Updated: Sep 5, 2020
A new start to a new series of features.
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 Sprint Race that day was won by Matt Neal who is who I will be looking at first.
Matt Neal is one of my idols, I have loved watching Matt over the years and have been lucky enough to have met him on numerous occasions throughout my time watching racing.
Although he is known as a feisty character, I have always found 6ft 3 Matt a very pleasant person who always had time for me when I was growing up as a fan of the sport. I first met Matt at Thruxton in 2004, the opening round of the season that year during the pitlane walkabout. I was shaking with nerves as my dad took a picture of us both, having been forcefully encouraged by my Dad to go and stand near Matt when at the front of the queue. I was, and still am, a very shy person, so naturally my Dad did all the talking. I remember him saying “thumbs up mate” with great enthusiasm as my dad took the picture.
I am sure that this was a nothing moment for Matt who probably took dozens of photos similar to that during the walkabout however for me it was a real breakthrough moment.
It was a moment I will never forget and cemented my support for Matt Neal.
That year Matt had just returned to his family run outfit Team Dynamics, who he first raced for in 1992, after making his debut in the BTCC a year earlier in a BMW M3. Coincidentally, Neal’s debut in the pouring rain at Silverstone was also the first BTCC race my parents attended.
Matt’s first full season in 1992 was with Will Hoy’s 1991 championship winning BMW M3 switching to the new BMW 318i for the final round of the season after his original car suffered extensive damage in a crash at Donington Park.
Neal remained with the BMW for 1993 however he was not as successful as the season before, although he did win the Total Cup, a championship for drivers without Manufacture support. 1993 proved to be Matt’s final season in a BMW, to date at least, as for 1994 he switched to a Mazda, leaving Team Dynamics. He only competed in the opening five rounds before returning in 1995 with Team Dynamics in a Ford Mondeo, a car he kept until 1997.
In this time Matt won his first Independents championship in 1995, dominating the category as he won by nearly 100 points.
After two and half seasons competing in a Ford Mondeo, Neal switched to a Nissan Primera halfway through 1997, where he truly shone at the end of the SuperTouring era.
1998 was a breakthrough year for Neal who consistently finished in the top 10, however reliability meant he could not fight for Independent honours, eventually finishing the championship 13th and third in the Independent’s Championship.
Due to the fading interesting from Manufactures in the BTCC in the late nineties as the costs to compete in the championship spiralled out of control, series boss Alan Gow pledged to pay the first Independent Championship driver to win a race outright £250,000, in an attempt to generate interest from more drivers.
The prize was confirmed ahead of the 1999 season with Neal amongst the Independent drivers hoping to make the grade and claim the prize. Amazingly, and to Gow’s humorous annoyance, Neal won in just the second race of the Championship at Donington Park, scooping up £250,000 in the process.
It was a successful season for Neal who ended the year ninth, although he did not hit the heights of victory again. As well we winning the first race for an Independent, he did win the Independent’s Championship for a third time, adding to his 1993 and 1995 successes.
Neal continued this fine form into the new millennium as he won the Independent’s Championship once more in 2000, finishing the season eighth. It proved to be the last year of the SuperTouring era and Matt’s last with Team Dynamics as for 2001, with the new BTC regulations he briefly joined Peugeot before moving to the European Touring Car Championship for one season.
It was the ETCC’s first season since 1988 and featured legendary names such as Fabrizio Giovanardi, Nicola Larini and Gabriele Tarquini. Despite only competing in selected rounds, Neal finished the season a respectable fourteenth, winning the final race of the season at Estoril.
2001 also saw Neal compete at Bathurst however this would be his only season away from full time BTCC action as for 2002 he returned to the series as part of Vauxhall’s four car manufacture team, under the Egg Sport banner.
Neal was a championship threat throughout, winning his first race back in the series, that fateful day at Brands Hatch. Matt eventually finished third as reliability proved a thorn in his side, losing ground on eventual champion James Thompson and Frenchman Yvan Muller.
2002 was Neal’s only season with Vauxhall as he switched to Honda for 2003, spearheading a three-car team run by Arena Motorsport, partnering returning Alan Morrison and youngster Tom Chilton in a trio of Honda Civic Type-R machines. Again, reliability thwarted Neal’s championship aspirations, although the car showed fantastic pace all season however sadly for Honda, being a newer team up against the dominant Vauxhall trio proved too difficult to overcome.
Honda scaled back their manufacture involvement in the BTCC for 2004, ensuring Neal returned to Team Dynamics for a third time, again in a Honda Civic partnering 2002 Independent’s Champion Dan Eaves.
