The 2021 KwikFit MSA British Touring Car Championship finally gets underway on Sunday.
The fastest circuit in British motorsport plays host to the season opener. The Thruxton track in Hampshire will take centre stage.
Sadly, current COVID-19 restrictions mean it will be a closed doors event.
However, with cases dropping, fans should be back watching BTCC very soon.
The championship welcomes back double-champion Jason Plato and three-time champion Gordon Shedden. They join Colin Turkington and Ash Sutton on a highly-competitive grid.
One name missing though is Matt Neal. The 54-year-old from Stourbridge takes on a different role for 2021.
Neal takes a sabbatical from the championship, becoming a brand ambassador for Halfords and a mentor to both of the Team Dynamics drivers.
He has insisted this isn’t a retirement. Realistically, we might already have seen him drive the last of his 700+ BTCC events.
One of the icons of touring cars, here’s 10 of my personal memorable moments in the career of Matt Neal.
Rolling the Mazda
— BTCC in the 90s (@1990sBTCC) November 2, 2020
For much of his first decade in the championship, Neal was an independent driver without factory manufacturer support.
That changed briefly off the back of winning the independents crown in 1993; the first of his six championships in this particular category.
Neal earned a seat alongside David Leslie in the Mazda team, driving the Xedos model.
His season though ended abruptly after just five races at Silverstone and in dramatic fashion.
Battling independent Chris Goodwin and his teammate Leslie, the trio made contact heading towards Becketts.
Neal’s car then barrel-rolled spectacularly no fewer than six times, forcing an early end to the race.
Incredibly, he escaped unharmed but the car was completely destroyed.
Struggling for cash, Mazda soon pulled the plug on the programme, leaving the drivers in the cold.
The £250,000 win
After the Mazda nightmare, Neal returned to his father’s Team Dynamics outfit and often put in giant-killing performances.
Going into 1999, no independent driver had ever won an outright round of the British Touring Car Championship.
That changed in the season opener at Donington Park, televised live on the BBC’s flagship sports programme, Grandstand.
Neal was driving a 1998 Nissan Primera and qualified on the front row for both races. After finishing fifth in the first race, he led from pole position in the Feature Race.
The dream looked to be ebbing away though when he stalled during his mandatory pitstop and dropped to fifth.
Luck played its part. Yvan Muller’s bonnet flew up on his Vauxhall whilst a technical problem stopped Alain Menu in his Ford.
That put Neal back into third spot before forcing a mistake from defending champion Rickard Rydell to slip into second place.
Gradually, he hunted down James Thompson and with just a few laps to go, flung his Dynamics inside Thompson’s Honda Accord going into the Old Hairpin.
It meant victory for Neal and a cool £250,000 earned for becoming the first independent to win a touring car race. It was a costly day for BTCC series director Alan Gow!
Stopping in the wrong pit
Neal went on to win the Independents crown in 1999 and 2000, before earning a brief drive with the factory Peugeot squad on their return to the BTCC in 2001.
After just one event though, he was shafted out of the team and spent much of 2001 racing in the European Touring Car Championship.
A BTCC returnee in 2002, Neal made a flying start in the formidable Vauxhall Astra. He won the first race at Brands Hatch Indy driving for egg:sport.
Neal would go on to win three races in the season, finishing a strong third to Thompson and Muller in the final standings.
The most memorable moment though of his 2002 came in the Oulton Park feature race.
He was leading when he pitted for his mandatory pitstop.
Neal came in and stopped at the wrong pit, stopping at Honda’s garage before realising his major error. A drive-through penalty swiftly followed.
Perhaps he was already planning for his switch to the factory Honda team for 2003; a partnership that has since been largely undisturbed.
Flashpoint with Reidy
Neal won six races in 2003; as many as anyone in the series but a string of poor reliability early on in the season dampened any championship aspirations.
He switched back to his father’s independent outfit in 2004 but remained very competitive throughout, again winning a number of races.
Neal has had his fair share of square-ups over the years with fellow drivers. One of his early rivals was Anthony Reid.
The pair were often squabbling for position on-the-track and once at Silverstone, it got almost physical.
After an incident which saw the pair go onto the grass, handing Tom Chilton victory, Neal was incensed.
He went to confront Reid once he’d conducted a TV interview with Vicki-Butler Henderson.
Shouting “You don’t deserve a licence.” Reid fought back in his usual feisty style, slamming Neal for whacking his MG on the slowing-down lap.
It was an unsavoury incident but summed up Neal’s desire to steal a march on the competition, no matter what it took.
Championship No.1 at Brands
When you think of supreme BTCC seasons, Matt Neal’s 2005 campaign was almost inch-perfect.
Team Dynamics developed a Honda Integra that seemed bulletproof to any contact and avoided major reliability headaches.
