That Mat Jackson started the final race of the BTCC day at Donington Park from tenth, but was in second when the safety car gathered up the pack at the start of lap two should tell you all you need to know about the chaotic race he would ultimately win.
On a day which had already seen the champion roll and another driver receive points on his racing license race three was another massively damage afflicted race as only thirteen cars were classified at the end of the nineteen laps.
The carnage began before even the first corner. Dave Newsham too to the grass to try and take advantage of his fast starting BWM, but span back across the track. As the field scattered to both flanks of the track to avoid the gyrating Newsham the rear of the Geoff Steel Racing car caught Tony Hughes in the left rear, breaking the rear suspension on the Avensis. Newsham, quite incredibly given the heavy damage to the rear of his car was able to continue, though he would be included in the list of the unclassified.
Down the track at Redgate there was more 'action' Tom Onslow–Cole had passed a slow starting Tony Gilham and Alex MacDowall to lead into the corner but ran wide. Gilham meanwhile was sideways ahead of near enough the entire field, before contact with Rob Collard's BMW pushed the pink and green Vectra wide, forcing Gordon Shedden to skip over the gravel before rejoining to take the Craner Curves.
Down Donington's sweeping signature bends a pack had built up behind a smoking Collard with front bodywork damage. Both Collard and Tom-Onslow following in third swung out for a wide entry to the Old Hairpin but among the queue of challengers lining the inside another chain reaction of contact was rippling forward.
“There was bit of confusion going on at the first corner,” James Nash gives his account of the opening lap incidents. “Tony [Gilham] got turned, he was facing me at one point somehow I missed that – I think he must have reversed out the way or something, I don't know. We're going down to the Old Hairpin – that'd obviously bunched us all up and Mat Jackson was alongside me and I was squeezing him. I think I got shoved from behind – maybe Andrew Jordan and Jackson – that put me into a half spin and in turn that touched Chilton that put him into a spin. Luckily I got away from it that's the way it works.”
Nash's account – Gilham's contact with Collard, rather than reversing, cleared his path at Redgate, and it was Jackson who began the contact at the Old Hairpin – speaks volumes about the frenetic pace of the opening corners.
With Chilton in the gravel at the bottom of the hill the safety car was called out, Alex MacDowall leading an unlikely top ten that included Andy Neate in fifth followed by Jeff Smith (who had started thirteenth) and John George with Chris James in ninth.
Jackson needed little time to put his red Focus into the lead, driving past MacDowall on the Dunlop straight to take the racing line for the chicane.
Also moving forward were the heavily ballasted Vectras of Andrew Jordan and James Nash. Having overcome Matt Neal, slowed by a damaged splitter visible beneath the front of the Honda, Jordan took second from MacDowall at McLeans on lap nine, Nash taking the final podium slot from the RML driver at the chicane three laps later. The pair could not catch Jackson, however, who went to claim what he called a “great win” for the Airwaves Racing team and Ford
Both Honda Racing Team drivers suffered damage. Frontal damage to Shedden's entry – as a result of the early pushing and shoving no doubt – put him out of the race, but Neal soildered on, tumbling down the field to finish seventh, helped by the drop out rate of those ahead.
There was no shortage of quality racing, but it all became overshadowed by the mounting damage bill. During his climb to third James Nash had half spun Andy Neate at Redgate, Neate trying to close the door on Nash when the black Vectra was already alongside, though the tightness of the line Nash's passing attempt would have necessitated may have caused contact even if Neate had not moved over. Paul O'Neill, already having narrowly escaped contact with his GoMobileUK.com teammate John George, span out an ailing Collard at Redgate, in a reverse of race two's Old Hairpin skirmish.
The final crash of the day was reserved for the final lap. Andy Neate was being chased by Jeff Smith and Tony Gilham. Smith forged ahead through the early corners of the lap, before a slide through the Craner Curves forced him into taking a momentum sapping defensive line for the Old Hairpin. Neate followed directly behind, the pair allowing Gilham to pull alongside under the Starkeys Bridge and into the left kink at Schwantz Curve. Side to Side contact pitched Neate heavily into the tyre wall while Gilham's broken rear suspension sent him spearing off as he began the climb from McLeans to Coppice.
The carnage welcomed new names into the points. Smith survived the battle for fifth, Liam Griffin recorded his first overall points in ninth, Nick Foster doing the same in tenth, but no name was more welcome in the top ten than Jason Plato.
A car that had been practically destroyed in race two was back on track a little more than two hours after it had been returned to the RML garage. That the car – the bent and buckled roof and taped on radio aerial the few easily identifiable scars on the car that was applauded by those gathered on the pitlane outside the RML garage. That the car was on the grid was remarkable, that the car was straight enough to race was even more so, that Plato had the confidence in the work to fight for positions in his normal manner was simply incredible.
The miraculous Cruze and champion aboard finished sixth, the last man to pass Matt Neal on the penultimate lap.
Almost forgotten in the course of the races was James Nash, who with two podiums and a fourth place on the had taken the championship lead by four points from Matt Neal. Neal's fellow Donington winner Jackson and Jordan leave the Midlands track third and fourth.
“You always like to think that you can be there,” said Nash about whether he considered himself a candidate for the overall title. “I'll just keep plugging away and hopefully the win will come very soon and more and more podiums – that's what it's all about, just keep pushing those podiums.”
The BTCC next goes to Thruxton with Nash, perhaps, considering the long game of the season ahead. “My history has always been more a championship type driver,” he said. “I don't throw stuff away particularly. If I'm in second and it's going to be a bit of a lunge for first them I'm not going to do it because it's not worth in, not for me and not for the person that is leading at the time. You always have that in your mind there's no point in ruining a whole race for one place.”