Jason Plato secured victory in the opening race for the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship at Croft as SEAT played the team game to perfection to claim a one-two finish.
James Thompson had led from pole position for the entire race and looked set to celebrate his return to the series with victory until he slowed on the final lap to allow Plato through for a victory that sees him claw back five points in the battle for championship honours after Matt Neal
Although team orders would work perfectly on the final lap for Plato, it was far from a straightforward race for the 2001 champion as – unlike Thompson – he was forced to battle in the pack in the early stages. Starting from the second row of the grid, the battle with Neal started immediately, with the SEAT diving down the inside at the hairpin at the end of lap one to go third while Neal dropped back to sixth. However a move on Fabrizio Giovanardi
going into Clervaux at the start of lap two saw Plato lose time and drop back to fifth behind Gordon Shedden.
The Scot was soon removed from the equation when he was forced to pit on lap six to remove flailing bodywork from the rear of his Team Halfords car which moved Plato up to fourth and chasing down the VX Racing duo of Tom Chilton
and Giovanardi. Neal meanwhile was the meat in an MG sandwich as he lay sixth between Rob Collard
and Colin Turkington.
Plato would make up two places in as many laps during the mid-point of the race as Chilton and Giovanardi both ran wide at Sunny but Neal was having a much harder time of it as he tried to make a move past Collard for fifth – the two touching on the run through the Jim Clark Esses as Neal completed a pass that had started when he tried to go inside the MG at Tower. However with Chilton removed from the equation when he pitted to retire with a broken rear beam, Collard was soon right back on the tail of Neal as the pair were held up by Giovanardi's Vauxhall – the Italian clearly struggling for grip in the warm conditions.
On lap 12, Collard and Neal made contact again running through the Jim Clark Esses – the quickest part of the circuit – with Collard going sideways before Neal was sent through the grass on the run through Barcroft. The innocent spectator behind Turkington was also caught up in things as he went sideways trying to avoid the squabbling pair, although all three managed to somehow keep things facing the right way at the end of it to leave Neal ahead of the two MGs.
The battle behind wasn't enough to keep Giovanardi safe in a podium place however as he was once again quickly caught from behind with Neal, Turkington and Collard all passing him in the closing laps. However up front, it was left to Thompson and Plato to ensure the perfect finish for SEAT in both championships – with Thommo conceding position to aid Plato's title challenge.
“At the end of the day I'm here for six races and can't win the title,” Thompson said afterwards. “I'm here to contribute and that is what we have done today. We are leading the manufacturers' standings and Jason has a gap to make up in the drivers' and that was a chance for him to pull some points back. Jason did a good job to get into second place and once he did that, it was time to maximise the points gap to Matt.”
Behind the SEAT pair, Neal claimed third from Turkington and Collard while Giovanardi had to settle for sixth after what had been a fine drive in the early stages of the race. Dave Pinkney was seventh after a solid drive in the Motorbase Integra, with James Kaye, Gavin Smith and Eoin Murray rounding out the top ten – the latter produced a solid showing in his first BTCC race.
Fellow debutant Erkut Kizilirmak
finished 15th after a race that saw him involved in a huge battle in the early stages with Adam Jones, Mark Proctor and Mike Jordan
– eventually claiming the place after a running battle with Martyn Bell
ended with an excursion for the BMW driver.