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Honda leads the way in opening five weekends

The 2011 Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship saw the two biggest names in the Championship, Matt Neal for Honda Racing and Jason Plato for Silverline Chevrolet fight it out over thirty races for their third title – while Neal’s Honda team-mate, Gordon Shedden, Airwaves Racing Mat Jackson and Triple Eighth’s James Nash all had something to say about the title battle.

The biggest change for the season was the introduction of the full NGTC regulations – while most teams, including Honda Racing, Airwaves Racing and Triple Eight switched to the NGTC turbocharged engine, the RML run Silverline Chevrolet opted to stick to their two litre normally aspirated engines – this decision meant that a season long debate over parity ensued.

Heading to Kent and the Brands Hatch Indy circuit, it was Neal and Honda Racing who secured Pole Position – the first of five for the team, and the first of four on the trot.

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In the very first session of the season, Shedden saw his opening day curtailed after a massive off under braking for Paddock Hill Bend and the whole of his front end was destroyed – an overnight rebuild ensued and Shedden was on the grid, thus starting from the back.

The back of the grid is where Neal would start the second race after ending the opening race in the gravel at Druids, having been shoved off by Plato’s team-mate Alex MacDowall – the young Cumbrian driver collected three penalty points on his licence for the incident.

This gave Plato a clear run to the flag and his sixty first victory – while James Nash followed him home for a podium and the Independents victory while Tom Chilton brought the Team Aon global Ford Focus home third, ahead of Jackson in the 2010 car.

Plato doubled up in the second race ahead of Shedden while Jackson secured his first podium and Independents victory of the season in third, and he doubled his podium and Independent wins tally in the final race as he finished second to Neal, who had fought his way up the field in the second race to get to the front for the third race. Plato wasn’t able to work his way up the order against the turbo cars but scored solid points to lead the series early on.

Next up was a trip to Donington Park and for Plato, it produced his second big accident in as many seasons while in qualifying, Neal scored his second Pole Position on the bounce.

Neal secured the victory in the opening race ahead of the Vauxhall Vectras of Andrew Jordan and Nash – and both drivers went one better in the second race of the day. Shedden had originally finished third but was disqualified for a turbo boost problem while Plato finished well down the order after a puncture.

The race one puncture was nothing compared to what happened heading down the Craner Curves on the opening lap of the second race – at the start, both Jordan in the Pirtek Racing Vectra and Nash in the Triple Eight version had jumped Neal and moved into first and second, while Plato, starting further back had contact with Liam Griffin which sent him into the bank and into a multiple roll – Griffin’s Airwaves Ford Focus was also out on the spot.

That wasn’t the end of the action in the second race as the two Ford Focus’s came together – Chilton spinning Jackson at McLeans, Jackson wound up tenth while Chilton finished fourth.

The final race at Donington Park saw yet more carnage on the opening lap – MacDowall lined up on Pole for the final race after the top nine drivers were reversed and alongside him was Tony Gilham in the distinctive Pink and Green Triple Eight Vectra.

Third was Tom Onslow-Cole, who had just secured his first top ten finish of the season and the maiden top ten for his team, AmD Milltek – it was Onslow-Cole who made the best getaway and led heading into Redgate for the first time, before being collected as the carnage ensued.

MacDowall had made a slight break as the field reached the Old Hairpin – three cars into one doesn’t go and it was Chilton who came out worst from the Chilton/Nash/Jackson scrap – Jackson; having started tenth was second while the top ten featured John George, Jeff Smith, Andy Neate and Chris James when the Safety car was deployed.

Another surprise was the sight of the rebuilt Chevrolet Cruze of Plato – two hours previously and Plato wasn’t racing, RML employees on a day off got stuck in and even with the battered roof, Plato was there at the back.

Once the Safety Car was withdrawn, it was a case of when and not if Jackson would take the lead from MacDowall – and he did heading down to the Goddards Chicane on the first lap after the restart.

Both Jordan and Nash were following Jackson and soon were in the top three – Nash was on course to lead the Championship for the first time in his short BTCC career, and further back, Plato continued his damage limitation role as he climbed up the order to sixth.

On the final lap, Andy Neate and Gilham were denied their best results to date as they made contact at Starkeys Bridge, sending Neate into the tyres and Gilham off at the following corner. Jeff Smith finished fifth – his best result and Plato, from twenty second on the grid, finished sixth.

