Pat Cranham, BTCC correspondent
Despite only a brief shakedown prior to the event of his brand new MG KX Momentum ‘6’, it was Jason Plato who takes an early lead following the opening round of the Dunlop MSA British Touring car Championship from Brands Hatch. Plato took two podiums on the day including race three victory while the other victors were Rob Collard for eBay Motors taking the first race victory, his first and the team’s first victory since 2009, with Matt Neal making history in race 2 by taking the first ever victory in a Next Generation Touring Car in his Honda Yuasa Racing Civic.
The day however will also be remembered not only for MG’s sensational return to the series but the number of big incidents on the day. Most notably for Nick Foster in his eBay Motors BMW after he rolled coming out of the second corner, Druids, on the short straight before Graham Hill bend. The other notable incident was in the final race when Redstone Racing driver Mat Jackson ran wide at the first corner, Paddock Hill bend, ripping off an oil sump which resulted in 7 cars including Jackson going off at the next corner, Druids. One of the drivers to get involved in this was BTCC debutant Adam Morgan, who had a tough baptism of fire in the series as his car had only just been repaired from a heavy first corner incident in race 1, causing yet heavier damage to his Speedworks prepared Toyota Avensis.
It's been an amazing weekend for us.
After his stunning qualifying performance to take a shock pole, it was ES racing’s Dave Newsham who lead the cars into the first corner; although his lead was short lived as on cold tyres he got sideways mid corner which allowed Collard up the inside, tapping the rear of the Vauxhall Vectra into the second corner dropping him to third with Neal taking second.
Meanwhile in the midfield it wasn’t long before the first heavy impact of the day with Liam Griffin for Redstone Racing and Jeff Smith rubbing each other, which in turn sent the unlucky Morgan round crashing heavy into the barriers at the top of Paddock Hill bend bringing out the safety car.
When the safety car came in it was all change at the front when on lap 8 Neal passed Collard going through the final corner which also let Newsham through. Newsham was now on a charge and amazingly got alongside Neal coming out of the final corner. As Newsham was alongside Neal, Plato, who had earlier passed Collard, was able to get a run on the pair with the MG driver attempting to dive down in the inside to take the lead into the Paddock Hill Bend. Plato afterwards was deemed responsible for the collision and was the first driver of the season to receive 3 penalty points on his License and a £750 fine.
However there wasn’t room for all three cars and Plato who had two wheels on the grass hit the unlucky Newsham, who had driven a superb race, with the former Clio champion ending up in the gravel. In all the mayhem this allowed Collard to take the lead from Neal who had to slow up taking second, whilst the second eBay Motors BMW of Tom Onslow-Cole took third and Plato dropped to 4th. Meanwhile at the second corner there was further contact with Rob Austin in the Audi hitting Aron Smith in his Redstone Racing heavy into the barriers at Druids again bringing out the safety car.
Another car to find the gravel later on in the race was John Thorne in his Thorney Motorsport Vauxhall Insignia. Thorne had suffered a major accident in Free Practice 1 the previous day with the team working incredibly hard to get him out for race day. Luckily on this occasion Thorne didn’t hit anything as he admitted the day’s previous accident forced him to splash out his entire year’s budget on spares with his budget incredibly thin.
Meanwhile at the front it was Collard who managed to take victory despite Neal making a last corner dive. This was his first victory since winning round 9 at Donington Park back in 2009 and the team’s first victory since Stephen Jelley won round 27 at Rockingham the same year. There was a double celebration for the team with Onslow-Cole beating Plato around the outside in a drag race to the line to take third.
Gordon Shedden took 5th in the second Honda Yuasa Racing Civic with a battered Andrew Jordan taking 6th in an identical Civic after he made contact with the sideways Newsham at the first corner. Mat Jackson took 7th ahead of Austin, Foster making it 3 eBay Motors inside the top 10 and Jeff Smith in the second Pirtek Civic in 10th.
New for 2012 is that the top 15 places all receive points so these lucky drivers were Lea Wood in his Binz Racing Vauxhall Vectra, Andy Neate in the second MG KX Momentum Racing, Ollie Jackson for AmDtuning.com in their Golf, Liam Griffin for Redstone Racing and Chris James, who scored his first ever BTCC point in the second ES Racing Vectra; although this could and should have been more if it wasn’t for a major trip through the gravel at Paddock Hill.
