By Pat Cranham, BTCC reporter
- Plato takes 2 wins at Brands Hatch
- Sets new series record for most wins
- BTCC's first 2011 event was action packed
Jason Plato took a double race win during the opening weekend of the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship to not only take an early lead in the championship but in doing so he beat Andy Rouse's all time BTCC win record to become the most successful driver in the BTCC history.
Beating Andy Rouse's record is also a lovely bonus.
Matt Neal took victory in the third race of the day after getting hit during the opening race of the day in lap 1 so the race 3 win was a nice ending of the weekend for Honda Racing. Earlier in the weekend, his team mate's monster shunt in Free Practice 1 resulted in the team working until midnight Saturday night. Gordon Shedden rewarded his team taking by taking a second in race 2 while James Nash for Triple 8 and Mat Jackson for Airwaves Racing were the others to shine during the weekend.
It wasn't long before contact was made for the first time in the 2011, however no one would have thought that it would come even before the start of the race. But this was indeed what did happen when Liam Griffin in the second Airwaves Racing Ford Focus hit the back of Rob Collard's WSR BMW on the second warm up lap resulting in Griffin stopping on track with a broken front left suspension and forcing Collard into the pits to check the damage and would have further difficulties during the race after starting from the back of the grid.
It also wasn't long until the first major overtaking point of the season, after race 1 pole winner Neal led from the start followed by Andrew Jordan with Plato right behind the pair as they entered the first corner. Plato was just inside the Pirtek Vectra of Jordan and perhaps slight contact was made with Jordan sliding out slightly and then Neal in front also lost the back end a bit allowing Plato to get past the Honda as well. With Neal on the outside heading into the second corner the hairpin at Druids, Alex MacDowall in the second Silverline Chevrolet came from nowhere and punted the Civic into the gravel forcing Neal to watch the rest of the race from the side of the track after just two laps. The person who benefited the most from this was Nash and he had a clear path to second with Jordan slipping further down the pack, MacDowall carried on in third for the time being but was penalised after the race with 3 points on his competition license and fined
- 1000, although this wouldn't be the last incident for MacDowall of the weekend.
After the safety car came in Tom Chilton in the all new Global Ford Focus was the first person to make ground taking MacDowall for third around the outside of Surtees, Chilton was forced to bounce across the grass but manage to hold the line into the last corner 'Clearways' to take the position. Chilton would then hold onto third to make it onto the podium in the new Fords first race while in last year's Team Aon Ford now driven by Jackson would also quickly pass MacDowall for 4th.
After losing out at the start of the race Jordan was making good progress through the field by first passing Tom Boardman at Clearways where he nudged his way past the Seat car, he then passed MacDowall a few laps later for 5th until he all came to an end on lap 20 with a left front puncture likely caused by the initial contact with Boardman.
Following the Honda Racing's miracle repair job to get Shedden into the race he was really pumped up and would take his frustration out with some forceful overtaking eventually finishing in 6th. After making his way up through the field he first nudged the back of Paul O'Neill's Go Mobile Tech-speed Chevrolet Cruze at Druids which allowed him to squeeze through to take the position, however O'Neill was not happy about and made his feelings known on the slowing down lap. Next up for Shelden was Boardman. The first bit of contact came out of Clearways on lap 22 and the battle carried onto the next lap where, again up at Druids, Shedden nudged the back of the Seat pushing him wide, Boardman angrily came back at Shedden barging into the side of the Civic however it was the Seat driver who came out of it the worst having to retire with broken front right suspension.
This did not matter though to Plato who was one his way to take the series record with this win although he was kept honest by the black Vectra of Nash who finished less than a second behind Plato. This was the 25 year old's best ever BTCC finish although Nash did win at Snetterton back in 2009 in a Chevrolet Lacetti until he was excluded after the race for contact.
Top rookie in the race was Nash's team mate Tony Gilham in the second Triple 8 Vectra who took a very impressive 8th position ahead of a very happy Jeff Smith in the second Pirtek Racing Vectra with Dave Newsham for Geoff Steel Racing taking the final point in his debut race.
With the starting places for race 2 being determined by the finishing places of race 1, it was Plato on pole with Neal starting at the back of the field. Plato led away with Jackson slipping down the inside of Nash into the first corner who got very sideways mid-corner slighting clipping the gravel and allowing MacDowall past while Nash recovered in 4th position. At the back of the field there was contact between Boardman who was a little too enthusiastic after his disappointment of race 1 as he dived down into a gap, which didn't exist at the first corner, and slammed into Tom Onslow-Cole in the VW Golf. Onslow-Cole was forced to park the Golf off one side on the rundown off the first corner with Boardman going through the gravel rejoining the circuit before grinding to a halt in the middle of the road bringing out the safety car.
After the safety car had left the track for the restart, MacDowall didn't hold 3rd for long as he received a drive through penalty for jumping the start so Shedden inherited 3rd passing Nash around the outside following a great run off of the last corner as MacDowall was serving his penalty. Neal was recovering well from the back of the grid and found himself quickly behind Jordan, recovering from his earlier puncture. Neal would benefit from Jordan who was making all the moves and every time Jordan made a move on someone Neal found himself in the right place to always take advantage and also passing the same driver. This happened as the pair passed Collard, Gilham and Newsham before the pair were quickly up behind Chilton for 6th who had fallen behind after making a terrible start. Once again it was Jordan who made the move giving the Focus of Chilton a slight nudge into Clearways, allowing the Vectra through at the first corner. Neal of course was then in the correct place to follow Jordan through also taking Chilton into Druids. This later proved vital for the third race which was pulled out by former F1 champion Jody Scheckter in what would be a reverse grid.