The third weekend of the season saw the Championship head south to Thruxton and ahead of the weekend, the first turbo boost restriction was in place. All turbocharged cars had their boost turned down by 0.1 bar as TOCA tried to achieve parity throughout the field.

Even with their boost restricted, Honda Racing were able to continue their qualifying dominance as Gordon Shedden secured his first Pole Position of the season, with Neal third – separating them was Jordan, who had secured three podiums at Donington Park.

As was the case at Donington – Plato failed to finish the first race due to a puncture and then pointed the blame at the turbocharged entrants (worse was to come at Oulton Park) while out on the circuit, Shedden was leading home the first Honda Racing 1, 2 finish of the season with Jordan completing the podium to continue his strong early season form.

The second race of the day saw another Honda 1, 2 finish but with the drivers reversed – Neal leading home Shedden with Jordan rounding out the podium – he had finished second on the track but was punished for cutting the chicane and was dropped to third overall.

Plato finished eighth from the back of the grid and this left him second on the grid for the reverse grid race. Having finished ninth, Tom Boardman in the Special Tuning Racing SEAT Leon started from Pole Position.

Plato made the best start from second to immediately move into the lead while Jackson, who started fifth was into second after a demon start – Boardman was demoted to third and despite putting pressure on Jackson, wasn’t able to demote his Independents rival – Jackson in turn wasn’t able to Challenge Plato for the victory, and Plato’s point was proven – he could win in clean air but couldn’t race in the traffic. Boardman and the STR team had a reason to celebrate afterwards – they secured their maiden BTCC podium finish in third.

The two Honda Racing drivers were once again together as they had been all day – with Neal leading home Shedden once again, while Nash, who led the Championship heading to Thruxton had a podium free weekend as he lost the overall lead.

A trip to Cheshire faced the teams ahead of the four weekend of the season and the series welcomed back the Central Group Racing Honda Integra of Lea Wood, while qualifying saw Shedden secure his second Pole Position on the trot, ahead of Neal but it was Jackson who had a nightmare session as he fell off the circuit on oil left by his own team-mate…

Before the event, all of the normally aspired cars had their minimum weights reduced and the BMW’s were free to choose their first gear ratio in an attempt to help with making the fight between the turbocharged cars and normally aspired cars equal… this led to Neal predicting an Oulton Park hat trick for Plato.

As it turned out, the opening race of the day was decided by tyre choice – Neal went out on all wets and secured an early lead before his tyres went off quicker, which played into the hands of team-mate Shedden, who had gone for a different tyre strategy and his lasted, while the two Chevrolets completed the podium.

After his off in qualifying, Jackson then failed to score in the first race – leaving Nash as the only driver to have scored in every round of the season.

Neal, on his shot wets was a sitting duck as he dropped down the order – Wood in the Honda Integra was soon ahead of him while in the closing laps, Boardman was flying on his slicks, racing some five seconds a lap quicker and was all set for a top five finish before he was taken out by Smith, who had been turned round by Neate on the run to the Island hairpin.

Race two is one which will live in the minds of fans for a long while – both for what happened on circuit and afterwards. Shedden led away from Pole Position while Neal was working his way up the order from eighth on the grid.

A late race safety car saw the entire field bunched up and on the penultimate lap, Neal slid into Shedden at Island hairpin before giving his team-mate room to recover and continue leading the race – Plato and the chasing pack had closed up however.

The final lap and Neal committed the cardinal sin – he took his own team-mate off, at the final corner when they were on for a 1, 2 finish… instead, Neal was beached in the gravel and deeply upset while Shedden recovered to sixth, but the win was handed to Plato, from Collard and Nash – the BMW driver was demoted to third after the race.

Plato, having stepped out the car then had a massive TV rant and ended up in hot water – while Neal and Shedden got on with it, Neal openly saying that Shedden should have hit him for what he did.

Away from the post race controversy, Jackson had worked his way to ninth and secured his first ever reverse race Pole Position in his fifth campaign in the BTCC. Lining up second was Collard’s WSR rookie team-mate, Nick Foster.

Foster took the lead off the line, using the Rear Wheel Advantage to get ahead of Jackson but his lead didn’t last too long, Jackson soon retook the lead and disappeared into the distance – with Shedden chasing, looking to make up for his race two disappointment.

