Jason Plato and Matt Neal’s rivalry is certainly one of the most fascinating in motorsport
(Photo from: www.autocar.co.uk)
Over the last 25 years, the British Touring Car Championship has seen some great rivalries, John Cleland and Steve Soper, Alain Menu and Rickard Rydell and James Thompson and Yvan Muller however for me none of them come close to the rivalry of Jason Plato and Matt Neal.
Between them, they have raced in over 1100 races and cumulatively, their careers are a staggering 47 years long. Both have enjoyed huge success over their long careers with both cementing their place as two of the greatest drivers the series has ever seen. Sadly this year, neither of them have had the seasons they would have wished for, with Matt Neal in seventh after a retirement and a mechanical issues, whereas Plato languishes down in 22nd place, after his car was affected by dramatic rule changes just before the opening round of the season at Brands Hatch.
This article will hopefully give you an insight into the careers of two of the BTCC’s heavyweights and how their rivalry has created drama, headlines and divisions over the years.
For no reason in particular we will start with Jason Plato. If you mention the British Touring Car Championship in conversation to someone who may not be too familiar with the series, Jason Plato is the first name that is spoken. His popularity and consistency has ensured that he remains one of the most recognisable drivers on the grid today.
Plato’s career started in go-karts in which he enjoyed success, driving alongside drivers such as Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard. In 1991 Plato moved into car racing and won his first championship, the 1991 Formula Renault Eurocup. 1992 saw Plato move to F3 however his next success came in 1996 when he won the Renault Spider Cup, taking nine wins from thirteen starts.
This season Plato celebrates 20 years since his British Touring Car Championship debut, having joined the series in 1997 with Williams Renault. After being initially rejected by Sir Frank Williams, after Williams sent Plato a letter saying they were going to pick a driver with a Formula 1 profile, either Gianni Morbidelli or Jean-Christophe Boullion, Plato was incensed.
A few weeks after that letter Plato woke up “full of hell” and decided that he would go to see Frank. In an interview for “Touring Car Legends” which aired in 2014, Jason describes how that moment “changed [his] life”. His plan was to confront Williams in person, he managed to get past security but found Frank’s PA a much sterner obstacle. After receiving a “nugget of information” from his PA that Frank would not be at the factory before lunch, Plato camped out in his car for three and a bit hours waiting for Williams to arrive.
Once he did, Plato pleaded with him to give him five minutes of his time which Williams agreed to, this resulted in Plato being offered the chance for a shootout with Boullion and Morbidelli. Plato won the shootout and in doing so, earned himself a drive for the 1997 season. It was a move which Plato described as one of the proudest of his life.
Plato found himself with Alain Menu as his teammate for the ’97 season and despite Menu’s pedigree, for the first three rounds of the season Plato beat him, and indeed everyone else, in qualifying by getting three poles in his first three races. It would take another four months and round 9 of the championship for Plato to win his first race in the BTCC, as he went onto finish third in the championship, as Menu clinched the ’97 crown.
The 1998 season saw Plato remain with Renault in which he finished fifth as Rickard Rydell went onto win his and Volvo’s only BTCC title. 1999 saw Plato finish fifth again, this time as team leader as Bouillon joined the team, with Menu moving to Ford. During this time, Plato accumulated another two wins as Laurent Aiello and Nissan dominated the 1999 season.
2000 saw a lot of manufactures withdraw from the series such as Volvo, Nissan and Plato’s Renault, leaving only three manufacturer supported teams, Ford, Honda and Vauxhall. Each increased their teams to three car entries and Plato found himself at Vauxhall partnering Yvan Muller and Vincent Radermacker, who joined from Volvo. For a third consecutive year, Plato finished fifth in the championship as the SuperTouring era ended.
For 2001 new rules were in place, with the aim of cheaper cars and closer racing. Plato remained with Vauxhall, who had by far the best car, following Ford’s withdrawal and Honda’s sabbatical. After a long and often controversial championship, Plato came out on top, beating teammate Yvan Muller by 18 points on his way to his first BTCC title.
After two years away from the series, in which Plato competed in ASCAR and as a Seat development driver, 2004 saw Plato return to the BTCC as a Seat works driver alongside 2003 Seat Cupra Cup champion Rob Huff, who won the drive due to his title success. Seat’s Toledo was the first car in the BTCC under the new S2000 regulations used in Europe and despite the car’s lack of development, Plato finished the season third, with seven wins, the most of anyone that year.
2005 saw Plato finish a distant fourth however 2006 saw Seat reinvigorated with their new Leon and so ensued Plato’s rivalry with Matt Neal. Until now, Neal’s and Plato’s careers had never really crossed, although they had been competing together since 1997, bar three years, neither had been in a position to fight for the championship at the same time previously. Throughout the season, each driver found themselves on top at one stage and in the driving seat. This caused some controversial moments throughout, particularly at Snetterton when the two collided at the Russell Chicane while fighting for the win.
