The first race of the 2012 British Touring Car Championship lived up to the hype of the off-season, delivering typical BTCC incident and accident in plentiful measure at Brands Hatch.
Dave Newsham – shock pole sitter after yesterday's qualifying led into Paddock Hill Bend on the opening lap, Rob Collard passing a slow starting Matt Neal to take second. Collard continued to make a move forward on the back of his good start and nosed down the inside of Newsham at Druids, placing his right side wheel on the kerb. However, he succeeded only in making contact with the yellow Vectra, pushing Newsham into a slide that lost dropped him down to third place when he straightened the car out again, though only after light contact with Neal and Andrew Jordan following behind.
The action of the wild first few corners of the year was quelled by the first safety car of year. Adam Morgan's BTCC debut lasted barely into turn one as he became unwitting victim of sequence of contact between Liam Griffin and Jeff Smith that span Morgan's Avensis from the inside of the trio heavily into the tyres on the outside of Paddock Hill.
Morgan would not be the last visitor to that patch of gravel. John Thorne – back out after a practice crash yesterday – ended his race three laps too early when he span again, though this this without seriously damaging his Integra.
Newsham's Team ES Racing Vectra was also part of the growing junk yard on the edge of the gravel bed following controversial contact with Jason Plato in a fight for the lead.
Plato had moved from sixth on the grid to fourth by the end of the opening lap, passing Tom Onslow–Cole – uncharacteristically slow off like in the rear-wheel-drive BMW – and Andrew Jordan. After a brief exchange of places with Onslow-Cole once the safety car had returned to the pits Plato began to move forward. He passed Collard for third taking the inside line for Paddock Hill Bend at the start of lap 12, Collard already having lost two places to Neal and Newsham in similar fashion five laps earlier.
The new MG6 is fast – there can be doubting that fact – and Plato was determined to take the new car to the lead. When Newsham held a tighter line out of Clearways to pull up alongside Newsham on the pit straight Plato saw an opportunity to pull off the same sort of opportunistic move that Newsham had to follow Neal past Collard.
Newsham led at the start finish line – by just 0.009 – to bank another bonus point but Plato pulled to the inside making it three abreast into Paddock Hill, with Neal still holding onto the outside. Plato clipped the grass on the inside of the track but held his line into the corner, carrying him straight into the rear quarter of Newsham. Newsham spun into the gravel and Plato lucky not to join the gyrating Vauxhall, skirting the edge of the gravel and slipping down to fourth place, losing out to Tom Onslow-Cole, Neal and Collard, who had slipped from fourth to first in the wake of the chaos.
Collard reflected; “I just thought it was crazy and I knew it wasn't going work. Luckily I left a gap and I was able to get underneath them but it was very hairy up there into paddock.”
The accident – and another which had pitched Aron Smith's Redstone Racing Focus off at Druids – called the safety car out for the second time – settled the race once more. At the front, Collard leading Neal the order stayed unchanged for the five racing laps that remained at the end of the race, though Plato tried to take the final step on the podium away from Onslow-Cole in a drag race to the checkered flag, the eBay Motors driver defending third by just 36 hundredths of a second.
“It's a fantastic achievement over a long winter,” said a jubilant Collard. “The team have worked so hard on the car and as much as last year was a good year we came away frustrated with no wins so it's great to start this year, like this and fingers crossed it can continue.”
More successful in taking a place on the 27th and final lap was Mat Jackson, who after a disappointing qualifying moved steadily through the field into seventh, passing a slightly anonymous Rob Austin on the final lap.
The pair finished behind the troubled Hondas of Gordon Shedden and Andrew Jordan. Jordan was delayed by the first lap contact. Shedden, on the other hand, moved through from ninth to latch onto the tail of the lead battle but a recurrent problem – his car appearing to backfire repeatedly, costing him time and knocking him out of the battle for the top position.
Nick Foster put further gloss on the race for the West Surrey Racing BMW squad, insuring – again – that all three cars were in the top ten. Jeff Smith was tenth, surviving the first lap contact.
New for 2012 the BTCC points scheme extends all the way to 15th and with the high number of retirements – only 18 cars finished – it gave points to some who otherwise would have gone without as Lea Wood, Andy Neate, Ollie Jackson, Liam Griffin and Chris James filled the all-important positions.
Daniel Welch lost his chance at points in the Proton to a drive through penalty and Frank Wrathall, who qualified inside the top ten, was forced to retire with a gearbox problem early in the race.