Neal zeroes in
Halfords Yuasa Racing’s Matt Neal is one of a hatful of drivers in the hunt for the coveted Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship Drivers’ title and he quietly closed the gap to current standings leader Sam Tordoff after producing another metronomic weekend’s point-scoring, this time at Rockingham.
Now competing in his 26th BTCC campaign, the triple champion knows a thing or two about how a title is won over the course of the season, and consistency is very much the mantra. With seven podiums and a hat-trick of wins to his name in 2016, Neal tops neither the podium charts nor the winners tally – though he is well up the order in both.
In addition to the race wins and the rostrums, it’s a drive for a constant stream of high points-paying positions that have seen him close to within just five points of the championship lead with six rounds still to play for. Win or bust isn’t the mentality, it’s a more measured approach. To illustrate this, Neal has only failed to finish outside of the top-15 on one occasion this year – a single did-not-finish for that multi-car incident midway through race one at Thruxton in which the Honda Civic Type R found itself tangled up. Aside from that, his worst result is a couple of 12th’s and even then, one of those was compensated for by a race three win back at Donington Park.
Neal’s sublime, storming race two win at Knockhill was a first since Oulton Park but at no point had the Team Dynamics mainstay fallen more than 15 points shy of the championship’s summit in the meantime.
When scenting blood this year, Neal has rarely let his rivals out of his grasp when the opportunity to take full advantage and maximum points has presented itself. The perfect illustration of this came at Knockhill. From eighth on the grid, Neal went on a charge, scything his way through the field, making hay while the leaders’ scrapped to move up to third on lap 22, second two laps later and finally snatching the lead at the hairpin a lap later still, subsequently easing clear to secure his third triumph of the season.
“I thought we would have a chance from where we were starting and after catching the leaders, I could see they were beginning to struggle a bit and I was able to capitalise upon their battle,” said Neal. “The Halfords Yuasa Racing Civic Type R was monstrous right the way to the end.
“We came to Knockhill anticipating a tough weekend with the weight we were carrying and its reputation as a rear wheel-drive circuit, so to leave with a win and still sitting second in the championship was fantastic.”
After that win in Scotland, in conditions Neal fancied little ahead of the weekend, came Rockingham. Gradual improvement race-by-race saw Neal P8, P6 and P4 on the Sunday afternoon while standings leader Sam Tordoff, amongst others in the running, failed to score points on at least one occasion.
“Rockingham is always a tough challenge physically, and in truth, we weren’t too sure what to expect coming here but we kept our heads down, plugged away and leave with a solid bagful of points,” continued Neal. “The first two races were pretty heavy going, but when I got some clear air, the Honda Civic Type R felt really strong.
“Flash (Gordon Shedden) warned me that I would be up against it on the hard tyres in race three, so I was over-the-moon to finish fourth – I really didn’t anticipate being able to hang on as well as that.
“To come away with both of us firmly in the thick of the title fight is a great outcome. The pressure is mounting in the championship now with just two weekends to go and Silverstone next time out could be a tricky one for us, but believe me, we’ll be giving it everything we’ve got.”
The season is coming to a head and with just five points the dividing line between Neal and a fourth BTCC title, who would bet against experience when it comes to the crunch at Brands Hatch on 2 October?