Over the last 25 years, the British Touring Car Championship has seen some great rivalries, John Cleland and Steve Soper, Alain Menu and Rickard Rydell and James Thompson and Yvan Muller, however for me none of them come close to the rivalry of Jason Plato and Matt Neal.
Between them, they have raced in over 1350 races and cumulatively, their collective careers are a staggering 54 years long. Both have enjoyed huge success over their long careers with both cementing their places as two of the greatest drivers the series has ever seen.
This article will give you an insight into the careers of two of the BTCC’s heavyweights and how their rivalry has created drama, headlines and divisions over the years.
For no reason in particular we will start with Jason Plato. If you mention the British Touring Car Championship someone who is not familiar with the series, Jason Plato is the first name that is spoken. His popularity and consistency has ensured that he remains one of the most recognisable drivers on the grid today.
Plato’s career started in go-karts in which he enjoyed success, driving alongside drivers such as Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard. In 1991 Plato moved into car racing and won his first championship, the 1991 Formula Renault Eurocup. 1992 saw Plato move to F3 however his next success came in 1996 when he won the Renault Spider Cup, taking nine wins from thirteen starts.
This season Plato celebrates his final season in the British Touring Car Championship, having joined the series in 1997 with Williams Renault. Despite being initially rejected by Sir Frank Williams, Plato was incensed. Williams had sent Plato a letter saying they were going to pick a driver with a formula 1 profile, either Morbidelli or Jean-Christophe Bouillon.
A few weeks after that letter Plato woke up “full of hell” and decided that he would go to see Frank. In an interview for “Touring Car Legends” which aired in 2014, Jason describes how that moment “changed [his] life”. His plan was to confront Williams in person, he managed to get past security but found Frank’s PA a much sterner obstacle. After receiving a “nugget of information” from his PA that Frank would not be at the factory before lunch, Plato camped out in his car for over three hours waiting for Williams to arrive.
Upon Williams’ arrival, Plato pleaded with him to give him five minutes of his time which Williams agreed to, this resulted in Plato being offered the chance for a shootout with Boullion and Morbidelli. Plato won the shootout and in doing so, earned himself a drive for the 1997 season. It was a move which Plato described as one of the proudest of his life.
Plato found himself with Alain Menu as his teammate for the ’97 season and despite Menu’s pedigree, for the first three rounds of the season Plato beat him, and indeed everyone else in qualifying by getting three poles in his first three races. It would take another four months and after 8 rounds of the championship, Plato would win his first race in the BTCC, going onto finish third, as Menu clinched the ’97 crown.
The 1998 season saw Plato remain with Renault in which he finished fifth as Rickard Rydell went onto win his and Volvo’s only BTCC title. 1999 saw Plato finish fifth again, this time as team leader Following Menu’s move to Ford and Bouillon joining the team. During this time, Plato accumulated another two wins as Laurent Aiello and Nissan dominated the 1999 season.
2000 saw a lot of manufacturers withdraw from the series such as Volvo, Nissan and Plato’s Renault, leaving only three manufacturer supported teams, Ford, Honda and Vauxhall. Each increased their teams to three car entries and Plato found himself at Vauxhall partnering Yvan Muller and Vincent Radermacker, who joined from Volvo. For a third consecutive year, Plato finished fifth in the championship as the SuperTouring era ended.
For 2001 new rules were in place, with the aim of cheaper cars and closer racing. Plato remained with Vauxhall, who had by far the best car, following Ford’s withdrawal and Honda’s sabbatical. After a long and often controversial championship, Plato came out on top, beating teammate Yvan Muller by 18 points securing him his first BTCC title.
After two years away from the series, in which Plato competed in ASCAR and as a Seat development driver, 2004 saw Plato return to the BTCC as a Seat works driver alongside 2003 Seat Cupra Cup champion Rob Huff, who won the drive due to his title success. Seat’s Toledo was the first car in the BTCC under the new S2000 regulations used in Europe and despite the car’s lack of development, Plato finished the season third, with seven wins, the most of anyone that year!
2005 saw Plato finish a distant fourth however 2006 saw Seat reinvigorated with their new Leon and so ensued Plato’s rivalry with Matt Neal. Despite competing together since 1997, until now, Neal and Plato’s careers had never really crossed, bar three years, neither had been in a position to fight for the championship at the same time. Throughout the season, each driver found themselves on top at one stage and in the driving seat to take the crown. This caused controversial moments throughout, particularly at Snetterton when the two collided at the Russell Chicane while fighting for the win, leaving tensions at boiling point.
