Matt Neal makes welcome return to the rostrum in Norfolk. Points-scoring hat-trick keeps Gordon Shedden firmly in contention for drivers' crown. Gritty effort sees Honda regain manufacturers' lead.
Gordon Shedden and Matt Neal each came away with a rostrum finish and a solid haul of points from the sixth outing of the 2014 Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship at Snetterton.
The popular Norfolk circuit's '300' layout is the longest lap on the BTCC calendar - not to mention one of the quickest. Neal qualified his Honda Yuasa Racing Civic Tourer an excellent fourth on the 31-car grid for race one, with a frustrated Shedden 11th and struggling with the extra weight of success ballast due to his championship position.
Neal fought his way through into third in the opening encounter to secure his first podium since Thruxton three months ago - a welcome change of fortunes for the three-time BTCC Champion - whilst Shedden battled gamely up the order to take the chequered flag seventh, in the midst of a multi-car squabble over fifth.
Race two saw the Scot make further progress up to fourth, at which stage Neal dutifully allowed his title-chasing team-mate past to guarantee Shedden two potentially crucial extra points and a rostrum finish of his own as the strikingly-liveried Civic Tourers sped home line-astern in third and fourth positions.
The pair found themselves sharing the third row on the reversed grid for race three, but whilst Neal swiftly advanced to fourth, Shedden was less fortunate, losing out at the start and slipping down to eighth.
Undeterred, the 2012 champion grittily hauled himself onto the back of the lead scrap and crossed the finish line a very competitive fifth, but shortly after setting the race's fastest lap - an effort that would not subsequently be beaten - Neal was shunted into a spin by Colin Turkington at Montreal Hairpin, demoting him to a disappointed and unrepresentative 11th in the final reckoning.
"We knew it was going to be a challenging weekend," reflected 'Flash', who remains second in the drivers' table, just 23 points adrift of the top with 12 races left to run. "Snetterton is fast, but there are a lot of heavy-braking areas and with so many stop-start sections, the ballast really does affect the car. What's more, whilst the Civic Tourer handles fantastically and stops on a sixpence, we are hampered by the engine limitations down the long straights.
"Qualifying only 11th meant it was going to be a difficult race day, but I managed to grind out some results and make up places in every race, and points do make prizes at the end of the season - they could be vital by the time we get to Brands Hatch in October. It was a tough weekend, but we did the best job we could. There's still plenty of racing to go, and hopefully the tide will turn a little bit over the next couple of meetings."
"In general, we have to be reasonably satisfied to walk away with a load of points this weekend," echoed Neal, who sits seventh in the overall classification. "For me, it was just good to find the podium again! It was always going to be a blood bath with the long, fast straights here and our power restrictions, but between us, we achieved two podiums and plenty of points and I'll definitely take a third and a fourth.
"The car felt really good in the last race on the soft tyres, too. I was having a bit of a tussle with 'Turks' and had just set fastest lap, when I got hit from the rear going into the hairpin at Turn Two, which wrecked my race and cost us valuable manufacturers' and teams' points. There's always next time, though, and there's plenty of fight left in me yet."
Shedden and Neal's combined efforts enabled Honda to reclaim the lead in the manufacturers' championship and preserve second spot in the teams' battle. Honda Yuasa Racing Team Manager Peter Crolla explained that with so much still at stake and no fewer than three titles to be contested, there will be no let-up between now and the end of the campaign.
"It's probably fair to say we underperformed in terms of our expectations for the weekend," he mused. "Free practice was slightly interrupted, which meant we didn't achieve the performance we were hoping for. In light of that, qualifying was a respectable outcome - although Gordon didn't quite manage to put together the lap time he was capable of, making life harder for race one.
"We were pretty happy with the results in the first two races; it was good to see Matt back on the podium again, although race three for him was obviously very disappointing as he was set fair for another great finish that was taken away from him through no fault of his own. Gordon was able to capitalise upon the pace of the Civic Tourer and came away with a really solid points haul from the weekend.
"Our attentions now turn to Knockhill, where we are confident of a stronger performance and narrowing the gap at the top of the standings. There's still a long way to go in this championship and everything to play for."
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