63 wins and three British Touring Car Championship titles — Matt Neal reflects on his BTCC career
Umar Hassan sits down with three-time British Touring Car Champion Matt Neal to talk about his career in the championship, rivalry with Jason Plato and first win at Donington Park in 1999.
“I’ve embraced it much more easily than I thought I would,” Matt Neal tells me about his year-long sabbatical from racing in the British Touring Car Championship.
The Stourbridge driver has raced in the championship, both part-time and full-time with teams such as Triple Eight Racing and Team Dynamics since 1991.
In a BTCC career spanning over 30 years, Matt has won 63 races, three BTCC titles with Team Dynamics and 193 podium finishes.
Motor racing has been in Matt’s DNA as his father Steve previously raced in the BTCC in the 1960’s in a Mini Cooper S, making him a second generation touring car driver.
Debuting in the Super Touring era
The BTCC in the 1990’s was known for the Super Touring era, with manufacturers spending millions of pounds to develop their cars and sign the best drivers to race for their teams.
Gabriele Tarquini, Alain Menu, John Cleland and Rickard Rydell were a couple of drivers who raced in the championship’s Super Touring era.
In his rookie BTCC season in 1991, Matt raced for three teams, which were Pyramid Motorsport, BRR Motorsport and the Auto Trader Techspeed Team.
“I had been in the Group N category for a couple of years and got the opportunity by begging, borrowing and stealing some extra sponsorship and I got myself a drive at the British Grand Prix in a M3.”
“Frank Sytner was my first team-mate, a pretty formidable guy and there wasn’t an opportunity with that team. We managed to get a bit more sponsorship and the E30 M3 was the weapon of choice and there were a few teams with these knockabout spares.
“We dropped into another team for one race, but with a different sponsor and then again for the end of the year so I had three individual runs with three different teams that year, all BMW though!”
The first BTCC win at Donington Park in 1999
Matt had eight seasons of racing both full-time and part-time in the BTCC under his belt, but never won a race in the championship.
For the 1999 BTCC season, Matt raced for Team Dynamics, the team his dad co-founded in a 1998 Nissan Primera.
In the second race meeting at Donington Park in Leicestershire, he went on to claim his first BTCC win and claim £250,000 for being the first independent team to win a race in the championship.
“It was quite surreal. I woke up the next day and I had an aura of deflation because I tried and fought so hard for so many years to get there.
“I had a good PR guy at the time and I remember walking into the office and he was on the phone to Australia. Everyone was kicking off about this big win and I thought I don’t really want to talk to anyone at that point, it’s a race I’ve kept saying so you put yourself up and say now, next race.”
Rivalry with Jason Plato
During the second-half of his BTCC career, Matt had a long-standing rivalry with Jason Plato in the 2000’s.
Both Matt and Jason had many bumps, scrapes, crashes and a few fisticuffs in their fight for race wins and BTCC titles.
The notable moment in their BTCC rivalry was at Rockingham in 2011 when post-qualifying, Matt threatened Jason that he was going to “rip his f*****g face off”.
“I would have smashed his face in and burnt his house down. You can’t imagine the hatred involved.
“At one point, I would have to go to a race meeting and have a lawyer because he would do anything whether if it would be legal, on-track, off-track, he would try anything to have a go at me.”
10 years after their post-qualifying exchange at Rockingham, in what was once a competitive rivalry between Matt and Jason, they are now friends again.
Matt added about how the friendship is between him and Jason:
“Turning the clock back 10 or 15 years ago, I would have not trusted him (Plato). Now, the last five to six years, he’s one of the few drivers I would trust driving alongside.
“Off-track, we’ve got a friendship now. I wouldn’t say we’re best buddies but we’ve got a good friendship again, back where we were before. There is still a bit of mistrust there from both sides from me to him and him to me but now I trust him (Plato).”
Favourite BTCC title to win
During his long career in the British Touring Car Championship, Matt Neal has won three BTCC titles (2005, 2006, 2011).
He joins previous champions such as Gordon Shedden, Frank Gardner and Win Percy, who have won three BTCC titles.
When asked about which BTCC title was the most satisfying to win, Matt said:
“Maybe the first one because we had gone to the Honda Integra that year. It was a bit of an animal in pre-season testing and Vauxhall introduced the new Astra with Yvan Muller and he was on fire.
“I guess he was the favourite and Jason was in there in the SEAT. To get one over on both those guys and do it in a new car was a special year for us. It was a tough year, the racing was hard-going and pretty brutal so it was good to come on top on that one.”
Post-sabbatical plans for the 2022 BTCC season
Having enjoyed his one-year sabbatical from the championship, Matt said that he has not retired from racing or competing in the BTCC for the 2022 season.
However, he did not rule out giving his twin sons Henry or William, who are third generation touring car drivers a drive for next season’s championship.
“I have embraced my new role this year and I’m cool with it and maybe that tells me something. I’m still working on many opportunities which puts me back on the grid for next year.
“I would like to give my sons Henry or Will a go if possible because I’ve had my turn so it’s time to give them (Henry or Will) a drive. I’ll do whatever I can because if I’m not racing now (BTCC), then I’ll be racing somewhere I’m sure.”