Reigning Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Champion Matt Neal enters his third consecutive season with the Honda Racing team in 2012, sporting a new Honda Civic and looking to secure a fourth championship crown. Speaking exclusively to MSV at the Autosport International Show at the Birmingham NEC, he shared his thoughts on the season ahead.
“I’m looking forward to getting back out there” commented Neal. “We’ve got a brand new shape Civic and running to the Next Generation regulations which is going to be a big learning curve for us.”
With a new car, testing opportunities will be at a premium, and the Midlander revealed that the team will be looking to get as much running as possible: “We can’t start testing soon enough! With a bit of luck we will hit the track in mid-February time, and because it’s a new car with new ratios and a whole new thing for us we’re going to try and go on a tour of as many circuits as we can. We’ve even got a brief period out in Spain booked as well, so we’re going to be pretty busy.”
The season starts, as is traditional, on the bullring style Brands Hatch Indy circuit, something Neal is greatly looking forward to: “Brands is one of my favourites of anywhere in the world, never mind the UK and I’m looking forward to getting on with it!”
The next MSV circuit on the calendar is the undulating Oulton Park circuit in Cheshire, a circuit Neal ranks as among the best he’s ever driven on.
“Oulton Park is a big challenging circuit for anybody. The first team I ever raced for many years ago was based in Rochdale so Oulton Park was sort of my first test circuit, so I’ve got a lot of fond memories there and done a lot of miles there. It’s not for the faint hearted, it’s probably the most challenging circuit we go to on the calendar with its undulations and the commitment required through the quick stuff. You need a good sorted car for that!”
The BTCC next visits Snetterton, again featuring on the calendar in August. The circuit was dramatically redeveloped in 2011, and Neal believes it has elevated the Norfolk circuit to among the best he’s competed at.
“The new Snetterton circuit I absolutely love. Before I got there I wasn’t sure about the last corner but it worked well. I said afterwards ‘please don’t put us back on the short circuit!’ The long circuit is fabulous, again, real commitment is needed, and it provided great racing. Snetterton always provided great racing and I was worried that we could have lost it, but it wasn’t, it was fabulous. It has overtaking opportunities, close racing, the whole shooting match!
“I loved the new section out the back – I can’t remember the names of all the corners – I’m still learning them, but two or three corners that have been put in where no matter how many times you drive them you never think you’ve got them right! When you get tyre wear developing throughout the race, they are corners where you make mistakes and the drivers around you make mistakes, but that provides more overtaking opportunities rather than just seeing nose to tail racing and everyone following each other. The track is a real challenge now.”
The circus then returns to Brands Hatch for the season finale, this time on the legendary Grand Prix layout, another challenge Neal is relishing in his title defence.
“The Brands Grand Prix circuit is one of the driver’s favourites. Round the back through Hawthorns and Westfield is fabulous and I love it every time we go there. Obviously the championship is likely to go down to the wire and Brands is just great for the spectators especially in the stadium area. The cars are out the back, they come back in and are into the ‘bowl’ and the fans can see all the action unfold in front of them. The atmosphere is electric for the drivers there as well as the crowds, and I’m sure it will be kicking off!”
Finally when quizzed on what he would most like to see in 2012 (apart from another championship challenge for himself of course!) Neal was more withdrawn.
“I don’t know really. I want to enjoy the experience, you have to enjoy the ride haven’t you, or you shouldn’t be doing it! I’d like a safe year for everybody, a strong car and maybe a few wins along the way would be nice. I don’t enjoy the scraps with Jason, but I can’t help it, as soon as we get in the cars we end up falling out again. We’ve been alright today when I saw him earlier but I’m sure we’ll end up falling out at some point – I’ve been trying to get him to fall out with ‘Flash’ (Gordon Shedden) but it hasn’t happened yet!”