Matt Neal made his BTCC debut back in 1991 at the 5th meeting of the season at Silverstone. Now, over 600 starts later, he stands as one of the legends of the sport, with 3 championships to his name & 59 outright victories.
However, just getting into the top 10 during the majority of the “Super Touring” era, was deemed as a success – as Matt explains.
“The Super Touring formula was one of such rapid development – not only were the cars heavily developed, but other areas, such as the engines, aerodynamics and tyres. As a private team or independent, you’d only be able to have kit the major manufacturer teams had moved on from, so it wasn’t case of if you had the same kit, but how far behind you were allowed to be.
At one point around 1997-1998, I remember Michelin asking the factory teams to nominate their number 1 and 2 drivers – then only the designated number 1 drivers would get very latest specification tyres, as there were not enough to go round! In that respect, it was incredibly unfair and that is why everyone went wild whenever a privateer entry achieved half a result. There were also 10 works teams at some point, so 20 factory cars with top drivers in meant it wasn’t easy.”
Matt, you have often spoke about your desire when you were younger, to follow in your father’s footsteps into the BTCC. How did your BTCC break with Pyramid Motorsport come about?
“I had been racing and winning in the British Saloon Car Championship which was a championship based on the more production based Group N regulations, which sadly doesn’t exist anymore, so the British Touring Car Championship was next step for me, Frank Sytner was being run by Pyramid and they had a spare car.
We used to raise sponsorship by tapping a little bit from everyone we were buying from in our own business and the British Grand Prix support round gave a us the perfect platform to try and sell to them the jewel event which worked well and meant we managed to get some extra money together.”
You and David Leslie are the only 2 drivers to have raced in every BTCC season throughout the Class 2 era. What were the differences between your BMW in 1991 and your Nissan Primera in 2000?
“Comparing cars from beginning to of the ST era and the end, well there is no comparison! The cars in 1991 started off so basic, as was the engineering of them. We had little or no data logging and all the technology was in its infancy.
Compare that to the end of the ‘90’s and it was just a technological and money war between the manufactuer teams. Very much “mine’s bigger than yours” with budgets up to £15M a year – it was crazy!
Which end did I prefer….the last generation were pretty special but ones from the early nineties were cool too. I did drive some absolute shit boxes in between though!“
What was so special about the 90s era of the British Touring Car Championship?
“Probably the array of international names we had driving at the time. It was a who’s who of international motorsport! The money that manufacturers were throwing at everything to try and be the best.
That and the fact that we had Murray Walker in the BTCC then and he was a genius at making any race sound incredible. After he left, Charlie Cox and John Watson were top drawer, but I doubt anyone will ever match Murray.“
The caliber of drivers in the BTCC field during the 1990s was arguably 2nd to only Formula 1 at the time. In your opinion, who were the most talented drivers? Was there anyone you thought twice about going “door handle to door handle” with?
“The hardest time I got was probably from Roberto Ravaglia or Jonny Cecotto. Both were factory BMW drivers and ex-world champs and they would just put their car in a position where you either let them through or crashed.
We had to crash for a bit – that way, they’d start giving you a bit more room when fighting for position – but not respect! They weren’t the only ones it was tough racing.“
You won your first Independent’s Title in 1993, driving a ex-works ’92 BMW and then joined up with the Roger Dowson operated – works Mazda squad for 1994, your first works drive in the BTCC. Had you turned down any other works offers before that?
“I was green in experience then, so just didn’t know stuff or people. Probably, the biggest regret of my career is at the back end of 1991. I’d won the British Group N Championship again (after winning it in 1990) and Ray Mallock phoned me up saying they looked at me and did I want to drive with David Leslie in the Ecurie Ecosse team for 1992.
I hadn’t got a clue who Ray was and by that time, my Dad had done half a deal with Vic Lee for the BMWs already, so I politely declined and went the BMW route. I could cry now, missing that opportunity with Ray Mallock, but c’este la vie!“
Any truth in David Coulthard nearly being your Mazda team mate that season in 1994?
“I signed for Mazda at the back end of 1993, for the 1994 season There was a big sponsorship deal in the wings with Noel Edmunds. IMG were apparently pushing David Coulthard very hard, because BTCC was on such an upward spiral.
I understand Mazda decided against it and went with David Leslie, mainly because of Coulthard’s lack of tin top experience. 5 months after all that, Ayrton Senna lost him life at Imola and DC gets a full Williams race seat and eventually becomes one of Britain’s most successful F1 drivers – so I’d say he did well out of being rejected by Mazda.”
That 1994 season never really got going – after scoring your first point for Mazda at Snetterton, you had a season-ending shunt at Silverstone after a terrifying incident involving Chris Goodwin and your team mate David Leslie. Can you talk us through that shunt and why it took you out of the remainder of the season?
“That season was rotten, I didn’t enjoy it at all. The accident at Silverstone was awful. David (Leslie) and I were dicing with Chris Goodwin, I got a run on the pair of them exiting Copse and as I was going up the inside on the run down to Maggots – David was banging doors with Chris… Chris then lost control and started fish tailing on the straight. Unluckily, as I went past, he just clipped my rear bumper. It was only a light touch, but that was enough to flick me into a series of barrel rolls. I’m told I rolled 10 times down the track, it was like being in a spin drier.“
In 1995, you returned to the family fold – this time, armed with a Mondeo and won the Independent’s title. This was also the season you started to ruffle the feathers of some of the factory teams and drivers, with a highest finish of 4th at Snetterton that season, over time – did your targets change towards the latter part of the 90s? Or was the Independent Championship always your priority?
