Snetterton Circuit, Norfolk, 9 August 2003/... Round 13 of the Green Flag MSA British Touring Car Championship may have been unlucky for the numerous casualties who had to give up their chances as a result of a pile-up at the start of the race. But for VX Racing, it was an occasion for team celebrations as the Vauxhall Astra Coupe drivers monopolised the podium with Paul O'Neill claiming first place. The second race, round 14, produced diametrically different results to the first, with two DNFs for Thompson and Muller and a drive-through penalty for O'Neill.
Race one of the special Saturday meet at Snetterton, which included one mid-afternoon race and one evening race at 7.30pm, saw carnage as the cars moved off the grid, with a collision between the two MGs of Turkington and Hughes involved in a spin with other cars, and which saw Honda's Tom Chilton lose his position and resulted in a number of cars retiring. Thus the grid headed off to race on lap one, under yellow lights, with Honda's Matt Neal leading his teammate Alan Morrison, followed by VX Racing's Thompson, O'Neill and Muller.
The field settled down behind the safety car for the next six laps, but as the yellow lights went off and racing resumed, the five leaders stayed relatively close together, with Thompson immediately on Morrison's tail and putting the pressure on. In turn, James Kaye's Honda Civic stuck aggressively on the championship leader Yvan Muller's Vauxhall Astra, with Muller refusing to give way, while on lap nine Paul O'Neill spotted an opportunity to overtake his team-mate Thompson, which put him into fourth place just in front of Muller.
The opening of the pit-stop window on lap ten saw Muller pitting first, at the same time as race leader Matt Neal and, although a fast stop by both, they exited in the same order. Paul O'Neill was the next VX Racing member to pit, accompanied by Honda's Morrison, with Morrison just beating O'Neill out onto the track again, but with the net result of Morrison leading Matt Neal. James Thompson was the last to pit of the VX Racing trio, with a fast and fluid tyre change seeing him back out on track again but in front of Matt Neal.
Positions after pit stops saw Morrison in first with Paul O'Neill in second, James Thompson in third, Matt Neal in fourth and Yvan Muller in fifth. Although Paul O'Neill put in a faster lap time than Morrison and tried to put on the pressure, he lost a couple of seconds time when he hit the grass, but Morrison as an obstacle to O'Neill was removed when the Honda driver suffered car problems and fell by the wayside.
This left Paul O'Neill and James Thompson out in front for the remaining couple of laps and, although Thompson stayed on O'Neill's tail, both stuck their positions till the end. A move by Muller to overtake Matt Neal when he made a mistake, showed the professionalism of the current championship leader and secured him third place on the podium, with the crowds cheering their appreciation not only for a VX Racing triple result, but also for Paul O'Neill's first place debut.
"Yes, I did a dance when I got out of the car! That was fantastic, a dream come true. I just can't believe it. I've been determined to take third place in the driver's championship, but to win a race as well is just amazing. I thought James could have taken me at the end when I made a bit of a mistake, and I knew he was right behind me and I thought about letting him pass. And then I thought, 'no, this race is mine!'".
"Yes, it was a good result for me and it gives me championship points I need. The fight is well and truly on now. Of course I had a look around Paul [O'Neill] at the end, but it was a chance that wasn't worth taking, and he's proved again today he's fast. It was also quite difficult out there with the heat on the circuit and the tyres, and there was quite a lot of dust and debris out there too. And it was a good team result too with a great performance by the crew. "
"I think that was a good result, bearing in mind my qualifying position. Matt Neal made a small mistake in the end that could have happened to anybody, but it gave me the opportunity to get around him and get on the podium. It's difficult out there with the heat and the effect it has on the tyres, even though they hold up well, but the set-up of the car was good for me in the race, although this was more of a learning race as far as the car's set-up was concerned for me. But of course, it's good that VX Racing made it to all three places on the podium and good for Paul: your first win is always a special moment."