Race 2 got underway in the starting positions from race 1 and unsurprisingly it was Collard who got the best start in his rear-wheel drive BMW. His team mate Onslow-Cole remained in third until lap 2 when Plato dived down the inside of him into Paddock Hill. This allowed Shedden to get up the inside of him as well as a couple of others, however it was to get worse for Onslow-Cole when he received a drive through penalty for creeping at the start; although he managed to stop the car before the lights the damage had already been done.
After the first race joy race 2 wasn’t to live up to race 1 when Collard lost the lead and dropped to third after Neal got past the BMW man at the final corner, also allowing Plato past as well. However this was nothing compared to the third eBay Motors BMW after Nick Foster ended up on his roof. Foster ran wide coming out of Druids putting two wheels over the kerbs which spat him back across the circuit, reversing at some speed into the barriers, tipping the BMW into a scary looking roll.
Unsurprisingly this brought out the safety car and it wasn’t long until Collard was moving further down the field, losing further places to Jordan into Paddock Hill also allowing both Jackson and Austin through before Druids.
All eyes were on the front as against all odds the big rivals Neal and Plato were fighting in their all new Next Generation cars. Plato took the lead by nudging the back of Neal into the final corner allowing enough of a gap to appear to take the lead. Neal repaid the favour at Druids but Plato held on despite some rear damage being sustained, however on the same lap with Neal a car length behind the MG, Plato ran wide at the corner where the move first started and Neal didn’t need a second invitation to retake a lead, which he would never lose to become the first driver to win in the new spec car.
Plato was never able to recover as his tyres went away and lost second to Jordan on lap 24. There was less good news for Neal’s team mate Shedden as he continued to have electrical issues and last year’s runner up was forced to retire on lap 15.
Behind Plato the positions never changed with Mat Jackson taking 4th, Austin taking a very good 5th and Collard eventually finishing 6th. Jeff Smith took 7th ahead of Ollie Jackson who put in a great drive to take 8th in the little VW Golf.
Another driver who put in a fantastic drive was pole position man from race 1 Newsham. During the race Newsham got black and orange flagged when he ran into the back of his team mate James after he checked up to avoid the spinning Proton of Dan Welch. Newsham was helped by the safety car when he was able to catch up to the back of the field, passing Welch on the final corner to take 9th which also allowed the recovering Onslow-Cole to take 10th with Welch having to settle for 11th.
Griffin was to score more points in 12th ahead of Tony Gilham driving last year’s Honda Civic under his own team, Team HARD. Neate was to take another couple of points for 14th in the second MG ahead of the unlucky Wood. Wood had been driving a superb race and was holding on for a strong 7th, which would have matched his best ever BTCC result, until he had been judged to have used too much of the track on numerous occasions at Graham Hill bend and received a drive through penalty.
As ever the grid for race 3 was decided by a lottery with positions 6-10 going in to a hat. Fans favourite Paul O’Neill did the draw and he picked out number 8 which meant Ollie Jackson was to start on pole. During the interview with O’Neill the former BTCC winner admitted that he had thought he had secured the budget to remain racing but with just two weeks before the start of the season there was a short fall in finance regarding last year’s sponsor. O’Neill did however confirm that the team has fitted the TOCA Swindon engine to his Chevrolet Cruze and if he finds the remaining budget, believed to be around £35,000, he hopes to be out before the end of the season.
At the start of race 3 it was Collard who got the best start moving from 3rd to first by the first corner with Mat Jackson getting ahead of Ollie Jackson in to second. This was how it stayed until lap 4 when carnage was brought to Brands Hatch.
It all started when Mat Jackson went through the gravel at Paddock Hill ripping off an oil line in the process spilling oil all the way up to Druids. The first car to go off on the oil was Ollie Jackson followed by Onslow-Cole. Welch then went in before the unluckiest man of the day Morgan then hit Welch. Morgan’s Speedworks team had worked tirelessly since his heavy race 1 crash to get him out for race 3, repairing the entire front end only for more bad luck to strike and last year’s Ginetta Supercup driver received yet heavier front end damage.
