O'Neill and Neal take wins
10 August 2003
Vauxhall's Paul O'Neill and Honda's Matt Neal were the winners of yesterday's two Green Flag MSA British Touring Car Championship rounds at a baking hot Snetterton circuit in Norfolk. But the two big talking points were a start line accident in the first race that eliminated several leading contenders and the disaster that befell reigning champions Vauxhall in the second race, when their two title protagonists Yvan Muller and James Thompson both retired. Muller, though, continues to lead Thompson in the drivers' title race and, despite their setback, Vauxhall also remain firmly in command of the BTCC's Teams and Manufacturers championships.
Synchro Honda Racing's James Kaye and Collard Racing's Rob Collard shared Hilton Independents Trophy honours. Kaye later dedicated his win to rallying hero Mark Lovell, his long-time business partner who died while competing in an event in America last month. Collard's victory, meanwhile, helped him stay ahead of Kaye in the Independents championship, but only 18 points split the pair.
Barwell Motorsport's Luke Hines extended his lead in the BTCC's Production class table, with a victory in the first race and runner-up position to Team Varta's Tom Boardman in the day's evening event. Barwell are also now close to securing the Production class's Teams title.
The opening six laps of the first race were held behind the BTCC's Safety Car after contact between the MG ZSs of Warren Hughes and Colin Turkington and Tom Chilton's Honda Civic Type-R triggered several accidents that partially blocked the circuit. Hughes, who pulled off the track soon after with a puncture, was later judged to be the cause of the incident, fined and had his competition licence endorsed.
But this was of no consolation to Turkington, Petronas Syntium Proton's David Leslie, GA Motorsports' Carl Breeze, Team Halfords' Dan Eaves or Production class runners, Team Varta's Jay Wheals and Richard Marsh and Edenbridge Racing's Michael Bentwood. All were out on the spot, Bentwood's BMW 320i in particular very badly damaged and out of action for the rest of the day, this a cruel blow to his Production title hopes. Norfolk's Breeze could also feel aggrieved, the King's Lynn driver having qualified his Vauxhall Astra Coupe fastest of the Independents runners in ninth on the grid at his home circuit.
Others, though, used the pile-up to their advantage, noticeably Kaye whose Honda Civic Type-R had shot through from 10th to sixth and at the restart was harrying championship leader Muller no less. “I'd actually made a poor start but it saved my day. It meant I wasn't in the thick of the accident at the start so had more time to avoid it! After that the car was superb, the first time this year it's felt truly competitive,” said Kaye, who would briefly lead the race outright during the mandatory tyre change pit stops.
At the front, Neal and Honda team-mate Alan Morrison led the field after Thompson, heavy on success ballast, was slow away from his pole position starting slot. O'Neill, fastest in Friday practice, was fourth, with Muller and Kaye next up followed by MG's Croft winner Anthony Reid, Proton's Phil Bennett, Collard and Team Halfords' Daniel Buxton.
O'Neill then passed Thompson for third on the exit of the fearsome Bombhole corner and this was to prove crucial in deciding who won the race. A slow pit stop for Neal dropped him to fourth and meant, with them completed, Morrison now led from O'Neill and Thompson. Morrison arrived at Snetterton chasing O'Neill for third in the championship. Despite coming close on occasion, neither had won a race this season but that was surely now about to change. Not for Morrison, however. In a cruel twist, just three laps from home, his Honda suddenly slowed and O'Neill, Thompson and the rest of the field, headed by Muller who had overtaken Neal, swept by. O'Neill then resisted intense last lap pressure from Thompson to hold on for his maiden win of 2003 and lead Vauxhall to a 1-2-3 result.
“I'd said before that if I didn't achieve anything else this year, then what I wanted most was a win,” said a delighted O'Neill. “James was right there on the last lap but made a mistake through the Bombhole on the last lap. I looked in my mirrors and saw he'd dropped back. I knew I was free to win then.”
Thompson said: “The circuit was very dirty and I had a bit of a wild moment controlling the car. I wasn't going to make a crazy move to get past Paul. I knew Yvan was behind so I'd be taking points out of him. I'm happy with second considering we were carrying maximum ballast.”
Muller acknowledged he had been fortunate to avoid the melee ahead of him at the start after qualifying down in seventh on the grid following mechanical problems in Friday practice that had left him short of track time. “I was lucky I didn't hit anyone,” said Muller. “I saw three cars in front of me crashing into one another and just swerved to miss them. The race was more or less a test session to find out about the car after the time I lost yesterday.”
