Two wins, two pole positions and two new lap records gave Ford Team Mondeo's Rickard Rydell the perfect weekend in the Auto Trader British Touring Car Championship, rounds 13 and 14, at a sunny Croft circuit, North Yorkshire. The Swede put his championship challenge firmly back on track with a faultless display in both races, despite having to endure a re-start in round 14 and a desperate 10-lap dash to the finish. He is now third in the title battle behind his two Mondeo team-mates. The series is led by Switzerland's Alain Menu, but only by one point over Scot Anthony Reid. Michelin Cup for Independents star Matt Neal claimed his maiden overall podium finish this season - and his first for 12 months - in round 13, and has stretched his lead in the Independents division to 65 points. Alan Morrison came out of the weekend back on top in Class B after a win and a second place, but hot on his heels is James Kaye, who won round 14.
SPRINT RACE - Round 13
From start to finish, pole-sitter Rickard Rydell was never properly challenged as he powered his Ford Mondeo to his second victory of the season. After missing out at Silverstone two weeks ago - where he also had two pole positions - the Swede was determined not to be beaten in his effort to climb back up the championship table.
After the lights went green, it looked like Ford was on its way to recording another memorable 1-2-3 finish, with Anthony Reid holding on to his second position and series leader Alain Menu keeping the pack at bay in third. But Vauxhall's Jason Plato wanted to spoil the Blue Oval party and, after a blistering start that saw him rocket past the Honda of Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen, he closed in on Menu half way round the first lap.
The Vectra ace lined himself up for a passing attempt at the start of lap two, but it all went wrong at the Chicane when he spun out of the race and into the circuit's infield. That promoted Michelin Cup for Independents leader Matt Neal to fourth after he had earlier bravely overtaken Kristensen on the inside - with all four wheels locked up - at the tight Sunny In right-hand corner.
The Team Dynamics Max Power Racing man then set about Menu, lapping the 2.12-mile track in his Nissan Primera four tenths of a second quicker than the Mondeo man. Neal caught Menu on lap six and had a lunge on the inside at the final hairpin. Menu held him off, but the same move a lap later worked, putting Neal into third. Kristensen also saw his chance and out-dragged Menu down the straight, moving into fourth at the first corner of the next lap.
Behind, Vauxhall's Vincent Radermecker had passed title-challenger and team-mate Yvan Muller on lap six to take eighth spot behind the Hondas of James Thompson and Gabriele Tarquini. Belgian Radermecker chased local hero Thompson hard for the entire race, but could not get past the Yorkshireman - despite a clash on the final lap which left the Vectra's front bonnet crumpled. That incident allowed Muller to take back eighth on the finish line.
In Class B, pole position man Alan Morrison was never troubled as he strolled to his eighth win of the season in the Touring Car VIP Club Peugeot 306 GTi. Behind him though, Bintcliffe Sport Racing's Robert Collard and Barwell Motorsport's James Kaye enjoyed a good fight for second place until Kaye's Honda Accord limped into the pits on lap 12 with engine problems. That handed Collard's Nissan Primera second ahead of Kaye's team-mate Mark Lemmer (Honda Integra Type R).
Rydell: "It's very good to win, especially after losing out at Silverstone for something out of my control. I had two poles at Silverstone as well, so yesterday after qualifying I didn't really think about the races. I just thought I would just see what happened. I now need to do this in the next few races because I'm still behind in the championship. I lost a little bit of time in the race when I reached the back markers, but I wanted to be careful getting past them. In the end I had enough of a gap to take it easier. The championship is very close; I just need a little bit of luck now. I'll keep trying my best and see what happens."
Reid: "I'm back in the lead of the championship - I just hope I can make it stick this time. I thought I'd made a really good start, but Rickard made an equally good start and he opened up a gap over the first few laps. That was frustrating. I tried my best to win, but it still hasn't happened. I felt a bit of pressure towards the end from Matt and he came very close in the last few laps."
Neal: "It's been 12 months since I've been on the podium outright - it feels good! We knew we had a strong race pace from testing and the car was just brilliant. After the start, when it all settled down, I thought I'd see how it went and then it all seemed to come back to me. I made a more daring move on Tom Kristensen than the one on Alain Menu - I had all four wheels locked going down the inside and I thought it would end up in tears. But he saw me, gave me room and then I was able to chase after the Fords. When I had third place in the bank I didn't want to do anything stupid; I wanted to make sure the car was okay for the next race. I'm pleased we have pushed forward - the car was brilliant."