By the end the small gravel trap at Druids had turned into a BTCC car park with 7 cars trapped in it and with a massive amount of oil there was little option but to red flag the race. The race got underway again for a 20 lap race which started from a standing start in the positions that the cars crossed the line to start lap 4.
Collard led away with Neal further down the field taking to the infield down Paddock Hill bend, whilst Plato lost a place to Newsham at Graham Hill bend after getting sideways; although Plato would re-take him after getting an overlap out of the final corner passing into turn 1.
Pirtek Racing’s Jordan was the first driver to make a move first passing Austin before taking the lead on lap 8, after giving the BMW driver a great dummy diving down the inside of him into the final corner. However it wasn’t long until he had Plato on his tail as he attempted to take MG’s first victory as he also passed both Austin and Collard at the final corner, Clearways.
He was right on Jordan’s tail for a number of laps until he managed to get his nose inside the Pirtek Racing Civic at Clearways on lap 15 to take the lead, which he wouldn’t lose leading to a famous victory.
Jordan was to stay in second although wasn’t able to remount a challenge for victory. In third following his very topsy-turvy weekend, Newsham took a very well deserved podium place, his first and the team’s first in the BTCC.
Taking a provisional 4th was Shedden who, after yet more electrical problems before the red flag, came through the field. However his joy was short lived when he was disqualified after it was adjudged that he had not been running at the time of the red flag so therefore was no longer in the race.
This promoted everyone behind, including Jeff Smith, who would take his best BTCC result to date, for 4th. 5th for the second race running was Austin with Collard finishing in 6th. Neal recovered to 7th ahead of Aron Smith who ended his day on a high in 8th. Wood and Gilham finished in pleasing 9th and 10th positions with Griffin scoring for the 3rd race running in 11th. James would score more points for his best position to date in 12th with Frank Wrathall finishing 13th.
Wrathall had been expected to be challenging for wins but his car was literally finished in the early hours of Thursday morning, proving quick but fragile after he qualified in 8th but retired in race 1 with gearbox issue’s and never started race 2; things still didn’t look right in the final race. Neate scored for the third race in his MG, which had never turned a wheel until Free Practice 1, with a delighted Tony Hughes taking the final point for 15th in his Speedworks Toyota Avensis.
However there was no doubt that the day belonged to Plato. Little had been expected from Plato heading in to the weekend with the car completing just 6 shakedown laps at the Mira test track prior to the event. Once again the men behind the MG project, Triple 8 Engineering, proved why they are regarded as the best in the business as Plato ended the day on 52 points and in an early lead of the championship. After a delighted Plato admitted that he never thought heading into this weekend he would end up leading the championship by the end, he was quick to praise the team saying, "It's been an amazing weekend for us. It would have to be a pretty special team for me to leave RML but I had every faith and confidence in Triple Eight. They've done the most amazing job and I'm only one very small part of it. They've done an amazing job to turn a car from nothing into a pretty dominant display in race three, which was really special. We're here now, we've got a good direction working with the car and there's a lot of time still to come from it. I'm on cloud nine, it's really good!"
After his pre-season issue’s Neal was also delighted by his day’s work though admits he faces tough competition and said, “It’s great that the new Honda has shown race-winning pace on its debut but I don’t think I’ve started a season before when the competition has been so fierce. The BMWs were on fire and Jason and that MG also look like they might take a bit of catching. We can’t afford to leave any stone unturned.” Following his pair of seconds Jordan ends the day in third and top of the Independent points following two wins in that category. Despite this Jordan was disappointed not to get on the top step of the podium and said, “Any other day I’d be very pleased with two seconds but I’m slightly disappointed that the win got away from me in race three – it’s certainly got me fired up for my home event at Donington. The main thing, though, is we’ve come away from the first round with a decent points haul.”
That concludes an action packed and dramatic start to the season. If the rest of the season is to be half as good then we are certainly in for a treat. You will be silly not to keep up to date with the series, so be sure to keep logged into Motorsport.com for all the buildup to the next event at Donington in just two weeks’ time.