By this period, there were 30 races in every season. Incredibly, Neal finished every race, a feat we are unlikely to ever see again.
He scored points in every race and claimed the championship in the season finale at Brands Hatch.
Despite a determined effort from Muller in his swansong year in the series, Neal became the first independent racer to take the title in the modern era.
It set the path up for a sweet success for the team and also began a new fierce rivalry which surely ranks as the biggest grudge match in the series’ 60+ year history.
Neal vs. Plato Part 1
For many, Matt Neal’s rivalry with Jason Plato stood the test of time. They often clashed in battles against one another. The height of the battles came in 2005 & 2006.
Neal was infuriated by some of Plato’s driving in the rain at Knockhill in 2005, calling Plato “a pig.”
Plato, driving a SEAT at the time, seemed cheesed off by the advantage the Honda Integra had over his factory-backed entry.
Further insults were traded throughout 2006, with tense confrontations at both Croft and Knockhill again.
The biggest skirmish though came in damp conditions at Snetterton. In the second race of the day, Plato was leading but being hunted down by Neal.
On the last lap, Neal made his move but contact was made through the Bombhole, turning his car sideways.
Seeing red mist, he went for another attack into the tight Russell chicane but ended up spinning and dropping to eighth.
Plato turned his SEAT into a lawnmower, driving across the grass to a contentious victory. The incident left Neal “gobsmacked.”
He’d have the last laugh though, sealing back-to-back titles in the final event at Silverstone.
After an ultra-successful phase in his father’s team, Neal elected to switch to VX Racing for 2008.
Vauxhall had claimed Neal’s crowns in 2007 with Fabrizio Giovanardi taking the title.
Neal largely struggled in his two seasons driving a Vauxhall, restricted to just two victories from 60 races, finishing fourth in the 2009 championship.
He came alive though when the heavens opened, shining at Croft and winning in-style at Rockingham in 2008.
As others flew off the road at the height of a Corby downpour, Neal made the most of the opportunities to score a brilliant victory in the final race of the day.
He would later dedicate the victory to his former teammate Leslie, who had tragically been killed in a plane crash a fortnight earlier.
Oulton clash with Shedden
Neal returned to Honda for 2010, pushing his old rival Plato hard but ultimately having to concede the championship in the Brands Hatch decider.
In 2011, the Honda was the class of the field and at Oulton Park, Neal was behind his teammate Shedden, chasing another victory.
The pair had already touched on the penultimate lap but Neal wasn’t to be defeated. He tried one final lunge in the second race of the day at the final corner, Lodge.
It ended in disaster for the team. Neal locked up, slid into Shedden and took the pair into the gravel trap. Plato went through to score a very lucky victory.
Neal immediately realised he’d messed up, using some choice language inside the car after the failed overtaking attempt.
It was a rare blemish though in what turned out to be another championship-winning season.
Neal vs. Plato Part 2
The Plato/Neal rivalry, which had taken largely a backseat during Neal’s time with Vauxhall, was re-ignited by the former’s switch back to Honda.
Plato was now in a Chevrolet and running an S2000 engine which lacked the power of the NGTC models which Neal’s Honda Civic was running.
Plato’s frustration began to boil as the season grew and the tipping point came during qualifying at Rockingham.
After a couple of unnecessary incidents on-track, the fierce rivals squared up to one another in the pitlane.
As adrenaline flew, both showed an unpleasant side. Plato sticking his middle finger up at Neal; with Neal almost whacking Plato with his crash helmet still on.
The pair were both fined and given a stiff dressing down from the authorities with a reminder of their conduct especially to a younger audience watching.
Despite a game attempt at keeping his title, Plato couldn’t keep up with the faster Honda drivers.
Neal became a three-time champion at the final race at Silverstone, seeing off his teammate Shedden with a points finish in the last race of a hotly-contested 2011 championship.
The Diamond Double
In recent years, Neal has not been a major factor in the championship.
Third was his best finish in 2015, whilst 2020 turned out to be his first season outside the top 10 in the final standings since 1998.
There was one notable success though at Snetterton in 2018. In the championship’s 60th anniversary, TOCA put on a special Diamond Double event.
It was a 60-mile, 20-lap race which replaced the usual reverse grid event of the meeting. Also, double points were to be awarded.
Neal qualified second behind Jack Goff for the special event at the Norfolk circuit and chased him down in the early stages.
Under pressure on lap nine, Goff slid wide at Wilson hairpin, handing Neal the lead.
Although Goff and the Toyota of Tom Ingram kept up with him, Neal held the younger pair off to write his name into the championship’s history books.
Fittingly, that remains the last of his 63 wins in the BTCC.
We’ll still see plenty of Matt Neal in the paddock. He lives and breathes racing but it will feel different in 2021 not to see him in the driving seat.