“At the beginning of 1995, I thought it might be all over after such a rotten 1994 with Mazda. During the winter, we found an ex-Andy Rouse Mondeo for sale in France at Graff Racing, so jumped in a car with trailer and drove down there. Eventually, we managed to do a deal brought it back to Britain for use in the BTCC. The Rouse Sport cars were engineered simply, but that was one of their beauties – they worked.
The other trump card we managed to secure for 1995 was Dunlop. They had been flicked off nearly all the works cars, except for Volvo. So we were left with a situation where Volvo would lead development, and we would get tyres very close in performance to what Volvo were given. That gave us a massive boost, because Dunlop liked us being the little innocent independent team, putting one over on some of the Michelin shod factory runners!
As for which championship, I never wanted to go for independents title – I always preferred to throw caution to the wind for outright honours! The Indy title always felt a bit like a second rate citizen, so I’d rather fail shooting for the top rather than set sights lower and be happy.“
In 1996, the team started running 2 Mondeos, one for you and one for 1990 champion Robb Gravett, but results didn’t come and so the team decided to build and run their own Mondeo. Why did the team decide to do this & in hindsight, was it a bad decision?
“At the end of 1995, Ford had recognised that we had done a good job with the Mondeo and I think Andy (Rouse) had been having a difficult time with management so the contract to run the manufacturer Fords for 96 onwards went to tender. We put in a bid, as did Rouse Sport and West Surrey Racing. WSR ended up getting the gig, but we’d already committed to trying to do something (with the Mondeo) but were underfunded.
Despite some really clever engineering, for example, the driveshafts going through the centre of the ‘V’ of the V6 engine, the car was a real handful. Something that we and WSR never managed to ultimately make work well.“
The 1996 car looked a real handful?
“After the last race of the year, I got out and kissed the floor! Someone asked what I was doing and I just said that I’m so happy I’ve never got to sit in that thing again. It wanted to go any direction except straight on and would try and turn you sharp left or right at any speed. When you are at 150mph that ain’t very nice, I tell ya!“
Why did Dynamics want to go against the norm and build their own cars in this period?
“Dynamics were always trying to make the leap to front end teams and works teams. You simply couldn’t do that by having hand me downs. Building own own Mondeo was a way of trying to do that, albeit unsuccessfully in the mid nineties!“
After switching to the Primera half way through 1997, the team ran an updated RML ’97 Primera for you in 1998 – which is the year you really started ruffling the feathers of the works boys. Derek Warwick once said, “I was racing with Privateers & I don’t expect to be doing that!“
Did you get a lot of snobbery from the manufacturer drivers that you were sticking your nose in when you were “only” a privateer/independent?
Our 1997 and 1998 Primeras were good, but a little unreliable. We got turned over on the tyres by Michelin, which was disappointing, but the car was fast enough to ruffle some factory feathers which was fun!
There was plenty of snobbery – all the time! I don’t think I really fell out with anyone in particular, Roberto Ravaglia and Johnny Cecotto were pretty hard on me at one point in ’95 and ’96… Actually, Roberto is still pretty cold to me even these days!
Thinking about it, I did have a bit of a season long spat with Tom Kristensen back in 2000, but we’re great friends now – so all water under the bridge.“
Despite starring in the 1998 BTCC season, you lost out on the independent’s title to Tommy Rustad, did that bother you, or were you totally focussed on the manufactuer scalps and the outright championship by then?
It didn’t, but yeah – I guess it did. I just got tangled up in incidents too many times and the Primera, as I mentioned, wasn’t the most reliable piece of kit. Tommy wasn’t slow either and that meant he pipped us at the end – but well done to Tommy!
At the start of 1999, you were offered the 2nd Volvo drive alongside Rickard Rydell. What made you decide to turn that down and stick with Team Dynamics for 1999?
“I’d finished 2nd at Bathurst in the back end of 1998 and then just after coming back from a great test at Albercete in the Primera, I got the call from TWR to go down to Jerez for a test in the S40.
I went to the test, but just didn’t gel with the car like I did with the Nissan. They then gave me a week to make my mind up and I left it to the very last hour! I phoned TWR and said no, immediately put the phone down and said “What have I done?!” With the benefit of hindsight, it was one of my brighter moves.”
Then comes 1999. In the first meeting of the year at Donington Park, you qualify 2nd for the Sprint Race and take pole position for the feature race. How were you feeling before the first race?
“To be honest I can’t remember too much (about the race)! I was confident in the car but nervous, I don’t think I thought too much into it – just got on with what I needed to.“
Then the famous victory….
“Yer! It was surreal really, because the whole pit wall was out, every team delighted to see us win. The win obviously helped us, because it changed the team – gave us an influx of money which we could do various things with.
We had to give some of it to Nissan, because we were contractually bound to, we gave some to the employees – we shared it because we had done it together. It was undoubtedly one of the high points of my career, but it was also one of the biggest anti-climaxes the next day, because it was something I fought for throughout my career, but the next day I woke up really deflated, because I thought that it doesn’t really change anything! It doesn’t change me, doesn’t make me a better person or anything like that.
I got into the office the following week and I had my PR guy on the phone to people in Australia for interviews, but nothing really changed. Alan Gow was delighted for us though. Obviously, he had insured against it and paid the premium, so he was just chuffed to bits. He said that he wished the story had gone on later in the year, but it is still one of the biggest stories and talking points of BTCC history.”