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Matt Neal, Honda Racing - Q&A

5 February 2012

Go 'Behind the Visor' as Andy Henley catches up with 2011 BTCC title winner Matt Neal....

Q:
Matt, you have just come off the back of a fantastic year having taken the title in a tough and closely fought championship. What was going through your head during your in-lap after you won the title?

Matt Neal:
Was a real mixed bag, disbelief, relief, euphoria, and then disappointment for Flash, we'd been so close this year especially, plus I do like and get on with the guy, so I know what it would have meant to him to win, but I wasn't going to give up, I'm still a fighter in the heart.

Q:
Other than when you secured the title, what was your standout race weekend of the season and what was it that made it so?

Matt Neal:
Stand out race was definitely Croft. Turbo cars had struggled there in in 2010 and had struggled with wet conditions. I managed to pull a one off lap in dry qualifying to get on the front row but wasn't convinced I could hang in there. I remember having breakfast the morning of the race, sat next to me was the MD of Honda UK Dave Hodgetts with his wife Christina. They said to me how do you think you'll do today? I said if it's dry hopefully top three, however if it rains forget it. So for it then to rain and me to win both the first two races, race one by about 1/100th of a second was pretty mega and very unexpected.

For one off laps it would be my final qualifying lap at Silverstone at the final meet, I was languishing down in 5th had just one set of tyres and one flying lap left. Low fuel load and using every inch of the circuit and more gave me pole and swung the championship decisively in my way.

Q:
The 2012 car looks to be coming along nicely, how keen are you to get back in the car or are you just enjoying the down time at the moment?

Matt Neal:
If honest I do love the down time. The racing and pressure of winning and to keep on winning can be quite stressful. That said, we have a new car built to the new NGTC regs, it's a new challenge, learning how to get the most out of and develop a new package, bit the new car does look awesome, so I am very excited about getting it on again for 2012.

Q:
What have you been up to during the winter break?

Matt Neal:
I've been working very hard actually, no flash winter breaks. Doing a lot with new car development, commercials, wheel business and everything else that goes with it. Saying that for 10 days at actual Christmas time I did something I regrettably get to do too little of the rest of the year, which is completely chill out and spent some proper quality time with the family relaxing.

Q:
2011 was a fantastic season but had the occasional skirmish both on and off the track, namely between yourself and Chevrolet driver Jason Plato. Can you tell us a little about how this rivalry came about and what made it come to boiling point this year?

Matt Neal:
I do think it's sometimes not helped by other people, those who see it as a way of either putting more of a story into the championship, or our adversaries as a way of keeping us two busy knocking ten bells out of each other while they carry on nicely. I think I try to fight my corner and do the best for me and my team; Jason does the same for his corner. We just have different opinions and different ways of going about that same job. He has his supporters whilst I have mine, what's right and wrong, I'm sure there is a moral question there somewhere isn't there? I don't like or agree with some of the things Jason gets up to, but I'm sure he will no doubt sing a very similar tune from his side. What I do know is whether we're best buddies or not he is still good, and TOCA know that if they put he and I on the same piece of tarmac for long enough we're going to end up falling out, it's just one of those things.

Q:
On your helmet you have the “Help for Heroes” logo, a charity very close to your heart. Can you tell us a little more about your involvement and how you became a part of the great work they do?

Matt Neal:
I, like many others, have friends who've been to Iraq and Afghanistan some of which are still there so I hear some of the horrors which are happening. In addition I did a team building day with some of the BRDC's Young Superstars a year or so back with a fantastic bunch of lads from the tank regiment. They have done two tours of Iraq and were shortly off to Afghanistan where they subsequently had a whole bunch of horrible injuries, these lads were mainly aged between 19 and 22 so it brought it home even more and made me feel even more strongly about what's happening.

Q:
Being a multiple Champion in such a publicised series means that many karters aspire to follow in your footsteps, what words of inspiration or advice would you give to them as they try to make their way into touring cars?

Matt Neal:
It will never always go your way, but it's how you handle the bad times and years that will make you as a person. I've had some rough years when I had zero chance of winning anything, but handling those years, getting through them and coming out the other side made me the driver and person I am today. There's an old say that 'a calm sea does not make a skilled sailor'. By this I mean sometimes a bad experience or a tough car to drive teaches you more than a good one. You just mustn't give up; if racing is in your heart aswell as your head then you mustn't give up. Then my last piece of advice would be to 'win with humility and lose with grace', beyond winning one of the greatest strengths a champion can have is humility, treat every member of your team with the utmost respect as they are the ones that make you!

Q:
In the history of the BTCC, which was your favourite era?

Matt Neal:
Last generation of Super Touring Cars was a pretty special time, but despite my ups and downs I've enjoyed the whole ride.

Q:
Assuming it was possible and for one race only; what car, track and team mate from any era would you chose and why?

Matt Neal:
Donington Park 1999, Live TV, big name competitors and manufacturers and a £250,000 cheque off Alan Gow. It was a pretty memorable moment.

Q:
Going back further in your career, what was it that got you into motorsport in the first place and who were your hero's growing up?

Matt Neal:
My Dad was my hero and still is. From before I could think I reckon? He raced for the works BMC and Cooper Car teams in the 60's and early 70's so touring cars but also racing in general was in my blood, I just loved speed. I was ok at rugby in my teens and ended up having a trial for England when I was 17. However at the end of this 5 day trial they interviewed you to see your aptitude and whether they think you'd make it, I remember sitting in front of this panel saying, well I've only come here for the experience and I'm not sure I'm really bothered because all I want to do is go race my motorbike which I'd started getting into then….. They must have thought what a knob, and now it makes me hold my head in my hands because I would have given anything to run on to the pitch with my country's colours on. But then maybe I wouldn't have had the career I've had, you can't have everything can you?

Q:
You have been dedicated to the BTCC scene having spent a huge proportion of your career in the series, what is it about touring cars that keeps you coming back?

Matt Neal:
'It's where it's at' and joking apart, the racing is very frenetic which gives a driver an incredible buzz. But also commercially it's where you can give true value for money to sponsors and backers, for racing it's a no brainer to be involved in.

Q:
Returning to 2012's impending season, what are your expectations going into the first race?

Matt Neal:
New Civic looks awesome, I feel positive and strong. I'm not under any illusions about task in front of the team and me as a driver. But I'm excited and hungry as much as I've ever been, so let's get it on!!!

Q:
Matt, thank you for taking the time to speak to us, I am looking forward to watching you fight to retain your title and wish you the very best of luck in doing just that.

Matt Neal:
Thanks mate, I'll be trying you can bank on that.

by Andrew Henley


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