Vauxhall's Astra Coupe BTCC cars dominated the opening rounds of the www.theAA.com British Touring Car Championship today, Monday 16 April, at Brands Hatch circuit in Kent, giving Vauxhall Motorsport's Yvan Muller and Egg Sport Vauxhall driver, James Thompson each their first winner's laurels of the season.
Frenchman, Muller, who started both races from pole position after a stunning 30-minute qualifying session on Saturday afternoon, had a less than perfect start to the 12-lap Sprint Race when three Astra Coupes battled for position before the first corner. Muller's experience got the better of them all and he pulled away, eventually crossing the finishing line 0.71 seconds ahead of team-mate, Jason Plato from Oxford. Yorkshire's James Thompson completed the podium line-up while West Midlands' Phil Bennett made it four Triple Eight prepared Astra Coupes in the top four places.
The 53-lap main Feature Race got away cleanly with the new rolling start format proving a success. Muller took an immediate lead ahead of Plato in the Vauxhall Motorsport Astra Coupes, followed by Bennett and Thompson. After a three lap Safety Car period caused by a backmarker's trip to the Paddock Hill bend gravel trap, Bennett lost out to Thompson, Steve Soper and Matt Neal, the latter pair in Peugeots, which were re-passed by Bennett over the next four laps.
Muller led comfortably for a third of the race until his Astra Coupe began misfiring on its in-lap for his compulsory tyre-change pit stop. He briefly rejoined the race, but was finally out with an engine electrical problem. Meanwhile, Thompson and Plato were locked in battle for the lead, resolved in Thompson's favour 17 laps from the end. Plato had the edge taken off his hopes when he tangled with a backmarker and damaged the throttles of his Astra Coupe.
Plato and Thompson left Brands Hatch with a joint championship lead to take to the next round, at Thruxton circuit near Andover on May 7.
Yvan Muller, Car 4, Vauxhall Motorsport Astra Coupe
Sprint - Winner from pole, Fastest lap: 49.254s, Feature - Retired, FL:
"Winning the first race of the season was a great start for me and the team. It's a real shame about the Feature Race, I made a good start, wasn't under too much pressure and had a comfortable lead until the engine started to misfire half way through my in-lap for the pit-stop. I went out and came back in and the guys worked on the car in pitlane but couldn't solve what we think is an electric problem with the engine."
Jason Plato, Car 5, Vauxhall Motorsport Astra Coupe
Sprint - 2nd, Fastest lap: 49.254s, Feature - 2nd
"What a cracking start to the Sprint Race! I thought I'd get through between Yvan (Muller) and James (Thompson) but they squeezed me out so I stuck with Yvan and made it through into second. We made a few changes to the set up of the car this morning and they obviously worked. I had a good battle with James in the Feature Race although my engine wasn't very responsive after I tangled with a back marker. When I hit him I think it damaged the Astra Coupe's throttle. James got the advantage on me on cold tyres after the pit stop then I got him back again in traffic. But he slipped through again at Clearways a few laps later. Traffic didn't help towards the end of the race but to be holding a joint championship lead after the first rounds is not such a bad position to be in."
James Thompson, Car 9, Egg Sport Vauxhall Astra Coupe
Sprint - 3rd, Feature - Winner
"I genuinely didn't see Jason (Plato) at the start of the Sprint Race when he tried to squeeze in between myself and Yvan. After that I just concentrated on keeping up with Yvan. I'm pleased with the Astra Coupe though - it went very well. I had a really good, hard race with Jason in the main Feature event, it was very clean and I really enjoyed it -that's what touring cars is all about."
Phil Bennett, Car 27, Egg Sport Vauxhall Astra Coupe
Sprint - 4th, Feature - 3rd
"I'm very happy to finish fourth in my first ever touring car race and it's great to be on the podium for my second. Once you've got the heat in those tyres, that's it - the Astra Coupe's off, it's just so fast!
<pre> www.theAA.com MSA British Touring Car Championship Rounds 1/2 - Brands Hatch (Indy Circuit), April 16
Sprint Race (Round 1 - 12 laps)
1 Yvan Muller Vauxhall Astra Coupe 10:02.244 2 Jason Plato Vauxhall Astra Coupe 10:02.954 3 James Thompson Vauxhall Astra Coupe 10:04.742 4 Phil Bennett Vauxhall Astra Coupe 10:17.606 5 Dan Eaves Peugeot 406 Coupe 10:19.599 6 Matt Neal Peugeot 406 Coupe 10:20.099
Feature Race (Round 2 - 53 laps)
1 James Thompson Vauxhall Astra Coupe 46:33.620 2 Jason Plato Vauxhall Astra Coupe 46:34.120 3 Phil Bennett Vauxhall Astra Coupe 46:55.509 4 Steve Soper Peugeot 406 Coupe 47:16.049 5 Matt Neal Peugeot 406 Coupe 47:21.347 6 Dan Eaves Peugeot 406 Coupe 46:48.604 (1 lap down)
Drivers' Championship (After Round 2): 1=, Jason Plato (Vauxhall) and James Thompson (Vauxhall) 26 points; 3, Yvan Muller (Vauxhall) 20; 4, Phil Bennett (Vauxhall) 19; 5, Steve Soper (Peugeot) 13; 6, Matt Neal (Peugeot) 11.