4 June 2001
A crowd of 14,500 people turned up to enjoy the spectacle of the season's first BTCC night race at Silverstone on the weekend, and witnessed another impressive display by the various Vauxhall Astra Coupes.
The afternoon qualifying session produced yet another clean sweep of the front row for the Vauxhalls of Yvan Muller and team-mate Jason Plato, with the Frenchman claiming his second double pole position in a row, after the Bank Holiday meeting at Oulton Park. This left Muller, the leader of the championship coming into the Silverstone meeting, looking good to continue his winning streak and extend his twelve point advantage over second-placed James Thompson.
The Production category produced a similar story, with two team-mates claiming the front row as series leader Simon Harrison took P1 from HTML Peugeot partner Roger Moen. Harrison went into the day's two races with a six-point lead over Barwell Motorsport's James Kaye.
The opening sprint race began with the Touring category runners having a thirty second head start over the rest of the field as they attempted to make up the one lap deficit now demanded by the rules. Despite the 'advantage', however, the two Production class Peugeots managed to fend of the might of Plato's Astra as the evening gloom began to close in.
The HTML squad had led from the start, but the race wasn't without incident for the Silverstone-based team. A thrilling battle developed at the start, as the two red cars battled with the similarly-hued Alfa Romeo of Gavin Pyper, which was only resolved when the youngster spun at Becketts. Harrison eventually took the win to go with his class pole, extending his championship advantage after capitalising on a mistake by Moen, who out-braked himself on lap eleven.
''It was flat out from start to finish,'' Harrison commented afterwards, ''Roger was going really quickly and I just had to stay with him. If he hadn't made that little mistake, I don't think I would have passed him.''
The race also marked the first visit to a touring car podium for young Paul O'Neill who, despite being caught and passed by Plato, held third place overall, and in the Production Class, for the majority of the race. Only GR Motorsport's Mat Jackson could stay with the Techspeed driver, but was unable to challenge him for the silverware.
Plato's charge through the field eventually won him the Touring category. After making a fairly disappointing start by his own admission, the Briton quickly fought back and began to make his presence felt as he closed in on team-mate Muller. It could be argued that the Frenchman had a slight disadvantage by having to carry more success ballast than Plato, but the two red-and-white cars appeared to be evenly matched throughout the majority of the race.
Having closed the gap caused by his poor getaway, Plato then took the lead from Muller on lap five, capitalising on the close-fought Astra battle to stay ahead and move into second place in the championship. Behind the front two, Thompson brought his Team Egg Sport Astra home in third place, after an exciting battle with improving team-mate Phil Bennett. The two Peugeot 406 Coupes of Dan Eaves and Steve Soper, aided by a lack of ballast, finished not far behind, as the two Alfas and Kurt Luby's Lexus all hit problems.
''I didn't have a great start, but I did OK,'' Plato admitted coyly afterwards, ''I didn't want to risk anything by having a lightning start anyway! There is nothing between the cars at the moment - and we had some good close racing as a result.''
''We tried to change a few things on the car, but I'm not too sure where we are at the moment,'' a disappointed Muller countered, ''I continued to have a few problems with understeer which I through qualifying, but hopefully that will be sorted before the next race.''
The Frenchman's confidence was not helped by the arrival of fairly heavy rain before the feature race, even though the ice racing champion possesses a solid record on slippery surfaces.
Combined with the night race format, the dark, wet conditions would make the thirty-lap event trickier than normal, and began badly for the two Team Egg Sport cars of Thompson and Bennett, which ran wide at Copse and dropped down the field almost immediately. While Thompson was dropped among the Production class cars, however, Bennett was soon back with the leaders.
Muller, by contrast, made a good start from the pole and managed to retain the lead through the first corner, but ran nose-to-tail with Plato for much of the opening portion of the race, ensuring that the mandatory pit-stops would take on extra significance for both drivers.
With Thompson taking the decision to stop as early as lap six, the tactical battle began sooner than expected. Muller, by this time, was beginning to pull away slightly from Plato, opening out a one-and-a-quarter second gap back to the Englishman, aided further when the second Triple Eight car missed a gear and ran wide at Abbey.
Rejoining with some ground to make up, Plato then received an eight-second turnaround in the pits, returning him to a competitive position when he returned to the track.
Muller, still leading when he made his stop a couple of laps later, then suffered a nightmare, as the team struggled to get his car up on its jacks, costing him any advantage he held over his pursuers. This problem was then compounded as Muller was assessed a drive-through penalty as a result of his pit crew being out on the apron for longer than their allotted time.
''I'm disappointed because I think that I was the quickest car in the race,'' the Frenchman sighed, ''I was long enough in the first pit-stop without having to come in again - but that's motor racing and you just have to accept it sometimes....''
The ABG Lexus of Luby was promoted to the lead as a result of making a relatively late stop, eventually handing the advantage to Plato when he came in a couple of laps after Muller. This left Plato with the race in his pocket over the final few laps, and he duly went on to take his second chequered flag of the day.
''I went off at Abbey because I caught a neutral in the gearbox and off I sailed - my mistake really,'' he admitted, ''It was a shame what happened to Yvan though, because I am sure that, without [the penalty], it would have been neck-and-neck right to the end of a super race. A win is a win though, and it's a real turnaround from where we were at Oulton Park.''
A brilliant drive from Team Egg Sport's Bennett produced his best result of the year, the youngster completing a faultless drive to place second overall.
''I'm really pleased with today,'' the former Egg employee related later, ''I'd never driven around Silverstone in the wet before, so it was a bit of a learning process really. I managed to stay with Jason and Yvan quite well, but lost touch with them when I made a mistake at Becketts. I just settled down after that and go on with it really.''
Muller managed to recover enough to finish third and collect ten valuable points to retain his lead in the championship. He now leads Plato by nine points. Thompson recovered to fourth, after battling the Production cars for much of the early laps, with Luby fifth from Steve Soper and JSM's Dave Pinkney. The remaining BTC Touring class cars of Dan Eaves and Tim Harvey both retired.
In the Production category, the action was a fraught as ever, with a spectacular battle developing between the two HTML drivers and Barwell's Kaye.
Moen led Kaye for much of the race, before making the same mistake at Becketts that had cost him the sprint race. Although he managed to retain the lead, the Norwegian then spent the majority of the race nose-to-tail with the Honda Accord. Another driver-induced mistake then caused Moen to go off - again at Becketts - but it was HTML team-mate Harrison who benefited most at Kaye then missed a gear at Ireland.
The second local Peugeot duly took the lead and looked to be heading for a second class success of the day, but both Moen and Kaye were close behind and well-placed to take advantage as Harrison lost speed in a dramatic finish. Moen went on to win, with Kaye in second, as the erstwhile leader limped home in third.
''It was a difficult race, and I had a great challenge with James, but it was great to win. Five laps from the end, I honestly didn't think I would do it. It's claimed a little bit back after my previous bad luck at Oulton Park, so I'm happy!''
Kaye was equally jubilant with his second place, after a frenetic battle with both the HTML cars.
''It was fantastic,'' he beamed on the podium, ''It was good clean racing and good fun. The Peugeots have a power advantage, but I think that I have a handling advantage with the Honda. I really enjoyed it.''
Despite his late-race disappointment, Harrison's third place was enough for him to hold on to the lead of the Production Class points lead.