A superstar of touring cars in his homeland, Matt Neal is one of a host of international racers who have headed down under to test themselves against the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship's best.
While his more spectacular moments may be better remembered – the Bathurst tangle, the Oran Park crash – the two metre-tall, three-time British Touring Car Champion has a top-10 Supercars race finish to his name co-driving with Paul Morris at the 2001 VIP Petfoods Queensland 500.
His first trip to Bathurst almost netted a victory – or if the race had been a lap longer, a DNF! – while his two Supercars starts on the Mountain were even more eventful…
Neal, 52, was back at Mount Panorama for the first time in a decade when we caught up with him on the eve of this year's Bathurst 12 Hour.
A lot of the people we talk to for these have retired, but you’re still very much an active race driver! What are you racing this year?
British Touring Cars again with Honda in the FK8 Type R we introduced last season.
Like Supercars, BTCC is heinously competitive – 32 cars all under a second at most circuits – so it’s tough to introduce a new car.
We had a mixed first year but we got some good data to work forward, and we’ve got some improvements and development on the car on the engine and aero side.
Outside the cockpit, what does an average day look like for Matt Neal?
I’m still a brand ambassador for Rimstock wheels, who actually manufacture the wheels for Supercars, and also with Honda UK and Halfords who are one of the title sponsors for BTCC.
I’m kept busy with those, and obviously with Team Dynamics. The engineering side, the sponsorship side… there’s never a peaceful moment in any point of the year for me!
Queensland 500 2001
When did the motorsport bug first bite for you?
I think from four; as much as I can remember. I think it’s either in you or it isn’t.
My dad raced, he was a factory driver for BMC and the Cooper Car Company in British and European touring cars in the ‘60s.
Then he had a big crash at the Nurburgring and that curtailed it all, and he got right out of motorsport and started up an automotive business.
He took me to the odd race when I was a kid, but not heaps. I never did karting or anything like that.
When I was 17 I’d worked weekends and all that and saved up enough money and bought a motocross bike and a trailer, and I just went off racing motocross for about four years.
Just because it was the only thing I could afford to do for the biggest adrenaline rush! I just desperately wanted to race.
I was also pretty good at rugby in my teens. I had an England trial. Well, I’m not small, am I?
I can remember going to the trial, and at the end of the week you sat in front of a panel to assess your mind and your attitude and all that.
I said ‘ah, I’m really not bothered if you pick me or anything; I just want to go race my bike!’ Now I look back on it and go ‘you idiot…’ But then I might not have had the career I had.
When I was about 20, my dad got me into four wheels just to get me away from the bikes, because I didn’t bounce very well.
I didn’t have a great masterplan, that one day I was going to be F1 world champion or anything like that.
I looked at things above like touring cars and they were out of reach. It’s a bit surreal to think that one day I’d be in the BTCC, and then winning races, and then even winning the championship in it. And that I’d be in it this long!
The first time you really came on Australia’s radar was when you came out here to race in the 1997 and 1998 Bathurst 1000s. How did that come together?
I think Steven Richards had been doing a good job down here with Nissan with Garry Rogers, and I’d been running well in the privateer side in Britain.
Bathurst was bit of a reward for me from Nissan Motorsport Europe, but the car wasn’t really up to it.
I think it was an old car that Nissan had given Garry Rogers and it broke halfway through the race.
In ’98 it was all picking up momentum and a lot of manufacturers were coming down here.
Nissan thought they should be here and they’d got a very good car, but I don’t think they had the budget to come down. So they said, ‘right, we’ll give you a car.’
They tried to get a car off Ray Mallock Limited, which was the factory team in Britain, and RML didn’t want to release the cars, but they had an old bitsa, half-built test car back in Didcot at Nissan Motorsport headquarters.
So we chucked that in a container and shipped it out. We all got here on the Sunday before the race and spent the first three days, 20 hours a day, building the car.
The Nissan Super Touring engines back then were really fragile. The longest one that lasted had probably done 600-700 kilometres. So they didn’t know if we were going to finish the race.
The car was pretty fast when we got it going. Alec Poole, the then-head of Nissan Motorsport Europe, turned up and said, ‘look guys, if you can just qualify in the top 10 we’d be so chuffed to bits.’
We obviously put it in the top 10, and then Richo put it on the front row alongside his dad, which was mega.
So then Alec came up to us and said ‘look, if you can just run up the front for a bit, it would be mega, beyond all our expectations!’ And then we did that … then it was a bit more … it’s amazing how the goal posts change during the race!
And then they were pissed off that we finished second!
The engine actually died – no jest – 100 metres past the finish line.
We finished second by 1.5 seconds, but we were pushing because we knew the Volvo was in trouble with oil problems, and mine packed up before we got to Hell Corner.
The only way I ever got back to parc ferme is that John Cleland came up behind me in the Vectra and pushed me all the way back. So we were lucky…
What did you think of the track when you got your first proper look at it?
