Matt Neal eased to victory in the first of the three British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) races at Rockingham, thanks to a combination of speed and the right tyre choice for the drying Northamptonshire track.
A morning shower had replaced the bright sunshine from qualifying, all the team opting to run the initial pair of sighting laps on four wet tyres. However, once on the grid the teams all went their separate ways, gambling on the conditions changing (or not) during the race. Tom Chilton, who had the day before taken the first pole of an LPG powered car, opted for slick front tyres and wet rears on his Ford Focus, as did his Team Aon stablemate Tom Onslow Cole.
But it was Neal, starting on four slick tyres, starting second who immediately took the lead on the start, a move he put down his grid slot being on the outside of the front straight – the normal racing line, already used by the earlier support race. Behind, Andrew Jordan was also reaping the benefits of the outside line, starting from eighth, but storming around the outside through turn one in a startling four wide moved through the banked left hander.
That move put him ahead of the near inevitable contact at the Deene hairpin, where the track departs the oval for the infield. Several cars, including James Nash's Triple 8 Vectra and David Pinkney bounced off each other on the exit of the corner. Martin Johnson, who had started from the pitlane after making his own late tyre change, spun in sympathy.
It was Onslow-Cole who perhaps bore the most visible scars of lap one, the left hand doors of his car caved in, the window flapping the air, however, he was also, perhaps the least slowed of any other those involved, crossing the line second, 0.851 seconds behind Neal, but ahead of Chilton, Alex MacDowall and Andrew Jordan.
Jordan's early pace appeared unstoppable as he looked to bounce back from an under-par weekend at Thruxton. The lividly coloured Pirtek Vectra taking second at Deene on lap three, the battle for second already running nearly five seconds behind Neal.
That gap only got bigger as the pace of Jordan and Onslow-Cole began to falter, their decision of mixed slicks and wets already starting to hold them back less than half a dozen laps into the scheduled 16. The dilemma was highlighted as Chilton chose to sacrifice track position to pit for slick rear tyres, one of several drivers forced to pit early on.
Gordon Sheddon and Jason Plato were able to catch the struggling pair followed by Tom Boardman and Paul O'Neill, the foursome shuffling Jordan and Onslow-Cole back through the order.
It was only now, with Sheddon leading Plato in a breakaway that Neal's lead began to shrink back from the 10 second margin he had been able to amass.
Plato was never able to really challenge Sheddon for second, unable to break into the Team Dynamics 1-2 ahead of him, their first such finish in three years.
The difference the tyre choice made was made even cleared by the pace of those that had elected to pit during the race, Rob Collard able to just break into the points in the closing laps. One place ahead of him, incredibly was Martin Johnson – despite pitane start and lap one spin – taking his best ever BTCC finish in the venerable Astra.
Andrew Jordan's early promise faded to seventh – the best finisher on anything other than four slicks.
BTCC Rockingham Race One Result
1. No.4 Matt Neal 16 laps in 23:38.434
2. No.52 Gordon Sheddon +8.223
3. No.2 Jason Plato +8.918
4. No.22Tom Boardman +14.968
5. No.11 Steven Kane +16.844
6. No.29 Paul O'Neill +17.127
7. No.77 Andrew Jordan +34.091
8. No.21 Tom Onslow-Cole +34.508
9. No.27 Martin Johnson +51.262
10. No.6 Rob Collard +56.209
Photo Credit: Vince Pettit Photography