Tag Archives: Matt Neal

Forgotten success

Several motorsport titles were decided on Sunday

Reflecting on 2011 - titles were sadly overshadowed on Sunday. (Paz Chauhan)

The motorsport world was busy handing out trophies last Sunday before a lovely day of racing was cruelly ruined by the terrible events in Las Vegas. While I can’t quite bring myself to deliver a full review of each it is worth noting the titles won and lost over a packed yet bleak weekend for the sport.

Formula One saw another Sebastian Vettel victory at the somewhat sterile environment of Yeongam in South Korea. More importantly but no less inevitably Red Bull wrapped up the Constructors Championship with Mark Webber finishing third after a thrilling duel with Lewis Hamilton who came home second after starting on pole for the first time this year, a great effort from the 2008 champion.

Unfortunately Moto GP was a little disappointing for all but the Aussies as Casey Stoner romped to a home win at Phillip Island and clinched the final 800cc title in the process. Good on Casey and Honda who have been the class of the field in 2011, but the edge was taken off the race by the non-starts for Yamaha’s Ben Spies and Jorge Lorenzo, the latter’s hopes of defending his title were left in tatters after a very nasty finger injury on race morning.

Back home at Silverstone the BTCC boys had a refreshingly respectful end to the season despite heading into the final triple-header of the year with five still in title contention. Matt Neal’s win in race one set up an all-Honda duel between himself and Gordon Shedden as Plato and Jackson suffered punctures while Nash just didn’t quite have the ultimate pace although that didn’t stop him taking the indie trophy in his dated Vauxhall Vectra. Shedden seized the initiative with a win in the second race but it was Matt Neal who kept it cool to take his third title in the final race of the day as Tom Chilton won the reverse grid race.

Honda have fought against a competitive field, a certain moaning rival and even against themselves to take the crown with a rich variety of different machinery chasing them. I just wish the final rounds were held at Brands, Silverstone is too smooth and fast to lend itself to truly thrilling touring car racing in the modern era.

Then there is the crown that is destined to be forgotten; Dario Franchitti’s Indycar title. It is a trophy he will barely be able to look at, champagne will be toasted to the memory of a fallen comrade rather than sprayed in celebration. He is the Indy driver du jour, but this isn’t the moment to dwell on that. It was already a rough year for Indycar even before the horror of Sunday, let’s hope for a brighter 2012 for the fastest and friendliest racing series of them all.

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Filed under F1, Indycars, Moto GP, Touring Cars

Great racing wherever you look

Plato rolls, Conway wins and Nascar entertains (pic Rob Dunckley)

F1 provided the race of the weekend from where I was sitting, but there was so much good motorsport going on that it was hard to keep up with it all. We had a four-wide finish at Talladega, the closest World Rally ever, a new and truly heroic winner in Indycar and the BTCC boys bent some metal. If I don’t get a chance to watch Superbikes from Assen or my beloved Aussie V8s on a wet street track then I know there was a lot of rubber being burnt around the globe…

First up was Talladega with the Sprint Cup race that anybody could win which was taken by Jimmie Johnson, the winner of the previous five championships. It may not be the ideal result for the fans or the title race, but it was certainly spectacular as the leaders finished four-wide after the tandems we saw at Daytona returned. Clint Boywer was a mere two thousandths of a second behind the winner, but I still can’t truly enjoy the bump-drafting. Nationwide saw Kyle Busch get involved in the ‘big one’ before driving his battered machine back to the front just as the race was halted for yet another big wreck. If anything the relative unknowns in the ARCA race provided the best and cleanest racing at ‘Dega, their cars aren’t built to run the whole race nose-to-tail and the extra space between them made for some far more satisfying racing that saw Ty Dillon edging out Frank Kimmel at the flag.

Astoundingly the WRC was very nearly as close and every bit as thrilling in the dust of Jordan. Sebastian Ogier continued in his winning ways, beating Latvalla by a mere 0.2 seconds – the closest World Rally to date. The event was shortened  after political and logistical problems, but it was still remarkable to see a smaller gap between the leaders after two days rallying than we saw in F1 after a mere 15 minute qualifying segment. It seems that Ogier is the real deal.

