There is little doubt that the majority of BTCC fans are hopeful that a deal can be struck that would see Paul O’Neill return to the grid on a full-time basis for the 2013 season.
O’Neill raced on two occasions – at Croft and at Knockhill – for Speedworks last year when Tony Hughes was unavailable and was widely expected to drive his Avensis when the Stockport-based businessman declared it was ‘mission accomplished’ when it came to his own personal ambitions to be part of the grid.
Since the conclusion of the 2012 season however, things have changed somewhat, with no deal having been agreed and O’Neill – a race winner in the series during his time as a factory Vauxhall driver – unsure if he will be at the wheel of a car during the year ahead.
Inside BTCC caught up with the 33-year-old for the latest update on his plans for the year ahead and in a brutally honest interview, he admitted that his future in the series was very much in the air…
At the end of last season, all the talk was of you driving Tony’s car after his retirement from racing in the BTCC. Now the Hughes-backed Avensis has Dave Newsham’s name on the side and you’ve been very open with fans about what is happening on Twitter in terms of your battle to get the funds together for a drive. What is the latest?
Like I’ve been honest on the internet, for me, there is some movement but it isn’t what I thought it would be. I thought that we might have something done by now, but as everyone is finding out, it is very difficult. I’ve been speaking to Speedworks a lot over Christmas and I knew that the Newsham thing was coming off, which is fantastic for the team and its great that they have got a top driver signed up.
Hopefully they can run two cars and I know they are working hard to get the second car out there. They have told me they would like to have me in it, but it all depends on budget. Tony is keeping me updated every few days on what is happening and it all depends on finding a big sponsor. They have a meeting with a big sponsor in a few weeks time so I will definitely know what is going on then, but like I have said before, I will be motivated to do it when I know it is happening and when I’m in the car. If that happens, then I’ll give my all as I always have done in the past.
However, I’m not at that stage in my life now to go round chasing money like I see others doing every year. I see them all stressed out, but the simple fact is that I work seven days a week as it is, as I need to make my living. The moment I go racing, I won’t have an income.
When I am at the circuit with ITV, I do make some decent money and when you get to 33, it’s what you have to do. You have to look after your own.
There have always been fans that have said your family connections would solve your budget issues, but you’ve always been keen to do things yourself without Mel’s help. How important has it been for you to do that and to establish yourself as you?
I think that’s a great question to be fair. I’ll be honest with you. It isn’t a case of she could help me out, because she really couldn’t.
Say we were ten grand short of doing the BTCC and I couldn’t find it anywhere. One, I wouldn’t ask her and two, if she found out and knew I needed the money, she wouldn’t give it to me anyway as she has her own family to think about. Everyone thought that the Spice Girls were worth £20 million in their heyday but they weren’t and I know that. I know from her paying for my racing when I was 21 or 22, how much that was almost breaking the camels back so it isn’t a case of ‘I’m not going to let Mel C pay for my racing’ – she can’t.
The thing is that if I can’t race then I won’t, and I haven’t. It might look like I’m not doing it because I want to be my own brand but that hasn’t been the case; it’s that simple. Don’t get me wrong, the BTCC is great and I’ve had some good times on and off for the past twelve years, but I was at the Autosport Show because I was doing some work for an insurance company that I sorted through the BRDC, not because I was trying to find the money for a touring car drive.
The BTCC thing is on the backburner and if it comes off, then it comes off. I’m not being blasé about it, but I have to make money and I have to make a living. The people who are reading this will be just the same, they have to go to work if they want to get paid. I know that when I go racing, I’m going to be missing out on earning money.
So there isn’t a decent wage for babysitting [niece] Scarlet then…
No there isn’t! I got a £20 Starbucks card for my birthday which I’m still a bit p*ssed off about so if she’s reading this, she needs to pull her finger out next time!
The ITV role was something you took on last season. You obviously have experience of being on that side of the microphone answering questions but how did you find it when you made the switch to this side and were asking the questions?
Do you want the honest answer? Honestly, I almost jacked it all in after the first two races.
It started at Donington and then carried on to Thruxton and I just wanted to jack it all in as it was absolutely horrendous. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, I wasn’t enjoying it and I forgot how judgemental people are. While I was trying to have a laugh with people, there were some commenting about how horrendous this guy was. I look at what people say, and I was honestly going to jack it all in. However, ITV said I should keep doing it and said I would be grand and then they asked me to then do the grid walk. I think that is where I found my feet as that one-on-one thing is more for me.
The other side of things wasn’t great, like talking to grid girls – Jesus Christ!
But it was great for fans listening to questions about birthday presents and how ‘you’re a big girl aren’t you?’…
I’ll never live that down will I?! It’s put me in front of an audience who maybe didn’t know me but it’s when I’m talking to drivers one-on-one that I finally found my feet.
At the minute, if someone said ‘Do you want to be paid to go and do grid walks or do you want to drive a racing car for nothing and just have a crack at it?’, it would be a tough decision to make. That is a big thing for someone to say when I know that every single one of these guys fighting to be on the grid is working their arse off to make it happen. But that is how I feel at the moment with life.
There are things that have happened in my family life in the past twelve months that make you wake up and realise that it isn’t all about racing. It’s all about enjoying yourself, and not spending all your time stressing.
When you are interviewing a driver, how much do you think your relationship with your fellow drivers comes through, as that relationship is obviously different to the one we have with them as the media?
I think it made it different for them because I was jumping in and out of the car. I drove the Toyota twice last year and half of these guys were the ones I was having to fire out of the way to get ahead at Knockhill, were the ones I was having to block and were the ones who I was racing toe-to-toe with. It was difficult, but I would like to think that they respect me as much as I respect them.
When I was talking to the guys, I kind of knew what they wanted to tell me and I could relate to it. The only person who I thought would be hard work, and who nearly did me in, was Matt Neal at Rockingham. I saw he had a big bandage on his hand and I could see him laughing behind his lid. I asked him about his bandage and he tried to put a personal joke on it but then he thought better of it as I think he knew that I’d get in trouble with the TV and that he wouldn’t get more coverage from me!
In that respect, I think that kind of relationship works well, but I’m not trained a TV presenter, so Louise Goodman will always have the upper hand over me. However I know how the Next Generation cars work and I’ve driven BTC, S2000 and NGTC-spec cars so I’d like to think that I know my stuff and can bring something else to the coverage.