Matt Neal took pole position for round 1 of the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship. Neal taking part for the first time with the all new Neil Brown Engineering Turbo-engine fitted Honda Racing Civic broke the Brands Hatch qualifying record in the process in an incredible tight session with just 1 second separating the top 13 cars.
What a start and we’ve probably even surprised ourselves with that gap
Although the gap was tight down the back Neal produced a stunning qualifying lap, which was 0.255s clear of everyone else. Neal, although delighted, remains cautious about the race tomorrow, the first event with the new engine and said, “What a start and we’ve probably even surprised ourselves with that gap. But the race will be different – we can’t sustain that pace every lap and all the turbo runners are expecting to suffer greater tyre wear over the second half of the race whereas Jason is not too far away. He’ll come on really strong as the race progresses so starting ahead of him in particular is exactly where I need to be.”
Although there were cheers one side of the garage less can be said about the other side with team-mate Gordon Shedden. Shedden suffered a massive accident during Free Practice 1 when he left the circuit into the first corner at around 130mph due to what he believed was a puncture or some sort of left front brakeage. Thankfully Shedden was fine but told the circuit commentator that the crash impact came to 10.2 G-Force. However, less than can be said about the Honda, as it susstaned heavy front end damage. As a result Shedden took no further part in the day’s proceedings with it also looking likely that he will be forced to sit out the race day as well. Shedden said afterwards, "We're not too sure what happened at the moment. It was all good and then it just went straight on. We thought it could be a puncture, but we're not sure so we're checking. They're going to try [to fix it], but I think we're out for the weekend."
Joining Neal on the front row of the grid will be the man who won last time out at Brands; Andrew Jordan in his Turbo powered Pirtek Racing Vectra. Things looked great for the man who topped the recent official BTCC test at Silverstone and he carried in this form during the morning Free Practice Sessions topping the pair of them. However come qualifying Jordan had to settle for second and said, “I was fastest in the morning practice sessions and knew the pace would increase again in qualifying but perhaps not quite by that much! I’m confident I can give Matt a good run over a race distance, but the one I’m really watching is Jason – that Chevrolet is notoriously good at looking after its tyres and he is the big threat for all of us.”
In third place is current BTCC champion Jason Plato who has the all time BTCC win record in his sights. Plato admitted after qualifying that he gave it is all and said, “That really is everything we’ve got in our tank – we’ve gone quicker than the pole record we set here last October yet the gap to Matt is still nearly four tenths of a second which is a bit of a shock. The other teams have clearly done a great job in the winter. There is all this talk about the turbo cars having tyre worries but until we actually find out tomorrow then that’s all it is… talk!”
Alongside Plato on the second row of the grid will be James Nash in the Triple 8 Vectra. Nash now benefiting from the same engine as Jordan has put in a terrific last lap to claim 4th on the grid just as the chequered flag came out.
On row 3 will be the second Silverline Chevrolet Cruze of Alex MacDowall who will start alongside the Ford Focus of Mat Jackson for Airwaves Racing in last years Team Aon car. Just behind Jackson will be the first 2011 Team Aon Global Ford Focus belonging to Tom Chilton.
Chilton had qualified well up until his car failed a mandatory ride height check and as a result had all his times disallowed, meaning he had little opportunity to set a lap time and can be reasonably happy with 7th in the circumstances.
Tom Boardman will start 8th in his Special Tuning Racing Seat Leon, another car to be given a new lease of life with a Next Generation Turbo engine. Boardman had been flying all morning finishing the two morning sessions in the top 5, although 8th is a career best in the BTCC. Next up will be Paul O’Neill taking part for the first time in Plato’s title winning Chevrolet Cruze and he will start alongside Andy Neate in the second Global Ford Focus, this also being a career best qualifying.
Tony Gillham for Triple 8 racing was the fastest rookie in his Pink and Green Vectra, and can be satisfied with 11th after losing a lot of running during FP2 with mechanical issues.
Following Gillham will be the first of the struggling BMW’s belonging to Rob Collard. As expected the BMW’s aren’t finding the pace easy to come by with their now much dated normally aspirated engines.
Jeff Smith impressed throughout the day in the second Pirtek Racing Vectra in an all white livery. Smith was the final car to finish within a second of Neal’s quickest time and came in the top 10 during both the morning’s sessions, although he was lucky to avoid a major high speed spin and somehow managing to recover with the car in the gravel.
In 14th in his BTCC debut will be the second Airwaves Racing Ford of Liam Giiffin with another debutant alongside side him, current Clio champion Dave Newsham, in last years Airwaves BMW car.
Next up was Tom Onslow-Cole making his debut in AmD Miltek’s VW Golf. This wasn’t the start Onslow-Cole wanted and was mystified by the teams lack of pace particularly as the Seat of Boardman carrying the same engine was 8 places ahead of the Golf. After qualifying Onslow-Cole said, “We didn’t expect this really. We thought the power was a given and that we’d have to sort the chassis out. This is a bit of a kick in the nuts. We’re 5mph down in one sector and 7mph down in another, so it’s quite a big speed difference. If we can find that extra speed I think we’ll be up there with the best of them – and we can find that power because Boardman is running the same engine and I think our chassis is better. We won’t know what the problem is until we send the engine back to our tuner, Lehmann in Liechtenstein. It could be an internal thing like an electrical fault or something in the mapping, but it’s doubtful we’ll find an overnight cure. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher at the moment.”
Adding to Onslow-Cole’s woes was when he stopped out on circuit with mechanical issues. Although he managed to get back to the pits of his own accord because he brought out the red flag he was prevented from going back out.
Behind the Golf will be the second WSR BMW of Nick Foster and he will start alongside John George in the second Go-Mobile with Tech-Speed Chevrolet Cruze. Behind George will be another Chevrolet, this time a Lacetti belonging to Chris James for ES Racing.
The final cars to qualify were the two NGTC Toyota Avensis’ which both still require a more mileage. This was the first proper time that either Frank Wrathall for DynoJet or Tony Hughes from Speedworks had tested the car.
For Wrathall after working all night the car managed just a single lap in FP1 while in FP2 he stopped on circuit although was able to rejoin later in the session. Despite the lack of running the current Ginetta G50 champion was able to out qualify the other Avensis of Hughes.
There was good and bad news regarding the other full NGTC car of Dave Pinkney for Rob Austin Racing. The good news was that the team worked miracles to get the Audi A4 to the circuit, however the team were unable to make it out onto the circuit and as a result due to MSA regulations wont be able to complete in tomorrow’s races.
So that’s how the grid looks for the opening race of the season. Many questions need answering over how competitive over a race distance the Turbo engines will be. So for all the answers and more please log back into Motorsport.com after the weekend for full reviews and images from what promises to be a cracking start to the season.