's BTCC season review - Part 1.

At the conclusion of the 2006 season, the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship was in good shape, with ever increasing grid numbers, a strong television package, and a title fight that went to the wire at Silverstone before Matt Neal lifted the title for the second successive season.

All-in-all, things looked good then heading into 2007....'s BTCC season review - Part 1.

At the conclusion of the 2006 season, the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship was in good shape, with ever increasing grid numbers, a strong television package, and a title fight that went to the wire at Silverstone before Matt Neal lifted the title for the second successive season.

All-in-all, things looked good then heading into 2007....

With the BTCC embracing the Super 2000 rules found in the World Touring Car Championship, the grid looked rather different when the field assembled at Rockingham for the annual Media Day back in March. For a start, the champion had a new car as Team Halfords switched the all-conquering Honda Integra for the new Civic - although the car wasn't ready to run on the day and the team faced a race to even make sure it had two cars for the opening rounds at Brands Hatch. Team RAC had new machinery and a new driver line-up, with Tom Onslow-Cole joining Colin Turkington in a brace of BMW 320sis while VX Racing also had a new machine - with the Vectra replacing the Astra Sport Hatch. Indeed, of the front-runner teams, only SEAT Sport had some continuity, with Jason Plato and Darren Turner at the wheel of the same SEAT Leons they had used in 2006.

Elsewhere on the grid, SEAT Cupra Cup champion Mat Jackson had made the step up with the same BMW 320si that Andy Priaulx had taken to the previous season's WTCC title, while Adam Jones had swapped the Xero Lexus for a SEAT Toledo run by GR Asia under the Team Aircool banner. After a toe in the water entry with Dave Pinkney in 2006, Motorbase expanded to two cars, with Matt Allison and Gareth Howell in SEAT Toledos, while Pinkney joined forces with Richard Marsh to enter two Alfa Romeo's for the new A-Tech team. Eoin Murray, Martyn Bell, Chris Stockton and Nick Leason all returned in S2000 machinery while two new-comers completed the S2000 brigade in the shape of BMW racers Jim Pocklington and Rick Kerry - the latter becoming the first person to enter a diesel car in the BTCC.

Although being ineligible for the outright championship, there was still a healthy group of BTC-spec cars entered, led by Mike Jordan in the Eurotech Integra. He was joined by fellow Honda racers Simon Blanckley and John George, while Jason Hughes and Fiona Leggate teamed up as Kartworld expanded to two cars. Turkish racer Erkut returned for a full season under the Arkas Racing banner with his Astra Sport Hatch - completing a healthy field of 26 cars entered for the campaign.

First blood on Media Day went to Vauxhall, as Giovanardi set the pace during the afternoon test session ahead of Jordan and Turkington before the field headed to Brands Hatch for the opening three races of the year...

Despite the fact that the car was completed late, and hadn't done much pre-season running, it was Turkington who claimed the first pole position of the season after edging out Plato and Turner around the short Indy Circuit - putting a BMW on pole for the first time in more than ten years. Giovanardi and Chilton were fourth and fifth, but the new Civics were down in ninth (Neal) and 14th (Gordon Shedden).

However, Turkington couldn't make the most of the fast-starting BMW as the opening race of the season went the way of Plato. The SEAT man jumped into the lead at the start and survived two Safety Car periods to lead the Team RAC man home to the finish, while Jackson took a fine third on his debut - although he would then be excluded for ignoring a black flag. It meant Neal inherited third ahead of Jordan, Onslow-Cole and Chilton. Giovanardi meanwhile could manage only tenth place after an incident at the start and a problem on a restart dropped him as low as 16th.

Plato repeated the feat in race two, leading Turkington from start-to-finish for his second win of the day, while Chilton put the Vectra onto the podium for the first time in third place. Turner was fourth ahead of Neal and Jones while Giovanardi was seventh after a coming together than forced Shedden to retire - the Italian taking pole for the final race once the wheel of fortune was spun.

Giovanardi couldn't convert the pole however as Neal made a demon start to race three to lead the field into Paddock Hill Bend and he managed to defend for the entire race to give Halfords a dream start to life with the Civic - although it was a win the team admitted had come against expectation. The man pushing Neal early on was Jones but he would gradually slip down the order as Giovanardi recovered from a poor start to finish second with Jackson third - this time keeping the position. Fourth for Plato, to add to his earlier wins, meant he left Brands with a nine point lead over Neal, with Turkington seven points further back. Giovanardi meanwhile was 24 points off top spot in fifth. Retirement in race three saw Turkington left second in the Indy standings behind Jones - although that would change heading to Rockingham for round two.

Darren Turner took pole at the Rock but bad luck would hit the SEAT driver when he was unable to take the start due to mechanical problems which instead meant that Giovanardi inherited pole ahead of Plato and Chilton. The Italian duly converted pole into a first win for the Vectra ahead of team-mate Chilton while Plato completed the podium. Arguably the drive of the race came further back however as Turkington came through from the back of the field to finish seventh.

