Monday, 11 August 2014

BTCC 2014: Plato leads the Charge at Snetterton

The Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship returned from its Summer Break to the venue of Snetterton for the beginning of the second half of the 2014 season and the series offered more of its exciting close racing, thrills and spills.

In the buildup to the event, Team BMR confirmed that it had replaced the two NGTC Vauxhall Insignia's driven by Jack Goff and Warren Scott with two newly built VW CC's. This will mean an enormous amount of data being gathered by the team with four CC's in operation so expect strides to be made.

Jason Plato would start Race One of the British Touring Car Championship from pole position after setting the fastest lap time in qualifying at Snetterton.

The two-time champion was dominant in the day’s earlier second practice, and despite missing out on beating his session time, still finished 0.415s ahead of Colin Turkington with Sam Tordoff in third.

Plato made the early laps by the rear-wheel drive cars look almost amateurish as he set his fastest time, a 1:56.495, a new qualifying record at the circuit with his first flying lap, when those around him were struggling to break out of the 1:59s bracket.

With Andrew Jordan forced to miss the session after he was ruled out on medical grounds following a crash in first practice, Mat Neal set out to salvage some pride for the Honda runners. The three-time champion, who has endured a trying 2014 campaign thus far, ran well in the early stages, trading times with Sam Tordoff for second place.

A number of drivers set their fastest times with some of their first laps. Alain Menu jumped up to fourth a third of the way through the 30-minute session, while Tom Ingram put in another impressive display to claim sixth.

Menu’s fourth became fifth when championship leader Colin Turkington moved into second, as the Northern Irishman’s effort also demoted Tordoff and Neal, the former eventually gaining the upper hand, but still qualifying seven-tenths slower than his teammate in first.

Aron Smith was seventh, while Adam Morgan would start ahead of Mat Jackson by virtue of having set his lap of 1:57.746s earlier than the Airwaves driver’s identical effort. Jack Goff rounded out the top ten, despite a small off.

Plato commanded the first race of the day at Snetterton, heading Colin Turkington home with Matt Neal completing the podium.

While there was plenty of action throughout the field, Plato was serene at the front as he led from lights-to-flag, finishing 1.924s ahead of Turkington, who was at least able to keep the MG driver honest.

Surprisingly as the race got underway Plato maintained his lead ahead of the usually fast-starting BMW of Turkington, but while the field were safely able to negotiate Riches, Sam Tordoff found himself in trouble on the exit of the corner as he came of worst in an incident involving Neal and Menu. Further down the order, Nick Foster appeared to be tapped into a spin by AmD Tuning’s Dave Newsham and limped back to the pits.

As the leading duo broke away at the front, Menu found himself in third after the opening lap incident with Neal and Tordoff, while Tom Ingram managed to work his way between the two champions after a good start. That lasted until lap three however, as Neal pounced on the Speedworks Toyota and set his sights on catching Menu.

It took just two more laps for Neal to move into third, but it took a forceful move at Murrays from the Honda driver which put Menu on the back foot. With BMR Restart teammate Aron Smith having made his way past Ingram on the same lap, he cruised alongside Menu along the pit straight and the pair almost came to blows with the Swiss having to take avoiding action dangerously close to the pit wall. Their battle continued down to Montreal, but as they focused on each other Adam Morgan nipped up the inside of the pair with a fantastic late braking move into the hairpin.

After that frantic period in the race, things started to settle down, as Menu gradually eked out a lead over his teammate. Rob Austin, in his team’s 100th race, attempted to pass Glynn Geddie but the pair collided and the United Autosports driver dropped from 12th to 15th.

Back at the front, Plato was able to canter to the flag, setting a best time of 1:58.120s – just shy of Tordoff’s race lap record from 2013 – with Turkington claiming more valuable points to build his championship lead. Neal’s third place was his fifth podium of the season, but his first in nine races came as he had to hold off Morgan, who showed great pace to secure his best finish of the season.

Menu and Smith came home line astern in fifth and sixth, ahead of Shedden, who performed better than he had on Saturday but still lost ground to Turkington in the championship. Jackson finished in eighth whilst Jack Goff and Rob Collard completed the top ten, but only after Ingram was forced to retire from the race on the final lap as his wheel flew off.

That had repercussions for the final points paying position, as Ingram’s retirement allowed Rotek Racing’s Robb Holland to score his first point of the season and his team’s first in the championship. The American was forced to work hard for his position, but after a great start, a determined drive saw him keep the recovering Andrew Jordan at bay for the final three laps.

Plato went on to take a second victory of the day at Snetterton, as he battled his way back past second placed man Turkington with Shedden completing the podium.

As the race started, Turkington was able to do what he missed out on in race one and overtake the MG of Plato – who was carrying 45 kilograms of ballast following his earlier success – into Riches to lead the pack. However, behind them there was contact almost immediately as Alain Menu, who had run wide on the exit of the first corner, brought the rear of his car across the front of Morgan’s WIX Racing Mercedes and found himself sliding into the barrier on the inside of the circuit, bringing his second race two exit in as many race weekends.

