Jason Plato claimed pole position from an eventful qualifying session at Rockingham that ended in the most controversial manner in an already controversial season.
Plato sat on provisional pole after five other drivers had taken their turns at the top of the ever evolving timesheet. However, with just three minutes to go a red flag brought everyone in to the pitlane and set up a grandstand finish.
The stoppage came courtesy of Liam Griffin who had spun on the exit of Gracelands causing heavy damage to the front of his Airwaves Racing Ford Focus. With just three minutes to go – barely enough time for an outlap and two flying laps track position was at a premium and Matt Neal was sandwiched between the two Silverline Chevrolet.
On several occasions in the remaining laps Neal and Plato appeared to make contact as they jockeyed for position. The affair came to a climax in the pitlane after the session when Neal and Plato confronted each other, the Honda driver appearing to pull back his arm as if to punch Plato – who still has his crash helmet on. Neither driver was available to comment after the session.
Plato had been fast throughout the session, the only man to hold the fastest time on two separate occasions.
The pitlane fracas will unfortunately draw attention away from Paul O'Neill who will share the front row with Plato. With six minutes remaining The Widnes-based driver briefly looked on course for a popular pole, but Plato surpassed his time by 0.160 seconds.
Rob Austin will start third. He was one of the few drivers not to take to track during the final three minutes, his time remaining safe as none of the drivers in the top ten were able to improve their position. Austin and fellow NGTC driver and practice setter Frank Wrathall held the front row at the half way point of the session but while Austin was able to take six tenths off his time in the second half of the 30-minute session Wrathall remained on 1:24.186 and fell to seventh by the end of the session.
Matt Neal will start fourth, with James Nash fifth – the Vectra rediscovering some of its early season form after a slow start to the second half of the year.
Championship leader Gordon Shedden – another man to hold provisional pole during the session – will start sixth in his Civic, carrying maximum ballast into the first race of the weekend.
Andrew Jordan, Mat Jackson and an impressive Martin Byford completed the top ten.
Nick Foster and Andy Neate both beat their more illustrious teammates, Foster the best placed driver to improve his time after the red flag on the only flying lap he ran in the final three minutes. Airwaves Racing new recruit Michael Caine ended the session 19th fastest.
On another weekend – especially given the bubbling rivalry at the top of the pitlane – where an eye will be cast over the performance balancing levied by TOCA the top 16 are covered by only 0.885 of a second, Rob Collard the final man in the pack which includes the full spectrum of the varying specifications on the current BTCC grid.
The first race of the weekend is scheduled for 11:30am tomorrow (September 18) with subsequent races at 2pm and 4:50pm.