Independent ace and crowd favourite Matt Neal recorded his second-ever Auto Trader British Touring Car Championship win today, in round 19 at Brands Hatch. Neal, already crowned Michelin Cup for Independents champion, took advantage of the manufacturer drivers getting caught out by oil on the track to take the lead early in the race and, despite late pressure from Honda's Tom Kristensen, held on to score a memorable and popular victory.
A downpour at the start of round 20 made conditions tricky and it was Ford's Alain Menu who came out on top. A masterly drive from sixth on the grid saw him take the lead by lap 11. His win puts him back at the head of the championship, six points ahead of team-mate Anthony Reid, who finished fourth.
With fellow Ford driver Rickard Rydell coming home second, Ford clinched the 2000 BTCC Manufacturers' Title with four rounds to spare. However, the title remains provisional pending an appeal into an exclusion of Reid at an earlier race.
Class B was won by points leader Alan Morrison in round 19 and title contender James Kaye in round 20.
SPRINT RACE - Round 19
An explosive start from Honda's Tom Kristensen from fourth on the grid saw the Dane slice between Matt Neal and Anthony Reid to claim second place behind pole-sitter Rickard Rydell who had made a clean getaway in his Ford Mondeo to lead into the first corner.
Mondeo man Reid dropped from second to fourth, but further mishap was to come the championship leader's way when, at the second corner, he was spun off into the gravel and fell back to tenth.
Behind, fellow Ford ace and title contender Alain Menu made progress at the start, flashing past Vauxhall's Jason Plato and then overtaking Plato's team-mate, and another fighting for the championship, Yvan Muller on the second lap to take fourth. The top three had pulled away, however, and Menu struggled to find the pace to catch up.
The places at the head of the field remained unchanged until the leaders caught the Class B runners and on lap seven, everything went haywire courtesy of Scotland's Gavin Pyper, making his BTCC debut in an Alfa Romeo 156. He hit a kerb too hard going into the circuit's last corner and split his car's sump, dumping oil on the racing line.
Unfortunately, Rydell was the first to hit the freshly coated surface and slid off into the gravel. This let Kristensen and Neal through, with the Swede recovering in third. Kristensen then looked safe in the lead, until four laps later when he came across Class B race leader James Kaye taking the oil-hit corner cautiously.
Sadly for Kristensen, Kaye's Accord was on his line and the Dane could not avoid contact giving crowd favourite Neal, already Michelin Cup for Independents champion, the opportunity to take the lead.
With 14 laps remaining and a two second lead, Neal looked comfortable out in front in his Team Dynamics Max Power Racing Nissan Primera, but gear selector problems slowed his progress allowing a seething Kristensen to claw back the gap. This set up a grandstand finish and, in the last five laps, the pair looked to be tied together.
Kristensen was trying everything he could to re-take the lead, but Neal withstood the pressure. And when the Dane outbraked himself four corners from home in one last-ditch attempt to get back in front, Neal was able to cruise over the line to take his well-deserved second-ever overall victory in the British Touring Car Championship.
Class B was also affected by the Pyper's oil slick. Barwell Motorsport Honda Accord driver Kaye, who had taken the lead at the start from Finn Toni Ruokonen (Touring Car VIP Club Peugeot 306 GTi), slid off on the oil after suffering suspension damage in the earlier coming together with Kristensen.
This handed the class lead back to Ruokonen who was being chased by team-mate and Class B championship leader Alan Morrison. The pair ran nose-to-tail for the remainder of the race until the Finn moved aside on the final lap to let Morrison take the win. Third over the line was Tom Ferrier (GA Racing Alfa Romeo), another making his BTCC debut and at 18 the youngest ever driver in the modern BTCC era.
Neal: "All the Ford boys have won a race and Vauxhall and Honda have both won races, I was feeling a bit left out. I've only had this feeling once before and it's sweet. When Tom almost went off on the oil that allowed me to close right up on him. Everyone was being super careful on the oil and Tom got held up on three consecutive laps by the back markers. I was in a no lose situation, if I got held up I could catch him up again and if he got held up I could pounce, and that's what happened. When Tom and James made contact, there was about a car's width down the inside and I wasn't going to be asked twice. "
Kristensen: "I thought I was going to be in an accident at the start. I was being squeezed out but at the last moment Anthony saw me and realised I was coming. I capitalised on that and got into second. I was more fortunate to arrive second on the oil as I saw Rickard slide straight off and I was able to keep the car on the circuit. I thought I was going on to win from there, but that wasn't the case. I think James Kaye just didn't see me. He slowed down a lot for the oil and was on a line where I was already committed. It was just unfortunate. It was a very good race and very interesting inside the cars."
Rydell: "I had a good start and pulled out a little bit of a gap to Tom by the first corner. I felt I had enough of a gap to win, but I was the first one on the oil, ran sideways and Tom and Matt both got past. It wasn't so good for us. The car is really good, I'm pleased with my qualifying performances but I just haven't had the finishes that I need. It's not been a lucky year for me but I just keep on trying to do my best."
