Updated: Sep 5, 2020
The ninth part of my series.
For my next feature I am going to look at every driver who started my first ever British Touring Car Championship race and what they have achieved in their careers, both before and after.
As some of you may know, my first BTCC race was on the 30th March 2002 when my Dad and I went to the “Super Sunday” event at Brands Hatch, in which the touring cars were joined by the British GT championship as well as Formula 3.
I was only seven when I attended and immediately fell in love with touring cars, a passion which has failed to die down yet nearly eighteen years later!
The order I will be looking at the drivers will be the finishing positions of that race.
The next driver I am going to look at is the first driver who failed to finish, Matt Neal’s 2002 teammate, Paul O’Neill.
For so many reasons, Paul O’Neill is a British Touring Car Championship legend. His friendly approachable demeanour combined with his enthusiastic and emotional attitude to motorsport makes him a fan favourite amongst many.
Paul started his BTCC career in 2001, when he joined Tech Speed Motorsport in a Production Class Peugeot 306 GTi. Immediately Paul’s attitude won over fans as he claimed three class podiums on his way to eighth in the production class standings. The production class that season was weirdly much more competence than the BTCC, featuring many former touring car drivers as well as some future stars such as Mat Jackson and Tom Boardman. This bizarrely competitive season occurred due to the new regulations introduced that year, with the Production Class into its second season, as the BTCC only began its new BTC era following the demise of the SuperTouring regulations in 2001.
A year later, O’Neill was promoted to the factory Vauxhall team, driving an Egg Sport liveried car alongside experienced teammate Matt Neal. Despite early struggles with reliability, which saw him retire from my first ever race at Brands Hatch with a puncture, Paul’s moment came at his home circuit Oulton Park, where he won from fourth on the grid. The win was such a feat for O’Neill that he burst into tears on the team radio, which in turn was broadcast live on TV, as he returned to the paddock, celebrating all the way round the cool down lap.
Once there, be blessed the parc ferme area, before crying with joy once more while talking to pitlane reporter Vicki Butler-Henderson. It was O’Neill’s only win of the season as he finished 2002 eighth in the standings a very respectable first season. However his impact off the circuit in 2002 was far greater than what he achieved on it.
A year later O’Neill joined the full factory Vauxhall team, partnering the experienced duo of Yvan Muller and reigning champion James Thompson. It was a much more successful season for O’Neill as he finished the season fourth in the standings, taking 138 points, including his second victory in the BTCC.
Sadly however this would O’Neill’s final full time entry in the BTCC until 2009 as he was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, which left him very ill and with his racing license temporarily suspended.
Paul is not one to give up though, and fought back to good health, something I am incredibly happy happened. I remember at the time in 2004 when he was ill and being concerned for him, knowing how much of a nice person he is, it did not seem fair someone so kind could have a condition so debilitating hit them.
After two and a half years away, Paul made his return to the BTCC, a very welcome return, driving a Vauxhall Astra Coupe once again for Tech Speed Motorsport, deputising for Fiona Leggate. O’Neill was immediately on the pace, delivering the team their best results of the season, despite limited mileage prior to his return.
O’Neill contested the final two rounds of the season, with a best finish of eighth in the penultimate round of the 2006 season, ending the year with seven points. 2007 was a similar season for Paul as he only competed in the final round of the season for Motorbase Performance in a Seat Toledo, although he was unable to finish in the points on his return.
It was his last outing in the BTCC for a year as he was unable to secure a drive for the 2008 season. O’Neill instead drove in the British GT Championship for Team RPM in a Dodge Viper, winning at Rockingham. Sadly again though 2008 would prove to be a part-time season as he did not contest the final three rounds of the year, however despite this, Paul ended 2008 on 20 points and sixteenth in the standings, a respectable record for a debut campaign in highly tuned cars with far greater aerodynamics and speed.
Thankfully for O’Neill and indeed his fans he returned to full time driving in 2009 once again with Tech Speed Motorsport. O’Neill’s return saw him partner Martyn Bell in a pair of Honda Integra Type-R’s. It was great to see Paul back in full time racing and in a series he was so well loved. His return season saw him finish twelfth in the standings with 60 points including an emotional podium at Snetterton.
I was lucky enough to attend seven of the ten rounds in 2009, which included Snetterton. I remember I went with my dad as usual however for that round we took my best friend who was also passionate about motorsport. Because of his joyous ways and enthusiastic driving, my friend admired O’Neill, joining me and my dad in being huge fans of him.
Having watched his emotional interview following his maiden podium of the season, at the end of the meeting we went into the Snetterton paddock to have a look at all the cars as they were packed away when we saw Paul chatting.
My friend plucked up the courage to go and say congratulations, to which Paul greeted him like he was an old mate, something which took my friend by total surprise. He took the time to have a lengthy chat with the three of us, taking some great pictures as well. It is moments like these which only take minutes, but can create memories for a lifetime, I am sure my friend would agree it was a great experience and one that I certainly cherish.
I am sure many other people have similar stores of Paul throughout the years.
He would remain with the team for 2010 again partnering Bell in a pair of Honda Integra Type-R’s in which his results improved dramatically, finishing on the podium three times with a best result of second at Rockingham and Silverstone. This sharp incline in results would see O’Neill finish the season ninth with 136 points.
It would be his most successful season back in the BTCC as the team switch to a pair of Chevrolet Cruze’s for 2011, with John George replacing Martyn Bell. Although O’Neill still found himself on the podium, the results were not as competitive, finishing the season tenth with 91 points, a season which included three podiums including two second placed finishes.
It would sadly prove to be O’Neill’s final full season in the BTCC as he left the team at the conclusion of the 2011 season.
His last outing in the championship came into 2013, when he drove a Team HARD Vauxhall Insignia at Knockhill, combining the drive with his ITV commitments.
This is what O’Neill is known for now, having joined ITV’s coverage of the BTCC soon after his exit from the championship and quickly became a fan favourite on screen due to his enthusiastic personality and knowledge.
Since joining the ITV team he has also become a commentator for the Ginetta Junior and GT4 Championships, where his humour and love of motorsport shines through. In addition to this, due to his coaching on the side, he can often refer to hilarious stories during his stints behind the mic.
Paul O’Neill is a British Touring Car Championship legend and will surely be remembered for his quick wit and just overall bonkers persona which ensures he is loved by tens of thousands of fans up and down the country.
And after all of this, I cannot believe I have gone the entire feature without mentioning the fact he’s the brother of Spice Girl Mel C! Oh….