Jason Plato took a lights to flag victory in the first of the three British Touring Car races at Rockingham, surviving a safety car restart to win from Paul O'Neill's similar, but Tech–Speed run, Chevrolet Cruze.
O'Neill had briefly lost second place on the opening lap, Rob Austin's fast starting Audi A4 beating him to the inside of turn one. The NGTC-spec Audi was perhaps the biggest threat to Plato's win but his challenge for a maiden win lasted only half a lap, spinning off to the outside around Pif Paf, handing second back to O'Neill.
While both cars are normally aspirated O'Neill and the older model Cruze was no match for Plato ahead and the reigning champion was able to pull away, building a two second lead over the first six laps before the safety car came out on lap seven.
Andrew Jordan was the main beneficiary of first lap pushing and shoving, inheriting third. However the Pirtek backed Vectra only lasted three laps before it slowed with a mechanical problem, Jordan returning to the pits, bitterly disappointed to have to give up a chance to get back on the podium.
James Nash too was enjoying rediscovered pace in the Vectra, his Triple Eight example running in fifth after Jordan's retirement, even challenging Frank Wrathall for fourth at the Deene hairpin.
However, it was Nash that would lose a place at the corner on lap 12, Matt Neal completing the classic outbraking move on the inside line for the left hander.
The pass allowed Neal to break away from a massive scrap that included the entire back half of the top ten. As Neal was passing Nash, Nick Foster was making a near identical move to move past Tom Boardman's SEAT – who had found his way up toâ€¦.. having started from 23rd after his six place penalty.
The battle had developed following the safety car intervention to recover Rob Collard's WSR BMW from the Pif Paf gravel. Collard had been running eighth and tried an ambitious pass on Tom Onslow–Cole. The Focus driver closed the door, pitching both men into a spin. Onslow-Cole was able to recover, though he dropped to last place after a pitstop to replace a punctured rear tyre.
Watching the battle from behind were Rob Austin – the undoubted pace of the Audi – and the safety car's stint – allowing him to race through from the rear – Tom Chilton and BTCC debutant Michael Caine.
Chilton had inherited the mantle of best of the three Aon Focuses after Onslow-Cole's stop and was the main man on the move through the bunch as he passed Austin under braking for Deene, only to lose it at the same turn the following lap. Chilton outbraked himself, coming back onto the racing line with Caine and Andy Neate in his own battle-scarred Ford.
Free of the Chilton's Focus Austin caught Boardman's SEAT on the final lap, taking seventh place at Chapman Curve to take his best finish to date, though doubtless aware of the potential result lost on the very first lap.
There was a similarly intense battle for the final step on the podium behind the two Chevrolets with Wrathall sandwiched between the two Hondas. Neal and Wrathall swapped possession for fourth place at the Tarzan hairpin on two consecutive laps.
Then on lap 17 Wrathall took third from Gordon Shedden with a tyre smoking outbraking move at Tarzan, the Scot also losing positions to Neal and Nick Foster, who had caught the first trio over the closing five laps, ending the race sixth.
The two Cruzes enjoyed trouble free runs after the safety car. Plato led by over a second over the line to restart the race and eased away from O'Neill at a similar rate to earlier in the race to win by 2.512 seconds. Such was the effect of the battle for third that Wrathall completed the podium, eight seconds behind the second of the Chevrolets.
To claim points on his first BTCC outing Michael Caine got the better of a fading Chilton faded in the closing laps, falling to thirteenth, one place being Alex MacDowall who survived his own moment on lap five when a move on the to try to pass Andy Neate for tenth sent the 20-year-old spinning after contact around the sweeping, banked turn one.
Caine summed up his BTCC baptism; “If you've been racing and you've done year and years of racing then you go into one of those it's completely different to anything else you've ever done, and you can actually see people why people love it so much because it's just crazy, it's crazy out there but it so much fun it's ridiculous.”
“We bent the steering once when Chilton outbraked himself and then came back at me, and then he did it again and the steering wheel popped off onto its last catch. But all credit to Airwaves for keeping me and the Focus in there, they are strong old things, it took a few hits but we'll see what we can do in the next race.”
His Airwaves teammate Mat Jackson recorded a fourth consecutive DNF after his nightmare at Knockhill. He was the unlucky man to be spat out of six car nose-to-tail shunt into Yentwood on lap one. Martin Byford outbraked himself into the rear of Andrew Jordan, the force transferred through Shedden, Jackson, Neal and Nash. However, only Jackson was spun out, and though he recovered to the pitlane he quickly retired the car. Byford, the man who started the accident groped back to the pits with the bonnet on the VW Golf over the windscree, but continued after the AmD Milltek team refastened it – with tape.