Even an unscheduled downpour could not dampen the enthusiasm of a 40,000-strong crowd at the East Midlands‘ Donington Park Circuit on Easter Sunday, where Iain P W Robertson, complete with sou’wester and rain-mac, found a great vantage point.

Saturday qualifying had placed Jason Plato (MG6) onto pole position for Sunday’s first race of three. However, he was challenged strongly by the Honda Civic Tourer of Gordon Shedden, just 0.13s off his pace, enough to secure second on the grid. Yet, the MG6 remains a consistent performer and Plato’s sister car for Sam Tordoff managed a fine third, with Colin Turkington (BMW 1-Series) another whisker behind.

Both of the good looking VW Passat CCs of Aron Smith and Alain Menu showed their vastly improving form on the next rows of the grid, with last season’s Champion, Andrew Jordan (Honda Civic), just ahead of Jack Goff’s Vauxhall Insignia and a disappointed Matt Neal (Honda Civic Tourer) in 7th, 8th and 9th spots respectively, the Top Ten of 31 grid positions being filled by Marc Hynes (MG6).

btcc3Sunday’s initially wet conditions might have suited the Honda brigade, all of which drivers were looking for victory but Messrs Plato and Tordoff turned it into a processionary, if quite speedy, MG benefit. Looking at times, as if ‘team orders’ were coming into play, the MG duo danced magnificently and commandingly at the head of the field, seldom challenged by anyone, as Jordan’s early form was nudged into a perfectly acceptable third down at the Old Hairpin.

The matching BMWs of Rob Collard and Turkington held station ahead of Shedden, while Fabrizio Giovanardi (Ford Focus) made superb progress up to seventh place overall, just ahead of Matt Neal in a disappointed eighth. Chatting with Matt after the race he was in reflective mood but hoped that conditions might alter for the next round. Although some observers have already hinted that this year’s choice of the aerodynamically superior Civic Tourer (over the hatchback model) might have been too whimsical, Matt remains exceedingly positive, believing that the car will ‘come good’ very soon.

Race Two got off to a cracking start for the MG duo, allowing them to reverse their finishing positions from the first race, which was where they remained throughout. Further back was mayhem in increasingly greasy conditions. Some cars, such as the Toyota Avensis of James Cole, will never see action again, following a most damaging clash with the Audi S3 saloon of Robb Holland. No less than seven of the 31 entries would be towed back to the paddock for emergency repairs.

Back up front, while Tordoff took his maiden victory of the year ahead of Plato, third place went to a vastly improved Shedden, who proved he was very much ‘on the pace’, after despatching Jordan to fourth overall in a race of high attrition. Neal rounded off the top five and the line-up of three Civics in fifth place. However, the reverse grid for the third race and finale for the day would place him in a most advantageous second on the grid, albeit alongside the fast-starting Turkington, who knows the advantage that rear-wheel-drive affords his BMW with every start.

The BMW versus Honda challenge raged hard from the off in dry and much improved conditions. However, it was not Neal, hindered by a need to use the ’soft option’ tyres, that put up the strongest fight, as, despite carrying excess ‘success ballast’, Shedden was on a mission from the outset. It was a most impressive race. Neal could do little to Turkington, despite harrying him for several laps. Race Two winner, Tordoff, was in a similar tyre position to Neal but floundered in the high-teens.

The only real challenge was mounted by Mat Jackson (Ford Focus), who appeared from nowhere to hassle Neal. Jordan lay several seconds adrift of this leading pack, with Plato equidistant behind. For lap after lap, Neal did his best but had to succumb to his team-mate, allowing Shedden to take the fight to Turkington, who was building up a seemingly unassailable advantage.

btcc2Somehow, Shedden could scent a win. He pushed and pushed again, dropping the leader’s advantage from around five seconds to less than two, which is remarkably tough in competing cars that share the same second when qualifying. In the final three laps, Shedden looked as though he might throw caution to the wind. His Civic slewed from one crazy slide to the next, the gap to the leader reducing inexorably.

On the final lap, Shedden almost passed Turkington twice but was forced to back-out of a situation each time. Then, on the back straight, heading to the chicane, he made his lunge but Turkington was not allowing any of it and his BMW became increasingly wider. With a bumper’s advantage and nothing else, the pair of them, not giving an inch, slammed across the gravel at the chicane….

Shedden was first past the chequered flag but would he be declared the winner, or would Turkington protest and state that he was pushed unfairly? While the Irishman might have tried to argue for the win, the organisers’ hands were raised in favour of the Scot. With Neal finishing third overall, it was not a bad day’s points haul for the Civic Tourer team, adding vindication for Neal’s choice of model and giving the ‘estate‘ car an unique winning place in BTCC history.

The overall points table has a consistent Jordan on top with 87, matched by Plato. Shedden’s storming drives have him just one point in arrears on 86, with Turkington just two points adrift in fourth. With 79 points, Neal is just behind in fifth place, 22 points ahead of Tordoff. With eight full race weekends yet to take place, the excitement continues at Thruxton, Hampshire’s exceptionally fast circuit, which should favour the Civics again. Head for another packed grid of touring cars over the weekend of 3rd and 4th of May for the third round of three races. Check out www.btcc.net for other details, including special ticket deals. We shall be there.