Matt Neal set the pole position time in this afternoon’s Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship qualifying session at Silverstone ahead of tomorrow’s final title-deciding round at the Northamptonshire circuit in which five drivers can be crowned Champion.
Worcestershire’s Neal, who currently leads the standings, put in a late burst of speed in his Honda Racing Team Civic to set a best time of 59.131s to pip the Airwaves Racing Ford Focus of one of his title rivals, Warwickshire’s Mat Jackson, by just 0.035s. That’s despite the fact that Neal’s Honda is carrying the maximum 45kgs of success ballast.
Neal’s team-mate Gordon Shedden from Fife and Buckinghamshire’s James Nash, who could also both lift the title tomorrow, were third and fourth fastest. Furthermore, the flu-ridden Nash in his 888 Racing with Collins Contractors Vauxhall Vectra, will be eager to stay ahead of Jackson in the battle for Independents Trophy honours.
The other driver who has a chance of winning 2011’s BTCC tomorrow is Oxford’s Jason Plato who qualified seventh fastest in his Silverline Chevrolet Cruze. Just ahead of him were his young team-mate Alex MacDowall and Tom Chilton in his Team Aon Ford Focus.
Neal, chasing the third BTCC crown of his career, commented: “With the maximum ballast I thought it might be a struggle even to get into the top eight in qualifying but this is sweet. It’s the first step but a lovely step. I actually can’t believe it…”
Jackson, fourth in the standings, said: “I’ve got 36 points to make up on Matt – actually make that 37 because he’s got the point for pole – with a maximum of only 51 available tomorrow so I have nothing to lose. It’s annoying to miss out on pole by such a tiny margin but I mean to win races tomorrow and will put my car where I need to in order to win.”
Shedden, second equal with Plato in the table six points behind Neal, added: “That was a great lap from Matt with maximum ballast in his car but there’s still an awful lot of racing to be done tomorrow. I’m up at the sharp end which is the most important thing so let’s just see what happens…”
Nash is prioritising beating Jackson to the Independents Trophy over catching Neal for the outright title. He leads that table by 17 points with a possible 45 on offer tomorrow and said: “I’m not feeling the best but my team has done a great job in helping me get this high in qualifying. It’s massively important because Jackson is also right up there and he’s the driver I’ve got to beat tomorrow. Hopefully the adrenaline will keep me going…”
Meanwhile Plato senses he has a struggle on his hands if he’s to defend his 2010 crown – like Neal he is seeking to become the first driver since Andy Rouse in the mid-Eighties to become a triple BTCC Champion. Plato said: “It’s a big ask even though I’m right in there with the Hondas on points. This is a circuit where raw power tells and the others all have turbo engines making it very difficult to get near them down the straights but I’ll never give up. With so much at stake and all five of us towards the front anything could happen.”
Tomorrow’s action and the crowning of the new 2011 BTCC Champion will be broadcast live in ITV Sport’s bumper coverage of the event from 11.00am-6.30pm on its ITV4 and ITV4 HD channels as well as the www.itv.com website.
Leading times, BTCC qualifying, Silverstone, Northants (Sat 15 Oct):
1. Matt Neal (GBR), Honda Racing Team/Honda Civic, 59.131s
2. Mat Jackson (GBR), Airwaves Racing/Ford Focus, +0.035s
3. Gordon Shedden (GBR), Honda Racing Team/Honda Civic, +0.134s
4. James Nash (GBR), 888 Racing with Collins Contractors/Vauxhall Vectra, +0.177s
5. Alex MacDowall (GBR), Silverline Chevrolet/Chevrolet Cruze, +0.231s
6. Tom Chilton (GBR), Team Aon/Ford Focus, +0.301s
7. Jason Plato (GBR), Silverline Chevrolet/Chevrolet Cruze, +0.376s
8. Andy Neate (GBR), Team Aon/Ford Focus, +0.402s
9. Frank Wrathall (GBR), Dynojet/Toyota Avensis, +0.474s
10. Tom Boardman (GBR), Special Tuning Racing/SEAT Leon, +0.504s