Another young driver with a very bright future is Britain’s Mike Conway who scored his first Indycar win at the Long Beach Grand Prix last night. Most Indycar viewers will know Mike best for his bone-breaking Indy 500 shunt that could so easily have taken his career away just as it started. Now recovered and driving for Andretti Autosport he drove a sublime final few laps to blast his way up from sixth place at the final restart to the lead. Conway endured a troubled pit-stop and had to dodge the now-predictable crashes to take the fight to Ryan Briscoe’s Penske that led for so much of the day. Long Beach is one of the greatest street tracks in the world and Mike Conway knows a thing or two about racing around cities after taking wins at Monaco in GP2 and Macau in F3; he’s certainly in the right series for somebody who excels at racing inches from concrete walls.

The walls aren’t quite so close at Donington Park but the BTCC boys still managed to find them. The races were won by Matt Neal, Andrew Jordan and crowd-favourite Matt Jackson, but the talking points were the slew of accidents including a roll for champion Jason Plato.  The racing was good and luckily everybody survived their crashes with nothing more than financial damage, although Plato said he “tweaked his manhood” as his Chevy Cruze rolled three times. Amazingly the RML boys got Jason’s car going again for race three and he even managed to score good points with the roof still squashed! The Craner Curves are a fine place to watch a race and for those stood by Starkey’s Bar they will have witnessed Plato’s accident, a multi-car crash in race three and a fast shunt for Neate’s Ford Focus on the final lap of the day along with a scary ride down the hill for Rob Collard too.  Wish I was there.

I will be heading to a race next week as British F3 heads to Oulton Park, just down the road from here. The F3 season is already underway at Monza where Felipe Nasr won twice for Carlin and cemented his status as championship favourite. Rupert Svendsen-Cook took a win too but it’s Nasr who everybody will be focusing on when British F3 heads back to Britain.

The best junior category in 2011 looks set to be Formula Renault 3.5 where there is some serious talent on show, not least of all is Red Bull’s test driver Daniel Ricciardo. He was absent from round one at Arragon, so whoever emerged on top from the two races on Spanish soil would likely become his main challenger for the season. It was Lotus-affiliated American hot-shot Alexander Rossi who took a win in a spectacular race one, his racecraft was top drawer as he diced with Move and Wickens in a very entertaining battle. He followed it up with a second place in the Sunday race just behind Kevin Korjus – the youngest driver on the Renault grid and a very surprising victor. Expect a bunch of these guys to follow fellow Renault World Series graduates Vettel, Kubica and Kovalainen into F1 very soon, there is a rare amount of talent on that grid this year.

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Filed under Indycars, Junior Formulae, Nascar, Rally, Touring Cars

Spot the difference

Looks the same to me... (pic Barry Adams)

You’d be hard pressed to spot the new generation of British Touring Cars during the first three races of the new season at Brands Hatch last Sunday. Aside from a couple of new marques it was business as usual with Jason Plato and Matt Neal winning in a Chevrolet Cruze and Honda Civic respectively.

The new turbo-charged NGTC-engined cars were slightly quicker in a straight-line than the normally-aspirated units, but again there is nothing unusual about hearing Plato moan about rivals blasting past him – LPG and diesels have been doing the same for the last couple of years. Ultimately it’s always a two litre petrol car that has taken the title and that could still happen this year as Plato once again leads the standings after some very accomplished driving from the old-pro. Jason’s first two 2011 victories also took his career total to 62, surpassing Andy Rouse’s 60 wins that were collected in a great variety of fire-spitting machinery through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.

I was chuffed to see fellow scouse Paul O’Neill up there on the podium in race three, although not half as pleased as the man himself was! Speedworks were also representing my region as the Cheshire team ran their new Toyota Avensis which is still lacking the development it needs to put in a really respectable performance.

The new rules may have had little effect on the spectacle but teams like Speedworks are evidence that it could provide a lifeline to smaller teams which brings a spot of variety to the grid, always a healthy sign. It’s a lot better than watching half a grid of Vauxhalls knocking each other off the road back in 2001 when the BTCC last had a major rulebook rethink. This time around there is a welcome mix of old cars that have had new life breathed into them by the turbo engines and all-new machines such as the Toyota, the Audi and the new ‘global’ Ford Focus. TOCA have learned the lessons of the past choosing to evolve things a little slower than when they ditched the Super Tourers that the BTCC pioneered.

