Oulton Park, 21 September 2003/... The VX Racing team celebrated at Oulton Park today, with Yvan Muller clinching the drivers' title at the final race weekend of the Green Flag MSA British Touring Car Championship. Team mates James Thompson and Paul O'Neill finished second and fourth respectively in the Drivers Championship. Muller's title win completes the 'triple, triple', with Vauxhall taking the manufacturers', team and drivers' titles for three consecutive years.
James Thompson took the win in the first race, putting him on pole for the second and final race of the championship. Leading from the off, Thompson battled hard with Muller, but an engine problem on lap nine finished the Yorkshireman's chances of a double win. Paul O'Neill suffered bad luck in the first race when his engine failed, to prematurely end his race. A fifth place finish in the final race secured him fourth position in the drivers championship.
The first race of the weekend saw James Thompson on pole in his Vauxhall Astra Coupé, with teammates Paul O'Neill starting fourth and Yvan Muller in fifth. Thompson led the pack off the line, retaining his position into the first corner. By the end of the first lap Muller had managed to get past team mate O'Neill to move into fifth place, the lowest finish position Muller could have in order to secure him the 2003 drivers' title.
The safety car was deployed at the end of lap two to recover three stranded cars from the gravel at Cascades, during which disaster struck for O'Neill. On lap six he coasted off the track and out of the race with engine problems. At the end of the safety car period, Thompson saw off a direct threat from Honda's Alan Morrison in second place to stay ahead of the field, and then begin to extend his lead further. Muller meanwhile was driving a more conservative race than his usual aggressive style, being content with his position and aiming to stay out of trouble and in the race.
The VX Racing team provided Thompson and Muller with slick pit stops which allowed Thompson to stretch his lead further and promoted Muller to third. As Muller exited the pits on cold tyres, MG's Warren Hughes loomed large in his mirrors. Fighting hard to the end of the race, Muller deftly kept Hughes at bay to finish in third place, and take the 2003 drivers' championship title. Having established a clear lead, Thompson was untroubled by Morrison and held on to claim his 26th career victory.
"I've done the best I can. I came here with a slim chance to retain the title -I've taken pole and won the race. I led into the first corner and all the way through the race, so I couldn't have done more.
"I've had a great year as champion. I've started the races six times in pole position from qualifying, but it all comes down to race wins and that's why I haven't won the championship -- Yvan's done a better job than me in the races. I was really confident with the car, we tried something new this weekend, it's a bit late but we had nothing to lose. I'm happy to win the race and disappointed to be second in the championship, but there are so many great names on the trophy, it would be a shame if Yvan's was never on there."
"I feel heavy with champagne, I can feel it going flip flop in my shoes! I am pleased of course. It was a long season and a good fight with Jimmy. I've raced in this championship for six years, I've finished second for the last two years and now I've won. My strategy for this race was to score the six points I needed to be champion. I was a bit worried before the pit stop because I had a small misfire, but it didn't increase, it just stayed the same all the way through. Those 25 laps were the longest of my career. I was fed up of hearing for the last two years that I must win, that is why I'm especially pleased. At the start I was very careful, I was looking all around, the front, the sides, my mirrors. At one stage it was quite quiet behind me, Paul was behind but going a bit slower. So I was there in fifth place, and I thought this is good enough, stay here and wait to see what happens later. After the stop I came out third. Initially I thought it was Reid behind me, but I just defended my place. Hughes was a gentleman, we were on the same speed, but he didn't try anything stupid. I will enjoy the last race. We will take a few more risks with the set up and I will try to win."
"On the start when I revved my engine and dropped the clutch it just didn't pull away, and so I lost a number of places. I knew something wasn't right, and it wasn't long before I lost drive and had to pull off the track. They are going to put my old engine back in that has already done four race meetings. So it's been run in -- one careful owner! Whatever happens, happens, I'll be looking to get some more points in the final race."
Thompson, Muller and O'Neill lined up first, third and sixteenth on the grid in their Vauxhall Astra Coupés for the second race of the Oulton Park weekend, and the final race of the 2003 season. The first lap saw Muller charging into second place behind teammate Thompson. O'Neill quickly began making his way through the field, and by the end of the first lap had gained two places to move up to 14th.
The next few laps saw Thompson and Muller in a closely fought battle for the lead, with the outgoing champion narrowly ahead. Meanwhile O'Neill was scything his way through the back markers and by lap nine was in ninth position. For the second time today the VX Racing team suffered a casualty as Thompson's race was cut short when an engine problem put him out of the running on lap nine.
The opening of the pit stop window saw O'Neill diving into the pits on lap 11 for a perfect stop, shortly followed by Muller. During the pit stops, Honda's Matt Neal poached the lead from Muller, and once the entire field had pitted O'Neill emerged in seventh place, only to move up another 2 places on the next lap. However O'Neill could not improve further as the gap to fourth place Reid was just too far. O'Neill finished the race in fifth place, to claim fourth place in the drivers championship. Despite battling to the very end, Muller could not pass Neal, and finished in second place.
"At first I was surprised that Matt took the lead, because our pit stop was not bad. It was not the best pit stop of the year, but it was not bad, and my in lap was good as well. So immediately I thought that Matt had done a fantastic pit stop. I knew then it was going to be hard to catch him, because I'd seen how fast he came back, but I said "Okay, I have nothing to lose, I will try". I pushed hard, very, very hard, all the way through. I really didn't want to give up."
"It's a fantastic result for me to finish fourth in the championship. But when third is on offer and you've got one last stab at it and don't get it, it's disappointing. It will sink in tomorrow that it was meant to be fourth and not third. To be fighting with the likes of Matt Neal for third in the championship is fantastic. I've just had a rotten end to the season, I've had a few races that haven't been very good, but there is always next year. It's a good experience to be running at the front."
"It's a disappointing end to the season. I won the first race and was leading the second when I went out. But if you are going to go out you might as well do it when you're leading. I knew before the start of the race that there was an issue with the engine and the VX Racing crew did as much as they could in the time, but it was still desperately disappointing. I'm pleased for Yvan, he's a worthy champion and it's good to see the big smile on his face."
<pre> Drivers Championship 1. Yvan Muller Vauxhall Racing 233 points* 2. James Thompson Vauxhall Racing 199 points 3. Matt Neal Honda Racing 148 points 4. Paul O'Neill Vauxhall Racing 138 points
Manufacturers Championship 1. Vauxhall 528 points* 2. Honda 318 points 3. MG 243 points 4. Proton 75 points
Teams Championship 1. Vauxhall Racing 438 points* 2. Honda Racing 299 points 3. MG Sport & Racing 216 points
* Clinched the 2003 championship