Guile of Plato and Menu hampers Honda's hopes

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The Independent Online

Jason Plato has taken an early lead in the British Touring Car Championship after taking a win and a fourth place for Vauxhall in the opening rounds here yesterday. Ford's Alain Menu took the other win as Vauxhall and Ford dominated proceedings, keeping Honda, the pre-season favourites, off the podium.

Menu won a highly entertaining sprint race. The Swiss driver led all the way from pole position in his Ford Mondeo, but had Vauxhall's Yvan Muller found a way past Rickard Rydell's Mondeo, and into second place, a little earlier, Menu could well have been in trouble.

Behind Menu, the pack swapped places with great enthusiasm and regularity. Rydell had moved into second place at the start and was challenged at first by Muller and later by Honda's James Thompson and Plato. Meanwhile, the returning former champion, Gabriele Tarquini, and Matt Neal dropped down the order. Neal was fourth early on in his privately run Nissan, but a tap from Thompson cost him two places immediately and more later on, when the damage gave him handling problems. Thompson spun as he tried to pass Rydell on the outside of the 120mph Hawthorns bend, but lost just two places. Plato then had fourth place and worried Rydell all the way to the finish.

An accident-punctuated feature race gave Plato an early boost in his campaign to become the first Briton to win the drivers' title since 1995. A clever pit-stop strategy aided his cause, but Plato insisted that the credit for the win should go to the pace of the revised Vectra.

Plato was ninth in the early running and so opted to make a pit-stop. That paid dividends when Alan Morrison - winner of the series' new Class B in the sprint race - rolled his Peugeot. The safety car was deployed and Plato made up the lost time.

When the order settled down after the stops, Plato was ahead, challenged by a pack of Fords, including the early leader Menu. This time it was Anthony Reid who had the quickest Mondeo and led the challenge. Plato was equal to the task, however, and led all the way to the chequered flag, as Muller, on his way to third, harassed Reid without quite being able to take second place.

Thompson and two BBC cameramen escaped serious injury in a terrifying crash at the spectacular Dingle Dell chicane. Thompson's Honda finished up perched on the barrier, behind which the BBC men had been filming.

RESULTS FROM BRANDS HATCH

BRITISH TOURING CAR CHAMPIONSHIP Round one (14 laps): 1 A Menu (Swit) Ford Mondeo 21min 03.676sec; 2 Y Muller (Fr) Vauxhall Vectra +0.818sec; 3 R Rydell (Swe) Ford Mondeo +6.900; 4 J Plato (GB) Vauxhall Vectra +7.148; 5 A Reid (GB) Ford Mondeo +8.383; 6 J Thompson (GB) Honda Accord +9.303; 7 T Kristensen (Den) Honda Accord +9.988; 8 V Radermecker (Bel) Vauxhall Vectra +13.699; 9 G Tarquini (It) Honda Accord +15.530; 10 M Neal (GB) Nissan Primera +16.088.

Round two: (33 laps - five under safety car): 1 Plato 58mins 45.206sec; 2 Reid +1.179sec; 3 Muller +1.492; 4 Rydell +12.666; 5 Radermecker +16.071; 6 Tarquini +39.664; 7 Menu +42.298; 8 C Blair (GB) Nissan Primera +1min 13.886; 9 J Kaye (GB) Honda Accord +1 lap; 10 M Lemmer (GB) Honda Integra +1 lap.

Championship standings: Drivers: 1 Plato 23pts; 2 Muller 22; 3 Menu 21; 4 Reid; Rydell 18; 6 Radermecker 9.

Manufacturers: 1 Ford; Vauxhall 45; 3 Honda 16.

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