"This was a very sound result for VX Racing, and not just because we secured all podium positions. The cars were well set-up, even Yvan's despite having little time between his engine problems yesterday and the race today. The pit stops were, literally, first class, and the Vauxhall Astra Coupes proved that they can still outdo the competition for overall reliability and performance. It was good to see Paul perform this afternoon, and with regard to the fight for the driver championship between Yvan and James, I think it will go down to the wire."
1. Paul O'Neill VX Racing 34 mins 55.549 secs
2. James Thompson VX Racing 34 mins 56.586 secs
3. Yvan Muller VX Racing 34 mins 57.826 secs
With the three-driver line-up of VX Racing carrying success ballast earned from the first race, Paul O'Neill started on pole position with James Thompson beside him and Muller behind. However, O'Neill appeared to jump the lights, which was confirmed after the start and for which he was awarded a drive-through penalty.
However, starting off in the lead, O'Neill was hounded by Matt Neal, who had nipped through on the start to put the winner of the previous race under severe pressure. This continued for the next lap with Neal eventually overtaking O'Neill, and Thompson also nipping around his team mate to start pressuring Matt Neal while O'Neill took his drive through penalty.
By lap three, leader Matt Neal in the Honda was being aggressively pursued by VX Racing's Thompson, followed by MG's Anthony Reid under severe pressure by Muller in fourth position. O'Neill had exited in 13th position after his drive-through and, with an excellent pit-stop, recovered to eventually finish the race in tenth position.
The front five leaders took off as a pack together, until Muller developed a sudden mechanical problem, which saw him halt by the side of the circuit and retire. This left VX Racing's Thompson chasing Honda's Matt Neal, until the pit-stop window opened. O'Neill's Astra Coupe pitted on lap 13 with a first class turnaround, and then Thompson enjoyed an equally efficient stop on lap 16, coming out close behind Matt Neal.
Continuing to pressure Neal, Thompson did a first class job of flying the VX Racing flag, constantly looking around Neal to spot any opportunity to overtake and keeping the gap between them to tenths of a second. But, even coming up against the back markers as the race entered its last five laps, didn't provide Thompson with the opportunity he was looking for to get around Matt Neal. Still hassling the Honda driver, audiences looked on expectantly as Thompson threatened Neal right up until the last lap of the race. However, disaster struck in the form of a rare mechanical failure for the Vauxhall Astra, leaving Thompson to try and make the last lap home but losing power before being able to cross the line.
"This was a complete turnaround of fortunes from the first race, and rare for VX Racing. I heard a noise on the penultimate lap and felt vibrations, and then the engine just left me. I'm gutted, what more can I say? I was fast, the car was set up fantastically, we ran a perfect pit stop and even though I was carrying the extra weight, I still had Matt Neal well within my sights."
"I just lost power entirely, and yet the car was running so well. I'd really just been testing the set-up in the first race and even by lap five, I really felt I could win the race, as I had both the set-up and the speed with me. I feel bad for the team, but at least James and I are still within a few points of each other."
"I just felt the clutch slipping when I was on the start line, and I had my foot on the accelerator hard too, and I let he clutch up a bit as I just felt it dragging across the tarmac and slipped forward even more. I knew I was moving a bit but didn't think I jumped the lights. After this afternoon's race, this was such a disappointment; for the team as well."
"This was bad fortune following our successes from earlier today. It's too early to know the exact cause of the mechanical failure, but we've still earned important points here. The Astras have been so reliable and well-balanced all-round cars that it's a surprise. But we know we'll be back winning again at the remaining rounds."
10. Paul O'Neill 31 mins 52.544 secs
James Thompson -- not classified
Yvan Muller -- not classified
1. Yvan Muller, Vauxhall Racing 163 points
2. James Thompson, Vauxhall Racing 150 points
3. Matt Neal, Honda Racing 106 points
3. Paul O'Neill, Vauxhall Racing 102 points
1. Vauxhall 393 points
2. Honda 234 points
3. MG 134 points
4. Proton 59 points
1. Vauxhall Racing 322 points
2. Honda Racing 219 points
3. MG Sport & Racing 131 points