Manufacturing Editor John Revill talks to Matt Neal about hard times on the track and in the alloy wheels industry...

Defending British touring car champion Matt Neal has found the going tough on the race circuit and at work in the last few weeks.

After two third-place finishes in the first two heats at the Brands Hatch meeting, the first race of the new season, his car was wrecked when he was forced off the track in his third race whilst lying second.

Meanwhile his firm, West Bromwich-based Rimstock, has been forced to lay off 30 of its workers by the rising price of aluminium and the sluggish retail market.

The company, which was founded by Matt's father Steve, has reduced its headcount from 250 to 220 following a rise in aluminium from $1,100 a ton to $1,600 a ton in the last 12 months.

Matt, who is marketing director of the firm, said: "It is tough out there, the retail market is feeling the pinch and there is increasing competition from China and Turkey.

"We are also getting hit by rising metal prices at the London Metal Exchange, which is really hurting. It has all been driven by speculation.

"We have had to lay off some of our temporary staff to keep costs down. But it is not the end of the business and we are working hard to overcome this."

Matt said his firm was launching four new wheel designs this year, as well as pursuing work with more car manufacturers to have their aluminium wheels fitted factory-side to vehicles.

The work will be for new projects, but Matt could not reveal who he is talking to.

Rimstock, which designs as well as makes its own wheels, is already an original equipment supplier to General Motors, Lotus, Aston Martin, TVR, Mitsubishi, Daewoo and Jaguar.

Matt said: "It has become an important part of the fashion industry, and they are becoming increasingly led by the way it looks. People are increasingly adding to their cars, and programmes like Pimp Your Ride on MTV have definitely helped.

"In America, people used to go to shows to see people in souped-up cars and go 'wow', over here it was more of a case of 'he's a boy racer,' and 'look at that pillock'.

"The public are becoming more educated about the effect of the wheels on the handling of their car.

"If you increase the width of the wheels you increase the diameter, lower the profile of the tyre, which helps grip, braking and everything."

Fashions too are changing according to Matt, with new styles coming out every 12 months as opposed to six or seven years as seen in the past.

People are even changing from having summer wheels to winter wheels, especially in Scandinavia.

Rimstock has been supported in its modernisation activities by Accelerate, which provided a £30,000 business development grant towards the purchase of the latest Pro-Engineer and CATIA design software.

The automotive supply chain initiative was also instrumental in helping the company withstand the impact of the MG Rover closure through its emergency wage replacement scheme that resulted in the safeguarding of 37 jobs.

Rimstock currently exports between 30 and 40 per cent of its £22 million sales to 36 countries around the world.

But the figure used to be around 80 per cent before the strength of sterling and cheaper competition from Turkey and China began to bite.

Part of the company's response is now to begin targeting Eastern Europe as well as launching new products.

Matt said: "We are bringing in new products all the time. One of these is a new stainless steel ribbed heel, which will be finished to such a high standard it will look like a mirror.

"This has been too expensive in the past, but we have looked at new ways of production and reduced the costs."

The company has now created more than 100 wheels since it was set up in 1985.

In the early days, Rimstock employed just 11 people turning out 250 wheels a week, a figure which has expanded to 220 people making 8,000 units every seven days.

Matt is also hopeful of picking himself up again after his disappointment at Brands Hatch with the next meeting at Mondello in Ireland on April 23.

Matt was bruised but otherwise unhurt when his Team Halfords Honda Integra spun off and ended up the gravel pit at Brands Hatch.

"I had a big accident in the third race of the day at Brands Hatch; I was knocked off the track by one of the other racers.

"The car is a bit of a mess. It needs a lot of work on it, I think it needs open heart surgery. But I am hopeful about the next meeting in Ireland next week. Because I didn't do too well at Brands Hatch I will be light - I won't have to carry as much weight on board, so that bodes well."

The crash was the latest chapter in a racing career which has seen him snap his knee in two. It was at this excruciating and painful point that Matt realised he should perhaps give up racing motocross bikes for a slightly less risky pastime.

It was a life changing decision for Matt who used this new focus to successfully embark on a different sporting career and one that currently sees him hold the title of 'British Touring Cars' Champion.

"I was always interested in racing from day one and initially felt that the bikes were the way forward... unfortunately, I kept getting hurt," he said. "In fact, I would fall off, but not bounce. Therefore, out of desperation, my dad decided to push me down the route of cars."

Matt can lay claim to an exhaustive list of injuries, including compressing his spine in one horrific pile-up.

He eventually returned from his injury - "just to prove I didn't have a phobia" - although he admitted his heart was no longer in bike racing.

Encouraged by a relieved father, he entered the car racing world, first in the Fiesta Challenge, a race series involving mark II versions of the Ford hatchback.

Eventually, Matt graduated to the touring car championship, racing for Team Dynamics.

"We are an independent, private team and are up against the big factory outfits, so it was a struggle at first.

"For works teams like Vauxhall and Seat money is no object, but we had to be much more careful.

"We had a good car, a Nissan Primera, but in the 1990s private teams were not allowed the same tyres as the works outfits.

"That made it much harder to compete - the tyres made all the difference. You only have to look at Formula 1 where Ferrari won everything for the last six years, until they got the wrong tyres in 2005."

When the restriction was dropped, Matt responded by winning the British Touring Car Race at Donnington Park in 1999 and in the process became the first private driver to win a race in series.

But bigger things were in the offing last year, when he won the overall Touring Cars Championship as a member of the now renamed Team Halfords. Driving a Honda Integra - "a bit like a low slung Honda Civic" - he won six out of the 30 races in the ten-event series.

"It was absolutely brilliant to win it. The size of our team, compared to our rivals, meant it was a bit of a David versus Goliath thing, but that helped.

"The amount of support we got from the British public was incredible. They love an underdog and got behind us.

"At first there was a lot of pressure on us to win it, and now we have, that has lifted. But I suppose there is a different kind of pressure now, because we are the benchmark for everyone else."

The championship in 2005 marked the culmination of 13 years of effort, with Matt finishing fifth the year before and third on two occasions.

Now Matt is hoping to spearhead success both on the track and for Rimstock in his role as a roving ambassador. He said: "I even use our wheels on my car. I daren't scuff them on the kerb though." ..SUPL: