Vauxhall's Paul O'Neill and Honda's Matt Neal were the winners of yesterday's two Green Flag MSA British Touring Car Championship rounds at a baking hot Snetterton circuit in Norfolk. But the two big talking points were a start line accident in the first race that eliminated several leading contenders and the disaster that befell reigning champions Vauxhall in the second race, when their two title protagonists Yvan Muller and James Thompson both retired. Muller, though, continues to lead Thompson in the drivers' title race and, despite their setback, Vauxhall also remain firmly in command of the BTCC's Teams and Manufacturers championships.
Synchro Honda Racing's James Kaye and Collard Racing's Rob Collard shared Hilton Independents Trophy honours. Kaye later dedicated his win to rallying hero Mark Lovell, his long-time business partner who died while competing in an event in America last month. Collard's victory, meanwhile, helped him stay ahead of Kaye in the Independents championship, but only 18 points split the pair.
Barwell Motorsport's Luke Hines extended his lead in the BTCC's Production class table, with a victory in the first race and runner-up position to Team Varta's Tom Boardman in the day's evening event. Barwell are also now close to securing the Production class's Teams title.
The opening six laps of the first race were held behind the BTCC's Safety Car after contact between the MG ZSs of Warren Hughes and Colin Turkington and Tom Chilton's Honda Civic Type-R triggered several accidents that partially blocked the circuit. Hughes, who pulled off the track soon after with a puncture, was later judged to be the cause of the incident, fined and had his competition licence endorsed.
But this was of no consolation to Turkington, Petronas Syntium Proton's David Leslie, GA Motorsports' Carl Breeze, Team Halfords' Dan Eaves or Production class runners, Team Varta's Jay Wheals and Richard Marsh and Edenbridge Racing's Michael Bentwood. All were out on the spot, Bentwood's BMW 320i in particular very badly damaged and out of action for the rest of the day, this a cruel blow to his Production title hopes. Norfolk's Breeze could also feel aggrieved, the King's Lynn driver having qualified his Vauxhall Astra Coupe fastest of the Independents runners in ninth on the grid at his home circuit.
Others, though, used the pile-up to their advantage, noticeably Kaye whose Honda Civic Type-R had shot through from 10th to sixth and at the restart was harrying championship leader Muller no less. “I'd actually made a poor start but it saved my day. It meant I wasn't in the thick of the accident at the start so had more time to avoid it! After that the car was superb, the first time this year it's felt truly competitive,” said Kaye, who would briefly lead the race outright during the mandatory tyre change pit stops.
At the front, Neal and Honda team-mate Alan Morrison led the field after Thompson, heavy on success ballast, was slow away from his pole position starting slot. O'Neill, fastest in Friday practice, was fourth, with Muller and Kaye next up followed by MG's Croft winner Anthony Reid, Proton's Phil Bennett, Collard and Team Halfords' Daniel Buxton.
O'Neill then passed Thompson for third on the exit of the fearsome Bombhole corner and this was to prove crucial in deciding who won the race. A slow pit stop for Neal dropped him to fourth and meant, with them completed, Morrison now led from O'Neill and Thompson. Morrison arrived at Snetterton chasing O'Neill for third in the championship. Despite coming close on occasion, neither had won a race this season but that was surely now about to change. Not for Morrison, however. In a cruel twist, just three laps from home, his Honda suddenly slowed and O'Neill, Thompson and the rest of the field, headed by Muller who had overtaken Neal, swept by. O'Neill then resisted intense last lap pressure from Thompson to hold on for his maiden win of 2003 and lead Vauxhall to a 1-2-3 result.
“I'd said before that if I didn't achieve anything else this year, then what I wanted most was a win,” said a delighted O'Neill. “James was right there on the last lap but made a mistake through the Bombhole on the last lap. I looked in my mirrors and saw he'd dropped back. I knew I was free to win then.”