In the 2005 Season, it became apparent a rivalry off track was also brewing following a collision at Knockhill in wet conditions. This resulted in Neal calling Plato an “absolute pig”.
Up to this point, Neal had few rivals during his career which began in 1991 as an independent with Pyramid Motorsport. This was for a one off round at Silverstone before returning for a full campaign in 1992 with his family run team, Rimstock Racing. The following year, Rimstock Racing became Team Dynamics.
Prior to driving in the BTCC, Neal started racing in Motocross before moving to cars in 1988 driving in the Ford Fiesta XR2i category. He won this championship in both 1990 and 1991. This is what prompted Neal’s move to the BTCC in a BMW 318i before switching to a Mazda for the 1993 season, in which he won his first BTCC Independents Crown. From 1994 to halfway through the 1997 championship, Neal drove a Ford Mondeo before changing cars again, this time to a Nissan Primera. This period also bought Neal his second Independent Title success in 1995.
By 1998 Neal was beginning to score consistently with nine top ten finishes on his way to thirteenth in the standings. 1999 was Neal’s break though year hitting the headlines as early as the second race of the season!
Before the year had started, series director Alan Gow had set an independent driver the goal to win a race outright, and become the first driver to achieve this feat in the SuperTouring era, the prize, £250,000. Neal, still with family outfit Team Dynamics, managed to win the second race at Donington during the first round of the season, beating the likes of James Thompson and Plato from pole. After stalling in the pits, he dropped to fifth and worked his way back through the field. It was the race that put Neal on the map. He continued to impress throughout the year with a string of top ten finishes on his way to ninth in the standings and a third Independents Crown.
2000 saw Neal remain in the BTCC, again winning the Independents Crown, before taking a sabbatical in 2001 to race in the European Touring Car Championship. He returned to the series in 2002 with Vauxhall before moving to Honda in 2003. Neal remained with Honda throughout, achieving a third and fifth however 2005 was Neal’s year as he beat the dominant Vauxhall, and 2003 Champion Yvan Muller, to take his maiden BTCC Title.
2006 saw Neal remain with Honda and Team Dynamics, though his challenge for the title was not from Vauxhall, but from Seat. Since Neal’s second title in 2006, eventually beating Plato by 48 points, the two have come to blows, both on and off the track, as they fought for championships yearly.
2007 once again saw the duo squabble throughout in a season where Neal could not match the speed of Plato as Honda reintroduced the Civic. It was a season which Plato battled hard to the very end, despite being hampered by a nasty accident while filming for Television show Fifth Gear in which he suffered burns to his hands, face and neck when the Caparo T1 he was testing burst into flames.
Despite this is he continued bravely only missing out on the championship by three points to Fabrizio Giovanardi at the final race at Thruxton.
For the next two seasons, Neal moved back to Vauxhall and although Neal found himself unable to compete for the championship in 2008 and 2009, the rivalry continued. There has always been a tension between the two of them and the rivalry ensued once more in 2010 when Plato pipped Neal to win his second title in a Chevrolet Cruze, there has been no stopping them.
The pair were consistently at the front, however tensions boiled over once more at Rockingham in 2011 during and after qualifying. The pair came to blows both on and off the circuit and into the pitlane after the session had ended as they squabbled for track position. The net result was the duo squaring up to each other Squaring up to each other following qualifying, with the pairs dads having to separate them both as insults were hurled from one to the other. It is certainly a moment which has gone down in BTCC history.
2011 eventually saw Neal claim his third crown, with teammate Shedden second. Shedden would go onto win the 2012 championship, with Neal second, but Plato was always close behind.
Throughout the decade and into the autumns of their careers, Plato and Neal faced new rivals in their quest for more championships such as Andrew Jordan, Colin Turkington and more recently, Ash Sutton.
Despite finishing second a staggering five times, Plato never added to his two championships since 2010 whereas Neal has only finished in the top three twice since his last crown in 2011.
Many would agree that both drivers should have had more success than they have had over the years, although they do share an enviable five titles between them. Neal has always been known as an aggressive driver and this aggression has cost him points in the past, while Plato’s pantomime villain act may not have won him many fans up and down the grid over the years, traits which could have cost both drivers another title or more?
However, neither have had the luck when it counted, particularly Plato in 2007 and 2015 whereas Neal has had punctures at critical times and accident ending weekends during the past decade.
Despite their limited success for the duo over the past few seasons, with Neal retiring at the conclusion of the 2020 season altogether it has been their rivalry that has often taken over the sport, that created some iconic talking points, got fans watching and without that, the series would be a much emptier place.