Thompson pole to flag as Plato gets tactical
11 April 2004
James Thompson led from pole to chequered flag at the first race of the British Touring Car Championship at Thruxton today.
The VX Racing driver broke away from the field and was left unchallenged at the sweeping Hampshire track. Behind him was a very rapid Matt Neal in the leading Independents Cup runner. Thompson had made an early gap from him and those behind, but in the final laps Neal was reeling the Yorkshireman.
The start behind Thompson had seen plenty of action. Matt Neal had vaulted Anthony Reid and then taken Yvan Muller to go second, Tom Chilton was fifth with Jason Plato in the ETCC SEAT right with him.
Those not completing the first lap were Fairique Hairuman, Carl Breeze and Paul Wallace, whilst Colin Turkington had a big off, but was able to return to the track.
For Breeze, the reason for his departure from the circuit was very evident. “Michael Bentwood decided to drive into the back of my car at 100mph so I'm not happy,” said the Alfa driver.
It was disappointment for the third VX Racing driver, the No. 57 car of Luke Hines, who gained a puncture, changed tyres, then suffered a gearbox problem to mean he completed a mere 6 laps, so perhaps there is hope for the non VX Racing runners this season.
Thompson pushed on in the early laps to consolidate his lead and gain fastest lap of the race, though this tactic was to toast his tyres which were to go off in the latter laps.
“I pushed hard in the first half to get the fastest lap, and luckily we did, and I could see them squabbling behind, but we paid the price for it at the end, Matt was hauling me in, any more and he would have had me,” explained Thompson after the race.
Frenchman Yvan Muller drove a lonely race for most of the time, after putting pressure on Neal on the first couple of laps, the reigning champ dropped back, though he was kept honest by Anthony Reid in the WSR MG ZS.
The second race of the day features a reverse grid for the top ten, so the battle to be tenth turned out to be increasingly frantic. For most drivers it was a case of trying to work forward to tenth, but for BTCC returnee Jason Plato, there was an attemtpt to move backwards through the field on the final lap.
Plato had worked his way up to fifth place earlier in the race, but it was clear he would get no further forward in the field. He came under pressure from team-mate Rob Huff, and also Dan Eaves, and those two discovered that the way past Plato was rather easy.
Come the last lap, Plato was trying very hard to gain the pole for race two. Michael Bentwood was already past him, and South Africa Shaun Watson-Smith and Tom Chilton were behind.
Watson-Smith, who is an experienced South African touring car driver, didn't let Plato outwit him and it was the odd sight of two touring car drivers braking on the Thruxton pit straight and saying 'after you.'
Plato explains what his tactics were all about. “The objective of the first race was always to push hard at the start and open up a gap so I could control the pace and finish tenth,” said the BTCC returnee. “The tactic worked well. I had a great start and kept out of trouble, and towards the start of the last lap I slowed down to let Rob and another car through entering the chicane. Although it was getting a little busy at the finish line, and I would prefer to be starting the second race on the front row of the grid, finishing eighth to start on the second row is really good.”
Up front and the action had not been quite what it could have been had there been just one lap to the race. “Matt was so fast at the end, I was just so surprised, by the pace he was taking 3 tenths out of me each lap and I wasn't hanging around, I was trying to win by as big a margin as possible,” explained Thompson.
Neal was giving his all in those final laps. “It was quick but I was being pretty hard,” explained Neal. “I thought if I can just get close to them and get drag down the straight on the last lap and make a lunge but it wasn't going to happen unfortunately.”
1. James Thompson
2. Matt Neal
3. Yvan Muller
4. Anthony Reid
5. Dan Eaves
6. Rob Huff
7. Michael Bentwood
8. Jason Plato
9. Shaun Watson-Smith
10. Tom Chilton