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The 2009 BTCC title – it’s been emotional

Turkington and Plato tough it out into Paddock Hill

Turkington and Plato tough it out into Paddock Hill

Phew, did you see the final meeting of the British Touring Car Championship at Brands? It was quite something, the best championship finale for the British tin toppers since Cleland and Soper got acquainted at Silverstone back in 1992. Colin Turkington took the title, but boy did he have to work hard as he diced with fellow contenders Fabrizio Giovanardi and Jason Plato for the crown over the final three race meeting. It was like the good old days of the BTCC; there was even a Ford battling it out at the front and to top it off there was a crowd of nineties proportions with over 35,000 packing into Brands’ natural amphitheatre.

Before taking to the majestic Brands GP circuit it was nice guy Turkington who held a narrow lead in the drivers championship in his West Surrey Racing BMW ahead of the Vauxhall of the gloriously unhinged double champion Fab Gio and the unlikely lad Plato in his reasonably priced car. Watching from the pitlane were four generations of the Northern Irish Turkington clan; this was going to be emotional.

In race one Tom Chilton led away from his shock pole position in the aforementioned Ford, but Jason Plato in his Racing Silverline Chevy Lacetti was putting him under pressure the entire way. Plato was the surprise member of the three championship protagonists, he only got the drive with days to go before the start of the season, but he gamely went down fighting ’til the bitter end. Tom Chilton’s Team Aon Ford Focus dominated the race from lights to flag. Almost. With only one corner to go Plato pounced and scored the narrowest BTCC victory of all time as he pipped Chilton by a mere 0.015s. Team Aon were denied their first win, but the spiky coiffured Chilton wasn’t done yet and continued to figure at the sharp end all day. Turkington was down in eighth which allowed Giovanardi and Plato to close that gap.

Race two and the championship tightened up still further as Plato once again had to find a way past Chilton who gamely fought to keep a train of quicker cars behind him. Alas, they soon bundled Tom out of the way with Plato starting the Ford’s demise by nudging him wide at Druids. I can’t get over how Jason gets away with so much rough stuff, but this time it did have the effect of prolonging the title battle to the final round as Giovanardi and Turkington followed the Chevy home. It was great to see the top three in the championship proving their status by locking out the podium. It was clear that with Gio’s Vauxhall teammate Matt Neal on the pole for race three that Turkington would need to deliver the drive of his life to hold onto his slender title lead.

After a thrilling Nascar-style side-by-side duel between almost everybody on lap one, leader Matt Neal played the team game and held up Turkington to put him within reach of Giovanardi. This put Plato in striking range too though and the old fox wasn’t out of the championship chase just yet.

Eventually Colin Turkington made a move on Matt which ended in contact, an unusual sight for the BMW pilot in ’09. Although Colin now had the lead he was visibly slower and did an incredible job of hanging onto the top spot until lap 15 when, you guessed it, Plato snatched it from him. But a rare three wins from three races wasn’t quite enough for Jason as championship leader Turkington refused to give in and took his wounded car to second, enough for the title.

Colin’s first BTCC championship brought out the cheers and tears from the team, the family, the man himself and me. Yep, I got all emotional about it, which I think is about right. It took me back to the halcyon days when I was first watching touring cars intently and a nice bloke scooped the honours. Let’s hope next year delivers more of the same.

Well, things won’t quite be the same next year as Vauxhall are leaving the sport after 20 years on the trot. The marque gathered all their previous works drivers except race-a-holic James Thompson who was off racing whatever touring car he could get his hands on, as per usual. From Jeff Allam to Yvan Muller, they were all there to pose by a selection of Vauxhall’s most successful 2 litre touring cars.

Vauxhall were the last of the works efforts in the BTCC, it looks like it will be all privateers next year as the big boys tighten their belts. That makes it seem rather apt that two independent runners, Turkington and Plato, took the first two spots on the leaderboard by season’s end. I doff my hat to both for putting on a mighty show at Brands and bravo to Vauxhall for supporting the sport so loyally for so long.

Those in Britain can still catch all the action on ITV4’s website.

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Filed under Touring Cars