Matt Neal won an action-packed opening Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship race at Oulton Park after polesitter Jason Plato failed to make the start.
Honda Yuasa Racing driver Neal survived a Safety Car and late pressure from Andrew Jordan to win by just 0.242s, and moved into second in the championship after Plato's misfortune. His MG6 GT was wheeled off the circuit before the formation lap after a broken suspension weld was discovered, but he did take to the track in the closing stages.
His departure left a big gap in front of Rob Collard, starting third, who made the most of it with another perfect getaway in his fast-starting BMW.
At the start of lap 3 Neal had closed right up on to Collard's bumper, closely followed by Jordan and Tom Onslow–Cole.
Behind them Mat Jackson and Frank Wrathall were battling it out over sixth and seventh, with the former initially slipping past into Lodge before Wrathall retook the position into turn one. But Jackson remained undeterred and the Redstone Racing Ford Focus nipped through on the inside into Cascades, as Neal attempted to pass Collard for the lead around the outside into the hairpin.
The defending champion could not make it stick but was not going to be held back for too long, braking later than Collard into Lodge to steal the lead with a brilliant move up the inside.
Jeff Smith ran wide and made a mudbath of the exit of Cascades – the corner which troubled so many in qualifying yesterday – on lap five, as his teammate Jordan and Onslow-Cole began to pressure Collard's BMW.
The erstwhile race leader was struggling and Neal's lead was 1.5s as they started lap six. Jordan nudged Collard into the hairpin but he held firm, and the Pirtek driver tried again into Lodge, forcing his way alongside but having to concede ground as they ran through Deer Leep.
As they braked for the hairpin there was slight contact again, this time enough to see Jordan sneak through into second – and try and close the gap to Neal who by the start of lap eight had extended his gap to 2.7s.
Dave Newsham, who had been running inside the top ten, went off at the last corner and promptly pulled into the pits, while Jordan went one-tenth quicker than Neal as he set about reeling the leader in – but his task was made a lot easier just a few moments later.
Onslow-Cole lost the back end of his BMW in a big way on the entry to Cascades, spinning backwards out of 4th and bringing out the Safety Car.
His off elevated Jackson to 5th and Dan Welch, enjoying his best race to date in his Proton, to 6th, as Liam Griffin stopped on track, extending the Safety Car's stay out on track.
Plato emerged from the pits as the rest of the field bunched together, with Jordan now primed and ready to make a move for the lead.
But as the Safety Car peeled into the pits on lap 11 Neal got the jump and headed the field comfortably into the first corner, while Welch under pressure from Frank Wrathall for 6th.
In the midfield Tony Hughes went off and Chris James' Vauxhall Vectra, which slowed to a near-halt earlier in the race, had damage to the front of his car.
Jordan began to eat into Neal's lead and clawed it back to 0.33s, but Neal extended that to 0.818s with just two laps to go.
Behind them the battle for seventh heated up as Wrathall, Aron Smith, Nick Foster and Andy Neate got a bit too close to each into the chicane, and Wrathall would pit a couple of laps later with grass covering his radiator.
Smith then suffered a puncture at the same place and spun, nearly collecting the recovering Onslow-Cole – who spun again at Cascades on lap 16.
Onto the last lap Jordan had closed the gap back to just 0.349s but Neal, with better drive out of the hairpin, kept him at bay with relative comfort to take the victory.
Behind them Collard took third ahead of Shedden – who now tops the Drivers standings – and Jackson, while Welch took a superb 6th in his Proton ahead of Neate, debutant Will Bratt, Foster and Lea Wood.
Chris James' nightmare race ended with a huge off at Druids, his Vectra flying backwards into the tyres after something broke, sending him across the grass and into a spin.
The second race is scheduled to begin at 14:34pm.