Any motorsport fan will know that intangible feeling when you reach a track the morning of a race-day, the cars moving around the paddock to scrutineering, mechanics making last minute changes and drivers registering at race control.
But on the morning of the 30 August last year at Oulton Park, there was more than the usual pre-race excitement in the air. A local face in the paddock made sure of that.
Ex-BTCC race winner Paul O’Neill was on hand, after being asked by MX-5 team owner and race winner Paul Sheard to pilot one of his cars for two races in the BRSCC Mazda MX-5 SuperCup.
“To be honest that was a really late deal, it usually is with me,” said O’Neill of the arrangement with Sheard.
“People often say to me, ‘what are you up to at the weekend?’ The Oulton deal happened a week before and I know Sheardy, because of Christian Dick. Paul is his step-dad, and I’ve done a bit with him before.
“He just said ‘would you like to come down and race this car?’ I will always do anything for those guys for absolutely nothing as they are just the salt of the earth.”
O’Neill could be seen in his usual fashion – speaking to every single marshal, mechanic and onlooker, enthusiastically signing autographs all day in his ex-BTCC egg:sport overalls, worn on the day of his first British Touring Car win in 2002 and featuring Matt Neal’s arm and leg measurements…
“They got the sizing wrong [for the overalls]. They gave Matt Neal my torso and gave me his legs and arms, that’s why they’re so long. I never tell anyone that; I always forget!
“Every time I see Matt, I say to him have you got my arms and legs? That was an in joke at Triple Eight!”
Come free practice all eyes were on O’Neill, as you may expect – with the local hero no longer racing regularly either in the BTCC or at Oulton leaving one of the fan favourites from the northern area in short supply.
There was no sign of rust though, as the number 39 was soon at the top of the time sheets setting a time of 2m02.729s –four tenths quicker than championship leader Abbie Eaton – despite the pilot being modest about his hopes for the weekend.
“If I can have a top six battle with these guys in the two races I’ll be happy – a podium would be a bonus. I wouldn’t even think about a win, the competition is too tough out front, but if I can sniff a podium out, I’ll be having it!”
O’Neill did improve on his free practice time in qualifying but it wasn’t enough to beat the other front-runners, with Eaton, Mike Comber and Tom Roche all ahead. He had a short excursion into the Cheshire countryside and was also struggling with a toe in issue he hilariously described after the race.
“We had a bit of a toe issue, my bunion…”
With the ‘bunion’ sorted for the races, O’Neill embarked on two of the most tactically brilliant club racing performances of the year.
Race one was characterised by a feud between Eaton and Comber, with both blaming each other for a race one incident at Hilltop in which Comber ended up in the barrier. That left O’Neill to battle at the front with long-time MX-5 racer Roche, who led into the final corner of race one.
It felt like fate that O’Neill had to win at his home circuit. Having been lucky enough to be spectating at O’Neill’s first BTCC win at Oulton in 2002 – seeing the tears run down his face and all over those ill-fitting egg:sport overalls – this unbiased onlooker decided that O’Neill simply had to win.
Sure enough, he set the fastest lap of the race on the penultimate lap to reel in Roche, but he still trailed entering Lodge for the final time. The wily O’Neill backed off just before Lodge and it looked like Roche was going to spoil the day for everyone but himself and take the win.
But the back-off entering Lodge was tactical from O’Neill. He got the most perfect run out of the corner and up Deer Leap to pip Roche to the line by three-thousandths of a second!
To the untrained eye it looked like a club racer – albeit a very good one in Roche – had come within a fraction of beating a BTCC hero, but in truth O’Neill measured the drive perfectly.
It became apparent later that Roche had a down on power engine, and that O’Neill used that to his advantage in stealing the win at the last minute.
“I know for a fact – being behind him – his car was just so slow. He must have been at least 15 horsepower down on me and he still put up a brilliant fight,” he explained.
“Again experience told me Deer leap is a hill and that if I got a good run and made sure he defends, that’s what did it for me.
“If it was a youngster I probably would have passed him early doors and driven off, but for me, I don’t take too many risks.”
O’Neill was incredible complimentary of Roche after the race following their meteoric fight to the line.
“Tom is probably one of the best club racers I’ve driven against to be honest. I really rate him.
“The way he raced that weekend, I thought was phenomenal. He’d do well in any British championship, he’s a proper talent and I like him.”
Thanks to the result of the first race deciding the grid for the second, O’Neill was on pole, but couldn’t maintain the lead as Roche and Eaton proved stronger in the early stages.
The trio became a quartet when Comber produced a phenmoneal drive to reach the front runners from the back of the grid – after retiring from race one after the contact with Eaton.
Deja vu was the order of the day though, as Comber and Eaton again made contact – this time at Lodge – leaving O’Neill and Roche to contest the top spots out once again.
Incredibly on the last lap it was again Roche heading O’Neill by a car length, and again O’Neill backed off into Lodge…
The exit of Lodge and the hill leading up to Deer Leep is blind from the press and commentary box, but fate said the two would be side by side as they approached the start finish line and that was of course the case. O’Neill edged Roche once again thanks to the beautifully repeated move off Lodge.
“I knew he was wounded,” O’Neill said of Roche after the race.
“I just made him defend, defend, defend; I knew my engine would be fine. Sheardy’s car had been mint all day.”
Trying to talk to O’Neill after the race was comparable to trying to arrange an exclusive interview with the Queen, every single marshal, fan, even drivers mobbing the triumphant race winner – and he duly obliged in chatting, signing autographs and taking selfies with every single one of them.
Reflecting on the event, he maintains that he was only aiming for a podium at best, despite the results on the day.
“It [the deal to race] came together really quickly and it was just fantastic. I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d come away with a couple of wins, I thought if I get on the podium I’ll be well pleased. It was nice to do well for Sheardy.”
Despite O’Neill’s obvious racing pedigree, he feels no shame in taking part in ‘club’ events and is keen to point out the enjoyment in it for him.
“A lot of peers question why I do club events, but I know I’m good enough to be in the top six in most UK club championships. I know I’m not the best driver in the world, but at the same time it’s about having a great race and that’s all that matters to me.”
Paul Sheard is already dreaming up the next time he’ll be asking O’Neill to jump in the car; if Oulton Park was anything to go by we are in for a treat.