Matt Neal: A Worthy Triple Champion

As many of you may now know, I am doing bits and bobs for the rather impressing racing site, Race Drivers Inc these days… through the power of persuasion and good journalism, they managed to hook me up with three times BTCC champion Matt Neal… are swallowing down the butterflies, we had a good chat…

Matt Neal took home his third BTCC title this year in what has been one of the most exciting seasons yet. Driving his two-litre turbocharged Honda Civic consistently well on all tracks throughout the year, Matt was a deserved winner of the 54th British Touring Car Championship, and Race Drivers Inc. caught up with him, to see what goes on inside the helmet of a champion.

Coming into the championship finale at Silverstone just ahead of his Honda team-mate Gordon Shedden, the pressure was on if he wanted to clinch the crown for the third time. Whilst ‘Flash’ was busy talking himself out of the title to ITV, Matt seriously stepped up his game and pipped his team mate to the post by eight points.

Understandably, he’s thrilled with the win, telling Race Drivers Inc.; “It was always my dream. I never really thought I would be British Touring Car Champion once, then suddenly here I am having won three times. I feel like I’ve just got on a wave, ridden it and here I am. That said you can never get used to that feeling of winning a Championship, the euphoria, mixed with relief is quite a cocktail to digest. “

Sitting one championship title clear of his paddock rival, Silverline Chevrolet driver, Jason Plato, three-time BTCC Champion Matt Neal clearly has a lot to smile about. However, the bitter battles between teams running turbo-charged cars and those with normally-aspirated motors refused to disappear. Matt explained; “There was a big political battle off the track this year, which was almost if not bigger than the on track battle. It was always going to be impossible for the governing body (TOCA) to regulate, they’ve been trying at Le Mans with sports cars for the last 20 years, turbo v n/a, and they still never managed it.

“Jason Plato and his Chevy lobbied that it wasn’t equivalent which it wasn’t earlier in the year, that said when TOCA started adjusting the regulations he and Chevy ended the season with more pole positions and winning more races than any other driver, so it’s kind of difficult for him to still sing that argument come the final race which he indeed did. Our Honda package of chassis and engine was just sublime and the class of the whole field, a gem to drive, balanced and sturdy on the road in no matter what conditions. It was the package and a team that was focused that won the Championship, not a turbo.”

Granted, he didn’t have the best start to the season having being forced out of the very first race of 2011 at Brands Hatch on April 3, before finishing in a rather uninspiring 7th place during his second outing. However, the first of seven top step podium finishes finally came in the final round at Brands, before being quickly followed by another top spot during the first outing at Donington two weeks later.

Talking about the season opener, Matt said; “First race and Brands promised much, getting punted off on lap one did not fit the plan. However even at that point I knew I had a fabulous car and would be able to fight back. So it was just a case of stay calm, keep your powder dry and work to your teams strengths.”

Both Donington and Thruxton reaped impressive results, with two firsts, a second and a third, before things once again went South at Cheshire’s Oulton Park on June 5, with an eighth, fourth and the second  – and final –  retirement of the season.

By the halfway point of the season, I saw Matt as the King of see-saw results, and his outing at Croft and Snetterton really reinforced that title, with the North Yorkshire circuit offering two first place finishes and a respectable seventh, whilst Norfolk’s Snetterton offered a poor 18th and 17th spot.

Obviously though, the next outing must mean that Matt would be back on form, and true to form, the only Scottish race at Knockhill saw him bring home two second places with Rockingham Speedway giving up a third, fourth and sixth. Matt was back on form, and with two rounds to go, the heat was on if he wanted to claim victory.

“I always thought I could, but also never believed I could win the championship.” He said. “I work on a motto of “Plan for the worst, hope for the best”. If honest I always believed, but just concentrated on one meeting at a time. Focus on what’s happening now and the rest will take care of itself, as I said to Flash my team mate, if the Championship comes it comes, just try your hardest, do your best, and let fate take care of the result. “

He never once assumed he had the championship won however, even going into the final rounds; “After having a good lead then going back in the points to second and even third I think, I did question myself that I may have blown it. Which I think made me stronger, if I’m given an opportunity and a sniff I hate and I mean I really hate to let that chance go begging. So fortunately for me, whenever I’ve been close to a Championship I’ve fortunately managed to close the deal and get that ultimate result. With all the hard work, effort, stress and bear knuckle racing that goes on it would be hard to come so close and end in defeat.”

True to form, the return to Brands Hatch – this time on the GP circuit – saw the driver slam his car into a win after an 18th and 7th place finish, pretty much securing him the title providing he finished within the top five during the sensational final round at Silverstone. He said; “ After such a fabulous 2011 it’s hard to think how we could better this in 2012. That said, we have the NEW Honda Civic which we’re building into the new NGTC regulations and I’m very excited about trying our new challenger out. It’s not going to be easy, new car, new regs, but the Honda package is so good and strong I’m really hopeful me and Flash are going to be right there in the hunt!”

With Matt and Gordon first and second in the drivers’ championship, the former Team Dynamics squad, easily clinched both the teams and manufacturers championships. Matt and his Honda Racing companions couldn’t be happier; “As a driver you have input to take the program forward and optimise your equipment, but you’re ultimately only as good as the equipment you’re given. With modern touring car racing your car has to be based and use certain key component and designs from the standard road car. With Honda products being so good means that we start with an instant advantage to make a winning car. This has been born out by Honda winning the manufacturers championship for the last two years straight.

When he’s not throwing his Honda around a circuit near you, Matt keeps on top of his passion for martial arts, which he claims gives him better aerobic fitness and flexibility and in turn, improves his driving ability, telling us; “Martial art is something I started later on in life, I’ve always trained to try and stay fit and healthy. It was something I’d never tried but always been inquisitive about, then it was just about meeting the right person at the right time. My trainer is a guy proven in real life having been to war in special forces and trained the best, but a really down to earth nice bloke, unless you try and punch him 😉 I like that, I have great respect for him and love learning a skill as well as staying fit. It has helped heaps with my flexibility, balance and core fitness so I feel it’s a win/win thing to do, gets me out of bed early as well!

With a great car and a clean sweep of all the trophies on offer in the British Touring Car Championship for 2011, there’s no doubt that Honda Racing have had quite a good time of it. All they have to do now, is go out there and do it all again in 2012. Matt summed it up perfectly; “ The whole team are very focused and passionate about what we produce and how we go about our business. Whatever happens we’ll be somewhere in the mix with our sleeves rolled up.”

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