Reigning Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship driver Matt Neal opened his win account for 2006 by taking victory in a subdued first race at Mondello Park.
Neal started from pole and made an early lead from second placed starter, and finisher, Jason Plato. Neal set the race's fastest lap on the second lap of the 14 lap race to lead Plato by 1.2secs, but the SEAT Sport UK driver would close in on Neal in the final laps to finish exactly half a second behind, although he never got close enough to put Neal under any real pressure.
Behind the front two James Thompson suffered from a heavy SEAT Leon thanks to the ballast for championship position and had to hold off a pumped-up Colin Turkington who was driving a very feisty Team RAC MG. Turkington tried several times to get past Thompson, although a stern driver briefing and the fact of this being the first of three races on the day meant that Turkington kept his aggression relatively in check with the odd push or nudge of the Leon's rear, but no outright panel-damaging onslaught.
Gordon Shedden made a poor start from third on the grid and had to fight back to finish fifth. The Scotsman was caught in the first corner as Turkington and Giovanardi attempted to occupy the same place as the Team Halfords Integra and three into one didn't go. A little airtime, some minor damage, but no real tears ensued from one of the only incidents in the race.
Tom Chilton drove a very wide Astra to sixth place, holding off team-mate Fabrizio Giovanardi for much of the time such that the VXR cars crossed the finish line in a row; Chilton, Giovanardi, Smith.
Mike Jordan diced with Dave Pinkney but won through to come home eighth, whilst Pinkney had a number of moments to finish further down the field. James Kaye took tenth with a solid run.
Rob Collard was forced to retire from the race due to engine problems, the Team RAC driver had been in eighth place and pressuring Giovanardi when he had to retire.
Matt Neal's victory came through the pace of his early laps and his great start, something he reckoned was due to the nature of the Mondello Park circuit. "It's an uphill start," said Neal, "which is a bit of a hindrance, but it also lets you get your clutch biting point and make a good start.
"We had the pace on the first laps," continues Neal, "then I wanted to manage my tyres but when Jason to push harder and into my margin I hard to push real hard. I was concetrating on what Jason was doing, he's no fool so I couldn't make a mistake where he was strong on the circuit."
Behind Neal, Plato was trying as hard as he could. "We were really pushing," said Plato, "and there was not a lot left at the end which just goes to show how even it is. I tried to outfox him by putting my headlights on and that sort of thing but he didn't fall for it."
Whilst Plato's SEAT was looking to move forward, Thompson's had the concern of the MG of Turkington behind. "It was pretty tough and exciting," said Thompson. "I've had a lot of dices with Colin and he's always very fair and very good and his car was quick. The weight on my car hurts, but Colin's got a fair bit of weight too. I was surprised how fast he was at the end."
1. Matt Neal
2. Jason Plato
3. James Thompson
4. Colin Turkington
5. Gordon Shedden
6. Tom Chilton
7. Fabrizio Giovanardi
8. Gavin Smith
9. Mike Jordan
10. James Kaye