Yvan Muller scored a win-double at Thruxton, Hampshire, today in rounds five and six of the Auto Trader British Touring Car Championship. The French Vauxhall ace, who had previously only won one BTCC race in two years, claimed both victories in his Vectra to move up to second in the table. Muller's team-mate Jason Plato added to the Vauxhall celebrations, recording two podium finishes with third in round five and second in round six. Ford also got in the act with two podium places. Anthony Reid took second in round five and championship leader Alain Menu finished third in round six. Matt Neal, of Team Dynamics Maxpower Racing, and PRO Motorsport's Colin Blair took a win apiece in the Michelin Cup for Independents while Alan Morrison, driving the Touring Car VIP Club Peugeot, won both rounds in Class B.
SPRINT RACE - Round 5
A masterful drive by Yvan Muller saw the Frenchman dominate Round 5 in his Vauxhall Vectra. The pole-sitter got away from the lights cleanly, held off the pack into the first corner and never had cause to look back for the entire 16-lap race. His only tricky moment came when lapping the Class B cars, but Muller carefully picked them off over the course of half a lap dropping only two tenths of a second from his lead.
Behind, Ford's Anthony Reid passed his Mondeo team-mate Rickard Rydell at the start, thanks to a better getaway. Rydell managed to hang on to the Scot for about half of the race but dropped off when his third position came under attack from the hard-charging Vauxhall of Jason Plato, who thrilled the packed Thruxton crowd with his all-action drive from sixth on the grid.
Round 2 winner Plato was intent on a podium finish and, once he and Ford's Alain Menu had passed Vincent Radermecker's Vauxhall by the end of lap two to take fifth and fourth places respectively, the Oxford-based driver never let Menu get more than a car's length away. For seven laps Menu thwarted all Plato's attempts to get by with a superb defensive drive, but it came to a head on lap ten when the pair touched and Menu was sent into a spin.
The incident allowed Radermecker back through to fourth but Plato, now on a mission to make up ground, loomed large in his mirrors just three laps later. The Belgian allowed Plato through to give his visibly-quicker team-mate the chance to attack Rydell. With only three laps remaining, the task was a tough one, but the Briton was not to be outdone.
He was three-tenths of a second quicker than Rydell on lap 14 and set the fastest lap of the race on the penultimate tour to put him just inches behind the Mondeo. And despite desperate defence from the Swede, Plato muscled his way past mid-way through the last lap to claim a hard-earned third.
The Honda team had an eventful race with all three drivers locked in a battle with Michelin Cup for Independents runner Matt Neal. The Nissan man first had to contend with Denmark's Tom Kristensen, but he dropped out of contention on lap 11 with a flat front-left tyre. There was no respite for Neal, however, as Italian ace Gabriele Tarquini took over the attack.
David Leslie, the 1999 BTCC runner-up standing in for the injured James Thompson, waited patiently behind Tarquini to see what developed. The Scot got his chance to move up to sixth on the last lap as Tarquini and Neal collided when Tarquini made a last lunge. The incident saw Neal limp across the line in seventh with broken rear suspension and Tarquini retire. After a pit-stop Kristensen recovered to finish ninth.
In Class B, pole-man Alan Morrison was passed by Mark Lemmer's Honda Integra Type R by the first corner. But the Peugeot 306 driver never let Lemmer get away and by the end of lap three regained the lead and was not challenged for the remainder of the race.
Muller: "I did enough to keep up a gap at the front. I got a good start and pulled out a lead that I was comfortable with. You cannot push too hard too soon at Thruxton because you never know if the tyres are going to go off. I lost a little time with the Class B cars but I pulled that back then kept it steady. It is great to win again!"
Rydell: "The start was paramount! I'm just disappointed it wasn't a little bit better. But Yvan was very strong in the race. I thought I could catch him the first half of the race but he pulled away a little in the second. My car was really good too, the Ford is pretty strong this year."
Plato: "I think you have to drive aggressively in touring cars because it's so difficult to overtake, especially in the early part of the race as all the cars are so closely matched. Alain was very, very defensive - nearly every move I tried he blocked! It was very frustrating I lost of lot time chasing Alain because I'm sure we could have had a Vauxhall one-two."
Neal: "I almost stalled it on the start but I managed to make up the ground I lost. Then I latched on to the back of Jason and Vincent for the first three laps and the car felt pretty good. Then the Hondas started breathing down my neck and I started getting a bit more busy watching them rather than chasing the Vauxhalls. I had a fair old fight on my hands. There seemed to be Hondas everywhere, I'd get rid of one in the mirror and I'd get another one. On the last lap Gabriele just tagged my left rear wheel which knocked me sideways. I managed to keep it on the road but it bent the rear suspension."