Neal on the other hand was on a charge and was working his way into the top ten from the ninth row of the grid – he would up fourth at the flag while race two winner Plato found himself in trouble after contact with Collard, which left Plato on the grass exiting Lodge and Collard semi sideways. Plato finished eleventh and Collard fourteenth.

Jackson secured his second victory of the season and his second race three victory of the season – his fourteenth victory in total. Victory number fifteen didn’t have to wait too long…

Neal led the Championship by two points heading to Croft, with Shedden second and Jackson third while it was Nash who led the way in the Independents’ title battle. Nash failed to score for the first time in the third race at Oulton Park, after contact with Collard on the opening lap left him outside the top ten.

It was announced after the second race at Oulton Park that Tom Onslow-Cole and the AmD Milltek team had gone their separate ways – Onslow-Cole was the announced as a Team Aon driver ahead of the trip up north to Croft while Shaun Hollamby would return to the wheel of the VW Golf Mk5 which his team uses – before signing a new driver ahead of Snetterton in August.

Croft, the venue for the fifth weekend of the season and the final weekend before the summer break saw all the turbocharged entrants hit with another 0.05 bar pressure restriction as the series organisers tried to achieve parity.

For the first time this season, it wasn’t a Honda on Pole Position for round thirteen – instead, it was Plato in the normally aspirated Chevrolet Cruze, and the restrictions appeared to have worked as three of the top four runners were running a normally aspirated engine.

Tyre choice once again came to the fore for the first race – plus contact heading into Clervaux also paved the way. Plato made a solid start but behind him was the fast starting BMW of Collard, who tapped the back of Plato and sent him spinning – Hawthorn saw Neal and Collard both take advantage to move into first and second.

The opening laps saw the all wet runners at an advantage but after the safety car period, those drivers who had opted for the split (slicks on the front, wets on the rear) were coming to the forefront – and Jackson was the leading driver on the tyre combination.

The lap before the Safety Car was deployed – he matched Neal’s lap time, and once the circuit was live again after Gilham had visited the Clervaux gravel, was on a charge.

He made a brave move a few laps later at the hairpin to take two cars in one move and his drive was reminiscent of his 2008 recovery drive – and he started the final lap fourth but by the time the field reached the hairpin, he was on Neal’s tail and he got the drive but missed out on victory by 0.055s… closer than 2008, when Colin Turkington beat him by 0.110s. Collard completed the podium finishers to start off what was his most competitive weekend of the season to date.

The penultimate race before the summer break saw Neal double up, ahead of Collard and Jordan, while Plato suffered another retirement, meaning that his battle to secure the Championship honours took another hit.

Shedden finished fourth but was falling behind on a weekend which wasn’t going too well for the Scotsman while Jackson fell back after his race one podium and completed the top five.

In only his fifth BTCC race weekend, Foster soon found himself on Pole Position for the final race before the summer break – and he converted that into his maiden podium finish, while Jackson was starting to prove himself as the master of race three.

Having started third, he took the lead on the run to Tower corner on the opening lap and repelled all the pressure applied by Foster and Collard to record his third victory of the season, and his fifth podium finish in five reverse grid races.

Both Chevrolet drivers, MacDowall and Plato had to fight their way back up the order – MacDowall finished inside the top ten while Plato was eleventh and left North Yorkshire forty points shy of Neal, whose nearest challenger had become Jackson, while Shedden remained in contention.

On the run to the flag, Collard gave second back to Foster, after Foster had conceded earlier in the race to allow Collard the opportunity to attack Jackson – in the twisty final part of the lap, Collard closed right up but Jackson had the advantage on the fast stuff, and Collard lost out on the final lap as the Chevrolet Cruze of Paul O’Neill was stuck on the exit to the hairpin, thus bringing out the yellow flags.

Fifteen races down, fifteen to go – it was Neal with a nine point advantage over Jackson, with Shedden a further eleven points adrift of his team-mate. Plato, after a double no score at Croft was sixth and seemingly out of contention, while Jordan and the consistent Nash remained in touch with the leaders.

In the battle for the Independents title, Jackson had opened up a fifteen point advantage over nearest challenger Jordan while Nash was six points behind Jordan in third.

Was the second half of the season all set to be a three way battle or would Plato get back into contention? All will be revealed in the second part of the Touring-Cars.Net 2011 Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship season review.

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