He may have been under pressure for much of his sophomore campaign in the HiQ MSA British Touring Car Championship in 2009, but Stephen Jelley showed no signs of cracking at all at Rockingham as he produced a peerless performance to notch up his breakthrough victory in the hotly-fought tin-top series.
At the start, however, it was fellow BMW driver Jonny Adam who got the jump on pole-sitter Jason Plato, taking full advantage of his rear wheel-drive advantage on the long run down to the first corner as Plato endeavoured to stave off the equally fast-starting Jelley for second, only for the Team RAC ace to boldly go all the way around the outside of him moments just later.
As Mat Jackson in the second Racing Silverline entry similarly looked for a way past his team-mate, Rob Collard in the second Airwaves BMW – having made a blistering getaway from eighth on the grid – seized the opportunity to sneak down the inside of the Chevrolet, subsequently finding a way by Plato too to make it an early BMW one-two-three, with the two Lacettis fourth and fifth and title protagonists Fabrizio Giovanardi and Colin Turkington down in respectively seventh and twelfth.
The safety car then appeared, however, for a shunt that had removed both Johnny Herbert and Matt Neal from contention, with the out-of-control Vauxhall literally slamming broadside into the Honda at unabated speed, as last year's Rockingham winner effectively used the former Formula 1 star's car as a brake – with the substantial impact meaning neither would go much further.
The lead order was maintained at the re-start, with Collard clearly fancying his chances of making it an Airwaves one-two, and Plato similarly eyeing his countryman's third place. The 2001 champion made his move on the approach to Tarzan after his quarry had got briefly out-of-shape and run wide, with the ensuing loss of momentum enabling the following Jackson to battle his way past into the bargain.
That squabbling had allowed Adam and Jelley – on paper the number two drivers in their respective teams – to establish a small advantage at the front, with both chasing the maiden triumph of their BTCC careers. As Jelley – who had arrived at Rockingham adamant that the top step of the podium was now finally a realisable target – ramped up the pressure on the race leader, feinting this way and that as the Chevrolets menacingly closed in behind, Adam began to drive increasingly defensively, backing the chasing pack into one another.
As Plato – looking for a 50th career win – set fastest lap, Collard fell away from the leading quartet and back towards sixth-placed Paul O'Neill, Giovanardi and the only other remaining Vauxhall of Andrew Jordan behind, but up front the big story was that his team-mate had ceded the top spot to the charging Jelley courtesy of a clean pass down the inside into Deene Hairpin halfway through the race.
As the former British F3 front-runner – clearly re-invigorated by the arrival of Anthony Reid inside the team and his successful weekend at Silverstone three weeks earlier – inched away, Adam came under immediate pressure from Plato in third, and the latter would successfully snatch the position away by lightly tapping the Scot before diving up the inside into Tarzan and then easing the BMW out wide. Indeed, the loss of inertia almost provided Jackson with the opportunity to pounce at the same moment, only for some robust rubbing of bodywork between the Warwickshire man and Adam to result in the early leader staying ahead.
Jackson was through before long, though, leaving Adam to deal with fending off the attack of his team-mate Collard with lights ablaze behind him, whilst further back Turkington had finally found a way by Gordon Shedden and into the points with seven laps to go, then focussing on his next target of the duelling Jordan and James Nash just ahead. Giovanardi, too, was endeavouring to make progress, darting left and right as he bade to unsettle O'Neill from sixth spot, only to be repeatedly frustrated by the Honda Integra's strong straight-line speed.
When the Italian did make his way by, it came as a double-whammy for Turkington, who had spun after clipping the rear of Nash's Lacetti under braking. The Irishman would work his way back into the top ten again by the chequered flag – just – but still the outcome signified four points ceded to his principal rival in the chase for the coveted crown.
The only consolation for the reigning double Independents' Champion, indeed, was the fact that his team-mate Jelley was away and gone out front, managing his advantage to perfection and delivering Team RAC its seventh success of the 2009 season as he eventually crossed the line almost three-and-a-half seconds in front of Plato, who himself succeeded in reducing the deficit separating him from the top of the drivers' standings to just 29 points – and is now very much in play for the title, whatever he might say.
Jackson continued his record-breaking run of successive rostrum finishes by adding a seventh to his tally in third place right in the wheel tracks of his team-mate, with Adam running wide and onto the grass on the last lap and relinquishing fourth spot to Collard, and Giovanardi, Jordan, Nash, O'Neill – who faded in the closing stages following a fine early run – and Turkington completing the points-scorers.
To see the race result in full, click here