At the half way point of the season, it couldn't have been much closer at the top of the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship standings.

Having endured a difficult start to the season at Brands Hatch, Fabrizio Giovanardi and VX Racing had worked hard to reel in SEAT's Jason Plato at the top of the standings and heading to round six at Donington Park, it was the Italian who had overcome a 24 point deficit to lead by a single point. In the Independents' standings, it wasn't quite as close - but only 28 points covered leader Mike Jordan to fourth placed Tom Onslow-Cole.

Hitting the track at Donington, it was the ever-improving Team Halfords Honda Civics that proved to be the cars to beat on qualifying day, with the bright orange cars leading every session and Gordon Shedden taking pole for the second meeting in succession. However, title rivals Plato and Giovanardi were in the wars - with Plato down in ninth place and Giovanardi only 15th after an engine problem with his Vectra.

Race day dawned with heavy rain falling and it led to tricky conditions for the opening race, which went the way of Shedden after he quickly re-passed the quick-starting Mat Jackson at the start. Podium places went the way of Adam Jones and Matt Neal - despite the champion having to pit to replace a puncture - while Plato moved back into the lead of the standings with a fifth place finish compared to eighth for Giovanardi.

Plato further strengthened his position in the second race as he took a storming victory after a delay to the programme because of the heavy rain. From fifth on the grid, the SEAT man carved his way up the order to take the lead from Shedden and pull away for a fifth victory of the campaign. With Giovanardi in third, Plato's lead grew still further heading into the final race of the weekend.

Despite starting ninth on the grid thanks to the reverse grid rules, Plato showed his wet weather prowess to take a second win of the day and one he admitted could be crucial to the championship outcome after Giovanardi failed to score after running off the track on standing water - meaning the Italian dropped to 25 points off the lead. Neal and Jordan completed the podium in the race, but it was clear that the Donington Park weekend had left Giovanardi with work to do once again.

From Donington, the field headed to Snetterton for round seven of the season, and Giovanardi quickly set about reducing Plato's lead when he qualified fifth on the grid - but three places ahead of his SEAT rival.

Pole went to Colin Turkington's BMW ahead of team-mate Tom Onslow-Cole and it was the Northern Irishman who took victory after fending off the challenge of Onslow-Cole and then Gordon Shedden - before being excluded from the results for being underweight. It meant Shedden took victory ahead of Onslow-Cole and Tom Chilton. A poor start had seen Giovanardi passed by Plato off the line but the SEAT man was then tagged by Matt Neal at the first corner and dropped down to 17th place. Although he would battle back to finish ninth, it was behind Giovanardi who took sixth having also lost time in the same incident.

Despite two Safety Car periods - one after a hefty start-line shunt involving Chris Stockton and Fiona Leggate - Giovanardi managed to secure a vital win in the second race ahead of Neal and Plato, although the SEAT driver could have been higher had it not been for an incident with Tom Chilton while going for position earlier in the race that had cost him valuable time.

The third race saw Onslow-Cole lead from start to finish for a fine maiden win, but it was a race that also saw Plato and Giovanardi come together on track for the first time. Plato had held second ahead of Mat Jackson and Giovanardi until Jackson elected to go for second on lap 16.

Getting a run along the Revett Straight, he went side-by-side with Plato through the left-hander at the end of the straight which gave the BMW the inside line for the right-hander that completes the corner. However, contact as the BMW was squeezed towards the tyres on the inside of the bend saw the two cars run slightly wide and gave Giovanardi the chance to go past both. However, as Plato fought back and got ahead of Jackson, the SEAT and the Vauxhall found themselves going for the same piece of tarmac with the result that both ended up on the grass on the inside of the Bomb Hole. Coming back onto the track, they forced Jackson wide to take avoiding action, with Neal suddenly finding himself in second place after driving through the middle of the melee he found in front of himself. Giovanardi was now third with Plato fourth, while Jackson had been the big loser and rather than move up to second as he hoped, the impressive rookie was now seventh.

With those positions staying the same to the finish, Giovanardi had now closed the gap down to 14 points before the return to Brands Hatch.

For the second time it was Turkington who took pole around the tight Indy circuit at the Kent venue although it was a close run thing with Darren Turner just 0.002secs behind in second. Plato had managed to qualify in third while Giovanardi was fifth, just ahead of Mat Jackson's BMW. However, the opening lap of Sunday's first race would prove to be the most dramatic of the season...

At the start, Jackson blasted away from sixth on the grid to fight Turner for third place into Paddock Hill Bend, trying to run his BMW around the outside of the SEAT through the right-hander. However, as soon as Jackson touched the kerb, he was powerless to stop the car going into a spin which sent him back across the front of the field.

For a split second it looked like everyone would avoid the white BMW, but defending champion Neal could do nothing to avoid hitting Jackson's spinning car and came to a virtual halt on the circuit. With the spray kicked up by the leading cars, the field behind were unsighted about what lay ahead, and the A-Tech Alfa Romeo of Dave Pinkney slammed into the rear of the Honda at full race speed - spearing left across the circuit and wiping out a number of other cars.

When the dust settled, no fewer than eleven cars were left parked on the circuit, with the Motorbase Performance SEAT of Tom Ferrier and the Kartworld MG of Fiona Leggate up against the barrier on the inside after running into Jackson's BMW. Eoin Murray and Martyn Bell were both past the stricken Honda of Neal but in the wall, while behind the blocked track, Jason Hughes, John George, Rick Kerry and Richard Marsh had been caught up in the incident.

Neal and Pinkney both required a visit to hospital while it took the best part of an hour to clean up the mess before a field of just 15 cars lined up for the restart. Luckily for the title challengers, both Plato and Giovanardi had avoided the melee and took their place for the second start of the day.

