“The best year of my life.”
That's how driver Paul O'Neill describes 2009, which saw him return to the BTCC full time after five years away.
The 29 year old, Widnes born driver ran for Tech-Speed Motorsport in all but the first of the ten race weekends, driving a four year old Honda Integra, alongside teammate Martyn Bell.
The team, which carried sponsorship from sunshine.co.uk and included Alex Somerset, who had worked with Team Dynamics during their back-to-back titles in 2005 and 2006, powered O'Neill to 20 points finishes, highlighted by a podium place in the first race of the Snetterton weekend. Even more was often promised as he briefly led at Thruxton before being forced to retire.
“I still stand by what I said to the team on the radio as I pulled away onto the formation lap for the final race of the season at Brands Hatch and that was that I wanted to thank them for making 2009 the best year of my life on track and off it,” he said in an interview with btcc.net.
“The one thing about being the underdog is that usually you have less pressure to perform as you can only go as fast as your machinery. Unfortunately for me, the team gave me a super quick car from the get go so I was very annoyed if we didn’t have a top six result from one of the races in a weekend.”
However, while crediting the team for giving him a car capable to compete with the BMWs and Vauxhalls at the head of the field, he also points to something rather unusual as a driving force behind his 2009 revival.
“I feel my Diabetes has been one of the contributing factors to our great season as I have had no choice but to be on top of my game physically”
“I’m ten times fitter than in past seasons as I have been running and training to keep my blood levels in check so I’m at my optimum and have no dramas at a race weekend. This in-turn, I feel, has allowed me to wring the Integra's neck every lap of every race without feeling tired and losing concentration.”
He was diagnosed with the condition, in which the body cannot produce the insulin which turns glucose into energy, in 2003, while driving for the works Vauxhall team. And while relatively easy to treat, with insulin injections (and as O'Neill suggests a healthy lifestyle) he admits he feared he would never race again, indeed his diagnosis led to his racing license being revoked.
That fact made the driver all the more grateful at Snetterton. “It was a surreal moment for me as I never thought I’d race again after getting Diabetes, let alone stand on a BTCC podium. The reception I got from the crowd on the podium was something I have never experienced before. The team has believed in me through my whole career from when I started in 1999 and also through my illness so I felt the result was for them.”