Race two saw Giovanardi double up, but it was a race that would have just twelve finishers after a number of incidents - including a multi-car accident on the opening lap removed Neal, Turkington, Shedden and Jordan from the equation. Onslow-Cole snared his first BTCC podium with a fine drive to second ahead of Chilton, Jackson and Plato. Plato made amends however by winning race three ahead of Jackson and Turner to extend his lead in the standings to 18 points. However, it was now Giovanardi who was up into second place in the standings, and the Italian had outscored Plato over the weekend to bring the gap between the pair down from 24 after Brands Hatch.

Fresh from his first win of the season, Giovanardi then took a first pole at Thruxton as the high-speed Hampshire venue played host to round three and he converted it into victory in the opening race - although only just after an engine warning light came on on the Vectra in the closing stages. Indeed, the Italian was forced to park the car shortly after crossing the line ahead of Plato and Turner. That was only after a last lap puncture for Mike Jordan however that dropped him from a fine second place down to tenth - one point being little reward for a battling drive.

As was the case at Rockingham, Giovanardi doubled up in race two and was able to close the gap in the points to Plato after the SEAT ace could only finish sixth. That came after he was given a drive-through penalty for having a mechanic on the grid after the allowed time when his car didn't want to start prior to the race, although a heavy accident involving his team-mate Turner and Motorbase's Matt Allison led to a Safety Car period that allowed Plato catch up with the pack. Behind Giovanardi, it was Neal and Chilton who completed the podium ahead of Jordan and Turkington - the RAC man having led early on before the tyres on his BMW went away from him and he slipped back.

In race three, Plato ensured he would remain on top of the standings as he took victory after chasing down and passing early leader Dave Pinkney - the Luton Town Chairman having been given pole thanks to the reverse grid rules. Gordon Shedden and Jordan completed the podium ahead of Giovanardi - with the Italian having now closed the gap at the top of the standings to nine points heading to Croft.

The annual trip to the North East saw a number of firsts, which included Shedden putting the Civic on top of the grid for the first time in qualifying as the Scot edged out Turkington and Turner for top spot. Title rivals Giovanardi and Plato could only manage fifth and eighth which set up an interesting weekend of racing as Croft celebrated ten years on the BTCC calendar.

The second 'first' of the weekend came in race one as Turkington took the lead from the start and stormed to victory - giving him the first win for a BMW driver since Roberto Ravaglia back in 1996. Pole man Shedden took second, having passed team-mate Neal when the champion was held up while lapping Onslow-Cole who had pitted earlier with a puncture. However, a double podium was a sign that things were starting to come good for the Halfords squad after the false dawn of the Brands victory. Giovanardi was sixth in the race ahead of Plato - so closing the gap slightly in the standings.

An action packed second race saw Turner take his first win in the BTCC, albeit only after SEAT played the team game and gave Plato time at the front to pick up the bonus point on offer for leading a lap. Plato then slowed on the run to the line to give Turner - the earlier leader - the race win. The final place on the podium went to Jordan, while Giovanardi could manage only sixth in a battle-scarred Vectra after contact with Turkington and Allison at the hairpin, the incident coming after Turkington was tipped into a spin by Plato.

That disappointing result would actually work in the Italian's favour however, as he started on row two for the final race and quickly got into the lead of the race - going on to take a fifth win of the season ahead of Onslow-Cole, who produced a fine drive in the BMW for another podium finish. Jackson completed the top three but Plato could manage only eighth after he was forced wide by team-mate Turner and lost places early on. It meant that he headed to Oulton Park for the fifth meeting of the year leading by just two points....

Pole position in Cheshire went, once again, to Turkington ahead of Shedden and Neal in the Civics, while title rivals Plato and Giovanardi were fifth and sixth. However, rain was expected for race day which raised the prospect of the cat firmly being thrown amongst the pigeons as the season headed towards the half way point.

The rain stayed away for the opening race as Shedden came through to take his first win of the year ahead of Giovanardi and Turkington while Plato could manage only seventh - meaning it was advantage Fabrizio heading into race two, with rain starting to fall.

The second race was dramatic for two reasons, the first of which was a heavy four car shunt that saw Pinkney, Blanckley, Hughes and Erkut forced to retire and the race running behind the Safety Car until lap eight. It was soon under caution again however after Gareth Howell went off at Old Hall in the wet and was forced out.

In the little racing action there was, Giovanardi was trying his best to get past leader Turkington but it was only on the final lap that he got a run on the BMW out of the final corner. However, Turkington held on to win by just 0.046secs from the Italian with Jordan in third. Plato was only fifth which left him twelve points behind Giovanardi going into race three.

Race three saw Mat Jackson take his first win in the BTCC as he stormed into the lead at the start of the race and then fought off the challenge of Plato for a popular breakthrough victory ahead of Turner, Shedden and Jones - who was returning to the series for the first time since the Brands opener. Giovanardi though failed to finish after an incident with Neal, Turkington and Jordan on the opening lap put him into the barriers and left him level on points with Plato in the standings.

However, it was then announced that a computer error meant Giovanardi hadn't been given a bonus point for equalling the fastest lap in the second race of the weekend, which gave the Italian a one point lead at the mid-way point of the year.

It was shaping up to be an exciting end to an already enthralling season...

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