Neal: Experience more valuable than youth
2 February 2013
When it comes to drivers in the British Touring Car Championship paddock, there are few with pedigrees as impressive and enduring as that of three-time champion Matt Neal.
While he might not be as young as he once was, Neal reckons age is not a factor in seeking still more success in the series in the future, and that his huge race experience serves him to good advantage by allowing him to read races more tactically.
"I feel good at the moment," said Neal, who turned 46 at the end of last year. "There are many physical demands, for example in F1, that are based on reactions which maybe does suit the younger driver. In touring cars it's a lot more tactical, you've gotta roll with the punches, deal with reverse grids.
"It's survival as much as anything - that's where experience, and age helps, something that I try and use against Flash!” he laughed, referring to his Honda Racing team mate Gordon Shedden.
Neal first competed in the BTCC over two decades ago. Back in the 90s, BTCC was one of the most hotly contested and popular series of saloon car racing in Europe. With up to ten different manufacturers in the series, it was the era of big budgets and screaming 2 litre engines which saw BMW 318s, Audi A4s and Renault Lagunas ruling the roost.
Some of the world's best drivers came to British shores to try their hand at circuits including Brands Hatch, Silverstone and Thruxton, competing in super touring versions of well known car models of the time: Alfa Romeo had Gabriele Tarquini, Renault had Alain Menu and Vauxhall had John Cleland.
Team Dynamics was a small independent team that had the good fortune to have Matt Neal driving for them in various ex-works BMW, Nissan and Ford cars. As independents they often had a fraction of the budget of the works teams, and they ran older cars that were down on power and had different tyres to the big boys.
That's why when Neal triumphed at Silverstone in 1999, it was a much-heralded David-versus-Goliath victory by overturning the big gap between themselves and the works teams. It's clear that the events of that era are every bit as fresh and vivid today for Neal as they were at the time.
“The super touring days of the nineties were very special," he said, talking at the recent Autosport Awards event. "I think at one point we had over ten different manufacturer teams and a whole heap of names from all over the motorsport world.
"The challenge was greater for an independent [non-works team], as you weren't allowed the same tyres and engines so you were at an immediate disadvantage. That's why it was such a massive thing when we won at Silverstone in 1999," he explained.
When asked, Neal pointed to one particular stalwart of the British and German touring car series as being the driver he looked up to the most at the time, in an era that was rich with competition.
"Steve Soper was one of the best touring car drivers of all time," he said. "I remember the head of BMW motorsport doing an interview and he was talking about some of great drivers that BMW had, like Jo Winkelhock and Roberto Revagglia. He said Soper is like the English terrier - he bites hard and doesn't let go!", he laughed.
"I liked that about him," Neal added. "He was hard but fair. His bust-up with Cleland in 1992 at Silverstone will not be forgotten, but he was playing the team game for BMW in the championship."
Neal also values his own personal success that followed the 90s, which saw him become a three time champion in his own right with titles won in 2005, 2006 and 2011.
Not that he's showing any signs of slowing down any time soon, despite a busy schedule in the BTCC which also includes racing in the Dominican Republic for Honda and co-commentating on WTCC races with Martin Haven, as well as his day job as Marketing Director at Rimstock, a company supplying alloys to teams throughout motorsport.
"It gets a bit chaotic at times," Neal admitted. "I don't have many days off, but I prefer to be busy. The good thing is that we supply a lot of wheels in motorsport now and I get a buzz from seeing our wheels on other people's cars."
Attending the Autosport Awards show is part business, part pleasure for him then. And seeing how relaxed the driver was on the day, it was hard not to feel that there really wasn't very much difference between the two as far as Neal was concerned.
Few drivers are as approachable and accessible as Neal, and he clearly values the show's importance to the public - even if some of the fans can be a little judgemental toward him and the other drivers at times.
“The show represents that the season has started again, and gives the public a good chance to see the cars and the drivers from the ones they love - even the ones they hate!" he laughed.
by Julian Hamilton