Still up against Triple Eight Engineering’s dominant Vauxhall Astra Coupe, with Thompson and Muller still at the helm of the team, Neal and the rest of the BTCC field also had new S2000 machinery to compete against such as Jason Plato’s manufacture backed Seat Toledo.
I remember the 2004 season incredibly well as I was lucky enough to attend seven of the ten meetings that year, meeting some great people along the way including some of my biggest idols within motorsport. I can only thank my Dad for giving up his Sunday’s to take me racing.
Neal finished 2004 fifth in what would be the Team Dynamic’s final season using the Honda Civic Type-R as for 2005, the team made the brave decision to build their own car. Neal and Eaves remained with the team as they introduced the Honda Integra Type-R, which proved an instant success, winning its debut race.
Designing their own car proved to be an inspired choice as Neal went onto win his first BTCC crown, beating Muller and teammate Eaves. Neal also won the 2005 Independent’s crown, his fourth. There were more celebrations in 2006 as Neal once again completed the double, overcoming stern opposition from Jason Plato’s new Seat Leon to win both the overall title and Independents Championship.
It was a fantastic era for me as a fan as it was a time I was really getting into motorsport and meeting some truly fascinating people including drivers, team members and people who followed the BTCC around the country selling their work.
I remember meeting a man who worked for Team Dynamics called Richard who very kindly gave me a Team Dynamics cap at the end of the 2004 season, which Matt and Dan Eaves signed. At Donington Park at the start of the 2005, my Dad nearly made Richard fall out of his golf buggy as he shouted to him, “he’s going to do it this year!” referring to Matt, to which Richard replied jokingly “I hope so!” as he sped off.
Fantastically, Matt did indeed win it, not once, but twice and I was lucky enough to watch a lot the action each season first hand.
After two hugely successful seasons, 2006 proved to be Team Dynamics’ last season with the Integra as they quickly moved back to the Civic for 2007. Although still competitive, the car did not hit the same heights as those around them as the new Vauxhall Vectra, driven by Fabrizio Giovanardi, and Plato’s Leon proved too strong.
After four seasons back with Team Dynamics, Neal moved back to Vauxhall to partner Giovanardi and Tom Onslow-Cole in a trio of Vauxhall Vectra’s for 2008 and although early indications were positive, stepping on the podium three times in the first six races, he struggled to keep pace finishing the season a distant fifth.
He remained with Vauxhall for 2009 in what would be the manufacture’s last season, and although his fortunes improved now with a year’s experience in the car, he finished the year fourth.
It was a bizarre two years for Neal who for the first time found himself comprehensively beaten by his teammate and playing second fiddle to a faster driver, with Giovanardi winning 2008 comfortably and within touching distance of a third BTCC title in a row in 2009.
Following Vauxhall’s withdrawal from the BTCC, Neal naturally returned to Team Dynamics in what was one of the worst kept secrets in the paddock. Honda also made their manufacture return in 2010, ensuring Neal was once again a factory Honda driver, partnered by former teammate and close friend Gordon Shedden.
In a new car, the duo was fast, finishing second and third in the BTCC standings respectively. The duo remained together until 2016 and in that time, dominated.
2011 saw Neal win his third crown ahead of teammate Shedden, in what would prove to be his last BTCC title to date. It was all change in the BTCC for 2012 as TOCA introduced the NGTC car, a car aimed at reducing the costs of racing. The shift proved successful and the rules are still used in the series today.
The rule change encouraged manufactures such as Honda and new comers MG back to the series, with Neal finishing the season second behind teammate Shedden. Since 2012, Neal has worked as a sturdy teammate, helping Shedden to three titles and develop mew teammate Dan Cammish into one of the best drivers in the BTCC, following Shedden’s move to the World Touring Car Cup.
This is not to take anything away from Neal who has finished in the top 10 every year since he returned to the series in 2002, a fantastic achievement over such a long period of time.
Away from the circuit, Neal has also been helping his two sons, Henry and Will as they begin their car racing careers, both of which are successful in their own right.
In time it would be fantastic to see either of them, if not both, in the BTCC, competing alongside their father.
Despite being 52-years-old. There appears to be no sign of Matt slowing down, with 2020 set to be Neal’s 30th season in the British Touring Car championship, a truly amazing achievement and one which I am sure many other drivers will wish to emulate him, present and future.
It will be fascinating to see how he fairs in the future and how his sons continue to develop as well.
For me, it has been a pleasure to follow Matt Neal so closely throughout his BTCC career, I feel hugely fortunate to have met him so many times when I was younger and cannot put into words how grateful I am for how he treated me as a young fan growing up.
He is someone I look up to, literally and metaphorically, and always will. I sincerely hope he remains in the BTCC for a long time to come.