The 2009 MSA HiQ British Touring Car Championship got off to a fantastic and thrilling start at Brands Hatch with 20 cars producing bumper-to-bumper action. In glorious April weather a packed crowd saw three different winners in Matt Neal, Rob Collard and Jason Plato in the weekend races - although Jonny Adam crossed the line first in the final race, he had four seconds added to his race finish to drop him to second as a result of tapping Plato into a spin when he took the lead. It's Neal; however, who takes the early advantage after having a fantastic weekend taking one victory and two third places finishes.
In Race 1 Neal lead home his Vauxhall teammate Fabrizio Giovanardi in the same order they started the race. They did not have it their own way in which it was a great race with battles right down the field.
The drama happened right off the line when both Neal and Giovanardi had poor starts allowing the two BMW's of Collard and Colin Turkington through. There was contact back in sixth when Stephen Jelley went for a gap in-between Gordon Shedden and Adam, tapping Shedden into Adam who both retired as a result.
Collard led Turkington until lap 7, when Turkington tapped the rear of Collard up at Druids allowing both himself and Neal through into the lead.
Turkington and Neal both then enjoyed a battle with Neal overtaking Turkington into the Paddock corner. Turkington got the cut back to retake the lead; Neal wasn't to be denied though and made the decisive move back into the lead at Clearways, also allowing his younger VX team-mate Andrew Jordan into second. Jordan's joy was short lived when, comfortably holding second, he developed a problem and retired pulling off down the Cooper Straight.
This allowed Giovanardi, who had dropped down to fifth at the start, to pressure Turkington and had a similar battle to the previous one Neal had with Turkington. He could not hold Giovanardi behind, however, and would lose second.
Behind these three Collard claimed forth with Adam Jones a fine fifth for Clyde Valley racing on their debut. Plato would claim sixth after a drag race to the line with Jelley whilst Harry Vaulkhard taking a career best eighth position in his new Tempus Racing team. Vaulkhard had a great scrap with Dan Eaves, who would insure both CVR cars made it into the top ten in their debut race. A very happy Martyn Bell would take tenth position after a non-points scoring season last year.
With the grid starting in the finishing positions from race one, Neal and Giovanardi would start from the front row. The two BMW's, of Turkington and Collard, took advantage of their rear wheel drive and propelled themselves into the lead while fellow BMW driver Jelley moved up to third past the Vauxhall's.
Turkington would lead the whole race right up to two laps from the end when Collard nudged his way through to claim the victory. Motorbase gained their first win in the championship and at their home circuit, while this would be Collard's first win since 2005.
Collard may have given Turkington a little bit of a tap but had no complaints after the race saying, "Rob and I had contact in race one which cost him the lead so maybe this was revenge from him. But I'm not going to whinge about it. Second is still a lot of points."
Finishing in third was Neal. Giovanardi, however, looked to be in a secure third, challenging the two BMW's for the lead, but an unfortunate puncture would make him finish out of the points. Benefiting from Giovanardi's misfortune was Jelley who finished a career best fourth place. Next up were two retirees from the first race, Jordan and Shedden, who both produced fine displays to come from 16th and 17th on the grid.
The two battling CVR Seats would finish 7th and 8th, with Jones finishing ahead of Eaves whilst another driver coming from the back of the grid, Adam taking ninth ahead of Plato, who was running higher but contact with Shedden at Clearways dropped him down the order.
In Race 3 the top 10 would be reversed. This meant Plato would take pole and would lead off pole into the first corner. Further back around Graham Hill Bend there was contact when Jelley and Collard tangled. Giovanardi also had to take avoiding action with both Collard and Jelley having different views of the incident. Jelley would retire on the spot and Giovanardi would also not finish the race as a result of damage from this. Collard would eventually finish 8th.
After a short safety car period to clear up debris the main talking point of the race occurred when going into Paddock, Adam clipped the back of Plato's RML Chevrolet into a half spin and although somehow Plato managed to correct the slide from an impossible angle, Adam managed to get past.
Adam then managed to pull away getting the fastest lap in the process, with Plato hanging on to second, first from Shedden and then Neal, in the closing stages of the race. Shedden would finish 5th in the end with Turkington taking 4th.
Cartridge World Carbon Zero Racing had a strong debut weekend finishing in 6th and 7th. Eaves was this time ahead of Jones: both cars finishing in the top 10 in all three races. A recovering Collard would take 8th ahead of Vaulkhard and Bell, who enjoyed their best weekends so far, adding to their points tally from race 1.
There is also a mention for Team Aon, who made their debut in Ford Focus', finished in 11th and 12th. They would take the manufactures/constructors trophy for Round 3 and for Martin Johnson and his Boulevard Racing team, who worked miracles to get the car on the grid after a beating from race two. Jordan was also enjoying another strong race but was let down by the car when in fifth place his drive shaft broke and would have to retire.
After the champagne had been sprayed, the stewards had decided that Adam got an unfair advantage when he overtook Plato and added four seconds on to his race time to reverse the top two positions .The day belonged to Neal though securing three podiums to take an early advantage in the championship from Turkington by six points.
Next up was Collard, though disappointed not to score strong points in race three,, Collard declared himself happy from the weekend and in a confident mood for the next races by saying, "Sure, I could have been right up there with Matt on points had the incident in race three not happened, but it's been a tremendously strong start for the team. I feel we are right in the hunt and obviously I'll be looking for similar results in front of my home crowd at Thruxton."
Plato ended the day fourth in the points but was happy just to be there. "Last Wednesday morning I'd resigned myself to the fact I'd be spending today fitting a new bathroom in my house!" The ex Sear driver said. "But then came 'the call' and I was suddenly packing my race kit into my bag. The RML team has worked miracles all weekend and we're still figuring out what really makes the car tick. We've had zero testing before this weekend so to get a win is beyond what we ever realistically thought was possible. It's a cracking result and gives us a huge lift as we look ahead."
Although it's still unsure how much of the season Plato will compete or even whether the car will be on the grid for the next race, which will be at the UK's fastest racetrack on the 25/26th of April at Thruxton.