We spoke with Matt Neal, British Touring Car Championship leader going into the mid-season break about his season, the competition and the plans for the Honda Civic.
The 2005-2006 British Touring Car Champion has seen his fortunes change after a two year spell with VX Racing – returning to his home team for 2010, where he won two championships previously with the Integra Type-R, as well as six independents’ championships.
Now, with manufacturer support from Honda, Matt Neal is about to leave the two month mid-season break with a slender lead in the championship standings from his chief rival, Jason Plato.
TcT: So far, this has been your best season since your championship winning year of 2006, it must be great to be at the front of the championship again?
“It’s fabulous. Though I’m always the eternal pessimist, so I’m waiting for things to go wrong. Even in the championship winning years, I didn’t enjoy them until we got right to the end and it was all over. I’m just taking it one race at a time and seeing what we can do to get the most out of the car and the package.”
TcT: Who do you see as your main threat in the last half of the season??
“Jason and Flash I suppose, and on the outside the Ford’s – because we’re not playing to the same set of rules as those guys…but Jason will definitely be there at the last race”
TcT: Going into a massive mid-season break, what is your mindset? Are you happy for the break, or worried the other teams are getting a chance to regroup?
“I’m over the moon for the break. If you’re leading, to have a big long break it’s great, so I’ve just been chilling out and enjoying the fact that I’m in the lead of the championship.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I’ve still been working on trying to arrange sponsorship, trying to make the package faster, and all the other things we’re going to need in abundance for the second half of the year.”
The Honda Civic is in it’s fourth year of competition in the BTCC, and has won five of the fifteen races this year
TcT: You missed the Snetterton test last week, what were the reasons for that, and how’s it going to affect the team?
“It won’t help the team because the circuit’s changed a little bit, so we didn’t want to miss the test – but we’ve only got so much financial resource and we’ve got to cut our cloth accordingly, and if it was missing a test or missing the last race we’d rather miss the test.”
In respect of the improvements seen on the competition, Matt also added:
“Ford have been trying a new rear end out and they’ve obviously been continuing development of their turbo engine and Chevrolet have got some new spec engines in, so they have changed a little.”
TcT: It must be great for the team again to be back up front, after those two great years with the Integra. How much has having manufacturer support from Honda this year been a help?
“Immensely. We couldn’t have done it without Honda….it’s great that the Civic’s getting up there. The Civic probably wasn’t the most ideal suited car after the Integra which was slippy and very aerodynamic, but the Civic’s proving to be much faster than the Integra ever was now.”
“Honda is also probably spending more money promoting it away from the circuit than any other manufacturers are – with their dealership promotions, A Question of Motorsport, and all the rest of it…I think they’re more involved than anyone.”
You first drove the Team Dynamics built Civic back in 2007, how does the car compare now to how it was back then after your two years away from the car?
“This year’s car actually feels like an old Integra. It feels very sure-footed, where you can place it where you want. The engine package Neil brown’s come up with is very strong, it’s feels like a package that you can really wring the neck out of.”
TcT: …and how does it also compare to the Vectra?
“Completely different. The Vectra was a shock to my system when I got in it, and the Civic was a shock to my system when I got back out of the Vectra. It’s just learning it, but it’s probably more suited to me. A lot of it is in the direction I like, which is a great advantage for me.”
“Our plan would be to run it next year at least, and then we’d take a rain check after that”
TcT: You’ve been a mainstay of the BTCC for many years, with just one year off in the European Super Touring Cup in 2001, do you think you’ll stay in the BTCC in the years ahead, considering Turkington’s performances in the WTCC for example, demonstrating that the top teams and drivers in the BTCC are on a par with the World championship?
“You just want to go where you want to be competitive and where you’re going to have a good run. Gone are the years where you get a multi-year contract for 2-3 years, so it’s year on year it changes – so you can set your stall out that you want to go in one direction then 12 months down the line in some completely different direction, so just go with the flow is my thing at the moment and try and enjoy it.”