When British Touring Car Championship boss Alan Gow waved a carrot of £250,000 to the series’ Independent entries to win a race outright during 1999, experienced Independent driver Matt Neal took the bait. However, the seeds for 1999 were sewn much before then…
We sat down with Matt at the Autosport International show in Birmingham, to chat about the build up to the 1999 BTCC season and that famous first ever outright BTCC indepedent win.
“I was disappointed at the end of 1998 that we didn’t win the independents championship, but I always asked everyone involved in the team – the sponsors etc. would they prefer me to go for independent wins, or would they prefer to go for outright positions & they always wanted to go for outright positions.. you always aim for the bigger picture, I guess.”
Once the 1998 season had finished, Matt headed to Bathurst to team up with Steve Richards in the famous Bathurst 1000 race meeting. It was his chance to get in a NME (Nissan Motorsport Europe) prepared Nissan Primera, with the latest spec of tyre.
“We had a great result at the end of 1998 and it was good to get in the latest spec Nissan. With a 2nd place, it was a good way to end the season.”
Prior to the 1998 season finishing, Ford had announced that it had signed Nissan’s Anthony Reid to race one of their Mondeos in 1999, meaning there was a spot available at the Nissan works team.
“Nissan were smarting that Reidy (Anthony Reid) had left for Ford, but I told Alec Poole (Nissan Motorsport Europe boss) not to worry, because Bathurst was the first time I had driven the latest Nissan on the newest tyres and the car was mega. I pushed them for Reid’s old seat… even offered to drive for the team for nothing! They went away and ended up signing Laurent Aiello for 700 grand a year. I was pretty pissed off about that!”
Volvo were also keen on securing Matt’s services, wanting him to replace the underperforming Gianni Morbidelli for 1999.
“Volvo came along and offered me a test at the start of 1999. Andy King from TWR invited to Jerez for a test, but I found the car hard work. It was okay, but tricky. In the end, I got my head around the car, but basically, it wasn’t a Nissan.”
“I then did a test with the Nissan in Albacete and it was mega – the car felt amazing. After that, TWR were pushing for an answer, and I remember sitting in my office trying to make a decision on where to go when the phone went – it was Volvo wanting an answer. I couldn’t believe it, but I found myself saying no.”
Matt had been pushing all his BTCC career to get into a well funded manufactuer setup, so why did he turn it down?
“At first, I thought I had made the biggst mistake of my life! All these years I had waited to get into a well funded works programme & I turned it down! Hindsight shows that it was probably the best decision of my career.”
Heading into the Donington meeting, Matt was feeling confident. Tyre regulation changes for the 1999 season meant that the independent teams were able to run the same tyres as the manufacturer outfits.
“I knew the potential, because we were running the factory tyres at Bathurst and they were unbelievable, they were just mega and totally transformed the car.”
The 1999 season started at Donington Park at Matt shocked the field by sticking his independent Nissan on pole position for the first feature race of the season.
“Getting pole at the first meeting of the season didn’t go down too well with Nissan, I don’t think it fitted with their remit because we had our place – which was to get in the way of all the other factory cars – but certainly not the Nissans. They could control you so much with things like engine spec, car spec – they almost decided where you fitted on the grid.”
The first race of the season, however, was the sprint race – which Matt had qualified 2nd on the grid for, however, after a bad start and an incident with Jean-Crisophe Boullion, Matt had to settle for fifth behind David Leslie’s manufacutrer Primera. Prior arrangements meaning that Matt wouldn’t challenge David. This meant that all the pressure was on the second race of the day.
“I got into the lead of race one from pole position and to be honest, everything was looking great. The race itself went to plan and everything was going smoothly”
At the time, the feature race contained a compulsory pit stop, drivers having to come in and change a minimum of two tyres. That’s where all the drama started. Matt came into the pits and whilst attempting to pull away, stalled the engine.
“The cars were very edgy, they were on smaller rims back then. I came in for the pitstop, that all went fine & when I went to pull away, it just stalled. I thought, oh fuck – its all over. The Nissan Primera was an absolute pig to start – if you ever stalled it, it wouldn’t start up again if the engine was hot. The same thing happened at Bathurst! I hit the starter button in hope, not expecting it to restart and it just fired up. I mean, I still fucked up, but at least I was still in the race – but in my mind, the chance of the win was gone.”
Matt come back out of the pits in fifth place with Thompson, Menu, Rydell and Muller now ahead of him. Muller was soon dispatched after his bonnet peeled back after contact with Rydell. On the same lap Menu crawled into the pits into retirement, leaving Matt in third.
“I got past Rickard at Redgate, after nearly stuffing it up trying to pass him at the Craners, then it was a case of trying to catch Thommo by the end of the race. Back then you had three options of slick tyre and you could mix them up on different axles or corners, not have to run a uniform set like you do now.”
“Jimmy (Thompson) always used to go agressive, he used to always go soft – which meant he would struggle to make the end of the race if he constantly pushed. With the Nissan, we could always use a combination of hard and medium, with maybe a soft on the right rear. That gave me hope that we could reel him back in, but I didn’t know for sure, so I had to push!
Matt caught Thompson and overtook him at the Old Hairpin, which left the packed Donington Park crowds cheering in appreciation.
“Making that overtake was the only time I heard the crowds whilst driving a Super Touring car – they were really noisy bits of kit. The resonense of the engines, they really were incredibly noisy. You could hear the roar of the crowd though, it made my hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It was amazing!”
With only a few laps remaining, Matt pulled out a 5 second lead to Thompson and famously took his first ever outright BTCC victory, collecting that £250,000 cheque from ToCA in the process.
“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.”
“I still get people coming up to me now, 20 years later saying that they were there on that day, or that they were watching on BBC Grandstand that day & that’s pretty special.”