Meanwhile at the front, Plato had earlier resisted a major challenge by Jackson for the lead midway through the race and this time it was Jackson having to defend from Shedden. Eventually after a lap of heavy pressure Shedden at last got past Jackson on lap 23 with Jackson's tyres clearly going off after the Airwaves Racing man ran slightly wide out of Clearways which allowed the Honda to slip up the inside. Jackson however would just hold off Nash for third but once again it was Plato who doubled his tally for the season.
O'Neill would have an uneventful race but still picked up good points for 5th while the final points behind Jordan, Neal and Chilton would go to Collard and top rookie again Gilham; all whom passed Newsham who finished 11th after holding a fine 7th for the opening part of the race.
For the second time of the day but now for race 3, it was Neal and Jordan who led away but this time the loser off the start line was Nash who steered right when the lights went out as Jackson was coming past and although contact was minimal with the car unbalanced, Nash spied left and onto the grass dropping down to 11th. Other contact on the opening lap happened coming out of Druids with Andy Neate in the second Team Aon Focus being pushed around by MacDowall. MacDowall would once again find himself in trouble for this incident and was given a further 3 points on his license and was also penalised 20 seconds on top of his race time dropping him from 9th to out of the points. This clearly wasn't MacDowall's weekend as before the racing had even begun he turned up late to a drivers briefing where he was given his first penalty point of the weekend and fined #150 making it a very expensive and costly weekend.
After that compared to the earlier races, race 3 was fairly uneventful with the only major manoeuvre early on being that of Jackson getting past O'Neil after getting an over lap through the first corner passing him into Druids for third.
Once again though there would be heartbreak for Jordan who when in a comfortable second got his second puncture of the day and finished a lap down promoting Jackson to second and a delighted O'Neill to third.
Shedden would take 4th after passing Plato on lap 17 after a clever move fainting to pass into Graham Hill bend meaning Plato ran wide out of the corner and then Shedden passed Plato into the next set of corners: Surtees. Behind this action, Nash who was recovering from his off on the start line and passed Collard to take 6th in what surely was his best BTCC race weekend to date. Chilton who couldn't discover his first race pace would finish 8th while yet again Gilham would be top rookie during a hugely impressive debut weekend and finish 9th benefiting from MacDowall's time penalty which also promoted Boardman to score his only point from the weekend.
This is a great start for us.
Just out of the points in 12th was Onslow-Cole who despite still being down on power put in a hugely encouraging performance in the Golf and drove brilliantly to defend a train of cars belonging to Smith, Nick Foster and the recovering Neate.
Despite the Turbo cars belonging to Honda Racing looking like having the best all round package after the opening race weekend, it was Plato who took the record and the early advantage. Speaking after his double victory Plato was delighted he was able to take advantage of other people's misfortune but remains wary ahead of Donington: "Given the gap to Matt in qualifying I didn't expect to be leading this early, but the chances came our way and we capitalised. Beating Andy Rouse's record is also a lovely bonus - he's one of the legendary names who I used to watch as a kid and it's actually hard to believe that 14 years have passed since I got my first win when I first came into the BTCC in 1997! But I'm already thinking more about the next meeting at Donington - the circuit lay-out there will make the turbos much harder to beat and I suspect we're going to be in for more than just a tough weekend."
After two podium finishes Jackson leaves with 8 points behind Plato on 30 points and he leads the Independent Trophy. Understandably Jackson was pleased with his opening race weekend and said, "This is a great start for us. We don't have the development budgets of Chevrolet or Honda, but we've wrung the most from the car every time out today and racked up the points. I believe we can take it to them this season so long as we keep scoring strongly and consistently, but everyone in the team deserves a big pat on the back."
Surely though other than Plato the star of the weekend was Nash for Triple 8 racing. This was clearly his best weekend to date in the BTCC after taking his best ever finish in second, which was followed up by a 4th and 6th leaving him in an early third position in the championship on 26 points. Nash is clearly delighted that the Vectra he drove last season as been given a new lease of life with Toca's Swindon prepared engine but understands how hard it is to match the series best over the course of the season. He said, "I'm really chuffed, but the team has done a great job given how little pre-season testing we've had. We're still learning how to get the best out of the car with the new turbo engine and there's more to come. Plato and Neal are the masters so to be mixing it with them and giving them a bit of pressure is a great feeling, but I'm under no illusions just how difficult it will be to stick with them over the course of the season."
This weekend also saw the full introduction of NGTC cars with Frank Wrathall for DynoJet and Tony Hughes Speedworks both running Toyota Avensis. Both ran at the back of the field in race 1 not far behind Chris James in his ES Racing Chevrolet Lacetti before both suffering an oil leak. Sadly for Wrathall this was the end of his day however Hughes was running in front of James in race 2 until being clipped by Plato when being lapped eventually finishing 3 laps down but he did get a proper race finish in race 3 albeit last and a lap down.
Despite all their hard work Rob Austin Racing were unable to give their Audi A4 a first proper run. The car looked stunning like a German DTM car and the team had hoped to give a couple of demo laps prior to race 3 joining in on the Green flag laps However Dave Pinkney managed to limp round as far as the second corner before stopping on circuit coming out of the pits although the team do hope to make be in a better position for the next round.
So it's Plato who takes an early lead but it's the Turbo powered cars that look to have a slight advantage over the normal aspirated Chevrolets. Next up for the series is Donington Park in two weeks so stay tuned to Motorsport.com for all the news and build up to the weekend as well as following it throughout the event.