VX Racing challenged for the lead of all three Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship races at Snetterton this afternoon, in one of its most competitive performances of the year.
Gavin Smith put in a masterful drive in race one to nurse a car with broken suspension home in fourth place. At one point the Dubliner looked good for a win as he closed in on leader, Jason Plato, registering the fastest lap of the race. But a tangle with back-marker Fiona Leggate spun the 28-year-old, causing the suspension damage and letting SEAT rival James Thompson and team-mate Fabrizio Giovanardi through to complete the podium.
Earlier in the race Giovanardi had also been running well in second before a side-ways tap from Thompson spun the Vauxhall Astra Sport Hatch. The Italian controlled the car brilliantly and gave the Norfolk crowds a real spectacle as he slid around the high-speed circuit sideways in an over-steer-hampered car - the result of wet tyres on a drying track.
Tom Chilton had fought his way up to sixth place after dropping to ninth off the start but his race was ended in a battle with Gordon Shedden in which the pair ran wide at Riches Corner.
In race two Chilton was the only VX Racing regular to finish after Giovanardi retired with front end damage following a hard-fought battle with Thompson for second place.
The incident gave Smith an opening which saw him leap into second. He held position for three laps before reigning champion Matt Neal cut through. Neal was followed a few laps later by team-mate Shedden in an over-zealous move which saw the Scotsman slam into the side of Smith, ending his race.
Tom Chilton finished seventh which put him third on the grid for the last race of the day with Neal and Gareth Howell ahead of him. He made short work of the two Honda Integras, driving straight through the middle and into the race lead.
The 21-year-old held the lead for three laps before Neal snuck through, leaving Chilton at the mercy of SEAT's Thompson, who put the Vauxhall under extreme pressure before passing on lap 10.
Chilton, from Reigate, never lost touch with the leaders and finished third for his fourth podium of the year.
Giovanardi did not start the race after a mechanical failure and Smith made excellent progress to secure seventh from 18th on the grid.
VX Racing's guest driver, Erkut Kizilirmak, retired from race one but put in solid performances to finish 13th and 14th - an improvement on his last outing at Croft.
Gavin Smith: "The car felt pretty good. I hate saying ifs, buts and maybes ... but on the last two laps in race one I was quicker than Jason Plato and I could've got the lead, I'm sure of it. When I came up behind Fiona Leggate I had to go for it because James Thompson was right behind me. She didn't leave enough room and I went off and broke the car.
"It would've been nice to have a podium and it was looking quite possible. The car is turning the corner now - it has the potential and the team has done a really good job. Now we just need a bit of luck."
Fabrizio Giovanardi: "In the first race the wet tyre was destroyed very quickly on the dry track and it's quite difficult to drive like this - I spun twice. With so much trouble I think third is OK!"
Tom Chilton: "I thought I was on for my first win in race three. I got a cracking start and found myself sandwiched between Neal and Howell. The car moved around a bit but I kept my foot down and cut through the middle nicely. It was a bit sideways but I managed to hang on.
"I tangled with Gordon Shedden in the first race. He tried to out-brake me. I turned in and we just hit wheels. I'm disappointed because that would have been at worst a fourth-place finish and probably a third.
"Despite that, I really enjoyed the race. I got past two MGs and a couple of Honda Integras - it was fun."
Erkut Kizilirmak: "This was my first time racing in the wet and from the start of the first race I couldn't use my gears. There was something wrong with the shifting and then on lap nine or 10 it stuck in sixth gear. I did three or four laps like that and then I had to retire."
John Morton, VX Racing's Technical Director: "In race one Gavin Smith managed to hero the car around to the end of the race with broken suspension. He did exceptionally well. At one point we were convinced he could win. He had the fastest car and was closing in on Plato when the damage occurred."
Simon Cumberpatch, Tom Chilton's Race Engineer: "Looking forward to Knockhill, if it's dry I think we have got a very good chance there. The car does seem to suit the more high traction circuits rather than fast and flowing. As long as we can get up the hill OK we should be in fairly good shape there."
VX Racing has the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Manufacturers Championship in its sights and the thrill of the chase has invigorated the Banbury-based team in the run up to this weekend’s round at Snetterton.
At the beginning of the season, it seemed the lighter SEAT Léon had the championship all sewn up, but a change in fortunes at Donington Park two weeks ago saw VX Racing halve the gap in the title chase after scoring three podiums in as many races.
Now the squad is hoping to narrow the gap further as it arrives in Norfolk for the fastest venue on the BTCC calendar. The long straights at Snetterton should play right into the hands of the Astra Sport Hatch, which has one of the best straight line speeds of all the competitors.
“Making up so much ground on SEAT at Donington has given us something to fight for,” said John Morton, VX Racing’s Technical Director. “If we’re in with a sniff of getting that Manufacturer’s Championship then we’ll be mad for it.
“The data shows a lot of potential in the car but so far we’ve not fully exploited it either because of crash damage, inexperience or failures.
“Snetterton should see a turnaround. Since last year the main change with the car has been a more powerful engine and Snetterton is the circuit where that will give us the biggest advantage. It’s basically a series of long straights, so engine power is vital.”
Snetterton is the favourite circuit of VX Racing’s prodigy, Tom Chilton. “Last year I got two wins back-to-back and I think I’ll be good again in the Vauxhall,” said the 21-year-old, from Reigate. “We can run the car a little bit more aggressively because the tyre wear isn’t an issue here, which will really help us. We could find ourselves in a good position.
“To get the most out of this circuit you have to put mind over matter. When you lift off the throttle the weight of the car pitches to the front and you have to floor it to get the front back around. It gets to the point, especially on a circuit like Snetterton, where you just don’t lift at all!”
Fabrizio Giovanardi is keen to put the disappointment of the last race behind him, when Colin Turkington took the race win after passing the Italian on the last corner. “Losing my first win at Donington still hurts but I’m not angry like I was,” said the two-times European Touring Car Champion. “I will never make the same mistake – I learn very fast.
“I know something about Snetterton because I’ve tested there before but only in the wet. It’s quite difficult - really fast - but it’s a circuit where drivers can really make the difference. We’ve taken a big jump on performance. Now we can fight.”
That sentiment is echoed throughout the team. “Vauxhall has got a lot closer to SEAT and we’re starting to rattle their cage,” added Chilton. “Hopefully we can keep the pressure on.”