Three more dramatic races at Snetterton over the weekend have taken the race for the championship down to the wire at Donington Park in three weeks time. Wins for James Thompson, Luke Hines and Robert Huff mean that it is now Thompson who leads the title race from his VX Racing team-mate Yvan Muller by just four points, whilst Anthony Reid is now the only driver with an outside chance of stopping one of them making it four-in-a-row for Vauxhall.
The VX Racing team have been up against it over the last few meetings, but things were looking up from the first session of the weekend. James Thompson set a quick time early on in free practice, smashing the previous lap record at the Norfolk circuit. It was the same story in both the second session and in qualifying. Thompson secured pole with a best lap of 1:11.588. Muller was second quickest with Matt Neal and Tom Chilton on the second row.
Round 25 saw James Thompson take the first win for VX Racing since Mondello Park. In his 11th podium finish of the year, Thompson converted pole position in to the lead of the race at the first corner, and never looked back after that.
Thompson said: “I needed to turn the screw a bit as we move in to the last few races. We’ve taken a few knocks over the last couple of meetings, but I thought we really needed to do well here and at Donington. I knew we had to hammer home any advantage we might have in qualifying, and leading in to the first corner was a good way to do that. I got in to the lead and never looked in my mirrors after that.”
There was drama before the race as Jason Plato pulled his Seat back in to the pitlane before he could take up his 10th place grid position. The Seat Sport UK team quickly identified a driveshaft problem and set about replacing it, in time for the former champion to start from the pitlane.
At the start, the two VX Racing Astras headed the pack, with Matt Neal taking up third and Tom Chilton in fourth. Rob Huff spun out at Coram on the first lap, dropping down to the back of the pack.
Over the opening two laps, Matt Neal closed on Muller, and then a slight mistake by the Frenchman allowed both Neal and Chilton to slip past. Whilst Muller could not stop Neal, he ran side by side with Chilton and fended off the youngster to hold on to third position. Muller then proceeded to pull away from Chilton as the Honda driver came under pressure from Colin Turkington in the independent West Surrey Racing MG ZS.
Joining the back of the pack after his pitlane start, Jason Plato was making strong progress, up to 12th by the mid-point in the race. Clearly targeting tenth, and pole position for race two, Plato’s next target was the Proton Impian of Shaun Watson-Smith. The South African put up a strong defence, but could not hold the Seat off for long, as he struggled for speed along the straight. However Plato was left in 11th when he could not catch James Kaye and Luke Hines in front, the latter of which managed to cross the line in tenth position and claim pole for race two.
With Thompson at the front, it was important for Muller to finish as close behind as teammate as possible, but running in third until the closing stages of the race, the Frenchman lost out to both Tom Chilton and Colin Turkington before finishing fifth. Also late in the race, Shaun Watson-Smith and Stefan Hodgetts continued their shenanigans from Brands Hatch with another clash that sent the Alfa Romeo off the track. Watson-Smith was later adjudged to have been responsible and excluded from the race results
The final race result was a win for Thompson, who was followed home by Neal, Chilton, Turkington and Muller.
In the Snetterton heat (28ºc ambient/38ºc track, according to Dunlop), Luke Hines lined up on pole position for race two, with James Kaye alongside him and Anthony Reid and Rob Collard on the second row.
Michael Bentwood (VX Racing Jr/Techspeed) started from the pitlane with a suspension problem, whilst Carl Breeze (engine change) and Shaun Watson-Smith started from the back of the grid. Stefan Hodgetts was a non-starter.
When the red lights went out, Hines and Reid both made good starts, with the Vauxhall driver taking the lead of the race, with Reid in second and Yvan Muller making it up to third from his sixth-place grid spot. Rob Collard was unable to capitalize on his strong starting spot, bogging down away from the line and managing to be only ninth in to the first corner.
Yvan Muller closed on Reid quickly and was soon past his MG nemesis, only for the Scot to claim the position back a couple of laps later. There was contact between the Honda Civics of James Kaye and Dan Eaves which sent Eaves off the track, before Hines’ lead looked to be in danger as he ran wide on to the grass. He was able to recover however and hold on at the front.
Starting 11th, Jason Plato made progress through the field, making it as far as Yvan Muller before the halfway stage of the race. The pair swapped places a couple of times before the Seat driver managed to make third spot his own. Matt Neal went off at the Esses before retiring from 9th position and there was contact between Team PSP teammates Shaun Watson-Smith and Fariqe Hairuman.
Plato set the fastest lap of the race and closed on to the tail of Anthony Reid in the final stages of the race, but could not quite get the better of the WSR driver. Muller managed to cling on to fourth despite pressure from Colin Turkington in the second MG.
The top five at the end of the race was Hines, Reid, Plato, Muller, Turkington.
Hines said: “It’s good to get another win under my belt. It all went perfectly really. I was dreading the start to be honest but it was actually all right. I was ready to fight to the death to stay at the front. Reidy got close at the end but I managed to hold on.
It was Rob Huff who was quickest away in the third race of the day at Snetterton, storming from eighth on the grid to pass Yvan Muller at Sear to lead on the first lap. Muller was second with Reid third and Thompson fourth. Although Thompson did not take long to get the better of Reid and close up on Muller, who himself was putting Huff under pressure at the front.
After taking his first BTCC win last time out at Brands Hatch, Rob Huff was in no mood to miss out on number two in front of his home crowd. In a real ‘drop me if you dare’ statement to his Seat Sport UK team, Huff held on at the front to lead all the way to the chequered flag.
There was nothing between championship rivals Muller and Thompson as they battled between themselves to the end of the race, but there was just no way past for Thompson. Behind them, Matt Neal got the better of Anthony Reid towards the end of the race to steal fourth position.
The weekend’s results guarantee a scorching finale to the season at Donington over the weekend of 25/26 September. If Thompson scores five points or more, (his lowest tally so far this year is 18 points at Knockhill), it is down to just a straight fight between him and Muller, Reid on the other hand, has the upper hand in the Independents’ Cup, heading teammate Turkington by 19 points, with Matt Neal a further 10 points behind.
As if the championship battle is not enough, there is of course the famous BTCC Masters Race to look forward to at Donington. Combine this with the exciting entertainment line-up and bargain ticket offers and it all makes for an explosive end to the 2004 season. Don’t miss out!…