The new breed of NGTC powered cars stormed the first British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) qualifying session of the year, snatching both front row starting positions and the qualifying lap record around the Brands Hatch Indy circuit.
Matt Neal took pole in the Honda Racing Team Civic, lapping the 1.22 mile track in a new record of 48.210 seconds. The length of the track puts into sharp focus the advantage – 0.255 seconds – Neal enjoyed over fellow NGTC runner Andrew Jordan, who put his Pirtek Racing Vectra in second.
“What a start and we've probably even surprised ourselves with that gap,” said Neal. “But the race will be different – we can't sustain that pace every lap and all the turbo runners are expecting to suffer greater tyre wear over the second half of the race whereas Jason is not too far away. He'll come on really strong as the race progresses so starting ahead of him in particular is exactly where I need to be.”
The day had earlier seen 21-year-old Jordan show off the same pace that put him top of the media day test session as the blue-liveried machine topped both practice sessions on the track where Jordan rounded out 2010 with a win last October.
James Nash was another Vectra driver to show good pace, taking fourth on the grid for Triple Eight.
Apparently pessimistic of his race chances was Jason Plato, who could only muster the third fastest time, 0.373 seconds down on Neal's benchmark. “That really is everything we've got in our tank – we've gone quicker than the pole record we set here last October yet the gap to Matt is still nearly four tenths of a second which is a bit of a shock,” said Plato.
“The other teams have clearly done a great job in the winter. There is all this talk about the turbo cars having tyre worries but until we actually find out tomorrow then that's all it isâ€¦ talk!” he adds, also stating he believes that overtaking the turbocharged cars will be difficult in the three races on Sunday.
Only three of the top ten in qualifying were using S2000-spec engines, Alex MacDowall taking sixth and Paul O'Neill ninth in the midst of a pack of 14 cars that were covered by less than a second, from Jordan to BTCC debutant Dave Newsham.
The turbocharged cars, however, didn't have it all their own way. Tom Chilton dropped to seventh in the first race weekend for the new Ford Focus after his car failed a ride height test while the two full NGTC spec Toyota Avensis only lining up 20th and 21st.
The third completely NGTC car – Rob Austin Racing's Audi A4 remained in the garage, the team working to get Dave Pinkney on track for Sunday's racing.
Gordon Shedden was the other man to sit out qualifying on a bitter-sweet day for Honda. The Scot suffered a scary high speed crash at Paddock Hill Bend in the first practice session of the day, badly damaging the no.52 car that was only completed last week. The team, however, believe they will be able to rebuild the car before the first race of the season.