Neal steals Sutton show with last-gasp flyer
Halfords Yuasa Racing star pips rookie in closing moments of pre-season BTCC test
Tin-top legend Matt Neal topped the timesheets in the only official 2016 Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship pre-season test, as the Halfords Yuasa Racing driver pipped young rookie Ashley Sutton in the closing moments at Donington Park.
Neal was languishing down the order until his late flurry of laps, which initially saw the triple champion fall short of Sutton’s benchmark by just 0.003s. The run continued and minutes later the Civic Type R racer had eclipsed the MG6 driver’s best effort by nearly a tenth of a second.
Sutton’s effort still represented a very productive outing for the manufacturer-backed MG squad as his team-mate Josh Cook took fifth, which was all the more impressive considering it was the first time that both young talents had driven the car.
The Handy Motorsport Toyota of Rob Austin led the way for much of the early running, before Sutton took over in the final hour. Austin eventually had to settle for third while Tom Ingram also proved the pace of the Avensis by setting the fourth fastest time for Speedworks Motorsport.
Eurotech Racing enjoyed an extremely competitive afternoon with Martin Depper and Jeff Smith finishing in sixth and seventh respectively. WIX Racing’s Adam Morgan was eighth, whilst both Motorbase Performance and West Surrey Racing could only manage ninth and tenth in the order with Mat Jackson and Sam Tordoff.
Notable absentees from the top ten included reigning champion Gordon Shedden in the other works Honda and Andrew Jordan’s Pirtek Racing Ford Focus. The lap times throughout the field were hugely competitive, however, with the top 17 cars finishing within one second of the pace-setting time.
The session was punctuated by a number of red flag incidents, but overall the reliability shown and mileage clocked up the competitors was impressive. Almost half the runners completed more than 50 laps of the 1.98-mile circuit, with AmD’s Ollie Jackson clocking-up the most mileage on his return to the series.
The four Subaru Team BMR cars were unable to run during the session, although the striking white Levorg proved a hit when it was unveiled to the media earlier in the day. The machines of Michael Epps, Kelvin Fletcher and Stewart Lines were the others not to turn a wheel from the capacity 32-car grid.
The BTCC now moves on to Brands Hatch for the opening rounds of the season on the 2/3 April.
Matt Neal said: “It’s a nice start isn’t it, but it’s going to be very, very close out there. The strength of the TOCA engine looks strong and there are also a lot of new faces coming in, so that’s a bit of an unknown for us. Most of the day we’ve been working on the TOCA components with the RML guys. It’s been a productive day, so that’s all good. I’ve just been doing back-to-back stuff for them and at the end of the day we just wanted to see what it was good for so we opened her up. We’re back at Brands tomorrow where we had a tough test last week. We weren’t fastest by a long margin so we’ll see what we can wind ourselves up for there.”
Ashley Sutton said: “We’d only had 39 laps in the car when we went quickest – to achieve that sort of pace in such a short running time was clearly more than we’d expected. I was surprised that only Matt Neal pipped us in the end. I’m very happy, and we know there’s more time in the car. You’re never sure what the other guys are doing in these situations, but we know what we were doing and the MG is just spot-on – a dream to drive. It will be nice to get a solid qualifying session under my belt at Brands Hatch. It’s not going to be easy, of course – I’m the new kid on the block, so I’m going to get pushed and shoved around a bit initially – but I’m aiming for podium finishes throughout the year, that’s where I want to be.”
Rob Austin said: “It’s been a good, solid day – we’re very happy with that. We didn’t try anything special or push too hard to be up at the front; we just went about our pre-planned programme, and to end up second quickest was a really nice feeling. I’m still very aware that I have a lot to learn with regards to front-wheel drive and race runs in the Avensis, so we are keeping our expectations in check but the car is mega – the team has done a great job with it. The target for Brands Hatch will be to bring home what points we can. I’ll be happy with top ten finishes on the first weekend – although as we’ve proved today, there’s definitely potential for more…”