Against all expectations, Matt Neal
secured a dream result for Team Halfords in the third race at Brands Hatch as the new Honda Civic took victory on its maiden outing in the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship.
The two time champion held off the challenge of Fabrizio Giovanardi
and Mat Jackson
to take the win, which means he will leave the opening weekend of the season in second place in the standings behind Jason Plato
– the SEAT man having taken victory in both the first and second races.
With the reverse grid rules seeing the top seven reversed for the final race of the day, Neal lined up third on the grid behind Giovanardi and Adam Jones, but when the lights went green the Team Halfords man rocketed away from the line to lead the field into Paddock Hill bend for the first time, with Jones slipping into second and Colin Turkington
jumping into third. Giovanardi slipped down to fourth ahead of team-mate Tom Chilton, with Darren Turner, Mat Jackson
and Jason Plato
rounding out the top eight – Turner and Jackson having both been forced to come through the field in race two after starting from the back of the pack.
As was the case in race one, the opening lap didn't pass without incident, with John George
in the TH Motorsport Honda Integra losing it coming through Surtees and spinning to the outside of the circuit. With his car deemed to be in a dangerous position the Safety Car was scrambled to pick up the field. However, by the time the field had come round behind the red Porsche, George had managed to re-join, with the Safety Car heading straight back into the pits. That move seemed to catch out most of the field, meaning Neal was able to cross the line with a lead of over two seconds over Jones as racing resumed.
The Team Air Cool driver soon started to eat into the champions lead, which had dropped down to 1.3 seconds by lap seven. However, before the former Xero Competition man could get onto the tail of the leading Civic, he came under pressure from Turkington behind as the Team RAC man attempted to make it a hat-trick of second place finishes on his first weekend with the new BMW E90. Going into Druids on lap eight, the Northern Irishman made his move to go second, but Jones wasn't keen to concede the place and muscled his way back ahead going into Graham Hill Bend. With Turkington forced wide as a result, Giovanardi got a run on the BMW going into Surtees and swept through into third place – dropping Turkington to fourth and into the clutches of Darren Turner
and the train of cars building up behind the SEAT.
It wouldn't take long for Turkington's race to get even worse, and on the very next lap he was forced to retire when contact from the Turner as he turned into Clearways was enough to sent the bright orange car into a spin. Agonisingly for Turkington, the car came to rest just off the circuit in the gravel trap, and with no chance of him moving it, the Safety Car was deployed once again to bunch up the field – meaning Neal's advantage of more than two seconds had now vanished, with Jones and Giovanardi closing onto his tail, Turner now into fourth and Jackson and Plato rounding out the top six.
This time, when the Safety Car turned off its lights to signal its return to the pits, the field was prepared, with Jones making the perfect re-start to get into Neal's slip-stream on the run into Paddock Hill Bend. Unable to make a move for the lead, Jones had to be wary of the fact that Giovanardi was waiting to pounce behind, and on lap 14 he slipped up the inside on the run through Clearways, getting a run onto the start-finish straight that enabled him to take the place at Paddock Hill Bend.
The Italian then set about chasing down Neal and was soon right on the boot lid of the Civic, nudging the Halfords car on the rear as they swept through Clearways in lap 18 but unable to find a way past. Behind, the battle for third was raging, with Jones coming under ever increasing pressure from Turner behind, with the SEAT man himself being harried by Jackson who was making the most of a lack of ballast on his car to fight his way forward. On lap 21, Jones ran wide at Clearways, and both Turner and Jackson were through in an instant, with double winner Plato demoting the Air Cool man to sixth at Paddock as he followed the other two through.
Now lying only one place away from the podium place he had lost following his exclusion from race one, Jackson wasn't about to miss out for a second time and was all over the rear of Turner's SEAT eventually driving around the outside of Turner to go third with just four laps remaining. The reigning SEAT Cupra champion then closed the gap to Giovanardi but despite doing his best to find a way past, there simply weren't enough laps remaining and he had to settle for third – the white BMW firmly fixed onto the rear of the Vectra. However it was Neal who grabbed the headlines, as he took victory with a car that had only run for the first time little more than a week before the race meeting.
Turner took fourth ahead of team-mate Plato, while Jones had to settle for sixth after his fine drive in the early stages. Onslow-Cole was seventh, while Chilton, Mike Jordan
and Gareth Howell
rounded out the top ten.