Behind fourth-placed Neal was MG's Reid. Sixth, thanks to a stunning comeback drive from last after a pit stop to repair his Civic Type-R – damaged in the startline fracas – was 18-year-old Chilton. Kaye took seventh and Independents victory ahead of points leader Collard whose Astra Coupe was just over a second behind the Honda at the finish. Bennett took ninth in his Impian. Gareth Howell, returning to the BTCC's top flight for the remainder of the season in Team Dynamics' Vauxhall Astra Coupe, was classified 13th, a lap down after problems, while missing was Buxton, his pursuit of Collard in the early stages ending when his Peugeot 307's engine broke.
Tenth, 11th and 12th places were filled by the only three finishers in the Production class. Mark Fullalove, who had so impressively led the class on his return to the series in Techspeed's Peugeot 306, eventually had to settle for second behind points leader Hines' Civic Type-R. Hines' team-mate Alan Blencowe was third in class, but there was heartache for Team Varta's Jim Edwards who had looked on course for fourth position in his first race with the team's Peugeot 307, only for it to break down at the last corner. Edwards' team-mate Boardman plus the Kartworld Nissan Primera of Jason Hughes had already joined him in retirement.
The second race was as equally dramatic and unpredictable as the first. O'Neill, by winning the first race, had guaranteed himself pole position on the grid, but although he led the first lap – which saw some of the most ferocious racing in recent BTCC history – he received a drive-through pitlane penalty for jumping the start. He rejoined virtually last and would go on to finish 10th.
This left Neal in the lead from Thompson and their positions remained the same after the pit stops. Thompson spent the rest of the race just inches from Neal's rear bumper, but some excellent defensive driving from the Honda driver kept him in front. Thompson appeared to be gearing up for a last lap bid for glory but, halfway around the circuit, his Astra Coupe suddenly slowed.
The following Morrison, Reid, Turkington – setting some stunning lap times as he carved his way through the field from near the back of the grid – and Chilton all sped by as the Vauxhall driver tried unsuccessfully to coax his car to the finish. Collard, on his way to Independents victory, Breeze, Hughes, Leslie and O'Neill also moved past. This was a major blow to Thompson for it meant he missed a chance to effectively draw level on points with championship leader Muller who was already out of the race with a mechanical problem. The gap between them, with six races to go is just 13 points.
Neal thus took what, in the end, was a simple victory and, on approaching the line, he slowed right up to allow Morrison to join him in a Honda Racing 1-2 formation finish. Neal, however, later revealed he had to overcome a series of problems in the race. “On the first lap, my exhaust got hit and the car kept filling up with fumes. Luckily, there's a good ventilation system in the Honda,” said Neal. “My gearbox also kept selecting neutral between downshifts form fifth to fourth and third to second and that's why, sometimes, I went off the track.” Neal's win moved him past O'Neill into third in the championship standings and Thompson in the victory stakes, this his fourth of the season so far.
After revealing he was “gutted” by his first race retirement, Morrison said this time he was “relieved” to cross the line in second. Third-placed Reid said: “I'm pleased with this result, as Snetterton is very much a power circuit and our engine was not a match for the Astras and Hondas today.”
Collard's sixth place meant not only did he take Independents victory but, with nearest rival Kaye back in third and 11th overall with a sick car, also extended his lead in the championship. Collard had to resist the attentions of Breeze who, particularly while lapping slower cars, came close to challenging for the lead. For Breeze, the result went some way to making up for his first race disappointment. He at least enjoyed mechanical reliability – GA team-mate Paul Wallace managed just two racing laps all weekend as his Astra Coupe suffered engine problems.
Eaves followed Kaye across the line in 12th. But his result came at the cost of team-mate Buxton who crashed out of the race avoiding Eaves when he lost control of his 307 at the high-speed Riches corner. Bennett also retired, with engine problems, while Howell's day went from bad to worse when his car had to be pushed off the starting grid with mechanical gremlins and he never started.
In Production, Boardman bounced back from his first race retirement to pass Hines off the grid and hold on for victory, their cars' performances proving virtually equal throughout the whole race. Each also now have five class victories to their names, although Boardman is a distant fourth in the championship behind new second-placed driver Blencowe and Bentwood. BTCC debutant Wheals, driving Varta's Peugeot 306, finished fourth in class. Team-mates Marsh and Edwards, the latter suffering power steering failure, Hughes and the rapid Fullalove, whose engine gave up the ghost, were all non-finishers.