Neal Wins 2002 Opener

Updated: Sep 5, 2020

In a race of not many finishers it was the 36-year-old who came out on top.

Matt Neal marked his return to the British Touring Car Championship with a victory in the opening race of the 2002 season, beating Dan Eaves and debutant Tom Chilton who completed the podium places.


Neal, who returns to the series full time following a year away, started the race second with pole sitter Yvan Muller quickly developing an early lead before a puncture late on scuppered the Frenchman’s chances of the win, with the 2001 championship runner-up eventually finishing fifth.


It was a race of attrition as multiple drivers failed to finish the first race of the year.


Saturday's qualifying session saw Muller take the first pole position of the season with fellow Vauxhall driver Neal alongside as Anthony Reid and Dan Eaves filled the second row. The impressive Chilton was fifth, joined by the second Peugeot of Tim Harvey. Andy Priaulx lined up seventh for Honda on their return to the series with Warren Hughes joining him on the fourth row. Paul O’Neill and Alan Morrison rounded out the top ten.


As the lights went out it was Muller who got the best start, beating Neal to Paddock Hill Bend, while behind, MG’s Anthony Reid found himself in the gravel after he appeared to outbrake himself and tapped Chilton on the way in. This left the 1998 and 2000 runner-up at the very back of the pack.


The action did not stop there for Reid who was nearly involved in a collision at the rear with the two Gary Ayles Production Class Alfa Romeo’s of Graham Saunders and Alan Blencowe with the two having their own accident at Graham Hill Bend, both retiring on the spot.


This bought out the Safety car as the clean-up operation commenced. While under Safety Car conditions, the factory Vauxhall of James Thompson was forced to retire as he suffered his second engine failure of the weekend, the first hampering his qualifying session.


As the race went green Muller went about redeveloping his lead however Neal was remained close behind. The two were pressured by MG’s Warren Hughes who had jumped up the order from eighth to third in the opening stages. As the race developed, Hughes slowly drifted off the rear of Neal, settling behind the two Vauxhalls.


Behind the top three, the two Peugeot’s of Eaves and Harvey were battling for position with Chilton, the trio being joined by the surging Paul O’Neill as the race developed. O’Neill had a slow start to the race in the second Egg Sport Vauxhall however he slowly made progress from ninth to seventh.


These positions would slowly increase as those at the front started to have issues. The first noticeable casualty at the front was Warren Hughes retiring on lap 12 at the exit of Druids after suffering a puncture at Paddock Hill Bend, robbing him of a deserved podium. A lap later saw Muller suffer a similar fate as he developed a puncture of his own just after passing the pitlane entry ensuring he had to travel an entire lap of the GP circuit on three wheels. This handed the lead to fellow Vauxhall driver Neal.


It ensured that Neal was comfortable at the front, 12 seconds ahead of Dan Eaves in second and Neal’s teammate Paul O’Neill in third, who had clawed his way past both Chilton and Harvey. Harvey was not behind O'Neill for much longer though as he was dumped into retirement on the penultimate lap as Chilton outbraked himself into Druids and hit the rear of the 1992 Champion, pushing him into the gravel trap.


This promoted the 17-year-old to fourth although this would become one better on the final lap as O’Neill suffered his own puncture at the final corner, careering him into the tyre barriers on the outside of Clearways, losing him what would have been a podium on his BTCC debut, a cruel blow.


At the front however it was Neal who took his third ever BTCC victory ahead of Eaves and Chilton third. Anthony Reid recovered to take fourth ahead of Yvan Muller in fifth. Behind Muller was Production Class winner Norman Simon in a BMW 320i closely followed by the much-improved Rob Collard in his family run Renault Clio. Chilton’s teammate Aaron Slight rounded out those who finished on the lead lap in ninth with Jim Edwards Jr, Phil Bennet, Andy Priaulx and Annie Templeton rounding out the finishers.

Photos: www.btccpages.com


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