British Touring Car legend Matt Neal has now started 700 races in the British Touring Car Championship. The three-times champion reached the milestone in the second of three races at Oulton Park over the weekend. Matt, 53, was already the only driver to pass 600 starts, some 100 starts ahead of his nearest rival, Jason Plato, having begun his BTCC career in 1991. With 63 victories, Matt also lies second, behind Jason Plato, in the list of winning-most drivers in the BTCC.
It is incredible to think that it is now 29 years since Matt made his BTCC debut, at Silverstone in 1991. Matt joined the ranks of the Independent Class for non-works drivers in a Pyramid Motorsport BMW M3. Class victory, in those days, was the only success an Independant Class driver could expect. By the mid-nineties Matt was driving for his dad Steve’s Team Dynamics outfit. This was the golden age of Super Touring regulations with enormous manufacturer support, but Matt was able to mix it with the works teams, first in a Ford Mondeo and then a Nissan Primera, gaining a huge following of fans.
The breakthrough came, at Donington Park, in the first meeting of the 1999 season. Matt took a sensational victory in the second of two races that day, winning the £250,000 prize, on offer from BTCC boss Alan Gow, as the first Independent driver to win a race outright in the modern era. Matt’s victory had been anticipated for some time, although this was the first opportunity that he had to compete with the works drivers on a level playing field.
Independents had not been allowed the same equipment available to the works teams and it was believed that works-spec tyres could be worth up to three seconds per lap. “The first time we raced with works tyres, we won. I just couldn’t believe what the factory boys had been enjoying all this time!”
Following a brief sojourn to the European Championship, Matt was back in a works Vauxhall Astra in 2002 before returning to the family team in 2004. For 2005 Team Dynamics had developed their own Honda Integra Type R and Matt opened his campaign, again at Donington, with two wins and a second place. Six victories for the season helped Matt to the first of two consecutive British Touring Car Championship titles.
Did Matt ever think that he would, one day, be champion when he joined the series in 1991? “No! I was just so thrilled to be there, I was focused on doing the best that I could without a real long term goal. There was a little disbelief, and still is now. I feel it shows it can be done for anyone, as long as you have a positive mental attitude.”
That is something, perhaps, that endears Matt to the fans, that makes him such a popular driver. At six feet six inches (2m) tall, Matt was never cut out to be a racing driver. He missed out on a single-seater career, but his determination to succeed in unequal machinery, in the early days, and his ever-cheerful manner with the fans quickly made him a favourite. Even now, as one of the all-time greats, no one looks more thrilled to step out of a winning car than Matt.
The British Touring Car Championship is a tough arena and the racing is always hard, and that is what has put the championship at the pinnacle of British motorsport. Matt has carried that determination with him from the early days. “Rightly or wrongly, I’m a fighter. If you come at me I’m going to come back at you – harder. It’s an old-school approach which a lot of old-school drivers adopt. That said, sometimes it’s better to keep your composure and an eye on the goal, that’s what gets results.”
Matt had two further years at Vauxhall but had to wait until he returned, once again, to the family team for his third title in 2011, in a Honda Civic. He also renewed his partnership with Gordon Shedden, who was with the team from 2006 until 2017, himself taking the title on three occasions. “It was brilliant to have a team mate that I could learn so much from,” said Gordon of his early days.
Having a consistent package has helped the team to develop and they have been working with Honda since 2004. At the time of Matt’s final return, in 2010, they ran as the Honda Racing Team and, for 2015, Team Dynamics was sold with Matt and Gordon developing the new Honda Civic Type–R for the Halford’s Honda Yuasa Racing team, both drivers taking a win apiece on the new car’s debut at Brands Hatch. Matt and Gordon developed a great relationship, working together to develop the car and supporting each other’s title bids.
Matt’s race 3 victory at Donington in 2016 is typical of the challenges facing the modern BTCC racer. Carrying 75kg of success ballast, after Brands Hatch, Matt would need to call on all of his experience if he was to succeed at his local circuit.
Having qualified back in ninth place in a weather-affected session, Matt opted to use his soft tyres, which each driver has to select for one race per meeting, in the opening race. Shedden, fourth on the grid, chose to do the same and the pair finished just outside the top ten in race one. Handicap out of the way, it was time to fight back.
On the harder rubber Gordon finished fourth and Matt sixth in the second race and the reverse grid draw for the final outing put Matt on row two, behind Sam Tordoff and Josh Cook. Of the top seven drivers only Matt and Gordon were on the harder, more durable, tyres.
Jack Goff, starting fourth, made early use of his soft rubber, taking second behind Tordoff, but Cook made a bad start and quickly fell down the order. Now it was a question of being patient, and waiting for the leaders’ tyres to deteriorate, but it took a long time to come.
“I managed to get back past Jack,” Matt said afterwards, “and Sam just held on, and held on. I was going “Man, will his tyres go off?!” Matt finally got his opportunity on the approach to McLeans corner on lap 14 of 16, one of Matt’s favourite places to pass at Donington.
“McLeans, that’s been a good hunting ground for me,”Matt explained. “Sam just started to lose it in the last few laps, with a little bit of traction, a little bit of turn-in. The Type-R was fantastic, right up to the last lap, I wish it could have gone on!” Gordon, too, was able to pass Tordoff, a lap later, to follow Matt home in a 1-2 for the team. “It’s as sweet as the first time, for me. You can never take away that feeling,” said Matt.
For his 700th appearance, at Oulton Park, Matt was given the honour of carrying the race number 700 on his car. Matt’s best qualifying session of the season, so far, yielded fourth place on the grid for race one but, from then on, it was a frustrating weekend, not the celebration he hoped for.
In a wet first race Matt was forced to the pit lane when his rear rain light failed, dropping him out of contention, and he could only manage13th in his race two recovery drive following contact with James Gornall’s Audi, not the way he would have envisaged his 700th race playing out. In the final race a first lap incident caused a puncture to his Honda Civic Type R, and Matt’s weekend yielded just two points from his second race finish.
“I didn’t think I’d do seven or 70 races when I started, never mind 700!” he admitted. “It’s a bit surreal and I wasn’t aware until someone told me last week. I’m still here, still rocking and loving it!“