Matt Neal has qualified on pole position for the opening round of the 2011 Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship at the Brands Hatch circuit in Kent.

Worcestershire’s Neal, driving his Honda Racing Team’s new turbocharged Civic, set a qualifying lap record of 48.210s to achieve pole. Over such a short lap that was a staggering 0.255s clear of his rivals, headed by young charger Andrew Jordan in his Pirtek Racing Vauxhall Vectra – like Neal, also using a turbo engine built to the BTCC’s latest Next Generation Touring Car regulations.

Third was the reigning Champion Jason Plato in his Silverline Chevrolet Cruze while another youngster, James Nash in his turbocharged 888 Racing with Collins Contractors Vectra, put in a late burst of speed to secure fourth place on the starting grid for the first of tomorrow’s three races.

Neal, BTCC Champion in 2005 and 2006 and runner-up to Plato last season, said: “What a start and we’ve probably even surprised ourselves with that gap. But the race will be different – we can’t sustain that pace every lap and all the turbo runners are expecting to suffer greater tyre wear over the second half of the race whereas Jason is not too far away. He’ll come on really strong as the race progresses so starting ahead of him in particular is exactly where I need to be.”

Jordan, aged just 21 from Lichfield, added: “I was fastest in the morning practice sessions and knew the pace would increase again in qualifying but perhaps not quite by that much! I’m confident I can give Matt a good run over a race distance, but the one I’m really watching is Jason – that Chevrolet is notoriously good at looking after its tyres and he is the big threat for all of us.”

But Plato, who starts the new season equal with Andy Rouse’s record of 60 wins, begged to differ. The Oxford racer commented: “That really is everything we’ve got in our tank – we’ve gone quicker than the pole record we set here last October yet the gap to Matt is still nearly four tenths of a second which is a bit of a shock. The other teams have clearly done a great job in the winter. There is all this talk about the turbo cars having tyre worries but until we actually find out tomorrow then that’s all it is… talk!”

Completing the top six in qualifying were Plato’s young Cumbrian team-mate Alex MacDowall and Warwickshire’s Mat Jackson in the local Wrotham-based Airwaves Racing team’s Ford Focus. Dorset’s Tom Chilton had looked set to challenge Neal for pole, but instead dropped to seventh when his best time was disallowed after his Team Aon Ford Focus failed a mandatory ride height check.

At least he took part in qualifying. Having to sit out the session after a high-speed crash in morning practice badly damaged his car was Neal’s team-mate Gordon Shedden. The Fife racer, third in last year’s BTCC, is therefore set to start tomorrow’s first race from the back of the 23-car grid.

Tomorrow’s opening round of the 2011 BTCC season will be broadcast live on ITV’s ITV4 and new ITV4 HD channels plus the itv.com website from 11.00am-6.00pm.

P/ No/ CL/ Driver/ Car/ Time/ Laps/ Gap/ M.P.H./
1 2   Matt Neal Honda Civic 48.210s 14 89.50
2 77 I Andrew Jordan Vauxhall Vectra 48.465s 18 0.255s 89.03
3 1   Jason Plato Chevrolet Cruze 48.583s 27 0.373s 88.81
4 1 I James Nash Vauxhall Vectra 48.623s 20 0.413s 88.74
5 20   Alex MacDowall Chevrolet Cruze 48.658s 24 0.448s 88.68
6 7 I Mat Jackson Ford Focus ST 48.667s 22 0.457s 88.66
7 5 I Tom Chilton Global Ford Focus 48.668s 21 0.458s 88.66
8 22 I Tom Boardman SEAT Leon 48.752s 13 0.542 88.51
9 29 I Paul O’Neill Chevrolet Cruze 48.849s 20 0.639s 88.33
10 44 I Andy Neate Global Ford Focus 49.036s 21 0.826s 87.99
11 34 I Tony Gilham Vauxhall Vectra 49.054s 18 0.835s 87.98
12 8 I Robert Collard BMW 320si E90 49.130s 10 0.920s 87.82
13 55 I Jeff Smith Vauxhall Vectra 49.175s 11 0.966s 87.74
14 66 I Liam Griffin Ford Focus ST 49.220s 26 1.010s 87.66
15 17 I David Newsham BMW 320si E90 49.248s 18 1.036s 87.61
16 99 I Tom Onslow-Cole VW Golf MK5 49.540s 6 1.330s 87.10
17 18 I Nick Foster BMW 320si E90 49.587s 25 1.377s 87.01
18 28 I John George Chevrolet Cruze 50.065s 27 1.855s 86.18
19 78 I Chris James Chevrolet Lacetti 51.169s 26 2.959s 84.32
20 11 I Frank Wrathall Toyota Avensis 51.449s 9 3.239s 83.87s
21 50 I Tony Hughes Toyota Avensis 51.736s 17 3.526s 83.40