Matt Neal is adamant that he is far from out of contention for this year's HiQ MSA British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) drivers' laurels, despite sitting just fourth, more than 50 points adrift of the lead arriving at Silverstone this weekend – but the two-time champion did implicitly acknowledge that team orders could come into play at Vauxhall sooner rather than later.
Neal's bid for glory was dealt a blow at Knockhill last time out, when an opening race collision with Airwaves BMW rival Rob Collard – as the pair disputed fourth place in company with Jonny Adam – led to a failure to finish, and badly compromised the rest of the Englishman's weekend. A strong recovery drive secured fourth spot in the second encounter, but an early tussle with fellow former title-winner James Thompson over second early on in race three also cost him time, and he found himself forced to relinquish third to VX Racing team-mate Fabrizio Giovanardi on the final lap, settling for a second consecutive fourth spot at the chequered flag.
Now sitting 54 points shy of championship leader Colin Turkington, the man who left the Brands Hatch curtain-raiser back in April at the top of the pile knows the odds are stacked against him if he is to successfully add to his 2005 and 2006 BTCC honours – if, indeed, he is even allowed to anymore.
“Results-wise, I was very disappointed if I'm honest,” Neal reflected of Knockhill, speaking exclusively to Crash.net Radio
. “I'm disappointed because the car promised so much – the package we had all weekend was really good. In free practice we weren't out of the top three, but then in qualifying we had a damper go down, so we qualified seventh, which I was disappointed with.
“The car was on fire in the first race and it should have been a podium, but I had a DNF incident and it went on from there. I was convinced we were going to win the third race; I gave it absolutely everything I'd got – I just threw everything at it – but as soon as the Chevys were through it was game over really.
“There are still 150 points up for grabs, so it's far
from being mathematically impossible, but I have to be realistic. I'm more than 50 points behind now because I've had non-finishes, so I need the others to have non-finishes and Fabrizio and Colin have been very good with their finishing record, and Jason [Plato] is very fast in the Chevy. My team-mate Fabrizio has got a much better mathematical chance than I do, so I have to bear that in mind and respect that with the races we've got to come.”
If that is a hint that he is likely to be asked to play the team game to ensure that it is a VX Racing driver that clinches the crown – and the best-placed of the Vauxhall trio at present is incontrovertibly defending double series champion Giovanardi – then Neal is equally confident that even if Plato is on paper the favourite, it could go any which way this weekend at Silverstone, where in the build-up to the racing he took the skies in a stunt plane, to promote the fact that the World Aerobatic Championships are taking place at the circuit on the same bill.
“I was a little bit paler when I came back down than when I'd gone up!” the 42-year-old joked. “It was a hell of an experience. We had a bit of a thing going, everyone trying to out-do each other on the amount of G they could take. Jason won, obviously. I was going to try and out-do him, but we ran out of time, and to be honest I ran out of blood cells in my head! Colin and I pulled about six and Jason pulled about seven, so I'll just have to try to beat him on the track now; you can bank on that – as usual!
“I think we should be pretty strong in all three of the remaining meetings. At Silverstone, I always think around the National Circuit it's whoever's got the fastest engine is going to win the race. I was going to go to the bookies and put some money on Jason to win all three! If he hadn't had the misfire in the second race, he'd have won all three at Knockhill – and that's saying something round there. The thing was on fire, and it should be the same ingredients at Silverstone if it doesn't break, but we are all carrying weight, which will make a difference – so it could be anybody's game.”