Morrison: "It worked out really well. Toni really helped me there and I appreciate that. Once we were in the lead and were 1-2, it was simply a matter of easing off and getting the cars to the finish. I want to say thanks to Toni and I'm sure I'll be able to repay the favour sometime."
FEATURE RACE - Round 20
After the oil drama of the Sprint Race, the BTCC contenders were given no let up in the Feature with the weather intervening this time to make conditions very dicey. Heavy rain at the start saw pole position man Tom Kristensen and Honda team-mate James Thompson, second on the grid, both lose out.
Kristensen speared off the track at the third corner after a coming together with Vauxhall's Jason Plato, who had shot from fifth at the start to third, while Thompson struggled to find grip in his Accord. After leading briefly for half a lap, the Honda man was first passed by Plato then the Ford trio of Rickard Rydell, Alain Menu and Anthony Reid and Vauxhall's Yvan Muller.
Plato started to pull out a lead over Rydell, then the Ford man went wide at Paddock, the first bend, and dropped to sixth. This let Menu take up the chase and on lap 11, on a still wet track, a small mistake by Plato allowed the Swiss ace through. Menu then pulled away in his Mondeo and took the chequered flag with a three second advantage.
Sprint Race winner Matt Neal, Vauxhall's Vincent Radermecker and Honda's Gabriele Tarquini also suffered in the wet conditions at the start. All three went wide at Paddock and lost ground - Tarquini making the same mistake on two consecutive laps.
When the mandatory pit-stops came into play they benefited Rydell most. He stealthily moved from sixth to third in the space of nine laps and a brilliant stop for him - the quickest of the day, which also saw his Team Ford Mondeo outfit win £500 in the Michelin Pit-Stop Challenge - saw him come out ahead of Plato to take second place.
Plato pushed hard to get that second place back and caught the Swede's now-misfiring Mondeo on the last lap, but could not find a way past, crossing the line just one tenth of a second behind Rydell.
Thompson recovered from his early dramas, overtaking Muller to finish fifth in the Accord. Radermecker came home seventh ahead of Kristensen, an under-steering Neal and Tarquini.
The Class B runners were also locked in a great battle with Finn Toni Ruokonen getting the jump on pole-sitter James Kaye at the start. Ruokonen's Touring Car VIP Club Peugeot 306 and Kaye's Barwell Motorsport Honda Accord were then nose-to-tail for the first few laps before Kaye slid past on lap seven. He never looked back and took the Class B win with ease.
Ruokonen ran second for much of the race but damage suffered in an accident late on saw him retire. His team-mate, championship leader Alan Morrison, seemed to suffer in the conditions and could only manage fifth in class while Bintcliffe Sport Racing's Robert Collard (Nissan Primera) capitalised on other drivers' misfortunes to finish second, ahead of Barwell Motorsport's Mark Lemmer (Honda Accord). GA Racing's Tom Ferrier finished fourth in his Alfa Romeo 156.
Menu: "I had some problems in qualifying so I wasn't too high on the grid for both races, but when I was sitting on the grid for the second race and it was really wet and still raining I thought I had a good chance to win the race. Everything went well after I got past Jason and I think it was one of my best ever races, I'm very pleased. This championship is, I think, the toughest maybe ever. It's going to be very hard to win. All the drivers in with a shout are very good, but I'll be doing my best to win it."
Rydell: "I was pushing harder and harder in the early stages but then just went off at Paddock and went all the way through the gravel. I thought then that was it, but fortunately the gravel didn't do too much damage. After that I picked up a few places in the pit-stops but with about 10 laps to go the car started to misfire and Jason began to close in. I think with another lap he would have got past me. It was a weekend of might-have-beens really, like a few other weekends."
Plato: "I was really chuffed with my start. I got away well and then had a good opening two or three laps. But we just seem to struggle when the tyres aren't fully hot. We just can't live with the Ford in the opening laps, so it was only a matter of time until Alain caught me. I knew if it didn't rain again our car would get stronger and stronger, which it did, but as always there wasn't enough time left to catch up."
Neal: "My race virtually ended at the start of the second lap when I went wide at Paddock, after being told there was more grip there in the wet, but it was like hitting sheet ice and I went off. That dealt with my front splitter and from then on I just had bad understeer. But I've had one good result today and I'm over the moon. To get a win is fantastic, not just for me but for the whole team with all the effort that goes in. I'm going to have a couple of beers tonight to celebrate."
Kaye: "I was moved out of the way in the first race which spoiled my race and spoiled the championship as far as I am concerned. The second race was better. The new entrant Toni Ruokonen is a very good driver, very fast, and he led me at the start of the race and we had a very good tussle for three or four laps. Then his tyres went away and I was able to eke out a good advantage over him. I just made sure the gap stayed constant for the rest of the race. The championship is still on, despite what happened in the first race, but I've got a lot of work to do."