Gordon Shedden spoiled the Team Aon party, beating both Ford Focuses in clean racing, before escaping the chaos that spawned at Donington Park's newly re-profiled chicane.
The two Fords had started the race from the front row, but a poor start from poleman Tom Chilton let Shedden past into second off the line, the Scot taking to the grass on the way to Redgate to take second behind Tom Onslow-Cole. Despite the success ballast held over from his second place in the final race at Knockhill a fortnight ago Onslow-Cole had pulled out a seventh-tenths lead at the end of the first lap.
Onslow-Cole’s lead was doubtlessly boosted by slow starts from Jason Plato and Matt Neal from fourth and fifth on the grid, that allowed Andrew Jordan and Rob Collard through at the end of the first lap.
However, such a lead was short lived, Shedden having an optimistic look on the outside of the leader around Redgate, which only allowed Chilton to snatch second away, moving straight onto the tail of his teammate as the field dropped through the swoops of Hollywood, the Craner Curves and the Old Hairpin.
With no sign (at least at this point) of the kind of move the Fords pulled at Silverstone, Chilton had to fight for a route past Onslow-Cole, suddenly made to look very slow as the top five clambered over each other in his wake.
Chilton tried to take the lead at Coppice, but only founf his way blocked by some defensive, but fair, driving from Onlsow-Cole, which allowed Shedden alongside, trying to retake the place he lost earlier on the lap. The two touched, Shedden briefly pulling right as small shards of bodywork flew down the straight. It was a touch that could easily have punctured a tyre, but both continued on without losing place.
Behind, Neal and Plato were making progress in tandem after their slow getaways – Neal leaning on Jordan at McLeans, pushing the Pirtek sponsored Vectra through the gravel, falling from fifth to seventh as the championship front runners slipped past. It was the same story a few laps later when Rob Collard was pushed wide, Neal through immediately, Plato taking fifth under braking for the new chicane – now marginally closer to Coppice and with a slightly tighter first element.
Lap 6 saw the first of what would be two safety car interventions to retrieve Paul O'Neill's sunshine.co.uk Honda Integra from the grass beside the Dunlop Straight, strangely bereft lacking its iconic bridge.
Fighting on the fringes of the top ten the Merseysider had got together with Tom Boardman and one of the Airwaves BMW, sending the Honda spinning to the inside, the BMW bouncing across the grass, though continuing on unimpeded.
A comparatively long safety car period saw the race restart on lap 12 – a lap that would decide the race, and could have championship implications.
Leader Onslow-Cole was sideways through McLeans, the merest of contact possibly the culprit. Shedden was through, followed by Chilton, both finally accomplishing what they'd tried and failed to do before, but with Onslow-Cole pushed wide the field threatened to freight-train by him down the straight.
Matt Neal was almost certainly clear of the LPG-powered Ford as the gaggle braked for the chicane, only for Jason Plato to apply a little pressure to the rear of the Honda.
It was the equivalent of pulling the pin from a very volatile grenade.
Arriving at the chicane quicker than he expected he was wide though the right-hander and careered into one of foam bales that marked the inside of the chicane's second part.
The double champion hit one head on, and while the foam simply bounced off the Civic the Civic bounced back onto the track into the side of Jason Plato, the championship leader dispatched into the gravel on the outside of the corner. Wary of the carnage unfolding on the inside, Onslow-Cole split onto the grass, only to collect two more of the bales, sending them onto the track, into the path of the luckless Andrew Jordan who could do nothing but joined Plato's Chevrolet nestled in the tyre wall.
Collard was half spun, dropping from the top ten, while Mat Jackson and Alex MacDowall had snuck into third and fourth after disappointing qualifying runs.
The chaos left an unexpected, and occasionally unfamiliar, top ten. Having not run a lap in qualifying Steven Kane had found his way to seventh under the post-chicane-crash safety car, which became sixth as he was one of the drivers who passed the damaged car of Onslow-Cole in the two racing laps that were left after the safety car peeled into the pits.
Matt Neal, who had somehow got away with little more than a few dents and piece of the bale wrapping on his car held onto fifth and six points, to slice into Plato's points lead. Tom Boardman was seventh, ahead of Onslow-Cole with veterans James Kaye and David Pinkney rounding out the top ten – Kaye passing Pinkney in the closing laps.
Plato's retirement closed up the already tight title race, with four drivers – he, Neal, Shedden and Onslow-Cole now within 20 points of each other. And with the grid of the day's second race set by the finishing order of the first Plato will start from a lowly nineteenth, promising more opportunities for the challengers to gain on him.