Giovanardi made a better start than Plato to jump ahead of the SEAT when the lights went green and took second place from team-mate Chilton on the eighth lap and Plato quickly following him through. When leader Turkington spun coming out of Paddock Hill Bend, the pair were suddenly dicing for the lead but the Italian took victory ahead of Plato and Turner - closing the gap to the leader still further.

Giovanardi doubled up with a lights-to-flag win in race two but Plato was forced to come from the back of the field after being tagged by Chilton on the opening lap. An incident involving Onslow-Cole, Turkington, Turner and Martyn Bell on lap one led to a Safety Car period that gave Plato chance to join the back of the train of cars and after a further caution period when Matt Allison spun off, the SEAT charged through the field and came home in second place ahead of Shedden. However, it was further points lost for the 2001 champion.

Giovanardi looked well set to make it three wins in the day as he followed Mike Jordan past pole-man Adam Jones to run in second place, with Turkington in third. Plato meanwhile was down in sixth place having been hung out to dry at Paddock on the first lap. On lap twelve however, Giovanardi missed his braking point at Paddock and hit leader Jordan, tipping the Eurotech Integra into a lurid slide and leaving the Independent runner 'incandescent with rage'. Turkington nipped through to take the win ahead of Shedden and Jackson while Giovanardi had to settle for fourth. Plato meanwhile avoided a late incident involving Onslow-Cole and Jones to come through to fifth. The lead however was now just four points heading to Scotland for the penultimate round at Knockhill.

Pole position north of the border went to Turner from Turkington and Shedden while Plato was fourth ahead of rival Giovanardi. In the opening race, Turner took his second win of the season ahead of Turkington while third place went to Plato who took advantage of a coming together between Giovanardi and Onslow-Cole to take his position on the podium Had it not been for that incident, which came with Plato in fifth, then the duo would have been level on points but instead, Plato extended his lead - even after Onslow-Cole was excluded for his part in the incident.

Turner doubled up in race two as he held off the challenge of Turkington for victory while Giovanardi had to fend off a charging Gordon Shedden for third. Plato was fifth as the see-saw battle for the title swung back towards the Italian.

Shedden gave the Scottish fans reason to cheer with a race three win ahead of team-mate Matt Neal - in a car put together from scratch in just two weeks following the Brands Hatch incident - while Plato took a vital third place with Giovanardi in fifth. It left the gap at nine points going into the season finale at Thruxton, while there was still a four-way fight going on for the Independents' title.

For the season finale, both Vauxhall and SEAT brought in a third car to try and clinch the title, with former champion Alain Menu taking control of the third Vectra and WTCC Independents' champion Tom Coronel slotting in at SEAT.

Before the weekend even arrived though, it looked like the title could have been decided after Plato picked up burns to his hands, neck and face in an incident while filming for the television show Fifth Gear. Nothing though was going to stop his quest for a second title and he duly took his place in the Leon - bandages and all - for the final three races of the season.

Qualifying saw things go Vauxhalls way as Chilton led Giovanardi and Menu to a 1-2-3 while Plato took a fine fourth place for the first race of Finals Day.

With others hitting problems with tyres at the quickest circuit on the calendar, Giovanardi took victory while Plato was able to secure second place after both Chilton and Menu suffered punctures. It meant that five points was the gap going into race two - and Giovanardi was on his own after the problems for his team-mates left them down the order for the second race.

Despite doing his all to find a way through, Plato was forced to follow Giovanardi home again in race two despite contact on more than one occasion between the two during the 16 laps of action. Matt Neal took third and unknown to the fans watching on, would have a big part to play in race three having signed up to partner Giovanardi at Vauxhall for 2008. Fourth place meanwhile for Turkington was good enough to see him crowned as Independents' champion with one race left to run.

And so it came down to the final race of the season, with Plato starting sixth and Giovanardi seventh - with just one point splitting them in the title battle.

The start was always going to be crucial and when Giovanardi got away better and got ahead of the SEAT, Plato was always on the back foot. Out front, Turkington led from Jackson with Giovanardi quickly up to third after being allowed through by Neal. Chilton was fifth while Plato was closing the gap to the cars ahead in sixth place.

Chilton got ahead of Neal which left the champion ahead of Plato on the road and it would be a battle that was far from clean with numerous bouts of contact between the two before Plato was able to break away after the pair were forced to swerve round a stationary BMW at the final chicane after Turkington spun.

Despite his best efforts to get ahead of Chilton and close on second placed Giovanardi, Plato saw his challenge end when Mike Jordan went off into the tyres and brought out the red flag, with the title going to Giovanardi by just three points. Victory in the race itself went to Jackson at the end of a fine debut season.

Behind the top two in the standings, Shedden and Neal took third and fourth for Team Halfords while Indy champion Turkington and Turner rounded out the top six.

Vauxhall reclaimed the manufacturers' title while SEAT was forced to console itself with the teams' title. Turkington's Indy title came after he fought off the challenge of Jackson, Jordan and Onslow-Cole while Team RAC lifted the Independents' team title.

Already many of the headlines have been made about 2008 - the 50th year of the series - with Neal joining Giovanardi at Vauxhall and Tom Chilton switching to Team Halfords to replace Neal in what is effectively a straight-swap. Onslow-Cole has left Team RAC for pastures new, while there will be a new manufacturer with Roberstshaw Racing bringing the Chevrolet Lacetti into the BTCC for the first time. The series will also have a new sponsor on the shape of HiQ.

At the time of writing, the field is already shaping up well for the 2008 season, but with the New Year just hours away, it shouldn't be too long before further news about the coming campaign starts to filter through.

And if our sources are correct, there could be some surprises around the corner ahead of what is likely to be another exciting season of racing action...


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