Matt Neal has drawn Jason Plato, who went into the weekend with a 17-point lead, level on points after round nine of the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship. Matt Neal dealing with the British rain. Photo by Pat ...
Matt Neal has drawn Jason Plato, who went into the weekend with a 17-point lead, level on points after round nine of the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship.
Meanwhile in the racing at Brands Hatch, which at times was more suitable for powerboat racing, there were wins for Tom Chilton and Tom Onslow-Cole in the Team Aon Ford Focus. Mat Jackson, for Airwaves BMW, picked up his first victory of the year in the final race of the day.
Race one of the day took place in the worst conditions of the day which even resulted in the Formula Renault UK race to be abandoned prior to the BTCC cars taking to the track.
Chilton led away from his pole position but the best start of all was made by Rob Collard in his WSR BMW, who powered his way from 5th to 2nd by the first corner.
Somehow all the cars made their way through the opening corners. This was until turn 5, Surtees, when Plato made contact with the Tripe 8 Vectra of James Nash, who started off on a superb 3rd but was just to make half a lap and ended up in the gravel bringing out the safety car.
Following the safety car Collard would slip back to 4th being first passed by Gordon Shedden on lap four and then a couple of laps later by Onslow-Cole. The tricky conditions would catch out a number of drivers with Dave Pinkney spinning out at Hawthornes on lap eight, which again brought out the safety car.
Arthur Forster in his BMW spun out on lap 16, although the safety car would not be required on this occasion. Jackson had a trip across the gravel at the first corner, Paddock Hill, although he would recover to take the final points position in 10th after Andrew Jordan in his Pirtek Racing Vectra pitted with a misfire on the penultimate lap of the race.
Championship leader Plato would not enjoy a good race however. He did briefly get past Neal for 5th but his title rival would quickly get back past him on the same lap, and then Plato slipped further back by first losing a place to his Silverline Chevrolet team mate Alex MacDowall, after a small mistake at Paddock putting two wheels on the gravel, and then Paul O'Neill also got by the points leader.
O'Neill was the biggest mover during the race pulling off a number of superb manoeuvres, first around the outside of Tom Boardman in his Special Tuning UK Seat (who would finish 9th) around the outside of Paddock. He would save his best for Plato with a stunning late braking move into the final corner, Clearways, before taking MacDowall for 6th.
It was definitely Chilton's race and he took an historic win, the first for an LPG powered car and Ford's 220th BTCC victory; their first one in 10 years. A delighted Chilton said afterwards, "I felt I was doing quite well in my swimming trunks and goggles out there! Normally my specs steam up when it's wet but not today. The Focus is the best car I've ever driven in the wet. It did everything I asked. We have got it set up perfectly."
Chilton was quick to praise some extraordinary work by the team and one man in particular. "A first win for LPG, the first for Ford since 2000, two Toms on the podium - just a great result for all the people in our team. We even had one chap do a 43 hour shift without sleep back at the workshop. Just great."
Race 2 would take place still in wet conditions, although maybe not quite as bad as race one. This time it was the Honda Racing Civic of Shedden who would make the best start leading the pack into the first corner.
Just like the first race, the cars would make it as far as Surtees when O'Neill and Neal would make contact, which in turn spun Collard along with Neal although both would continue.
Collard's teammate Andy Neate also spun at the same corner and narrowly missed the front of Collard's BMW.
Plato's weekend would go from bad to worse, as he had to pull out of the race only on the second lap after losing all power coming out of Paddock Hill. The safety car would have to be deployed at the end of the lap to recover the cars of Lea Woods, in his Central Racing Group Honda Integra at Clearways, and Forster who found the gravel this time at the second corner, Druids.
As the safety car came in on lap 4, Shedden got on the power and completely lost the back end of the Civic. Amazingly Shedden somehow saved the Honda from going into the gravel with a slide that wouldn't have looked out of place on a drifting event. This allowed Chilton to get past, on the way to the line, dropping him all the way down to 7th. Technically this isn't allowed as the cars are not allowed to pass until the line but this I guess isn't catered for in the rule book and sense prevailed while the racing action got underway as it stood.
The safety car would have to come out another couple of times during the race, first for Neate who finally buried his BMW in the gravel at Sterlings, and then for Martin Depper in the second Forster Motorsport, who copied his team mate Forster from the first race and ended up in the Paddock Hill gravel.
The main battle for the race was for second. Onslow-Cole held it but was under pressure from the Integra of O'Neill.
O'Neill made his move which Onslow-Cole defended and this allowed both Jackson and MacDowall through. O'Neill would then lose further places after Neal barged his way past at Sterlings allowing his team mate Shedden through. Neal's joy would be short lived, as he had to retire from the race through mechanical failure.
Jackson had, at this stage, made his way up to second but was coming under pressure again from Onslow-Cole. The Ford driver made his way back past coming into Druids, which allowed MacDowall to make a move into the next corner, Graham Hill, but only resulted in him losing a place to the recovering Shedden. At the next corner Jackson would throw it all away and spun at Surtees dropping him outside the points.
