Crash.Net BTCC News
Season ends in style at Oulton
22 September 2003
Vauxhall's James Thompson and Honda's Matt Neal were the winners of Sunday's final two rounds of the Green Flag MSA British Touring Car Championship in front of a 16,500 crowd at Oulton Park but it was France's Yvan Muller who was crowned provisional Champion.
There were also celebrations in the privateer Collard Racing team as their driver Rob Collard captured the Hilton Independents Trophy title, pending official confirmation. Vauxhall have also provisionally secured the Teams and Manufacturers titles to give them a third successive BTCC 'Triple Crown' in their centenary year.
In the first race, Thompson, the 2002 champion, led all the way from pole position in his Astra Coupe. He was followed across the line by Honda's Alan Morrison in second, but third place was more than enough to secure the crown for Muller.
“Of course I am very happy,” said Muller, “but more than that people can now stop asking me 'when are you going to win it'? It was very frustrating the last two years to lose the championship to my team-mates in the final rounds, but now at last I am champion. Maybe it will change my pay!”
Thompson said: “I'm happy to have won the race in quite dominant style, but of course I'm also disappointed to lose my title. I've had six pole positions this year but not converted enough of them into race wins. Yvan has won a lot of races so deserves to be champion. It would have been a crime if his name wasn't on the Champion's trophy some day.”
MG's Anthony Reid, who started second on the grid in his ZS, and Neal both challenged for the lead early on but were to hit problems. Reid was delayed during his mandatory tyre change pit stop, while a misfire on the engine of Neal's Honda Civic Type-R saw him drop back to 12th position and out of the points. Reid finished fifth, between team-mates Warren Hughes and Colin Turkington.
Neal's failure to score, meanwhile, came as consolation to Vauxhall's Paul O'Neill who retired from the race with mechanical problems. Their woes meant they would go into the final round still tied on points for third in the championship and with Morrison now just seven points behind thanks to his second place finish.
In the Hilton Independents Trophy, Gareth Howell, in Team Dynamics' Vauxhall Astra Coupe, finished a fine seventh to take his first win of the season. But all eyes were on the four-way title fight between Collard, Synchro Honda Racing's James Kaye, GA Motorsports' Carl Breeze and Team Halfords' Dan Eaves.
Collard it was who came out ahead in his Vauxhall Astra Coupe to finish eighth, while Kaye pulled off a stunning move around the outside of Eaves at the final corner to take 10th, behind the Petronas Syntium Proton Impian of Phil Bennett. Breeze, who had been in the running for victory early on, saw his title chances disappear when a drive-through penalty for a pit lane indiscretion dropped him to 15th overall as the seventh highest Hilton Independents runner. This meant the title fight was now between Collard and Kaye.
Production class honours looked to be heading the way of Tom Boardman in Team Varta's Peugeot 307, but he cruelly suffered suspension failure and crashed out, gifting Alan Blencowe, in Barwell Motorsport's Honda Civic Type-R, his first win of the season. Barwell's Luke Hines, already crowned provisional champion, took second after a robust battle with Michael Bentwood, in Edenbridge Racing BMW 320i. Twice their cars left the circuit and Bentwood was later fined and had his racing licence endorsed.
The second race saw outgoing champion Thompson lead the race from pole position, but on lap 11 his car ground to a halt with a blown engine. This handed the lead to Muller, who had a fast-starting Neal – up from 12th on the grid – close behind. Try as he might, however, the Honda driver was unable to find a way past the new champion. Until the pit stops, that is …
Neal was the first to pit followed two laps later by Muller, and, as the Frenchman rejoined the track, he saw the Honda flash past into the lead. From there, Neal was able to control the gap to Muller for victory – an achievement that drew him level with Muller on six wins apiece this year. Turkington, one of the BTCC's future stars, completed his fine season with third position after a frenetic fight with team-mate Reid during which their cars swapped places six times.
“I drove every lap flat out and hoped Yvan would give up, but every time I looked in my mirrors he was still there. He just wouldn't go away!” said Neal. “This a terrific way to end the year, for everyone in the Honda team and it earns me third in the championship which I desperately wanted.”
Muller said: “When I saw Matt go by as I came out of the pit lane I was surprised because my stop had been very good. I knew from there it would be difficult to beat him. I drove my hardest but on the last lap backed off because I knew then I couldn't catch him.”
O'Neill put in a terrific drive from the back of the grid to come through to fifth, but was forced to settle for fourth in the final standings behind race-winner Neal, who was the only Honda driver to start the race. Morrison failed to make the start after his Civic Type-R cruelly suffered mechanical failure on the green flag lap, while Honda's third driver Tom Chilton was forced to withdraw from the event due to illness.
Howell was able to race to a second Hilton Independents Trophy victory in sixth overall, but Collard was more than happy to settle for second behind him in seventh, knowing it was enough to take the title. His task was made a lot easier when Kaye lost time and places with a spin in his Honda Civic Type-R. Collard was mobbed by his tearful team crew and family as he climbed from his car in the pit lane.
“This is the most important achievement in my career so far and I hope I've proved I deserve a drive with one of the factory teams in 2004,” said Collard, who is a multiple hot rod champion. He added: “I come from a background where there's plenty of spit and sawdust and for my team to have progressed to this level and won is a major achievement. I am delighted for every one of them.”
Production victory fell the way of Boardman, who ends the season with more wins than any other drivers in class – eight to Hines' six. Hines briefly got ahead of Boardman during their fight for victory before falling behind and then losing further ground as they were passed by the faster Touring Cars. Jim Edwards, forced to start from last on the grid after engine problems kept him out of the first race, fought his way through to third in class to give Team Varta a 1-3 result.