April saw the British Touring Car Championship head to Brands Hatch for the opening rounds of the season on the 4th and 5th. Nobody could have predicted what would happen over this weekend of racing. With the likes of World Champion Andy Priaulx returning to the series, Jason Plato and Colin Turkington competing with the same team…no one knew what to expect.

The first surprise came during qualifying when Andy Priaulx put his BMW machine on pole. Aron Smith proved he was back to fight for podiums and race wins when he put his Volkswagen CC in 2nd. Jason Plato qualified in 3rd with team mate Colin Turkington alongside in fourth.

Just before the start of the second free practice sessions, the rear wheel drive cars of Rob Austin Racing, West Surrey Racing and the Support Our Paras Racing were all asked to perform a practice race start so that the officials could check the new boost limit software that had been fitted to the cars for the 2015 season. The software had been designed to limit the power the cars have when they launch off the line only so that no cars had any advantage at the start.

Race one was the only race where no one would carry any ballast, it would prove how every car on the grid could perform. Andy Priaulx lined up on pole ready for the race start, his first start in a BTCC NGTC machine since 2002. Priaulx got a good start and was first to reach Paddock Hill to lead the race. In the meantime Rob Collard, who started in 5th, had managed to get past Turkington and Plato on the race start and ducked up the inside of Aron Smith at Paddock Hill to follow the sister car of Andy Priaulx as they reached Druids.

After about eight laps, Collard could see that Priaulx was struggling with his tyres. Collard got straight on to the radio to the team telling them he thought he was faster than Priaulx, but Collard also had Aron Smith and Plato close behind. Priaulx ran wide at Druids but it wasn’t enough for Collard to be able to pass. Half a lap later the leader struggled going into Clearways, this allowed Collard to get underneath him. At the flag Priaulx had dropped down to ninth, this let Team BMR team mates Aron Smith and Jason Plato round out the podium if the first race of the season. Jack Goff proved what he is capable of in his Triple Eight Racing MG6 machine when he finished in fourth, with Colin Turkington close behind in fifth. Sixth place was taken by Gordon Shedden in his brand new Honda Civic Type R, Andrew Jordan unhappily took seventh place. Eighth place was Matt Neal in his new Honda Civic Type R, ninth was Andy Priaulx and rounding out the top ten was Tom Ingram in his Speedworks MS Toyota Avensis.

With the new race weekend format being that the fastest laps in race one set race two’s grid anything could happen. Jason Plato managed to take pole, with Andy Priaulx alongside. Gordon Shedden qualified in third with Rob Collard in fourth, in fifth it was Colin Turkington with Aron Smith in sixth. Seventh was Jack Goff with Matt Neal alongside in eighth, ninth was Adam Morgan and rounding out the top ten was Andrew Jordan. Both Simon Belcher and Stewart Lines had their fastest laps removed after exceeding track limits.  For this race Rob Collard had 75kg of weight on board, Aron Smith had 66kg, Jason Plato had 57kg, Jack Goff had 48kg, Colin Turkington had 39kg, Gordon Shedden had 33kg, Andrew Jordan had 27kg, Matt Neal had 21kg, Andy Priaulx had 15kg and Tom Ingram had 9kg on board.

Jason Plato got the perfect start and managed to fend off Andy Praulx – who got a poor getaway off the line – and was unchallenged into Paddock Hill whilst Collard and Shedden overtook Priaulx too. Within four laps Priaulx managed to get back into third as Collard began dropping back down the pack as his tyres went off. Plato was able to take tenths of a second out of his rival competitors as they chased him down, which gave him a comfortable lead. Shedden, Priaulx and Turkington all circulated metres apart from one another. Collard was trying his hardest to maintain his position but he was struggling severely with his tyre degradation. Within the space of two laps Collard had lost five places to Adam Morgan, Andrew Jordan, Tom Ingram, Sam Tordoff and Matt Neal.

