Motorsport correspondent James Beckett pays tribute to Advertiser & Review region favourite Neil Cunningham who has sadly lost his battle against motor neurone disease, passing away last week at the age of 53...
Originating from New Zealand, Neil travelled to Britain in 1983 as a winner of the Australian Driver to Europe competition. Arriving to race a FF2000 car, Neil carved out a reputation as a single-seater racer, starring in many Formula Ford races against other drivers who went on to to F1 and other international categories.
Neil was unable to secure funds to rise up the single-seater ladder, despite his obvious talents and superb car control, and attracting the attention of GT team owners managed to move to the discipline and enjoy a successful career in GT racing.
He became a regular in the British GT Championship, racing many cars and scoring numerous victories notably with Embassy Racing during 2005.
His Le Mans dream was realised in 2004, when he led the Morgan works team in La Sarthe, driving the manufacturers’ Aero 8 GT2 in the famous event. He returned two years later to drive a Courage in the LMP2 class.
Neil’s career highlights were many, including a superb championship victory in the Eurocar V6 Championship in 1996, a title secured on a rain-soaked Brands Hatch Indy Circuit, and a title won in the Marcos Mantis Challenge.
Neil forged a strong reputation as a racer of historic cars, winning at the wheel of a Jaguar D Type and famously the British Grand Prix support race in a Ford Mustang. He also qualified a Jaguar E Type on pole position for a race at Le Mans.
A popular addition to the Walter Hayes Trophy in a Van Diemen RF78 he affectionately called ‘Black Beauty’, Neil’s slides will be long remembered.
A stunt driver for the opening sequences of the James Bond film Quantum of Solace, Neil was also deputised on occasions as the Stig for the BBC show, Top Gear!
After his diagnosis, Neil set up a charity to raise awareness of motor neurone disease, and his many friends stepped up to the plate to support Neil and his quest to defeat his condition.
Forever smiling, and always displaying strength, courage and a dogged determination - the same qualities that earned him such a fine reputation on-track.
Neil is survived by his wife Rachael, daughters Jaime and Bo and son Teddy. His funeral takes place next Thursday near Swansea.
I met Neil shortly after his arrival in Britain and enjoyed a friendship from that time. His exploits were regularly reported through this paper and we had some great times along the way.
Neil Cunningham was my friend, and also my hero.