Pat Cranham, BTCC correspondent
As already reported after 30 races it was Matt Neal who took the 2011 Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship at Silverstone beating team mate Gordon Shedden by just 8 points. We now take a look back at how the day unfolded where the Honda pair each took a win along with outgoing Independent champion Tom Chilton for Team Aon, during rounds 28, 29 and 30.
Following his stunning qualifying lap on the Saturday it was Neal who led the pack away for race 1, but back in the field there was carnage as Rob Austin tried to squeeze between a slow starting Liam Griffin and the pit wall. Austin clipped the front of the Airwaves Racing Ford, spinning him into the black Vectra of Ollie Jackson, which also triggered Tony Gilham in his new turbo powered BMW to fire off the circuit hard into the barriers, ending his and Austin’s race while bringing out the safety car.
Reigning champion Jason Plato, who was just 6 points behind Neal heading into the event, was always the outsider heading into the day but his championship hopes vanished on lap 10 when he suffered a left front puncture. Plato wasn’t the only championship contender to suffer a puncture when Airwaves Racing lead driver Mat Jackson, who was challenging Neal all race for the lead, got a right front puncture on lap 23. This promoted Shedden to second, meaning both the Drivers' and Independent Drivers' championship had gone.
This meant Triple 8 driver James Nash was clear to take the Independent title and was left unchallenged to take Independent victory and third outright in the race 1 after the man he was battling all race, Tom Chilton, received a drive through penalty for exceeding the track limits at the first corner Copse. Benefiting from these punctures and the drive through handed to his Team Aon teammate was Tom Onslow-Cole who battled up from 11th to 4th.
Alex MacDowall, who had a great battle with Onslow-Cole and the third Team Aon Focus of Andy Neate, finished 5th ahead of Special Tuning racing driver Dave Newsham and the Pirtek Racing driver of Andrew Jordan. The latter two had earlier made contact in the race up at Becketts with Newsham running up the inside of Jordan, losing Jordan at the time a handful of places.
The final points scoring places went to WSR driver Rob Collard despite starting 18th, Neate and the NGTC Toyota of Frank Wrathall. The trio had a great battle into the last corner with Neate trying to overtake Collard. This let Wrathall draw alongside Neate on the run down to the line but it was Neate who just held on to 9th by 0.020 of a second.
Race 2 got underway with the finishing positions of race 1 with Neal starting on pole; however, this time it was Shedden who got the better of Neal leading into the first corner with a fast starting Onslow-Cole getting into second. It wasn’t long though until Neal was back ahead of the Ford man when on lap 4 Onslow-Cole got sideways into Brooklands allowing Neal back through; although there was nothing he could do about Shedden and the pair would claim their second 1-2 of the day but this time in reverse from race 1 with Onslow-Cole taking the Independent win for third.
In 4th, taking his best finish of the season was Newsham finishing ahead of Jordan. Tom Boardman came sixth in the second Special Tuning Racing Seat, to ensure their best race since becoming a two car team, despite Boardman starting well down the field after a broken rear suspension in race 1.
Plato finished a fantastic 7th passing 18 cars, the last of which was Chilton on lap 21 coming out of Luffield although now mathematically his championship was officially over. Chilton finished in 8th and he was involved in contact on the first lap when he got sent sideways in the short straight between Brooklands and Luffield, collecting the unlucky Wrathall in the process, hitting his door hard and opening it. This sent Wrathall to the pits a couple of times and eventually finished two laps down in 25th.
Wrathall wasn’t the only driver out of luck as Mat Jackson suffered yet another puncture on lap 1 along with his team mate James Thompson, who hit the spinning BMW of Nick Foster coming out of Woodcote destroying the front of Foster and sending Thompson into the pits. While Foster’s team mate Collard was yet another driver to suffer a puncture and again finished outside the points and a lap down.
The final points went to MacDowall and Dan Welch who scored his first ever BTCC point in his Welch prepared NGTC Proton Gen-2. Welch had been running in front of the two Chevrolet’s but was hit into a half spin at Becketts dropping him behind.
There was also a great battle just outside the top 10 between Griffin, Neate and the two Triple 8 Vectras of Nash and Ollie Jackson. Nash had started in 3rd but lost out in the opening laps getting half spun in a similar accident to Chilton. He battled up to 11th and was in the middle of a great battle with Griffin but the pair ran wide out of Luffield, allowing Neate inside the pair. Nash was now on the outside and turned in on Griffin at the first corner, again half spinning the Vectra and dropping him down to 15th.
So the championship went down to the final race of the year with just 6 points separating the two Honda drivers although their job was to be difficult after BTCC legend, and the last Scotsman to win the title, John Cleland drew out number 9 in the reverse grid meaning the two Honda’s would start 8th and 9th.
MacDowall started on pole although by the first corner he was third after a slow start let Chilton and Plato through. Plato would often pressure the Team Aon driver hard but Chilton was able to keep the outgoing Champion behind him to take the 'Global' Ford Focus' second victory. Boardman survived a grassy moment on lap 1 coming out of Becketts but was able to take MacDowall on lap 2 and went on to take his 3rd podium of the season. There was less good news for his Special Tuning team mate Newsham after he had to retire at the end of lap 1 with damage, while MacDowall had to settle for 4th ahead of Jordan who was having a pretty uneventful last race in his Vectra before switching to NGTC Civics for 2012.
All eyes were on the progress of the two Hondas with Shedden not only having to pass Neal but make sure he put a few cars between them in the process. Sadly for Shedden he couldn’t manage to do this despite following Neal for much of the race and eventually Neal finished 8th with Shedden in 10th to take his third BTCC crown.
Despite the importance of the race one man who didn’t take any notice of the championship battle was Austin, who managed to pass both Honda drivers before barging his way past Onslow-Cole on lap 21 sending the Team Aon driver sideways in front of the two Honda’s.
While on the last lap Shedden lost a further place to the newly crowned official BTCC website favourite driver heading into the final corner. Although Wrathall certainly didn’t get any vote from Collard after he made contact with the WSR man heading down the start finish straight, spinning around the BMW driver and receiving 3 penalty points and a £500 fine in the process.
The two drivers coming into the weekend battling for Independent championship also had a good battle on track, with Mat Jackson diving down the inside of Nash into Brooklands before getting tapped sideways at Luffield, the next corner, with Nash getting back past. However, just a lap later Mat Jackson got back past at Becketts but no sooner had he done so than his bonnet came unattached sending him into the pits, while Nash also had to make a trip to the pits to serve a drive through for exceeding the track limits at Copse.
So that concludes Motorsport.com’s coverage of the 2011 BTCC season. Once again it has been a season to remember and it only promises to get better for 2012, with many of the teams expected to go to full New Generation Touring Car spec’s and a grid that is likely to be around the 30 mark. So be sure to keep an eye out over the winter for any BTCC news as it breaks on Motorsport.com.