Positions were changing just inside the top 10 with Steven Kane barging pass Nash at Surtees, sending the Vectra driver across the gravel causing him to eventually finish 11th on the road. Collard would spin for the second time of the day at Surtees from just inside the top 10. The main beneficiary of these changes would be Matt Hamilton, who drove brilliantly and finish 10th to score his first BTCC points in his TH Motorsport Honda Civic.
The battle for second would continue down to the line with Onslow-Cole and Shedden going side-by-side and despite being on the outside Onslow-Cole would take second by just 0.0009 of a second. But it was Chilton who took the line for his second win of the day or so he thought.
Despite originally passing technical checks straight after the race he was then disqualified 30 minutes later when the stewards found his car to be too low in the technical control after the race.
As a result everyone moves up a place and Chilton hands his team mate Onslow-Cole the race win. This set a new BTCC record for the closest ever race finish, beating the previous record which was at Brands Hatch on the GP circuit last year when Plato beat Chilton by 0.0015 of a second in the first race. Nash scored the last point down in 10th.
Surprisingly race 3 of the day took part in dry conditions but set the drivers a major dilemma of what tyres to start on, as much of the circuit was still wet. Some went wets all round, a couple choose slicks and many had a mixture of slick on the front and wet on the rear.
One driver who failed to make the start of the race was O'Neill who had moved up to second in the points after race 2, but he had to pull off on the warmup lap with mechanical trouble.
Steven Kane started on pole but it was the man alongside him, Boardman, who got the better start and led the first few laps. One man who wouldn't even make the end of the first lap was championship leader Plato, whose weekend turned into a nightmare with the recurrence of his problem from the second race and pulled off the track just a little over half-way through the first lap.
Boardman was quickly struggling with his wet tyres on his front wheel drive Seat and he was quickly passed on lap 3 by the two rear wheel drive Airwaves BMW's, who were holding the grip on their wets a whole lot better. Although it was Kane who was putting the Seat under pressure, this allowed Jackson to get pass Kane and then a corner later he took the lead, though Kane would find his way past just a corner later.
On lap 5 Forster, who started on slicks, had his third spin of the day -- this time at Surtees -- causing the safety car to come out. The safety car came out very late though and missed the leaders, causing Pinkney to brake heavily to avoid hitting the safety car as he was just in the middle of overtaking MacDowall, even though the Forster BMW had already found its own way out of the gravel.
When the safety car came in Boardman would quickly be shuffled down the grid being overtaken for third at Westfield by Collard and by Nash also on wets. Boardman would continue to fall down the grid during the race and would eventually finish in 8th following his blistering start and trying so hard to fend off the BMW's.
Those on slick fronts though were slowly coming into the race more and they were helped even further when the safety car was dispatched yet again on lap 10 following a hectic couple of contacts.
MacDowall ran wide at Clearways allowing Pinkney, Neal and Jordan past. Chilton, who was on slicks fronts, tried to follow them through as he was making his way from the back of the field. MacDowall turned in and Chilton made contact with the back of the Chevrolet instantly braking the rear suspension and with the wheel half hanging off, MacDowall spun in the Paddock Hill gravel. This brought an end to a very promising weekend in which he managed to secure his maiden podium after Chilton's disqualification in race 2.
Meanwhile Pinkney who had finished 8th in the previous race would carry straight on at Druids and for the second time of the day ended the race in the gravel.
Leading the charge for those on slick fronts following the safety car was Neal. He charged from the back of the field passing car after car, particularly during the closing stages. Neal passed Kane on the last lap before just running out of time to catch the other Airwaves BMW of Jackson, who took his first victory of the season and for the team.
Collard finished in 4th just fending off Jordan, who started on slicks along with Chilton charging his way from the back of the grid.
Nash would be the highest front wheel drive car to finish on wet tyres ahead of Boardman with Shedden and Onslow-Cole rounding off the top 10 after the pair started with slicks all round.
Just missing out on the points was Wood who was running well inside the top 10 for the majority of the race but lost out to the more experienced drivers on the last lap but none the less put in a very good account of himself.
With Neal taking a superb second in the final race, this has now propelled him level on points with Plato, but due to scoring two victories to Plato's one, Neal now leads the championship.
Neal said after the weekend, "I'm delighted - I never expected to be leading the championship so early in the season. It's a shame our car stopped in race two and we couldn't capitalise further when Jason had also retired but I can't complain too much - I suppose I could have had a day like his."
Plato was understandably less pleased and summed up his weekend in a sentence by saying, "I've just had a very bad day. That's it. There is nothing more to say."
Behind the pair in the championship, O'Neill's non start in race 3 meant Kane would overtake him for the third in the points with the pair locked in the lead of the Independents trophy.
Airwaves BMW continue to lead the HiQ Teams Championships but with a narrow margin of just two points over Honda Racing, who continue to trail Chevrolet in the Manufacturers/Constructors championship.
There now is a small break until the next event at Oulton Park in Cheshire for rounds 10, 11 and 12 on the 5th and 6th of June. A recent interview with WSR boss Dick Bennett suggested that reigning champion Colin Turkington could be close to a return to the series. While at Rockingham, the Triple 8 boss said Fabrizio Giovanardi could be in the car by Oulton as there are talks with Uniq continuing. So stay tuned for all the build up to the races on motorsport.com.