Two more wins for Seat as safety car ensures close racing
The championship battle got in to full swing at Brands Hatch this weekend. Separated by just a single point going in to the weekend, points leading duo Yvan Muller and James Thompson both went without a win once more, making it three meetings since the last Vauxhall victory.
Matt Neal claimed the spoils in the first race of the day with a lights-to-flag victory for the Computeach Racing with Halfords team. He headed Muller by just over a second, as others struggled with ballast-laden cars. James Thompson was third, but more than ten seconds behind Neal.
The race soon set the tone for the day with the safety car being deployed after just five laps when Dan Eaves’ Civic Type-R became stranded at the Druids hairpin. Of course, the race for tenth position was just as intriguing as ever and Jason Plato was right in the thick of things once more. The Seat Sport UK driver would have to be content with second on the grid for race two, finishing ninth. It was Michael Bentwood who crossed the line in tenth position and so looked set for pole for round 25, but a one-second penalty dropped him back behind Colin Turkington, whom he was deemed to have passed illegally in the closing stages of the race.
There was controversy on the start/finish straight around the mid-point of the race, as Stefan Hodgetts, who was running eighth at the time and showing the potential pace of the GA Motorsports Alfa Romeo 156, squeezed Shaun Watson-Smith on to the grass and towards the pitwall at high-speed. Watson-Smith was forced to hit the brakes to avert disaster. Hodgetts’ race ended in the tyre barrier on the following lap however. (More on this incident here.)
On to race two of the weekend, with the reverse grid coming in to play. Colin Turkington managed to fend off Jason Plato in the run to the first corner, converting his pole position start in to the race lead. But it was not for long as the experienced Plato managed to find a way past as early as lap two.
There was contact between VX Racing teammates Yvan Muller and Luke Hines at the start, as the Frenchman gave the Young Gun a tap through Paddock Hill Bend, knocking him sideways. Shaun Watson-Smith enjoyed what was probably his strongest start to a race in the Proton Impian, staying with leaders Plato and Turkington over the early stages, and looking though he may be able to stake a claim on an illusive podium position. But unfortunately it was not to be.
“The podium was on and then the back end got away from me and I was out - really frustrating”, said Watson-Smith. His promising race ended prematurely on lap five, as he became beached in the gravel trap on the exit from Paddock.
The safety car was brought out as the Proton was recovered. Anthony Reid’s torrid weekend continued, with the MG being pushed back in to the garage by this point. Plato led from Turkington, Huff, Chilton and Thompson.
On the restart there was contact between Thompson’s Astra Coupé and Chilton Civic Type-R, which left the Honda with bodywork rubbing at the rear and slowing the youngster down, before he eventually pitted. There was time for just a small number of laps before the safety car was out again. This time to allow the recovery of Rob Collard’s Astra that had become stricken in the gravel on the outside of the Druids hairpin after contact with Carl Breeze.
When the race restarted again, there were six laps remaining. Plato held on at the front to take his sixth win of the season, whilst Turkington managed to fend off Huff in the second Seat for second position. James Thompson finished fourth, with Matt Neal fifth. Yvan Muller crossed the line eighth.
The third race of the day was filled with drama from the very beginning. Jason Plato started his 150th BTCC career race from pole position but could not hold off Colin Turkington in the WSR Mg at the start. James Thompson also got past the Seat, running side by side with Turkington for half a lap before stealing the lead of the race, albeit temporarily as Turkington came back the following lap.
Not one to concede defeat, Plato used an impressive line through Clearways, that saw him ride the kerbs on the inside, to pass Thompson and then close back up on Turkington at the front.
No chance of a race without the safety car coming on to the track. Jason Hughes hit the tyre barrier at a rapid rate of knots at the exit from Druids on lap four, bringing the Audi RS6 out on track once more.
The race restarted five laps later, and whilst Turkington controlled the pack well in to the first corner, Plato’s experience showed on the following lap when he squeezed inside the MG at Paddock, moving back in to the lead. There was no shortage of contact throughout the pack over the following laps. Bentwood, Eaves and Huff came together going in to Druids and Muller tapped the back of teammate Thompson going in to Paddock Hill Bend, before getting past on lap 16 of 27. Thompson also lost places to Neal and Huff.
With Thompson dropping back, Muller sensed a chance to gain valuable championship points over his title rival. The Frenchman closed up on Colin Turkington, and there was contact between the pair, which slowed them both down and let Matt Neal through. It also left Turkington with bodywork rubbing on his left rear tyre.
Shaun Watson-Smith retired to the pits on lap 20, but not before he had set the fastest lap of the race, having started from the back of the grid. Neal set about catching Plato, who had opened up a two-second lead at the front. The Honda was lapping around 0.4 seconds per lap quicker than the Seat, but the gap was closed up for him when the safety car was called in to action yet again. This time it was James Kaye who had failed to make it around the tight Druids bend, hitting the tyre barrier on the exit.
Muller had passed Turkington for third by this point, and Thompson had dropped back yet further after picking up understeer that sent him in to the gravel on the outside of Paddock Hill Bend.
There was a danger the race could end behind the safety car, but a slow pace at the front meant that the crowd – both at the track and those watching live on ITV1 or Motors TV – were treated to a single lap sprint to the finish. And what a lap it was!
Having been reprimanded earlier in the day for breaking on the restart after the safety car, Jason Plato once again found himself dictating the pace. The Seat driver again seemed slow through the swooping right-hander at Paddock, so much so that Matt Neal hit the back of the Toledo, sending both cars sideways. Sitting in third, and always ready to pounce, Yvan Muller saw his chance and dived between the pair, on to the inside line up to Druids. He looked to have grabbed the lead, but both he and Plato ran wide at the hairpin, leaving Robert Huff to sneak through to the front.
Muller lost out as he was tapped, first by Plato, and then by Reid. Huff was untroubled over the rest of the lap, and cruised home to his first victory in the BTCC. Plato made it another Seat 1-2, with Michael Bentwood claiming third, and victory in the Independents Cup.
It was a dramatic end to a race weekend that has brought Jason Plato up to third place in the championship, with more wins this year than any other driver. However the 2001 champion was not the most popular man in the paddock after the race. Boss of Computeach Racing with Halfords, Steve Neal, confronted Seat’s Mark Busfield at Parc Ferme, suggesting that Plato caused both himself and Matt Neal to lose out by slowing on the last lap. Plato was later fined £500 and handed three penalty points on his license for his race three antics.
With six races to go, there are still just three points separating Yvan Muller and James Thompson at the top of the points standings, but Plato, Reid and Neal are all still in with a shout of taking the honours. Plato will carry an extra 25kg of ballast at Snetterton (as will all ETCC spec cars – click here for more), whilst Vauxhall will be keen to get back to winning ways. Last year there was a win apiece for Vauxhall and MG in Norfolk – this time there are three races, a reverse grid and Jason Plato to throw in to the equation...
Photos: Peter Still/Still Photographic