Sport Grill’s latest guest is a BTCC legend and teammate to reigning champion, Gordon Shedden. Its the one and only Matt Neal.
Discover who his motorsport idols are, what he thinks of his year racing in ETCC either side of two BTCC stints and finally his thoughts on teammate, Gordon Shedden.
- Who was your motorsport idol when growing up?
Neal: Either my dad or Nigel Mansell, he was a bit of a hero of mine. In touring cars, Steve Soper was the man. What I liked about all of them was that they were fighters, not always in the best car but giving their all.
- Having started off in Motocross, why did you decide to make the switch to cars?
Neal: I didn’t bounce very well and got to a level where I basically reached the limit of my ability.
My dad got me into cars simply to get me away from the bikes, after too many injuries but I’m still fond of bikes and like a ride out now and then but they’re still not too fond of me.
- Your BTCC debut came in 1991 where you competed in midfield for a decade, whilst winning five independent trophies on top of becoming the first independent driver to win a race at Silverstone in 1999. What was it like competing in the midfield pack till 1999 when you had a huge step forward to challenge the front runners more?
Neal: It was hard going midpack. How did I make the jump? Simple, I managed finally to get my hands on the right kit.
Early and mid 90s was incredibly unfair with a ‘them and us’ syndrome, that was very tough to keep your motivation knowing you had no chance no matter how good a job you did.
The occasion that I got in a good car with the right tyres, I was like wow so this is what I’ve been missing!
- 2001 saw you racing in the ETCC championship. How different did you find ETCC compared to the domestic BTCC version, despite racing against future two time BTCC champion, Fabrizio Giovanardi at that point?
Neal: It was rough and I naively thought it would be something mega being a FIA championship. All it did was make me appreciate the organisation and rules of BTCC and learn how corrupt and disorganised so called top level championships can be.
- A return to BTCC then followed with strong performances and three titles under Team Dynamics. How delighted were you to clinch those titles and do you feel that year in the ETCC helped improve your race skills ready to push forward and earn those titles, having made strides forward towards the end of your first BTCC stint?
Neal: It was a little surreal as having down trodden for so long, I never actually thought I’d make it. I was just chuffed to be racing and never thought I’d win races let alone a championship and then three, so it was almost like this isn’t happening.
- 2008-09 saw you struggle against teammate Giovanardi, result wise. What qualities do you feel that he had which you lacked in the car?
Neal: Fabrizio was a class driver and wild man. The car had been developed around him and his driving style, which was very different to mine but I like to think working together, the combo of us took the whole thing forward and we had some good times in the progress.
- A return to Team Dynamics saw you partner Gordon Shedden whilst clinching the 2011 championship. You two are one of BTCC’s most popular teammate duos and have helped each other out when it mattered. How easy has it been playing the teammate role whenever required to Shedden without coming across as a no.2 driver knowing that he would return the favour when next appropriate to do so?
Neal: Maybe it’s getting older that does it like Christmas becomes more about giving than receiving. I’ve not lost my desire to win but simply don’t feel so much pressure.
I’ve been lucky enough to win the title three times, I’ll fight him hard for another but if through speed or circumstance, it doesn’t work out then so be it and I still get a buzz from helping to make it happen as a teammate.
- The 2011 title showdown saw you and Shedden fight it out for the title because he needed a 4th place result in the final race without you scoring to clinch the championship. How relieved were you to come home ahead of him in 8th and 10th place respectively to secure that third BTCC crown?
Neal: Very but I felt for him as I know how much he wanted it so a double edged sword but he made me pay for it since so I’m not too sympathetic now.
- Finally, what are your hopes and expectations for the future?
Neal: To look after myself and those around me. Do the best job that I can giving maximum for everyone involved with me and to enjoy the ride for as long as I can then hope either of my sons can just one day win a race in top flight racing and then my circle will be complete.