Factory teams out to stretch Neal

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Doubt about the competitive credibility of this season's Auto Trader British Touring Car Championship, because of much reduced factory support, were dissipated here yesterday when less than one second separated the first seven drivers in both qualifying events for today's first and second rounds. The French driver Alain Menu, in a Ford Mondeo, will take pole position in both.

It was a highly promising day for Ford since Menu's team mate Rickard Rydell secured second place on the grid for today's Sprint race the place from which he will also start in the Feature event. In both races Yvan Muller, in a Vauxhall Vectra, will be immediately behind them at the start.

The top independent, Matt Neal, in his Nissan Primera will be on the second row of the Sprint event after a creditable time of 1min 28.466sec compared to Menu's 1min 27.902sec but he was still disappointed to have gone "too deep" into several corners and not having the "clean" flying lap he wanted after an earlier troublesome qualifying session for the Feature race.

Among those missing from this season's series is reigning champion, Laurent Aiello, of France, who is spending this summer competing in the German Touring Masters which means that he will probably be linking up with Britain's James Thompson, who also drives for Honda and has decided to race in the British Touring Car Championships rounds as well as the German competition as long as there is no direct clash. Aiello reckons Thompson will be the man to beat in Britain this year but as yet there is not much evidence of that. He was slower than Neal in both of yesterday's qualifying events.

In theory Neal, who has been highly impressive in pre-season testing, should have a clearer road to success this season after amazing everyone by quickly snatching the £250,000 offered in what the organisers mistakenly believed was the unlikely event of a privateer winning one of last year's races.

The field has been denuded not only by the loss of Aiello but the withdrawal of the official Volvo and Renault teams, which won the 1998 and 1997 titles respectively, and Nissan. There are plans to reduce the cost of competition by introducing new regulations to ensure that the cars remain nearer to showroom models, but for the moment, at least Ford, Honda and Vauxhall have increased their entries to three cars each.

Neal is far from convinced that the reduction in the number of factory-supported teams will help him. He explained: "Last summer the works Nissan team did not exactly assist me but they didn't do anything to block me. This season it's going to be even more lonely. With three of the teams having three cars each, they can easily gang up on me. In the circumstances I can't seriously expect to win the championship. I just hope to win some races."

After a succession of problems with the balance of his car which forced him to make four pit-stops in yesterday's first qualifying session, Neal ran out of time to post effective laps and his sixth fastest annoyed him, but, to put it in perspective, the Hondas he kept behind him are supported by a budget of nearly £6m. Neal accepts that today could be the first of many Sundays when the heavily subsidised works teams will create "a traffic jam of selfinterest" ahead of him.

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