With Menu’s car stricken at the side of the circuit, the Safety Car made an appearance and remained in place until the end of lap four, with the race distance increased to 15 laps. Turkington tried to make a break as the race resumed, but Plato stayed with him as the front two again raced away at the front.

Almost immediately however there was contact, as Andrew Jordan – who had made up six places from his grid slot – pushed Collard wide through Williams onto the main straight. That allowed Goff to close up on the pair, and as they went to turn into Brundle three-abreast, Collard was squeezed by the two on either side of him and Jordan was shot off onto the grass, giving him more ground to make up once again.

One lap later Shedden showed that trio how overtaking into the corner should be done, with a brave move on the outside of Morgan for fourth place.

Plato had looked racey just before the Safety Car was deployed, and after pursuing Turkington from the restart, taking a look up the inside into Brundle on lap eight, he passed the BMW into Montreal at the start of lap nine to regain first place. Shedden had made similar inroads on teammate Matt Neal, and a couple of seconds further back made the same move to climb into the podium positions.

Turkington ensured that Plato worked for his win as he stayed with the MG until two laps from the end, but after feigning an overtake he dropped away, leaving him to claim his 13th win at Snetterton, the site of his first victory in the series.

With Turkington second and Shedden third, Neal came home in fourth ahead of Morgan who was a distant but impressive fifth. Mat Jackson led home teammate Fabrizio Giovanardi for sixth and seventh, while eighth-placed man Smith will start from pole for race three after his number was drawn. Tordoff recovered to ninth after his race one disaster, with the third MG of Marc Hynes in 10th.

Jordan finished the race in 15th after recovering a few positions after his off, but the decision was taken to rule him out from racing in the final event of the day following his free practice accident on Saturday.

Smith claimed a third British Touring Car Championship career victory at Snetterton in an intense final race, with Jackson in second and Turkington in third.

The Irishman was defending almost from the get-go but soaked up the pressure with maturity to secure his second victory of the season and his BMR Restart team’s second as an outfit.

Smith’s position looked under threat immediately when second-place man Fabrizio Giovanardi got a better start off the line, but he was forced to tuck in behind the Volkswagen CC, just in front of teammate Jackson.

The race was started in an impeccable manner by the entire field as every driver completing the first lap cleanly, although Jack Clarke was slow at the end of the Bentley straight.

Morgan looked fiesty in the opening moments but he was slightly over-zealous in his pursuit of Jackson’s third place, running wide at Agostini and relinquishing positions to Neal and Turkington.

Over the next couple of laps, those in front of Morgan’s Mercedes began to pull away, but that changed when Neal and Turkington caught up to the leading three cars, as they then found themselves backed into a pack including Plato and Shedden.

There then followed a brief period of calm until lap seven, when Turkington, who had the door shut on him by Neal in front a lap earlier, appeared to be caught out by the Honda driver’s early breaking into Montreal with Neal plummeting down the order and out of contention.

As all eyes were focused on that move, Jackson snuck by his teammate at the same corner and started his pursuit of Smith’s lead. Jackson, whose winless run stretched back to the Silverstone meeting in 2012, was keen to get past his former teammate and had a half chance when Smith was slow out of Murrays, but the Volkswagen driver was able to hold his lead onto the pit straight.

Whilst the final race of the day five weeks ago at Croft had been messy and full of crashes, Turkington, Plato and Shedden were all full of respect for one another knowing that the points scored this weekend could well stand them in good stead come the end of the season.

Jackson had one final attempt to pass Smith for the lead on the final lap, as he held onto the back of the Volkswagen through Riches before giving him a gentle tap into Montreal. With Smith’s superior straight-line speed, however, the 24-year-old was able to maintain his lead in the final half of the lap, eventually finishing 0.444s ahead of Jackson.

Giovanardi was set for third, but he made a small error at the penultimate corner and ran wide onto the grass, losing positions to Turkington, Plato, Shedden before receiving a hit from Rob Collard, sending the Italian down the order to 13th.

With Collard securing sixth, Tordoff, Morgan, Hynes and Goff completed the top ten, with Neal in 11th but securing an extra point for the fastest lap.

This means that Turkington left Snetterton with his championship lead stretched to 23 points ahead of Shedden, whilst Plato moved into third in the championship ahead of Jordan who suffered a poor weekend and will now be on maximum attack for the remaining 12 races. Collard, Jackson, Neal, Tordoff, Smith and Morgan complete the top ten places.

Knockhill is next up for the BTCC, where the BMW's and RWD Audi's are sure to be up the front of the field, whilst Jason Plato is sure to be bitching even more about the "FWD vs RWD" debate...

My thoughts on that will be published in a later blog post, one where I will be extremely honest in my opinions...



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