Neal went onto win the 2006 season with Plato second, however this was the moment that the rivalry was well and truly born. It had begun a year earlier at Knockhill, when the pair came to blows in the wet. It resulted in Neal calling Plato an “absolute pig”.
Up to this point, Neal had few rivals during his career which began in 1991 as an independent with Pyramid Motorsport. This was for a one off round at Silverstone before returning for a full campaign in 1992 with his family run team, Rimstock Racing. The following year, Rimstock Racing became Team Dynamics.
Prior to driving in the BTCC, Neal started racing in Motocross before moving to cars in 1988 driving in the Ford Fiesta XR2i category. He won this championship in both 1990 and 1991. This is what prompted Neal’s move to the BTCC in a BMW 318i before switching to a Mazda for the 1993 season, in which he won his first BTCC Independents Crown. From 1994 to halfway through the 1997 championship, Neal drove a Ford Mondeo before changing cars again, this time to a Nissan Primera. This period also bought Neal his second Independents Title success, in 1995.
By 1998 Neal was beginning to score consistently with nine top ten finishes on his way to thirteenth in the standings. 1999 was Neal’s break though year as he hit the headlines as early as the second race of the season.
Before the year had started, series director Alan Gow had set an independent driver the goal to win a race outright, and become the first driver to achieve this feat in the SuperTouring era, the prize, £250,000. Neal, still with family outfit Team Dynamics, managed to win the second race at Donington at the first round of the season, beating the likes of James Thompson and Plato from pole. After stalling in the pits, he dropped to fifth and worked his way back through the field. It was the race that put Neal on the map. He continued to impress throughout the year with a string of top ten finishes on his way to ninth in the standings and a third Independents Crown.
2000 saw Neal remain in the BTCC, again winning the Independents Crown, before taking a sabbatical in 2001 to race in the European Touring Car Championship. He returned to the series in 2002 with Vauxhall before moving to Honda in 2003. Neal remained with Honda throughout achieving a third and fifth however 2005 was Neal’s year as he beat the dominant Vauxhall’s, and 2003 Champion Yvan Muller, to take his maiden BTCC Title.
2006 saw Neal remain with Honda and Team Dynamics, though his challenge for the title was not from Vauxhall, but from Seat. Since Neal’s second title in 2006, eventually beating Plato by 48 points, the two have come to blows, both on and off the track, as they fought for championships yearly.
2007 once again saw the duo squabble throughout in a season where Neal could not match the speed of Plato as Honda reintroduced the Civic. It was a season which Plato battled hard for to the very end, despite being hampered by a nasty accident while filming for Television show Fifth Gear in which he suffered burns to his hands, face and neck when the Caparo T1 he was testing burst into flames.
Despite this is he continued bravely only missing out on the championship by three points to Fabrizio Giovanardi at the final race at Thruxton.
For the next two seasons, Neal moved back to Vauxhall and although Neal found himself unable to compete for the championship in 2008 and 2009, the rivalry continued. There has always been a tension between the two of them and once the rivalry ensued once more in 2010 when Plato pipped Neal to win his second title in a Chevrolet Cruze there has been no stopping them.
Since then, the pair have been consistently at the front, however tensions boiled over at Rockingham in 2011 during and after qualifying, when the pair came to blows both on the circuit and off it in the pitlane after the session had ended as they squabbled for track position. The net result was the duo squaring up to each other in the pitlane after qualifying had ended with the pair’s dads having to separate them both.
2011 eventually saw Neal claim his third crown, with teammate Shedden second. Shedden would go onto win the 2012 championship, with Neal second, but Plato was always close behind. In recent years, the battle for the championship has also included drivers such as Shedden, but also Andrew Jordan and Colin Turkington which has only made the rivalry more intense as every point is important. Despite finishing second a staggering five times, Plato has not added to his two championships since 2010 whereas Neal has only finished in the top three twice since his last crown in 2011.
Many would agree that both drivers should have had more success than they have had over the years, although they do share an enviable five titles between them. Neal has always been known as an aggressive driver and this aggression has cost him points in the past, while Plato’s pantomime villain act may not have won him many fans up and down the grid over the years, traits which could have cost both drivers another title or more?
However neither have had the luck when it counted, particularly Plato in 2007 and 2015 whereas Neal has had punctures at critical times and accidents ending weekends. Despite limited success for the duo over the past few seasons, it has been their rivalry that often takes over the sport, that creates the most talking points, and gets the fans watching, without that, the series would be a much emptier place.
Both Plato and Neal have now been at the front of touring cars for over 15 years, and although they are not there currently, for whichever reason, both will be pushing as hard as ever to get back to where they feel they rightfully belong. Let us all hope that we see some more titanic battles on track very soon.