has taken over at the top of the Production class points table. "I'm sorry Michael went out the way he did, but at the time I was ahead of him and pulling clear," said Hines. "It's his first non-score of the season and I've already had a few so now the championship is really wide open. I'm delighted for the Barwell crew and myself."