Neal takes crucial pole at Silverstone

Championship leader Matt Neal stole a critical pole position for the first of tomorrow’s final three races at Silverstone this afternoon with a new lap record, while his rivals Gordon Shedden and Jason Plato will start third and seventh respectively.

The fight for pole position in the session looked to be a straight contest between Honda Racing’s Shedden and championship outsider Mat Jackson for Motorbase Airwaves Ford, Shedden setting the ball rolling early in the session with a quick first run to go top.

Having set the pace in the previous practice session, Jackson was then quick to show his card in the session when he went quickest with a time of 59.391s, only for Shedden to hit back with another strong lap.

The pair continued to respond to each other’s efforts and after another trip to the pits for fresh tyres, Jackson moved back to pole with a lap of 59.166s that lowered the lap record.

It looked as though the time would be good enough for Jackson to give the Motorbase team their first pole of 2011, but they were then stunned by Neal who put together a superb 59.131s lap to jump to the top of the times, despite carrying the maximum 45 kilos of success ballast for leading the series.

With nobody able to better Neal’s fine effort in the final three minutes of the session, the championship leader bagged a vital third pole of the season, also picking up the single bonus point for the pole position to give him the edge heading into tomorrow’s final three races.

“Oh man. It wasn’t looking pretty before then”, said Neal. “I’m just relieved, over the moon. The car was really hooked up, everything was singing and there was nothing left in it.

“It’s step one, but it’s a lovely step one isn’t it!? I can’t believe it.”

Jackson could not respond to the Honda driver’s lap and settled for a front row start, while the second Honda of Shedden will head the second row of the grid in his quest for a maiden BTCC title.

A very ill James Nash battled to a brave fourth position having headed the times at one stage in the 30-minute session, and will start directly behind his Independent’s Championship rival Jackson after a solid drive.

Fifth on the grid will be a Silverline Chevrolet, but in the shape of Alex MacDowall who put in a mighty effort running on his lonesome in the normally-aspirated Chevy Cruze around the power-efficient Silverstone National circuit.

Double 2010 winner here Tom Chilton will start sixth for Arena Ford, ahead of championship contender Jason Plato who could only manage seventh.

Chevrolet were notably working tactically with each other as the session started with the trio of Silverline’s MacDowall and Plato and Techspeed’s Paul O’Neill all running together to tow each other around the circuit to aid their lack of power against the turbo cars, although MacDowall mysteriously left the latter pair working together without him on his way to fifth place.

Whether their is a backstory to MacDowall’s change of tactics is merely a rumour to ponder, but Plato’s and O’Neill’s slipstreaming strategy only netted them seventh and 14th respectively, Plato struggling further with 27kg of ballast.

Arena’s Andy Neate had a good session en route to eighth place, ahead of Frank Wrathall and Tom Boardman wrapping up the top 10.

Tom Onslow-Cole and Andrew Jordan were bumped to 11th and 12th, while Dave Newsham will start 13th after a strong showing in practice all day, ahead of O’Neill 14th and returning double champion James Thompson 15th for Motorbase Ford despite carrying 45kg of ballast for his first appearance of the year.

The session brought little in the way of incident barring a spin for Jeff Sith at Luffield, an off for Tony Hughes at Copse and Martin Byford struggling with the handling of his Volkswagen Golf all day at Brooklands corner.

The new Batman-sponsored Vauxhall Insignia from Thorney Motorsports arrived in the paddock during first BTCC practice, but sadly did not appear on track all day meaning their are still question marks over its intended debut tomorrow. 

Qualifying results:

1.  Matt Neal               Honda           59.131s
2.  Mat Jackson             Ford           + 0.035s
3.  Gordon Shedden          Honda          + 0.134s
4.  James Nash              Vauxhall        + 0.177s
5.  Alex MacDowall          Chevrolet        + 0.231s
6.  Tom Chilton             Ford            + 0.301s
7.  Jason Plato             Chevrolet        + 0.376s
8.  Andy Neate              Ford             + 0.402s
9.  Frank Wrathall          Toyota          + 0.474s
10.  Tom Boardman            SEAT             + 0.504s
11.  Tom Onslow-Cole         Ford             + 0.526s
12.  Andrew Jordan           Vauxhall         + 0.686s
13.  Dave Newsham            SEAT           + 0.704s
14.  Paul O’Neill            Chevrolet       + 0.742s
15.  James Thompson          Ford          + 0.997s
16.  Nick Foster             BMW           + 1.057s
17.  Rob Collard             BMW          + 1.070s
18.  Liam Griffin            Ford           + 1.085s
19.  Ollie Jackson           Vauxhall       + 1.092s
20.  Rob Austin              Audi           + 1.213s
21.  Daniel Welch            Proton          + 1.273s
22.  Tony Gilham             BMW           + 1.342s
23.  John George             Chevrolet       + 1.626s
24.  Martin Byford           Volkswagen      + 1.721s
25.  Chris Swanwick          Audi           + 1.897s
26.  Lea Wood                Honda          + 1.976s
27.  Tony Hughes             Toyota          + 2.075s
28.  Chris James             Chevrolet      + 2.489s
29.  Jeff Smith              Vauxhall       + 4.525s


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