Neal's main problem was his start, a smoky, sliding, wheelspinning get away allowing James Nash in his Triple Eight Vectra to slip between the front row sitting Hondas on the way to Redgate on lap one.
While the pace of James' charge – in a new black and grey livery for the weekend – is undoubted the Hondas have so far proven to be the cars to beat and Neal reclaimed the lead at Redgate at the beginning of the second lap. Nash fell back to fourth behind Andrew Jordan and Gordon Shedden – the pair having resolved their own battle at McLeans with Jordon moving past on the inside of the Scot's Civic.
If anyone is capable of catching the Honda's – especially Neal's relatively unballasted example, by virtue of coming into the weekend fifth in the points' standings – it is Jordan and Pirtek Racing. It did look like the 21-year-old might be able to catch Neal, cutting a tenth from Neal's 1.195 second initial advantage on consecutive laps, before Neal was able to add a tenth on a third lap of the 1.97 mile circuit.
“We were trading times throughout most of the race,” said Jordan. “The situation is we're trying to get the tyres to last, everybody's struggling with tyre wear so in the end we decided to settle for second and get the points.”
Jordan admitted to flashing his headlights across the second gap to Neal – a perhaps bizarre tactic given the bright sunshine cascading from the sky and the veteran driver at the wheel of the leading car – before the scare of a vibration in the car hastened the decision to bank the points and the front row start for the second race of the day.
Neal was quick to dispel any idea of the win being comfortable; “Andy was quicker through the first half of the lap and I seemed to have him pegged through the second half,” he assessed. “It was trying to manage the tyres and the brakes – it was snatching from the brakes at the rear going into the heavy braking areas for the chicane but we managed to maintain just that little bit of a gap.”
Shedden claimed third, ahead of Nash and Tom Chilton who ran a quiet race for another solid points finish. Mat Jackson finished seventh having fought past a trio of normally aspirated cars – Rob Collard, Paul O'Neill and Alex MacDowall – to finish seventh, but it was with the trio the main battles lay.
Collard performed a feat thought impossible – holding off a NGTC engined car in Tom Boardman's SEAT. Boardman was able to challenge, deploying the acceleration of the turbo unit to pull alongside on the pit straight before Collard was able to use a defensive inside line to keep the place under brakes into Redgate.
There was another NGTC versus normally aspirated car battle for the final points. Paul O'Neill and Alex MacDowall were enjoying an all Cruze battle that allowed Jeff Smith's Pirtek Racing Vectra to catch them. Smith had started the race from sixth but was muscled out at the first corner, falling out of the top ten. The Vectra driver was able to pass MacDowall for tenth on the pit straight, taking advantage as the sophomore driver had his momentum broken as O'Neill slid his car to the exit of the chicane.
However, MacDowall was determined to keep the place in the closing laps and beat off Smith for the final point.
For Jason Plato Donington has gone from bad to worse. Already struggling against the NGTC armada, qualifying eighth, he had moved into sixth before a left-front puncture knocked him out of the points, the tyre deflating as he turned into the Old Hairpin. He did manage to bring the car back undamaged, and the RML team returned him the track on fresh tyres two laps down. If the plan was to salvage the point for fastest lap then it fell short, Plato unable to improve on his own fastest time, which itself was nearly a second shy of Matt Neal's fastest lap of the race at 1:10.902 and just over 100mph. He will, perhaps the worst effect of the puncture, start race two from 19th, now largely at the mercy of the reverse grid for the final race if he is to take any meaningful points from the weekend.
There was also disappointment for Dave Newsham and Tony Gilham. After both scored points on their BTCC debuts at Brands Hatch both were realistically removed from contention for a top ten on the first lap. Newsham broke the steering on his BMW in a start line coming together that pitched John George into the wall on the right hand side of the straight. Gilham, starting 13th, lasted until the first corner when he was spun by Andy Neate. Gilham finished 16th, Neate was given two points on his race license
Post race Gordon Shedden would lose third place to a technical infringement, putting him at the back of the grid for race two.