• Matt Neal triumphs in thrilling Donington Park finale
• Two podiums apiece for Neal and Gordon Shedden
• Silverware aplenty for show-stealing Civic Type R
Matt Neal became the first double winner of the 2015 Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship campaign on home turf at Donington Park today (19 April), with three further podiums capping another superb weekend for Honda Yuasa Racing.
Fresh off the back of a brace of stunning out-of-the-box triumphs for the new Civic Type R in the Brands Hatch curtain-raiser, Honda headed to Donington in confident mood, and an excellent second place for Gordon Shedden and seventh for Neal in qualifying – despite both carrying success ballast – set the tone right from the outset.
In the opening encounter, Neal ran well initially up in fifth position, but the combination of 66kg additional weight and the faster-degrading soft tyres gradually took its toll and relegated the three-time BTCC Champion to 17th at the chequered flag – albeit having set a lap time quick enough to put him seventh on the grid again for race two.
On the harder tyres and with the ballast removed, Neal fought his way brilliantly up the order to climb to second – delighting fans by opportunistically snatching two places for the price of one into the final chicane – and thereafter slashed his deficit to leader Colin Turkington from 5.7 seconds to just 2.5 seconds by the chequered flag.
Although then needing to contend with 66kg ballast once more in the day’s breathless final outing, from sixth on the grid, he battled bravely past Jason Plato, Rob Collard and Andrew Jordan – and very nearly found himself harpooned by an out-of-control Árón Smith – to secure his second victory of the season and retain his championship lead.
“I’m dead chuffed,” Neal reflected. “We didn’t expect these results arriving here with maximum weight on-board. We decided to take the pain early on with the soft tyres; that enabled me to post a decent fastest lap, which set us up perfectly for the remainder of the day – there is going to be a lot more strategy and tactics with the regulations we’ve got this year.
“It would have been nice to have had a few more laps in race two, because I was really closing Colin down and I could almost certainly have put him under a bit of pressure. Race three was just a blur – absolutely frenetic from lights-to-flag. When Árón came back onto the track I was convinced he was going to hit somebody – and he must have missed me by inches. I think he took some of my paintwork with him!
“The car was great even with the ballast, and the best thing is that we’ve still got heaps to find and learn about the Civic Type R, which means we will only get stronger as the year goes on.”
Team-mate Shedden, meanwhile, made the most of his front row starting slot in race one, and following a captivating wheel-to-wheel duel, got the better of defending champion Turkington for the runner-up spoils.
Fastest lap also earned the Scot pole position for race two, but on soft tyres and with hefty ballast on-board, he was always going to be fighting a losing battle and after grittily clinging on for as long as he could, he ultimately slipped to 14th, tallying two points for his efforts.
With the weight removed for race three, however, the 2012 Champion was on magnificent form, as he artfully avoided the carnage all around him to advance no fewer than 11 positions and clinch third place – his third rostrum of the campaign.
“What a fantastic weekend!” Shedden enthused. “We had strong pace and scored a solid haul of points to move up a couple of spots in the championship to third. We qualified higher than I thought we would with the ballast, and we carried that speed over into race one – although we struggled quite a lot on the soft tyres in race two, so we’ve clearly still got some work to do in that respect.
“Race three was just nuts – there was all sorts going on every which way you looked – and I really enjoyed it. It was like corks in a bottle with cars pinging out of it left, right and centre, but with no weight on-board and the right tyres, we could really get motoring. I had simply been hoping to get into the top ten, to be honest – I never thought the podium would be on.
“The car still isn’t quite where we need it to be yet. It’s a bit like a stallion at the moment – fast but trying to buck me off at every opportunity. We need to tame it a little, but once we do, there’s a lot more potential still to come.”
“It’s great to be able to repay all the hard work and hours that the lads have put in,” added team manager James Rodgers, after Honda clinched a clean sweep of the day’s constructors’ awards to move to the top of the title table. “They’re the unsung heroes, and being the team’s local race, a lot of them brought their families along this weekend, which makes these results even more special. We’re over-the-moon.”