The best and worst of the British Touring Car Championship were on display at Brands Hatch on Sunday, with a number of firsts to enjoy.
The final round of the 2012 season was set up as a showdown between Gordon Shedden, Jason Plato and Andy Jordan. But Jordan was always a long shot and Plato found himself up against the pace and team effort of the works Honda squad. Making matters worse, his MG was uncompetitive in the extremely wet, slippery conditions and he was mired in the pack for the whole weekend.
And so the stage was set for an exercise in graciousness and camaraderie from Shedden and Neal. Starting second on the grid for Race 1, Neal took the lead from the BMW of Tom Onslow-Cole and never looked back, bringing himself, it seemed, into contention for the championship.
In reality it was the first act in a smart piece of strategy designed to give Shedden his first well-deserved title and the team a 1-2 position heading into the final two races of the season. Plato was effectively shut out, without the car to do much about it.
Unfortunately Neal’s virtuoso performance was about all that thrilled in the first race, with the rest of the field noticeably cautious in the conditions. Given the history between the three main contenders this year, you might also expect that they had a few words in their ear before the race. Only Plato’s team-mate Andy Neate caused the crowd to find their feet, although he was always unlikely to do that with his driving; he took Frank Wrathall out on the final lap, incurring penalty points and a fine.
On the whole, it was almost as if they were saving the carnage for later. The second race featured two safety car periods and meant a lot of work for the mechanics
Plato kicked things off by nudging Shedden into Rob Collard at Druids, taking the latter out along with Will Bratt and handing the Independents’ Championship to Jordan.
Soon after the safety car came in, Neate put Dan Welch’s Proton into the gravel at the bottom of Paddock Hill. Just around the corner, Dave Newsham – for many the story of the season – got off-line and clipped the front of Plato’s car, sending himself backwards into the tires and out of the race. Cue safety car number two.
The race was further marred by Neate’s loss of control at Graham Hill Bend, causing a spectacular incident that ended things for Adam Morgan and impressive debutant Aaron Williamson. Onslow-Cole also suffered in the crash.
Pleasantly, though, back at the front of the field, rookie Árón Smith was guiding the previous-generation Ford Focus to his maiden win. Shedden held second place to clinch the championship with Neal behind, making sure Jordan and Plato stayed where they were. It was good to see Neal genuinely happy to be repaying ‘Flash’ for his loyalty the previous year; though it’s probably a lot easier to be magnanimous when you’ve got three titles under your belt.
The third race took place nearly in the dark, the reverse grid seeing Mat Jackson and Frank Wrathall on the front row. The two sped off into the spray – by this point the rain had been falling all day – and looked in a race of their own. Jackson’s Focus soon gave up the ghost, leaving Wrathall to take the second maiden victory of the day, steadily maintaining the gap to Neal behind.
“What a way to end the season,” he said. “Not only that but we’ve had to do it the hard way today after getting wiped out by another car in race one. But we got the set-up really working in the second race and it was just perfect. I’m over the moon.”
The two new winners were very well received and Shedden will be a popular champion. While not averse to the rough stuff that often erupts in the Neal/Plato grudge match, he doesn’t look for it, only sending a message when it’s warranted. That aside, ‘Flash’ has driven like a champion for the past three seasons with Honda and now he has the stats to match.
“All I ever wanted as a kid was to race touring cars; it was never about F1… I never thought I’d ever get the chance to race them, though, let alone win a race and now I’m the champion. It is mind blowing.”