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Paul O'Neill

2002 Round 4 of the British Touring Car Championship at Oulton Park, Cheshire.

This was my first season in a Touring Car, driving the Triple 8 egg:sport Vauxhall Astra Coupe and only my second race meeting in it.

The first meeting of the year had been at Brands Hatch and I was really finding my feet in BTCC. I didn't manage to finish either the sprint or the full race there, I should have had a 2nd place in the sprint race but went off at the final corner and then crashed out of the feature race after colliding with Tim Harvey (my fault!). Despite damaging the car in both races, the team were happy with the pace I'd shown in the full race and were really supportive going into the second meeting at Oulton Park.

Ahead of the weekend I got a really nice email from the team owners, Derek Warwick and Ian Harrison, telling me to keep my head down and do what I did best, which was to drive as fast as I could.

Despite it being my local circuit, I'd never done particularly well there, though having said that, I'd not competed in many races and I'd only had about 3 podiums as this was at the start of my race career.

Qualifying for the sprint race didn't go great, the car was definitely quicker than me and I think I managed 8th, but I began to get a feel for it in the 2nd session.

I'd qualified 4th on the grid for the feature race, ahead of me on the grid, in pole was my team mate Matt Neal, with Yvan Muller and Warren Hughes in 2nd and 3rd, with James Thompson one place behind me.

On to race day and the sprint proved to be another bad day at the office, running behind the safety car on around lap 7 the gear lever came off in my hand. Race over. Back to the pits and didn't cover myself in glory.

James Thompson was mentoring me and gave me some solid bits advice ahead of the race, get my head down, focus on what I was doing but to make sure If I was struggling for pace I got out of his way if I saw him flashing his headlights in my mirrors. Pit stop strategy was sorted and it was time to get on the grid.

The race starts and by lap 4 James flashes his headlights and I indicate and let him past at Lodge and drop to 4th. I was then battling with Warren Hughes as James passed him too.

Heading toward the pit stops, late on the brakes and lunge down the inside at Lodge got me past and up to 3rd. Muller and Thompson pit and I stay out, I'm now leading a BTCC race for the very first time, at my home track. I see P1 on the pit board.

I see team mate Matt Neal dive into the pits for a second time, which it turned out was for a drive through penalty. Seven laps to go and my engineer told me to just keep my head down, we'll do a pit stop the next lap.

Now that was a challenge, in those days you had to press a lever down in the car to activate the air jacks. The problem I had was it was the first time I'd made it far enough through a race to actually make a stop. I certainly wasn't in danger of breaking any pit lane speed limits as I crawled at probably 3 miles an hour into my pit box ****ing myself that I'd do something wrong! It was a horrible stop, not because of my team but because it was the first I'd done and had been so slow hitting my marks.

Still, I'd made it this far and the front tyres were duly changed, I'd forgotten that with hot rears and cold fronts the torque steer would be pretty awful and duly almost crashed out going into Cascades for the first time, then locked up entering Island Hairpin and I was just thinking if I mess this up it's going to be horrendous.

I did get my rhythm back, the pit crew got me to calm down over the radio. I was in P3, 4 laps to go and I can be on the podium, just bring the car home.

There was a big crowd and all my friends and family were there for my home race. I could hear the crowd cheering me on and I was getting quite emotional. Next thing I know there is a message over the radio to watch out for JT at the exit of Druids as he has a puncture.

"Slow your pace down and watch the kerbs" was the message after moving up to 2nd place. By now I'm so nervous the steering wheel is literally shaking.

Next thing I know I've caught race leader Yvan Muller with 3 laps to go. I'd been lapping 3 seconds a lap quicker than him, I'm right on his bumper and I'm thinking I'm so fast I must be the greatest Touring Car racer ever.

When I got up to him his exhaust was glowing red hot as he had a fuel surge problem. I got on to the radio and asked "Do I pass Yvan? Do I pass Yvan?" The message back was simple - get your foot down and get past him!!

I got by going down toward Island Hairpin. It was really hot in the car and I had the windows down a couple of inches to try to keep cool. Even over a 7.5K RPM downshift I could hear the crowd going mad, cheering me on. It was just unbelievable.

I felt myself welling up a bit and realised I had to pull myself together a bit to get the job done.

Past the pits and the board read P1, 02. Two laps left.

Down to Island Hairpin again , I run wide onto the grass on the exit as I could barely see because I of the tears in my eyes. I keep it on the tarmac and one lap later going into Lodge I check with my team over the radio to confirm I'm on the last lap and they just say "Bring it home".

I'll never forget, as I came across the line there looked to be about a thousand people hanging off the pit wall from every single team waving and cheering, because I'd won my first race.

It was without doubt THE best ever moment I have had or will ever have in racing. It was just unbelievable and a feeling and memory I'll take to the grave.

Victory lap over, I pull into the pit lane and sit with my head in my hands for a couple of minutes, just trying to gather my thoughts and to try to savour the moment.

Out of the car and the whole team go crazy, then it is on to the TV interview, where I looked about 12 years old and I really can't remember what I said but I do know I managed not to swear for once, unlike in the in-car footage that had to be bleeped out as I crossed the line....

Podium time, my Nana, my Mum, my Dad, my Sister, my whole family, friends and anyone I could have possibly wished to be there was. It really was a dream come true. It was a massive moment for me and just so emotional. So emotional in fact that on the podium Tim Harvey gave me a punch in the ribs and told me to 'man up' as I was just crying my eyes out. Having grown up in a terrace house in Widnes, watching racing on TV and dreaming of becoming a racing driver, I never really thought that could actually happen to me. It was pure emotion.

It's something I will never, ever forget.

Paul O'Neill

www.pauloneillracing.com

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