Jason Plato has reduced the gap separating him from the lead in the 2009 HiQ MSA British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) to just 20 points following victory in race two at Rockingham – a success that marked the 2001 title-winner's 50th career success in the hotly-fought tin-top series.
When the lights went out to signal the start of the race, however, it was the sister Racing Silverline entry of Mat Jackson who got the jump on his team-mate from third to chase pole-sitter Stephen Jelley down to the first turn, diving alongside Plato and rebuffing a faint attempt to squeeze him out to grab P2.
Moments later, Jonny Adam in the only surviving Airwaves BMW machine – Rob Collard retired in the pits at the end of the formation lap, in company with Tom Onslow-Cole in the Team Aon Ford Focus ST – tried but ultimately failed to go all the way around the outside of Plato, with defending double champion Fabrizio Giovanardi making the most of the empty grid slot in front of him where Collard should have been to move up to fifth, closely tracked by fast-starting title-challenger Colin Turkington.
With the top two getting away – Jelley belying the maximum ballast on his car and Jackson sporting the lucky gloves that had accompanied him to a record seven successive podium finishes, Plato was initially left holding up a whole gaggle of pursuers in his wake, with the impressively consistent Paul O'Neill and the third Chevrolet of James Nash similarly coming along to join the party by displacing Andrew Jordan for seventh and eighth respectively. Further back, Anthony Reid spun right down to last place after being turned round by Team Aon's Tom Chilton
Jackson set fastest lap as he relentlessly hunted his quarry down, whilst having nudged his way past Adam, Giovanardi's constant attentions were forcing the increasingly ragged Plato onto the defensive, before an 'off' for John George in the TH Motorsport machine left the Honda Integra beached in the gravel trap just off the racing line, and called for the first safety car intervention of the race.
That bunched the field right together again, and on the re-start Jelley and Jackson were gone, leaving Plato once more to deal with the charging Giovanardi omnipresent in his mirrors. With the two leaders' early advantage having been eroded in one fell swoop, it was all-of-a-sudden a six-way tussle for supremacy. Jackson knew he would need to act fast, and the Warwickshire ace did just that, aiming down the inside into turn one and forcing the race one-winner wide, in a movement that enabled Plato to follow through.
The aggressive Giovanardi kept his foot in on the grass on the approach to turn two to do likewise, with Adam similarly pouncing on his fellow BMW driver, demoting Jelley from first to fifth over the course of a disastrous few corners – and to rub salt into the wounds, the former British F3 front-runner would soon find himself having to yield to championship-leading team-mate Turkington into the bargain.
That left it a Chevy one-two at the head of the field, with Plato staying firmly with Jackson this time and looking to be the quicker of the two with nine laps to go. Giovanardi, too, clearly fancied his chances of the top step of the podium as he shadowed the two blue cars in third, with Turkington pressuring Adam in a bid to put the title protagonists second, third and fourth.
Another 'off', this time for BTCC debutant Matt Hamilton at Tarzan, necessitated a second safety car appearance, and at the re-start Jackson and Plato made good their escape as Giovanardi tried to stay with them in an effort to spoil the Chevrolet party. With zero ballast on his car, the man from Modena was on a mission, but then so was Turkington two spots further back, the Irishman doubtless sensing that his slipping advantage in the drivers' standings – already reduced by four markers in race one – was about to take a further hit.