“When you say I have done 600 races, it just makes me feel old,” jokes Neal, 49. “It’s a nice landmark, a great thing to have, but I’m still looking forward and I have a real shot at this year’s title. That’s the thing that is preoccupying me right now.”
Neal, who has won three races this year and has 59 victories in total to his name, is just 13 points from table-topper Sam Tordoff’s BMW 125i M Sport. He is at the very peak of his abilities, despite his 26-year BTCC career. The three-time title winner is as fast as he has ever been.
Plato’s shot at a third crown is going to require something special to pull it off. He helped lure Subaru into the championship this season with a brand new Levorg GT programme. Its dynamically advantageous boxer engine has moved the goalposts in terms of car design, and the 48-year-old has been a fixture at the front since the engineers got on top of the car’s development at the fourth meeting of the season.
That sluggish start has left Plato 58 points adrift of the series leader, but he has a strong record around the Brands Hatch grand prix circuit, the scene of the showdown.
His only victory of the campaign so far this year came at Knockhill in August, and that was the very race in which he celebrated his 500th start. But for him, that number isn’t the way he would like to be judged.
“Before the race, I wasn’t really thinking about it, because it’s just a number, but what is more important to me is the ratio of podiums to starts that I have had [which stands at 44.1%] and the ratio of wins to starts that I have had [18.7%]. I was on pole for my first ever BTCC race with the Williams Renault team [in 1997], and here I am still at the front.”
That last comment from Plato is interesting. While there is no doubt that Neal and Plato have been the dominant forces over the past two decades, there has been no love lost between them, with myriad on-track scuffles. They even squared up to each other physically in the pit lane at Rockingham in 2011.
While Plato is the most successful BTCC driver to date with 95 wins, Neal has the upper hand when it comes to championships claimed – which is why Plato is probably keen to highlight the podium and wins ratio, where he clearly outstrips Neal. The needle between the pair is very thinly veiled sometimes…
Both drivers are looking forward to the run-in this season with plenty to play for, and the number of starts that the pair has achieved is something that has been pushed into the background for the time being.
There are questions to be considered by both of them. While the physical demands of driving a touring car aren’t as great as they are in many other categories, both are looking to the future.
“Maybe if I win a fourth title this season, it might be time to reflect and think about carrying on,” admits Neal. “We are a way off doing that yet. I have a great relationship with Honda and the continuity and the harmony in the team is great, so let’s see what it brings. I am only looking forward for now.”
Plato is similarly circumspect. “I am still getting a buzz from this, and I am still able to bring plenty to the championship and I am able to run at the front,” he says. “I am not slowing down, either on or off track, so for the moment there is no reason to change.”
1 - Sam Tordoff - BMW 125i M Sport - 278 points
2 - Gordon Shedden - Honda Civic Type R - 267 points
3 - Matt Neal - Honda Civic Type R - 265 points
4 - Rob Collard - BMW 125i M Sport - 261 points
5 - Mat Jackson - Ford Focus ST - 257 points
6 - Andrew Jordan - Ford Focus ST - 247 points
7 - Colin Turkington - Subaru Levorg GT - 241 points
8 - Jason Plato - Subaru Levorg GT - 220 points
9 - Adam Morgan - Mercedes-Benz A-Class - 210 points
10 - Tom Ingram - Toyota Avensis - 200 points
Read more: BTCC 2016: final showdown preparations