was at Donington Park for the final rounds of the BTCC, as the battle for the championship came to a dramatic conclusion...

by Matt Salisbury.

For 30 races there has been little to separate James Thompson and Yvan Muller at the top of the British Touring Car Championship standings, so it was little surprise the title battle went right to wire.

However no-one imagined just how dramatic the final day of racing in the 2004 championship would be.

Heading into the first race of the day, Thompson held a narrow five point advantage at the top of the standings, with Muller determined to overhaul him to clinch a second successive title.

On the second lap of the opening race, Muller had got right up with Thompson heading into the Craner Curves and when two into one wouldn't go, it was Muller who lost out. He went off across the grass and couldn't slow in time for the Old Hairpin and went off across the gravel.

"It's always dodgy going round the outside there," Thompson told Radio afterwards. "I had a moment and he nudged me wide, I was tight turning into the left hander and I oversteered into him - you reap what you sow."

Muller found himself plummeting down the order before staging a recovery drive to take seventh, but with Thompson overcoming a determined Colin Turkington to take second, the gap between the two grew to 13 points.

"The car was fantastic, probably the best it's been all year," Thompson said straight after stepping off the podium. "Even though I didn't win the race, the car was strong right to finish and that hasn't always been the case this year. Bearing in mind I was the third heaviest car out there with success ballast, I'm very pleased.

"We're not putting much weight in but I'm I confident can get up grid - I'll certainly take a 13 point lead now."

If race one belonged to Thompson then race two went the way of Muller. The Frenchman, bidding to be the first person since Chris Hodgetts back in 1986/87 to win back-to-back titles, battled with Dan Eaves in the Computeach Racing Honda for second before launching a valiant effort to overhaul Tom Chilton, who was a couple of seconds down the road.

Muller began to put in the quick laps, a la Michael Schumacher, as he hunted the youngster down, aided by oil at the last corner which Chilton admitted was making him adopt a slower, more cautious line.

Lap after lap the gap tumbled, but the laps simply ran out and Muller couldn't challenge for the win, finishing just 0.524secs behind the black Honda.

Maybe Vauxhall had done something special to the Astra for its final BTCC race before it is replaced next season, as Muller echoed Thompson's comments on how well the car had gone.

"That was probably the best car that I have had all season," he said. "The car was brilliant, it's won the title for four years in a row and it is the best car. I just needed one or two more laps, Chilton was quicker at the start and I wasn't quick enough and that has probably cost me the win."

And he admitted that anything could still happen in the battle for the title.

"Three years ago, with two laps till the end, I was champion," he said, "and then my engine blew up and I lost the championship, so everything is possible until you see the finish line."

Despite his comments after race one, coming from the middle of the pack wasn't going to be easy, and so it proved for Thompson. His chances of winning went on the opening lap when teammate Luke Hines spun and delayed most of the field, allowing the top three to sprint away, and he then had to make sure he didn't get caught up in an incidents in the pack before he secured fifth place.

Thirteen points for Muller, compared to six for Thompson, meant the Englishman had an advantage of six points heading into the finale.

Amid much head scratching in the media room, it soon became clear what the permutations were for the title. If Muller could get away into the lead from the front row and take the win, he would pick up a maximum of 17 points (15 for the win plus a bonus point for leading and a further point if he could set the fastest lap). That meant Thompson had to take second if he wanted to be champion, as victory for Muller would give him five wins to four for Thompson - with race wins deciding the order if two drivers were level on points.

However if Thompson could get the bonus point for fastest lap, then third would do - as Muller would only be able to get a maximum of 16 points from the race and would fall just short.

So with bated breath, the bumper crowd at Donington settled down to watch the action unfold.

Off the line, Muller made light work of passing polesitter Chilton, but Jason Plato - the one person other than Thompson that Muller wouldn't want in his mirrors - followed him through.

Thompson was forced onto the grass at the start, then drove like a man possessed as he climbed to third, and crucially on lap three, he banged in the quickest lap of the day, meaning that as things stood, he would clinch the title by one point.

Muller was no doubt aware of the fact that he had to push for the fastest lap, and with a 1.2 second lead over Plato in the SEAT, he could focus on pushing to get the extra, vital, point.

However fate was to deal Muller a cruel hand. When Michael Bentwood and Gavin Pyper tangled heading into Redgate, the safety car was scrambled to retrieve the GA Motorsports car, ridding Muller of his advantage.

Although he managed to ease out a small advantage when the safety car pulled back in, Plato had his sights firmly fixed on ending the season with a win. Meanwhile Thompson was well aware that, as long as Muller didn't get the quickest lap, all he had to do was hold position.

However with Plato snapping at his heels, Muller found himself forced into defensive lines, costing him time, as the lap times went up to the mid 1min 14sec range. When Muller seemed to edge ahead, Plato reeled him back in, as the laps dropped and the title slipped from his grasp.

With the race distance increased to 18 laps, Muller looked to have shaken Plato off, but the SEAT man was simply plotting a last ditch bit for glory. Heading under the Dunlop Bridge on the run to the final chicane on the penultimate lap, Plato was fixed firmly to the back of the Astra, virtually pushing Muller along the straight.

All of a sudden the yellow car jinked left as Plato went for the outside line for the right left jink. Muller got slightly ahead as the two headed right, but Plato had his nose up the inside as they then went onto the start finish straight, sending Muller sliding sideways.

As the crowds, the media, and no doubt the VX Racing mechanics watching from the pitlane held their breath, Muller managed to keep his car pointing the right way as the trio began the final lap.

On that final lap, Plato tried the same thing, but wasn't close enough to make the pass. However it didn't matter - the close attention of the SEAT had prevented Muller from stealing the second bonus point from Thompson, who followed over the line for third place and the title - by that single point.

It meant it was Thompson who became a two time champion and now departs for pastures new as the number one.

"Fantastic, I can't put it into words to be honest with you," he said straight after collecting his trophy. "It's absolutely marvellous, and to win by one point as well is just amazing. It's a fitting way to end the season to be honest, with us being so close all year, but luckily I'm leaving as number one.

"It means everything, you don't want to come into anything to be second. I've had some fantastic years with Vauxhall and the BTCC - it was brilliant."

But where there is a winner, there has to be a loser, and a very solemn looking Muller took to the top of the podium to collect his trophy for winning the race.

Having been at the top nearly all season, he was understandably disappointed when asked how he felt afterwards.

"You said everything," he replied when asked how disappointed he was to have missed out by a point. "I am disappointed I lost the championship, that's life. I couldn't do better this weekend, I did by best and that's it.

"I feel disappointed as I was leader of this championship during 27 races and I lost the lead three races from the end and the championship by one point. If you look at how many points I have lost in the last two or three races with contact with some guys, that is even more disappointing.

"To lose because the other man is better or quicker than you is one thing, but to lose the championship because some other guys come to play, to come between us, is frustrating but maybe in the future I'll be in the opposite position."

All that can be said is that 2005 has a lot to live up to...