When British Touring Car Championship supremo Alan Gow dangled the carrot of a £250,000 bonus to the first of the series’ privateers to win a race outright during 1999, veteran independent Matt Neal took the bait.
APR 05th 2017
On this day in... 1999
The Midlander, who in 2016 celebrated his 25th season in Britain’s biggest championship, committed to his family-run Team Dynamics squad for another year after snubbing an offer to join the title-winning Tom Walkinshaw Racing Volvo squad.
Knowing that for ’99 the privateer BTCC cars could run on the same tyres as the big boys, Neal sniffed his opportunity to bag the cash aboard the Nissan Primera, in which he’d finished a close second to reigning BTCC champion Rickard Rydell’s Volvo S60 in the blue-riband Bathurst 1000km Super Touring race the previous October.
And he backed up that optimism with a place on the front row of the grid for the 18-lap sprint race season-opener at Donington Park alongside the works Honda Accord of James Thompson.
In the race, Neal got bogged down at the start and then got stuck behind the factory-backed Primera of David Leslie. Team politics meant he couldn’t afford to take out the Scot in a move to pass him so he stayed in fifth place, while Thompson went on to win.
There was still another chance for Neal to bag the big win as he’d qualified on pole for the second race, the 36-lap feature event. His 1m10.018s lap was even quicker than Thompson’s marker from the sprint-race qualifying session.
This time, Neal made a proper getaway to lead the race. His Primera had harder-compound tyres, while nearest pursuer Thompson had soft rubber on the Accord. A grip-versus-durability thriller would play out around the Leicestershire circuit.
With everything going to plan for Neal, he brought the #77 car into the pits for his compulsory stop. And that’s when all looked to be lost once more. He stalled the engine while leaving the pits, losing vital seconds as the car coughed back into life – something that usually took an age, Neal later admitted, when the Nissan’s engine was hot.
Down in fifth place, Neal charged back through the order, eventually catching and passing leader Thompson into the Old Hairpin at the bottom of the Craner Curves. He held on to take victory by just over five seconds and secure himself and the team a budget-boosting quarter of a million pounds. To much amusement and approval from the crowd, Neal, who would go on to win another 58 races (and counting) as well as three drivers’ titles, was presented with a giant cardboard cheque from Alan Gow up on the podium to cap a feel-good BTCC weekend 18 years ago.
BTCC, Donington Park, 1999 – Race two, 36 laps
1. Matt Neal (GB) – Nissan Primera, 44m02.088s
2. James Thompson (GB) – Honda Accord, 44m07.86s
3. Jason Plato (GB) – Renault Laguna, 44m09.412s
4. John Cleland (GB) – Vauxhall Vectra, 44m15.021s
5. Vincent Radermecker (B) – Volvo S40, 44m18.864s
6. Jean-Christophe Boullion (F) – Renault Laguna, 44m19.092s
Images courtesy of LAT
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