As Matt Neal walked down the Silverstone pitlane, clutching the BTCC championship trophy for the third time there was a definite sense of relief in his words as he admitted he was “looking forward to getting his life back”.
The finale at the Northamptonshire track was the climax of six months of breathless, controversial and occasionally bad tempered British Touring Car racing that left five drivers in contention for the title on the final weekend, and the title not decided until the final race of 2011's 30 skirmishes.
Neal's relief spoke of a season that was far tougher than he expected, or indeed it should have been for he and Honda Racing Team stablemate Gordon Shedden.
The pair – who championship honours where decided between – were the fastest all season, scoring five poles and thirteen wins between them over the course of the season, rightfully giving the Team Dynamics/Honda squad the teams' and manufacturers' title double.
Their dominance, however, could have been greater if not for the performance balancing employed to produce as close to a level playing field across a grid that pushed at record levels by the end of the season.
In a year where the new Next Generation Touring Car (NGTC) cars faced up against turbocharged S2000 cars and normally aspirated S2000 cars how series organisers balanced the different specifications was always likely to play a massive role in deciding the title. And it did – almost.
Before the season started Jason Plato said he believed the first three weekends of the year – Brands Hatch, Donington Park and Thruxton – would be crucial for his title defence.
Though Plato left Kent after the opening weekend with two wins and the points lead the warning signs of what was to come had already been seen. The scene changed from the short Brands Hatch Indy layout to the quick Donington Park circuit and Plato ended qualifying a more than a second off the pace set by Matt Neal.
Donington Park was almost certainly the low point of Plato's season, falling foul of puncture in race one – he blamed the over-aggressive set-up and driving necessary to maintain the pace of the turbocharged cars around him – before rolling down the Craner Curves on the opening lap to race two after contact with Liam Griffin and Gordon Shedden. Only a miraculous rebuild by the RML crew – replacing every possible panel on the Chevrolet Cruze – put Plato back on the grid to salvage the most unlikely points of the season.
Down but never out. The weekend was a taster of the season that lay ahead of Plato.
Meanwhile Neal, Andrew Jordan and Mat Jackson took wins in turbocharged machinery, James Nash taking over the championship lead after finishing all three Donington races on the overall podium.
The fortnight between events at Donington and the next rounds at Thruxton saw the first round of restrictions placed on the turbocharged cars, further limiting their maximum boost pressure – later alterations would also increase the base weight for the cars.
The Thruxton weekend started dominated by the Honda pairing once more – Neal and Shedden winning, before Plato returned to the top of the podium in the third race of a day where he crashed out of race one – again, he turned his ire on the speed of the turbo cars, understandably given that time and time again the straight line speed differential left Plato, Alex MacDowall, Paul O'Neill and the rest of the normally aspirated drivers little more than obstacles for their rivals. This remained fact throughout the season, dramatically and controversially apparent at Knockhill when Tom Boardman knocked Plato out of the lead after surging onto his rear bumper down the main straight.
Still, between restrictions and others' mistakes Plato was never truly out of contention for the title.
Matt Neal's ill-advised move up the inside of Gordon Shedden at Lodge on the final lap at Oulton Park not only left himself stranded in the gravel, but handed an unlikely win to Plato, and when the series returned from its traditional summer break at Snetterton and Plato ended the day with a win and two thirds, while Matt Neal only banked points for a fourth in the final race, the title defence was back on with a vengeance.
Plato was not the only driver to suffer dramatic swings in fortune. As well as the Chevrolet Cruze's of the works team, and the GoMobileUK backed Tech–Speed squad, WSR were able to take advantage of the breaks handed to older spec cars.
With weight taken off, and the restriction on their gear ratios removed Rob Collard and Nick Foster made the most of their rear-wheel drive BMWs. Their advantage, unsurprising came to a head in the early summer races at Oulton Park and Croft, both of which were affected by rain.
The pair recorded their best finish of the season in the final race at Croft, BTCC rookie Foster leading home Collard in second and third behind the customary Mat Jackson race three win.
All four of Jackson's 2011 wins came in the final race of meetings – Donington, Thruxton, Croft and Snetterton – the final race before he and his Airwaves Racing team endured two torrid meetings from which Jackson took only a single point. After leading the championship away from Norfolk Jackson dropped out of contention for the overall title and lost the independents' crown to James Nash, who took a richly deserved first BTCC win at Rockingham, holding off Rob Austin's NGTC-spec Audi A4.
If Plato was one side of the swing in fortune, then Austin and Frank Wrathall were the other. Both men embarked on full season campaigns with little preparation time. Wrathall's squad only received their Toyota Avensis the week before the season opener, while the Audi that would become Austin's was only given an unconvincing half-lap demo run by original driver David Pinkney on the first weekend.
Both men improved steadily through the first half of the season, but it was Snetterton – after the summer break – when the NGTC cars took the headlines. Wrathall qualified seventh – a performance Austin believed he could have matched if not for problems – before finishing fourth and taking the independents' from the first race.
Wrathall's break-out weekend was ended by a damaged radiator in race two, but Austin's was improving. He took his first points for fastest lap in the second race, before retiring, then drove through the field to add a second point for tenth from the final race.
Wrathall strode past another milestone for the new specification at Knockhill, ending each of the three races on the podium, adding another top three at Rockingham, but it was Austin who nearly took the first NGTC race win, chasing Nash for much of the final Rockingham race before finishing a close second.
The two – along with Nick Foster – were arguably the best of a bulging rookie class in 2011 who, with the possible exception of Chris James shackled by an aging Chevrolet Lacetti, acquitted themselves admirably in a very competitive year in the BTCC, many becoming regular points scorers by the end of season, while others showed vast improvement after shaky starts.
With Jackson fading from the fight the title became a three way battle. Plato added a further win on the ill-tempered Rockingham weekend and a double win at the penultimate round, on the full Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, to put himself right in the title hunt heading into the final round.
Alas for Plato and the RML team, a tenacious, fighting season was to end in a familiar way.
A poor qualifying left him trailing the Hondas he needed to beat, and a race one puncture knocked him out of contention altogether, allowing the Honda duo to battle into the final race.
Neal scored victory from pole in the first race, Shedden replying in the second race to keep himself in contention, but starting behind Neal in the reverse grid, with maximum success ballast the challenge of overhauling Neal proved too much.
While Tom Chilton claimed a second win of the year in the still developing ‘Global’ Ford Focus, Neal completed his title winning year in eighth place, Shedden in tenth after Wrathall inserted his Toyota between the teammates on the final corner. The final margin was just eight points – “one good qualifying session” as Shedden described it to The Checkered Flag after the final podium. Still the Scot told of not a title lost on his behalf, but a title won by Neal.