Vauxhall and Ford shared the honours in the dark at Snetterton, Norfolk, in rounds 15 and 16 of the Auto Trader British Touring Car Championship. Despite poor weather, the night BTCC meeting attracted a bumper crowd and the fans were treated to two brilliant displays by Jason Plato and championship leader Alain Menu. Plato dominated proceedings at dusk in round 15, taking his Vectra to a second victory of the season, while Menu tightened his grip on the series with glory in the main event, the partially floodlit night race (round 16). The win was Menu's fifth of the year and puts him ten points clear of his Mondeo team-mate Rickard Rydell.
Matt Neal took two Michelin Cup for Independents victories while Alan Morrison won round 15 in Class B and Robert Collard recorded a memorable first BTCC class victory for himself and his team in round 16.
SPRINT RACE - Round 15
As dusk fell the spotlight was on pole position man Jason Plato and he marvelled in the attention, controlling the race from start to finish despite having his lead pegged back twice when the Safety Car was sent out. Each time the race was re-started, the Vauxhall ace stormed off into the darkening distance and was untouchable.
Both Ford's Rickard Rydell and Honda's Tom Kristensen attempted to catch Plato on the hop at the re-starts, but the Briton had the power and the tactics to hold them off to claim his second win of the season. Kristensen did get past Rydell at the first re-start, however, and claimed second at the finish while the Ford man held off a race-long challenge from his team-mate Anthony Reid to claim the final podium position.
While the top three concentrated on their own race, the rest of the pack had to deal with incidents galore in the early stages. The first Safety Car period was caused when Honda's James Thompson, who had started fifth, and Reid clashed towards the end of the first lap. Thompson came off worst, spearing off into the tyre barrier and retirement, but Reid continued in fifth place.
After two laps behind the Safety Car, the race got underway again and on the second corner of the lap another clash - involving Vauxhall's Vincent Radermecker, in fourth, Reid, Vauxhall's Yvan Muller, in sixth, and championship leader Alain Menu (Ford) in seventh - brought the Safety Car back out. Both Vauxhalls and Menu's Mondeo were put out of the race by the incident, when the pack bunched up going through Sear corner.
The demise of the three cars promoted Reid to fourth, reigning Michelin Cup for Independents champion Matt Neal to fifth and Honda's Gabriele Tarquini to sixth. They held those positions to the chequered flag, despite Reid putting the pressure on Rydell and Tarquini doing everything he could to get past Neal.
In Class B, pole position man Mark Lemmer found himself going through the first corner side by side with Bintcliffe Sport Racing's Robert Collard (Nissan Primera). The Barwell Motorsport man went too wide in his Honda Integra Type R in an attempt to fend off Collard's challenge and took to the grass, dropping back to fourth in the division in the process.
Alan Morrison, meanwhile, made steady progress through the field after starting from the back of the grid. By lap five he was in second in his Touring Car VIP Club Peugeot 306, ahead of Barwell Motorsport's James Kaye (Honda Accord), and at the next re-start he slipped past Collard to take the lead. He then pulled out a gap and claimed his ninth Class B win of the season ahead of Kaye and Lemmer, both of whom had passed Collard on lap 15 when the Nissan developed engine problems leading to its retirement.
Plato: "We've been knocking on the door for a little while but for one reason or another we haven't quite got it right in the races, especially in the last couple of race weekends. We've had a bit of bad luck and some shunts and this win will boost the morale of the team. Everyone has worked really hard in the last couple of weeks to get the cars right after the incidents at Croft two weeks ago and it is great to repay that hard work with a victory. It also shows the guys in the team that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and the championship is not lost. It's nice to win, but now we've just got to keep scoring good points."
Kristensen: "At the second re-start I tried to get past Jason as I did Rickard at the first re-start at the first corner, but Jason defended his line all the way along the back straight. Then Rickard was behind me and I had to watch for him trying to get past at the Esses and that allowed Jason to pull away through those corners. That's where he won the race. He got the gap in those two corners and basically I lost everything in that lap."
Rydell: "It was quite a good battle. I felt the car was good enough to keep up with Jason at the start but after the first Safety Car period Tom got past me down the straight and they both got away. I tried to keep up with Tom but Anthony was very close behind me so I had to defend my position as well."
Neal: "We changed a few things on the car after qualifying, because we had some niggling problems, and they certainly did the trick. The car was fantastic in the race. I felt I had the pace to challenge the Fords in front but Gabriele was pushing hard and I had to watch my back a bit to make sure he didn't get past. I was lucky in the incident when the Vauxhall's went off. I could only see a big cloud of smoke and I knew the Vauxhall's were in there. Alain had gone left so I followed him, then the smoke cleared and the road was just full of Vauxhalls, so I jinked right and managed to avoid it, unfortunately Alain didn't."
Morrison: "I had a fantastic start and once I had got past everyone I just drove away, the car worked brilliantly. I bided my time a bit before challenging Robert Collard because it's getting near the end of the season and I didn't want to do anything silly and go off. It's all about getting points now and protecting my lead in the championship."
