Matt Neal has made a winning start to the new HiQ MSA British Touring Car Championship season with victory in the opening race of the weekend at Brands Hatch.
Neal had started from pole in his VX Racing Vectra but a poor start left him to battle back through from third place to take his first win since Rockingham last season as he led home team-mate Fabrizio Giovanardi for a 1-2 finish.
Both Neal and Giovanardi were slow away at the start as Rob Collard and Colin Turkington blasted through from row two into the lead on the run to Paddock Hill Bend, while Andrew Jordan was also able to jump past Giovanardi into fourth place going into the first turn. In the pack however, Stephen Jelley attempted to go between Gordon Shedden and Jonathan Adam but tipped Shedden sideways into Adam's BMW – putting the debutant out of the race as he returned to the pits with damage to his car and ultimately leaving Shedden to retire later in the race.
The race was soon behind the Safety Car after John George slid off into the gravel at Clearways at the end of the opening lap, with Collard leading from Turkington, Neal, Jordan and Giovanardi, with Jelley sitting in sixth place.
The race resumed on lap six, with Turkington looking at Collard into Paddock Hill but unable to find a way through, but on the following lap, a slight touch to the rear of Collard's BMW saw the Northern Irishman take the lead with Neal following him through into second. Neal then dived inside Turkington to take the lead, only for the BMW to battle back into Druids on lap eight. Jordan battled ahead of Collard into third, and by the end of the lap, the Vauxhall's were running first and second as both Neal and Jordan found a way ahead of Turkington.
The Vauxhall charge towards the front continued on lap eleven as Giovanardi got ahead of Collard into Paddock Hill Bend while further down the pack, Jason Plato and Adam Jones in the Cartridge World SEAT were dicing for seventh place.
The Safety Car returned to the track on lap 14 after Nick Leason slid off at Clearways in the AFM Racing BMW 120d, with Neal leading from Jordan and Turkington, with Giovanardi, Collard and Jelley rounding out the top six. Plato, Jones, Dan Eaves and Harry Vaulkhard completed the top ten.
When the Safety Car went in, Plato made a move on Jelley for sixth and would soon be followed through by Jones, but ahead there was disappointment for Jordan as he suddenly slowed coming out of Graham Hill Bend and pulled off into retirement.
The put Turkington into second place, but he was under pressure from Giovanardi who dived down the inside into Clearways on lap 22 only for Turkington to battle back over the start-finish line and start a move that would see him regain the place at Druids. At the end of the lap however, Giovanardi repeated the move and there was no response from Turkington who slotted into third.