Morrison: "The 306 is working really well but the other guys are trying hard and I think they'll make more progress during the year. We've just got to keep on going forwards and doing our own thing. When you've got a good car it makes it look easy."
FEATURE RACE - Round 6
It was Plato's turn to lead from the front for Vauxhall in round six. After starting from pole and opening up a good lead, he was thwarted from taking a certain victory when team orders came into play in the latter stages. Plato was told to move aside to allow team-mate Muller in front. Muller then went on to take the chequered flag for his second win of the day, with Plato second.
For much of the race it looked like Vauxhall would take a 1-2-3 but Radermecker, while running third, suffered a puncture at the high-speed Church corner and spun out of the race.
There was also drama at the start when Ford's Rickard Rydell went into the tyre barrier at the first corner (Allard). After starting sixth on the grid, he entered Allard three abreast with team-mate Reid and Honda's Kristensen. Rydell was unhurt in the incident, but the Safety Car had to be deployed to allow Thruxton's marshals to remove the stricken Mondeo from the tyre barrier. Reid benefited most in the skirmish, moving up to fifth after starting seventh. Honda's Tarquini moved up to sixth and Kristensen dropped to seventh.
When the race re-started, Plato took advantage and got the jump on his rivals, stretching his lead over Muller, who had passed Radermecker on lap six, to nearly four seconds. Ford's Menu and Reid were close behind the duelling Vauxhall pair, with Reid challenging his Swiss team-mate for several laps before Menu pulled away.
The places remained unchanged until the mandatory pit-stops came into play. Plato was first of the leaders to stop on lap 14, which put Muller in front but he came in on the next lap. Radermecker then took over at the front for four laps, to claim a bonus championship point, and when he came into the pits Plato was back at the front, ahead of Independent runner Neal, yet to stop, and Muller.
Muller got ahead of Neal's Nissan on the next lap to continue his pursuit of Plato then Neal took his stop. His race, however, did not have much longer to run as, on the next lap, he tangled with the Honda of Leslie forcing them both into retirement.
Honda's bad day continued when Kristensen suffered a puncture, due to damaged bodywork from an earlier incident, and finished his race in the pit-lane seven laps from the end. At the front though, Plato had a healthy 2.5-second lead over Muller on lap 26 but was then told to move over and the Frenchman was in front by lap 27.
The pair then eased back, to preserve their tyres following Radermecker's blow-out, and crossed the line in that order. Menu finished third ahead of Reid, Tarquini and Independent Colin Blair.
Vauxhall also claimed the Manufacturers' awards for both races, the Teams' trophy for round six and the £500 Michelin Pit-Stop Challenge prize, with Plato's stop the fastest.
Alan Morrison, who made an unscheduled pit-stop to change tyres, won Class B after Barwell Motorsport's James Kaye retired his Honda Accord with engine problems. Kaye had an 18-second lead over Morrison after the Touring Car VIP Club Peugeot man's pit-stop, but was sidelined ten laps from the finish. Kaye's team-mate Mark Lemmer was excluded from the results after overtaking under a yellow flag.
Muller: "In 1996 I had the same thing happen to me early in the season but by the end of the year we won the championship by one point. I know the feeling Jason has, probably frustrating, but Vauxhall wants to win the championship this year and unfortunately we have to do it like this. I have had a very good weekend and the team has done very well. We have to keep this up now."
Plato: "I'm a paid driver, I do a job for the manufacturer and I was asked to move over for Yvan. Whilst it's something no driver wants to do, particularly when you are in a winning position, but you must always look at the greater picture. One day it could be my turn. I have to say the team did a fantastic job all weekend and I think we had the best car here, and that's very pleasing, but as Alain said it could be different at the next circuit."
Menu: "I had a good start but I just couldn't overtake the Vauxhalls on the first lap. The car felt a lot better than in the first race and I'm pleased with the result. We weren't dominant here like at Donington last week but that's the way its going to be. Some cars will be better at some circuits, and others better at other circuits. It's going to be close all year."
Blair: "Thursday was the first day I'd ever been here and it's a bit of a scary circuit, especially at Church! But I'm really pleased after the weekend I've had. We had a gearbox go on Thursday, I was at the back of the grid for both races and it wasn't looking very good. But I'm happy with this win and I'm enjoying the racing."
Morrison: "The Feature Race went really well. We had to do a pitstop, which is a bit new for us guys, but it all went to plan. For sure we have a bit of a jump on the other guys at the moment but I'm sure they'll be out fighting at the next round."