FEATURE RACE - Round 16
When night came, so did the rain - on the first of two warm-up laps. Everyone went back into the pits to change to wet-weather tyres, delaying the start of the race. Then the start lights failed because of the bad weather causing a further delay. With a 1pm curfew imposed on track activity, the race had to be shortened to 20 laps.
When the contenders were eventually flagged away from the line, pole position man Rickard Rydell got too much wheelspin and dropped to fourth by the first corner. His Ford team-mate Alain Menu, starting from second on the grid, shot into the lead, followed by Vauxhall's Jason Plato and third Ford man Anthony Reid.
Vauxhall's Yvan Muller, using team-mate Vincent Radermecker's Vectra after the damage suffered in the first race to his own race car proved too much to repair, settled in behind Rydell in fifth. Honda's James Thompson was harassing Muller in sixth and Michelin Cup for Independents runner Matt Neal had blasted past both Honda Accords of Tom Kristensen and Gabriele Tarquini to slot into seventh. Kristensen's race only lasted three laps, however, as he retired with accident damage sustained in a first-lap racing incident.
The darkness and rain held no fear for Menu, who pulled away at the front and opened up a one and a half second lead over Plato who could do nothing to catch the leading Mondeo. The pair continued at the front while both Reid and Rydell made early complusory pit-stops, promoting Thompson to third. Plato then pitted ahead of Menu in an attempt to get the jump on the Ford man but when Menu came in a lap later he emerged back on the track still in front of the Vectra.
Menu's stop handed the lead to Thompson, earning the Honda driver an extra championship point, and he remained at the head of the pack for four laps trying to build an advantage. When he made his stop, Matt Neal took over at the front in his Team Dynamics Nissan Primera and led for two laps until his pit-stop.
When Neal came in, on lap 13, Menu was back on top with a six-second advantage over Plato who only just got past Thompson when the Honda ace emerged from the pit-lane after his tyre change. Plato then turned on the heat and began to bear down on the Mondeo. Within two laps Menu's lead had been halved and there was just under one second separating the pair as they crossed the line to start the last lap.
Plato pushed all the way, a double victory in his sights, but series leader Menu did just enough to claim the prestigious night race honours, his fifth win of the season, albeit by a slender margin of just 0.4 of a second. Thompson came home third while Muller took fourth, thanks to slick pit work by the Vauxhall team which put him ahead of both Rydell and Reid (who had also lost out to Rydell in the pit-stops).
Tarquini, who had hassled Neal for several laps after the pit-stops, got past the Independents leader four laps from the finish to claim seventh. There was a new winner in Class B with Bintcliffe Sport Racing's Robert Collard taking an historic first win in the BTCC for both himself and the team. After starting second, behind Class B points leader Alan Morrison, Collard powered his Nissan Primera past Morrison's Peugeot at the second corner and never looked back.
Collard eventually crossed the line to take the well-earned victory nearly ten seconds ahead of Barwell Motorsport's James Kaye (Honda Accord). Morrison finished last of the Class B cars because the windscreen wipers on his car failed early in the race and he had to drive with caution to avoid going off. Barwell's Mark Lemmer claimed third in Class B in his Honda Integra ahead of Arnold James Sport's Nick James in a similar Integra.
Menu: "I had a good enough start but I think Rickard messed up his completely. The car was very good and I pulled away. With hindsight we should have waited a bit longer before we pitted because after the pit-stop the balance of the car changed a bit and it was not quite as good. But I knew how much Jason was catching me each lap and it was fairly easy to control the pace so I did just enough to win the race. I'm leading the championship still so it has been a very good weekend."
Plato: "I'm very pleased with the weekend, not just for me but for the team as everyone worked flat out to get the cars ready for these races. I couldn't live with Alain in the first part of the race so I found a pace where I wouldn't make any mistakes and just waited to see if the speed in my car came back to me which it did after the pit-stop. It was a shame the race didn't go on for a few more laps because I could have had a go at getting past Alain and the result might have been different."
Thompson: "The Accord was quite good in the wet so it was a matter of staying out as long as possible and putting in a few quick laps while I was at the front. The guys did a good pit-stop but Jason just nipped past me when I came out of the pits. I just sat in behind him then and tried to catch Alain. I'm very happy with third, especially after not finishing the first race. It was a very good effort by the team to get the car ready for the second race after that crash."
Neal: "We still haven't got the pace of the boys at the front but we had a good balance in the early part of the race and I just put my head down and put some good laps in. I thought I would be in there with the leaders after the pit-stop but after the tyre change we lost the balance a bit. The car got a bit too tail happy and I got stuck behind one of the Class B cars. That allowed Gabriele to get a run on me. There was a bit of sparring going on and he ended up winning."
Collard: "I made a good start and followed Alan through the first corner, then at the second corner he ran wide and I got underneath him. The rest was history. I was very surprised not to be troubled by Alan or James Kaye but I just drove a careful race, looked after my tyres and pulled away. The wet conditions are a great leveller and it just proves that some people have got an advantage in the dry. We're working on that and come the next race hopefully we'll be as quick. The car's starting to work well now and I think we'll be winning races throughout the rest of the season. It's a big step forward in my career and I want to say thank you to everybody involved in helping me make it happen."