Matt Neal chasing gold in silver season
The word ‘legend’ is arguably bandied around far too often in modern day sport, but it’s a fully deserved status when it comes to Matt Neal’s glittering career in the BTCC.
The Honda Yuasa Racing star is contesting his 25th season in Britain’s biggest motor sport series, having amassed more tales and achievements than most drivers could ever dream of.
Three titles and more than 50 race wins in a career spanning a quarter of a century is a remarkable achievement, but he’s far from settled on that silverware haul as he chases a record-equalling fourth British Touring Car Championship.
His first BTCC race took place at Silverstone back on 14 July 1991 (see photo), but he admits that his BTCC dream began much much earlier than that.
“My first real memory of the championship is when my Dad took me to Oulton Park in 1977 or ‘78,” Neal said. “I remember the Capris – the likes of Stuart Graham, Gordon Spice and Gerry Marshall were out there racing. It was just so cool and I really enjoyed it.”
“Then when I was 17 all I wanted to do was drive a car, but I was racing motorbikes then. I had a dream of course but that’s exactly what it was, and I never imagined it would come true. Anyway we found out the Renault 5s were racing at Donington one day, which was an achievement in itself – there was no internet in those days, in fact the top of the M42 hadn’t even been built!
“We went along and I was watching these Renault 5s thinking if only I could drive one – not race them but just drive one! It turned out that the Touring Cars were racing the same day – there was Andy Rouse, Frank Sytner and Co, so I suppose it was about 1984? It was so cool but it was something that seemed so far away from me and at a level I thought I’d never get to. If you had told me then that I’d race in the BTCC one day I wouldn’t have believed it, never mind winning a race or three championships! It’s still a bit surreal to be honest.”
Having started out in Motocross, Matt moved to the Ford Fiesta XR2i category in 1988. He later became the British Group N Champion in 1990 and 1991. Whilst making a name for himself in the lower echelons of tin-top racing, he also co-drove a BMW M3 to victory at the 1990 Willhire 24-Hour race at Snetterton, the same make and model of car that he’d make his BTCC debut in a year later.
“My first experience of being in the championship was when I was racing in Group N, and I still thought that racing in Touring Cars just wasn’t possible,” he continued. “I was just concentrating on doing the best I could and enjoying my racing.
“Then I got a BTCC junior test with BMW halfway through ’91 and after that I managed to get some sponsors together to do the British GP event. I raced with the Pyramid Team and my team-mate was Frank Sytner – it gave me a real insight into the car and it was a real test. Considering I’d been driving a twin turbo Skyline in Group N, which was quite quick, I just couldn’t believe the speed that everything happened in one of these things. You could change the roll bars, brake bias etc. but it took all my concentration just to steer the thing and change gear. It was obviously the old H-pattern gearshift too and there was no data or anything like that – it was proper old school but that really gave me the bug. We had a few more races that year before coming back to do the full season in ’92 (competing in the pictured BMW M3 under the Rimstock Racing banner) and the rest as they say is history!”
Matt finished 13th on his BTCC debut at Silverstone and has since gone on to notch up the aforementioned titles and milestones, but his first standout memory came in his fourth season of racing in the BTCC.
“The moments I have really enjoyed probably begin with ’95 where I nearly scored my first podium – I finished fourth at Snetterton,” he said.
Despite some battling drives in Privateer machinery, Matt had to wait until 1999 to reach the podium and reach it he did! Famously Neal won a cheque for £250,000 after taking victory at Donington Park in the opening round of that season after the prize fund was offered to any privateer team who could win a race outright – unheard of in that particular era of the BTCC.
“1999 was obviously a very special time,” beamed Matt. “People don’t realise how hard it was to be an Independent team in the 1990s and ’99 was the first time ever that we were allowed to run on the same tyres as the factory cars… and we won it! To win the £250,000 was an incredible feeling and the springboard for my career to be honest.
“Obviously my first championship win was fantastic. The first time out in 2005 we won with the Integra and we went on to win the title. The first title was very special but winning with the Civic in 2011 was also a great achievement. As I’ve said before, I felt for Flash that day because we’d had a really good year and I knew he wanted it, but it was a great championship win for me.
“The introduction of the then new Honda Civic in 2007 was also a wonderful time. It won its first race and its last race some five years later. It was a great car.”
By his own very high standards Neal endured a challenging campaign in 2014, leaving some to question if his abilities were on the wane. An overall finish of eighth was his lowest championship position since the Super Touring days, but it’s often forgotten that misfortune and injury played their part.
Far from being downbeat by last season’s return a rejuvenated Neal has come back strongly in 2015 and currently lies third in the title hunt.
“We’ve had a great season overall and the little Civic Type R has been competitive almost every weekend,” he told btcc.net recently. “I’ve always said it’s important to be leading at the end of the season rather than during it.”
Neal kicked off his campaign with wins at both Brands Hatch and Donington Park before podiums followed at Thruxton and Oulton Park. In fact with the exception of Snetterton, which will go down as one to forget for Honda generally, the Midlander has collected a solid points haul at every event.
“I think I’m a lot more relaxed than I have been in the past,” concluded Neal. “Of course there are stresses involved when you’re trying to score good results for a manufacturer with the stature of Honda but I’m also trying to enjoy the experience more.
“It’s swings and roundabouts in many ways, sometimes I’m quicker than Flash and then on occasion it can be the other way. It’s about maximising your opportunity in any given moment, which is why looking back is not an option.”
So it seems Matt’s incredible milestone will be a huge talking point this weekend, but the man himself will be fully focused on doing his talking on the track!