I don’t think any video, TV, or photographs do it justice. Nothing can do it justice until you come here and see it and walk it and see the challenges of it.
People ask us what are our favourite tracks in the world are, and I always say Nurburgring Nordschliefe is obviously up there, but Bathurst as well. It’s between those two, no question.
Why? Because they’re the most intimidating and probably the most dangerous you drive, because they’re high-speed and there’s no margin for error.
We all want safety and we don’t want to see people getting hurt, but sometimes things become a bit sterile.
The appeal of this place is that if you do well, or even half-decent, you know you’ve achieved. There’s plenty of stellar drivers who have slipped up here.
Queensland 500 2001
You next came on our radar here in Australia in joining Paul Morris at Bathurst in 2000 in a V8. How did that deal come about?
I’d raced against Paul at Bathurst in ’97 and ’98, so he’d seen that we had half a decent run around there.
I got an offer to go to Volvo at the beginning of ’99 in the seat Vincent Radermecker ended up having.
We’d had a test with Team Dynamics with the Nissan and it was good, and then Volvo asked me to go down to Jerez for a test.
It was alright, but I didn’t really like the car. And then they were pushing me to make a decision.
What Dynamics and Nissan had done was line Paul up to fill my seat for ’99, so he came over.
In the end, I was pushed into a corner (by Volvo) and said ‘stuff it, I want to stay with Nissan,’ because we’d had a mega test at Albacete. And poor Paul, he just looked at me and went ‘you so-and-so…’
I thought it was the worst decision but it was probably the best decision I ever made because it was an iconic period we went through then, so it was a good move.
Paul came back to Australia, got into V8s and we carried on the relationship from there.
You made a few headlines in that race in an incident where you tangled with frontrunners Mark Skaife and Neil Crompton … we’ve heard plenty about that moment from those two over the years, what’s your side of the story?
There was bad blood between Neil and The Dude [Morris] anyway, and I think Neil thought it was done maliciously – but it wasn’t. They made a big thing about us unlapping ourselves.
We came down to the last corner, Crommo had a dig on me and nerfed me at the last corner, and I suppose that sort of put my back up a bit.
And then he braked so early for Turn 1, I thought I was going to run into the back of him. So I just slid it down the inside.
I think he was just riled. He went to bump back at me, get me out of the way again – like he’d done at the last turn – but that took his front bumper off. And the rest is history, because that stuffed their race.
It wasn’t anything malicious on my side. It’s water under the bridge now. I know he still holds a grudge, but I don’t against him.
I hope we can buy a beer one day, because life’s too short, isn’t it?
Oran Park 2001
You came back for a couple of races with Morris the following year. Were you looking at the possibility of coming over here and racing full time?
It would’ve been nice, but I was under no illusion. People underestimate how competitive the Aussie series is. It is now, but it always has been. It’s hard not to look a wanker in it.
The cars are quirky, they’re different with the diffs and the weight, the tyre. It’s hard work.
I know so many European drivers that have come down here – good names with championships under their belts – and they’ve had one or two races here and gone back, and said to me that they’ve never wanted to sit in one of these things again in their life! Because it’s hard.
That was part of the appeal to me. I wanted to try and crack it and it didn’t really happen. I still struggled. I wanted to give it a fair shot and Dude gave me a fair shot, to be fair to him.
They’re a great family and I loved the time down here. I loved the people; the championship is just amazing. It’s one of the best championships in the world.
You did come back to Bathurst in 2008 to race for Paul Morris, and I understand you ended up playing a pivotal role in the race strategy for the team’s other car? Something about a code word?
Code Red! Who told you that one?
I heard it somewhere…
Yeah, they said if one car was out of it we might have to be a bit of a sacrificial lamb later on if it needed a pit stop or something. It’ll be a ‘code red.’
We had an engine problem early and were two laps down. Boris is coming in for his pit stop soon, and I’m suited and booted.
Dude or someone came up to me and said, ‘we’ve got a problem with Rusty [Russell Ingall], we need to pit so we’ve got to call Code Red.’
I said: ‘Yeah man, tell Boris to just go park it somewhere. I’m fine, we’re out of it anyway.’ And they said, ‘no, we want Boris to come in and then you to go out and go Code Red.’
I went ‘oh no… I already look like a dickhead in front of all these fans from years before, I don’t want to do it again!’
So I’m in the car, and I’m going around thinking where can I park this. I didn’t want to do it up the top because I knew I’d get sledged by all the fans.
So I’m going ‘round, and you’re going round at a fair lick, so I thought the safest place was the Chase. So I had to go and sort of fall on my sword in the Chase.
What’s your favourite memory from racing in V8 Supercars?
Oh man, we had a good time with Big Kev. Anyone who remembers back in the day, Big Kev? "I’m Excited!" That was a pretty magical moment. He was a hell of a character that guy, a hell of a character. And the whole circus around it.
I don’t think you could’ve found a sponsor that fitted more perfectly with Dude, because that’s Dude!