Civic success is Honda driven via the BTCC and Matt Neal
While Honda can no longer subscribe to the ‘race on Sunday, sell on Monday’ ethos and its F1 investment consists only of fond Senna memories, highlights Iain Robertson, the British Touring Cars scene provides a respite of sizable proportions not least with top racer, Matt Neal.
Advocacy is known to work in the motor racing business. That being the indisputable case, it surely helps to square the odds of success with the blend of a defined involvement and a time-served history. It started with Matt’s father, Steve. A former racer, who believed in a remit of ‘second is the first of the losers’, he was also a passionate engineer, who established the UK’s most successful alloy wheel business (Rimstock) and then, in 1992, one of its most fruitful racing teams (Team Dynamics).
Matt had already been racing in Motocross (bikes) but swapped to four wheels in 1988 at the age of 22 years. It took him a couple of seasons before declaring his status as British Group N Champion in both 1991 and 1992, by which time he made the transition into the British Touring Car Championship and a near unassailable run of race and title victories. He was the top BTCC privateer (i.e. non factory-supported driver) in 1993. He lifted the Independents Trophy in 1995, 1999 and 2000 seasons.
However, 1999 was truly special, when he claimed the £250,000 prize in spectacular form at Donington Park Circuit, by being the first independent driver ever to win a BTCC race outright. It was one hell of an accolade, especially when contrasting the spending power of a privately entered team, alongside the multi-millions of Pounds spent by the factory teams. Matt did the deed, much to the surprise (and hard to disguise chagrin) of the organisers, all of whom believed that their posted ‘bonus’ was fairly safe…and out of the reach of privateers, however hungry they may have been. It needs to be stated that it is a financial incentive that no longer exists!
Both Matt’s and Tesam Dynamics’ relationship with Honda commenced in 2003 and it would one of the longest (almost uninterrupted) support programmes with a single manufacturer since. It would also produce a further three Championship titles for Matt and several end of season Manufacturer/Constructor Awards for Honda over the years. However, Team Dynamics took an extraordinary route to contesting the BTCC in those early Honda days. Rather than copying what most support teams do and investing in a previous season’s winning factory car, the team developed their own version of the Integra Type R. It was a serious undertaking but it served to demonstrate the intensity of effort expended by Team Dynamics, for which no effort was ever too great. The reward was back-to-back victories in both Teams’ and Driver’s Championships in 2005/2006.
While Matt clinched his third and most recent of the Driver’s awards in 2011, his team-mate, Scotsman Gordon Shedden, secured his first outright title in the Civic in 2012, claiming a second title in 2015. Yet, it was a Team Dynamics’ customer car, another BTCC Civic, driven by Pirtek sponsored Andrew Jordan in 2013, that maintained the Manufacturer’s titles. In fact, Team Dynamics constructs several cars for different championships around the world, most of which have also been winners.
Many sales of the attention-grabbing Type R version of the Civic can be attributed directly to this racing consistency, even though the engineering similarities between the road-going Honda and its race-bred alternative are now several fields apart. Fortunately, as a ‘silhouette’ formula, the inferences are still positively familial. While Team Dynamics has created recently a hiked-up 400bhp+ rally version of the race-car, it is only as a promotional tool and to show what could be possible.
The BTCC racing Civic boasts a notional 350bhp, although, as with the rest of the Touring Car entrants, this could be anywhere in the vicinity of 400bhp, should the turbocharger’s wick be turned-up (as it often is) for the final race of the three-race programme, spread over ten weekends to a total of 30 races in the full season. In race trim, running on the slick dry (or grooved wet) tyres allocated to championship contenders, a 0-60mph time of around 4.0s can be expected, dependent on gear ratios. The top speed could be as high as 165mph. However, it is the close proximity action, from a maximum entry of 32 cars, at each round, that provides viewing compulsion, whether at the circuit venue, or watching ITV4’s exquisite live coverage of the race day programme.
Yet, Team Dynamics has been clever, even running a Touring (estate car) version of the Civic model as a race entry. The Team’s publicity stunts have ranged from the racing cars towing caravans, to building a full-race version of a Honda ride-on lawnmower. Droitwich-based Team Dynamics has also nurtured a strong sponsor relationship with both Halfords and Yuasa, while Rimstock alloy wheels are virtually standard fit for every BTCC entered car, which guarantees a regular income for the wheels firm.
Matt stands out for a number of reasons, not least his six feet seven inches of height, a factor that bars him from being an F1 driver. He is also, now aged 52 years, one of the elder statesmen of the Touring Cars paddock, respected both on and off track for his skill, knowledge and winning ways. However, he remains one of the most affable of characters, prepared to speak fluently with anybody, when not racing his current Civic Type R. Matt maintains his aerobic fitness and flexibility by training in the martial arts.
In the meantime, owning a Honda Civic Type R makes you a member of a moderately exclusive high-performance club, the 5-door hatchback being one of the most focused of all hot variants sold in the UK. While the road car is a very personal choice (not one of which I am particularly keen, as it is too compromised for my personal taste), the BTCC racing Civics are among the most popular of all.
Conclusion: Honda is no longer in the leadership of developments in Formula One, which does harbour some reputational issues for the brand. However, the true diamonds in Honda’s crown reside with Matt Neal and Team Dynamics’ advocacy of the Civic model, which is something truly worth sharing.