Morrison: "That was good; it all went to plan in the race. I kept a good speed throughout the race and the car worked brilliantly. It was a bit lonely, but I'm not complaining. It was good to get the win and I'm now back in the lead of the championship."
FEATURE RACE - Round 14
Two high-speed accidents involving Vauxhall's Jason Plato and Vincent Radermecker and Honda's Gabriele Tarquini, which brought the Safety Car out twice and forced the race to be stopped after 20 laps, reduced the scheduled 30-lap Feature event to a 10-lap dash to the finish.
Up until the red flag, Ford's Rickard Rydell was in total control leading from the lights and staying ahead even during the mandatory pit stops. Team-mate Anthony Reid looked like he would repeat his Sprint Race finish while comfortably holding on to second and the third Mondeo man Alain Menu completed the top three.
The race was stopped when Radermecker went off after exiting the 130mph Barcroft corner and buried his Vectra in the tyre barriers. Although the car was on its side when it came to rest, the Belgian emerged unscathed, but Croft's marshals had to repair the barriers before the action could resume. As early as the end of the first lap, the Safety Car came out when Plato and Tarquini clashed at the Complex while battling for sixth position. Both cars speared off into the tyre barrier after exiting a 100mph left-hand corner, but fortunately both drivers suffered nothing more than stiff necks.
At the restart, Rydell again led away from the front, but this time Menu got the better of a wheelspinning Reid and claimed second. Tom Kristensen was fourth and challenged the three Fords, but a broken steering arm on the last of the ten laps ruined his effort and he crawled over the line back in tenth place.
Yorkshireman James Thompson, fifth at the restart in his Honda Accord, was looking to give his home crowd something to cheer about, but Michelin Cup for Independents star Matt Neal had other ideas. Following Kristensen's demise, the pair moved up one place each and then Neal passed Thompson on the last lap to take an excellent fourth in his Nissan Primera.
Frenchman Yvan Muller, who had been a firm title contender at the start of today's races, came home sixth in the only surviving Vectra. Coupled to his earlier eighth place in the Sprint, it was not the best of weekends for the Vauxhall ace, who has lost ground to the Ford trio in the championship.
The restart also benefited Class B's James Kaye in the Barwell Motorsport Honda Accord. Kaye had been catching leader Alan Morrison's Peugeot 306 GTi in the latter stages of the first part of the race and took the opportunity to shoot past the Touring Car VIP Club man on the restart. He then held off all Morrison's challenges during the 10 laps to take a memorable victory. Third in the class was Robert Collard in his Bintcliffe Sport Racing Nissan Primera.
Rydell: "That was a very good day. In the last four races I have not scored very well, so this is what I needed. I'm still behind in the championship, though, so all I'm thinking about now is qualifying at Snetterton in two weeks and then the (night) races."
Menu: "I'm happy with this. I started from seventh and finished second, and got some very good points. I think the championship battle is going to be very hard for the rest of the season. As I said at the start of the season, this is going to be the toughest championship to win for a long time. We've got a few races to go, though, and I'll be doing my best to win it."
Reid: "I was disappointed to give way to a solid second place. At the restart, I got clutch-slip just as the lights changed and I had a lot of wheelspin, which allowed Alain to get past. It's not a bad points haul considering I was carrying 30kg of ballast this weekend. It could have been better, though."
Neal: "It was an encouraging weekend for the team. We've got a new engine, which has made a big difference to us. It's helped us get up there and fight at the front in the top five competitively, which is very pleasing."
Kaye: "In the first part of the race, Alan had a clear advantage, but we were catching him towards the end of that part as I think he had a tyre problem. In the second part of the race, I got the jump on him at the start and we had 10 laps of very good racing. I pushed where I knew the Honda was good and slowed him down in the parts of the circuit where the Peugeot was good. The championship is hotting up now and I'm really looking forward to Snetterton."
Please note: Anthony Reid was later exlcluded from the result of round 14 when, during a post-race inspection, his car's ECU unit was found to be in breach of the BTCC technical regulations.