For Jason Plato, it was all about to go dreadfully wrong, he was running 3.5 seconds ahead of the rest of the field when a dreadful puncture resulted in him ending his race in Paddock Hill gravel trap. This left Shedden and Priaulx fighting throughout four laps of the indy circuit for the race win. The BMW of Priaulx made a desperate last minute attempt at the last corner, lunging up the inside of Shedden at Clearways. It got pretty physical but nothing too bad, the pair then powered side by side down to the finishing line. Shedden in his brand new Honda Civic Type R took the win by 0.040 seconds from Priaulx in second, third place and rounding out the podium was defending champion Colin Turkington. Fourth place went the way of Adam Morgan and fifth was Andrew Jordan. Sixth went to Tom Ingram, seventh went to Sam Tordoff and eighth to Matt Neal. Ninth across the line was Jack Goff and tenth place went to Rob Austin.

Race three was still determined by whoever finished in tenth place picking a ball out of the hat, which would set the reversed grid. Rob Austin got to pick out the pot, he pulled out number ten. This put Rob Austin himself on pole with Jack Goff alongside and Matt Neal and Sam Tordoff on row two. Race three was set to be a thriller.

Rob Austin used his rear wheel drive ability to get a perfect start into Paddock Hill. The 0.5 second lead he had built up over the opening lap was wiped out when the safety car was brought out to collect Rob Collard’s stricken BMW, which had ended up in the gravel trap at turn one on the opening lap.

At the restart Austin managed to keep hold of the lead, it took him two laps to get the 0.5 second gap between him and the second place car. During the safety car laps it allowed Matt Neal to rest his soft tyres, which helped him to maintain them. Neal started catching up with Austin, which he knew would happen. Austin was defending with all his mite but then his tyres began going off, this allowed Neal to be able to just drive past Austin as he had more grip on his Civic Type R’s tyres. Austin knew he would now begin losing a fair few places due to not having much grip. As Matt Neal went through, Goff followed him through. This put Austin under attack from Andrew Jordan in his MG6. Jordan was finally happy he had found more traction from the front of his car during this race.

One lap of Neal being in the lead and Austin and Jordan had a clash at Clearways. Jordan had lunged up the inside of Austin, but Austin turned in on him. This resulted in Austin dropping back to fifth but Andrew Jordan had to pit due to enduring a puncture after the clash. This left Neal fending off Goff. During the race Aron Smith worked his way up from starting twelfth to third, he overtook seven cars but also gained from Austin and Jordan’s clash, this meant Smith would get on the podium for a second time over the weekend. He was the only driver to succeed and climb onto the podium twice over the weekend.

Whereas, Sam Tordoff was complaining that his BMW machine lacked in straight line speed throughout the weekend. Although he was happy with a fourth place finish as it marked a step forward for him. Austin took fifth, behind him was Ingram who brought his Avensis home in sixth. Adam Morgan came home in seventh, eighth was Andy Priaulx, who also complained his BMW machine was lacking straight line speed throughout the weekend. Ninth was Dave Newsham in his Power Maxed Racing Chevrolet Cruze and rounding out the top ten finishers was Hunter Abbott in his Rob Austin Racing Audi A4.

Overall, Brands Hatch was a weekend that was full of surprises. From Andy Priaulx putting his BMW machine on to pole position to then losing the race lead to the sister car of Rob Collard, to then fighting back in race two to get a P2 finish. Then there was Jason Plato’s unfortunate puncture in race two after he set the fastest lap in race one to start on pole for the second race. Aron Smith went on to be the only driver to climb onto the podium twice that weekend. Jack Goff, Tom Ingram, Matt Neal and Andy Priaulx were the only four drivers who finished all three races in the top ten. The new Honda Civic Type R achieved two race wins on its debut race weekend. There were also six different race leaders over the weekend’s races. Mike Bushell left the Brands Hatch opening weekend leading the Jack Sears Trophy. Matt Neal left the weekend leading the overall driver’s championship whilst Aron Smith lead the independent’s trophy.

© Fay Tilley 6th December 2015.