Wins for Plato, Muller as Vauxhall dominates
7 May 2001
A full crowd together with a full grid of cars for rounds three and four of the new-look British Touring Car Championship set the scene for a spectacular - and sun-blessed - day of racing at Thruxton.
As had been the case at the Brands Hatch opening round, Vauxhall was the dominant force at the front of the field, with the four Triple Eight-run Astra Coupes the only likely winners in both the day's main races.
The new-look sprint race thrilled the packed spectator banks with an action-packed 15 laps in which the faster Touring Class cars were forced to play catch-up right from the opening moments. With the recently-introduced rule stating that the Touring Class runners had to cover an extra lap over their production-based counterparts, the question on everyone's lips was 'will they catch up?'.
Both crowd and paddock had their answer at the end of lap 13, when leader Jason Plato overtook BTP frontrunner Simon Harrison to take the lead with just two laps to run. Plato's Vauxhall team-mate Yvan Muller followed the Briton through, with the remaining Egg Sport Astras of James Thompson and Phil Bennett also overtaking Harrison on the penultimate lap.
The start of the race witnessed Muller beat Plato off the line to get in front by Allard. The rear-wheel drive Lexus IS200 of Kurt Luby also had a good getaway, catapulting it in front of both JSM Alfa Romeos. Luby's optimism was short-lived, however, as fate took a hand in the shape of a minor electrical fault, sidelining the ABG Motorsport driver.
The Alfas regained position with Luby's demise, but further problems arose when newcomer Tom Ferrier was forced to retire with an engine problem so serious that could not be fixed in time for the feature race later in the day.
Moving in the opposite direction at the start, Bennett made such a bad getaway that both Peugeots squeezed past him on the opening lap. With Steve Soper retiring and Dan Eaves also running into problems, however, the second Egg car was soon able to regain its place in the leading quartet, finishing fourth on the road after overhauling the BTP 'leaders'.
''It was incredibly exciting,'' exclaimed Plato afterwards, ''I wasn't sure who was leading the Production field, but I knew that I had to push hard to try and catch them. I caught them slightly earlier than I predicted, so the calculations may need tweaking a little in order that the battle for first place happens on the last lap but, overall, I really enjoyed it as did the spectators. It's good to be more on a level playing field with these guys.''
Harrison proved a comfortable winner in the Production Class, despite being overhauled by the Touring Class leaders, as HTML Peugeot team-mate Roger Moen clashed with Peter Cate at the chicane. The impact was enough to force Cate's Honda Accord up onto two wheels and across the path of oncoming cars, although a major altercation was avoided and both drivers rejoined the race at the back of the pack. This left Team B&Q driver - and birthday boy - Nick Beaumont second in class, ahead of James Kaye.
''I think it's a shame that the Tourers caught us [when they did],'' Harrison smiled, ''It's difficult to work out the laps, but I'm sure that they'll get it closer in the next few rounds, so that it comes down to the last lap to see who wins. It was really exciting though, and good fun too, but I just couldn't hold them off at the end of the day. I still won the Production race, and I'm pleased to get the points.''
The longer feature race also took on a new format at Thruxton, with the race distance reduced from 32 laps to 30 and the Touring Class cars forced to make two pit-stops during the race.
An incident-packed event saw the original 25-car grid reduced to just 15 as a combination of blown tyres and mechanical problems forced many drivers to retire.
Team Egg Sport's James Thompson was on the pole, but it was Plato who made the better rolling start, overtaking the Yorkshireman at the first corner. Plato's team-mate Muller than also got the better of Thompson through the braking zone to make it a red-and-white one-two before the lap was done.
A fast and furious battle then ensued over the next twelve laps, as the two leading Astras sought track position. However, it was only when Plato called in for his first pit-stop. A lap later, the Frenchman was in, but a quicker turnaround by the Triple Eight boys saw him back out in front of Plato when the order settled down again. Once ahead, there was no denying Muller, and he held the lead through the second round of stops right to the chequered flag.
''I really enjoyed the first twelve laps,'' a jubilant Muller admitted afterwards, ''It was a good fight between me and Jason. We decided before the race that Jason would pit first, and I just had to concentrate on pushing as hard as I could on the in-lap in the hope that I could get out in front. The team did a brilliant pit-stop, and the combination of both things meant that I was able to get out ahead.''
While Muller was able to motor to a second win of the year, his team-mate struggled to match his pace as he fought an ill-handling car.
''I was fighting with oversteer and just couldn't attack,'' Plato reported, ''I tried to hold Yvan for as long as possible, but the car was twitching and it was inevitable that the pit-stops would sort us out.''
Completing the podium was the now-familiar blue-and-green overalls of the Egg Sport team but, on this occasion, they belonged to BTCC newcomer Bennett, who out-fumbled team-mate Thompson at the pit-stops to take his first top three result of the year.
The Production Class also threw up something of a surprise, as pole-sitter and points leader Simon Harrison was forced out with engine problems on his Peugeot 306 after making an impressive start. Team-mate Roger Moen inherited the advantage on lap four, and was looking good for the win, until a similar problem ended his hopes on lap twelve.
This allowed the lurking James Kaye to take the spoils - his second feature race win of the season after a similar success at Brands Hatch.
''It was an exciting race, especially at the start,'' he commented, ''Once we had a clear break, we had to go for it. I don't think Simon Harrison had the pace in the feature, and then he went out, but, at the end of the day, a win is a win!''
Kaye had the improving Lexus of Luby between himself and his nearest class challenger - Peter Cate - as, once again, both Touring Class Peugeots succumbed to gremlins. With Ferrier's Alfa already sidelined after the sprint, all eyes were on Dave Pinkney to give the Lexus and Vauxhalls some competition, but the veteran was forced to call it a day on lap 16. Mat Jackson took third in the Production Class in his Ford Focus.
Despite being beaten by Muller in the main event, Jason Plato retains his overall championship lead with 55 points.Thompson's fourth place has now dropped him behind Muller, who lies second with 49. In the Production Class, Kaye leads with 44 points, seven clear of Harrison and eleven ahead of Jackson.