Jason Plato: real-world racing car superstar

Jason Plato is one of the most dramatic, characterful and successful British racing drivers of recent times, and THE most successful British Touring Car driver ever.

63 wins have come from a staggering 333 BTCC starts (and counting), beating another hero, Andy Rouse, in the most wins stats.

Such success doesn’t mean he’s too busy to speak with a motoring journalist, though. Just after breakfast on the morning of the 2011 Donington BTCC round, he, I and the PR man gathered for a chat.

We spoke in the Chevrolet tent behind the garages in the Donington paddock: no hiding away in the motorhome for JP. We sat at the front, enjoying the sun, the fresh air, the gazes, nudges and cameraphone snaps of a wowed public.

Hundreds got to see a BTCC legend thinking, chatting, signing autographs, from 10 foot away. They could hear him. They could even wait to get the perfect shot of him (i.e. by waiting for said journo to lean back out of the way).

Real world, see. He could be an aloof primadonna, but he’s not. Making the 15 minutes of JP’s fame I enjoyed in a chat prior to the first round just that little bit easier.

So what did he say? Plenty…

Jason Plato on the BTCC fans

Plato’s respect for the BTCC fans and followers is huge. TOCA has organised things so fans can get up close to the stars at every round and at every point in the day: Plato is one that thrives on this.

“It’s great, isn’t it? This is a proper family day out. People are not caged up like wild animals, but are free to turn up and mingle with the stars. They can get in thick – it’s a unique sporting experience.”

Does it get a bit much, though? “Almost never. I’ve got so much respect for the fans: they’re knowledgeable, they follow what goes on, they’re avid readers of news, they chat online and contribute to forums.

“You don’t get lots of ‘how fast is it, mister’ questions: the intelligent, clued-up fanbase really is great.”

Jason Plato on F1 and football

Plato never did F1, despite being signed to BTCC by Frank Williams. Does he miss it? Maybe: “it would be nice to have done F1 – but there’s no racing there. In BTCC, the racing is just so dammed good. This is why I’ve been in it so long.

“It’s aggressive, proper racing.”

Plato also recognises the sheer scale of BTCC in the UK. “For the final round at Brands Hatch last year, we got 46,000 people through the gates. The only other sport that gets similar figures is football – and that has the benefit of massive national coverage.

“We get next to no coverage in the mainstream media, yet we still get tens of thousands of people visiting each round. This is what makes the series so fantastic.”

Jason Plato on turbos in BTCC

This year, Plato’s Chevrolet Cruze uses an S2000 non-turbo engine. Virtually everyone else uses the new 2.0-litre BTCC turbo engine. This has created a performance disparity.

“TOCA said at the start of they year they would equalise performance between the turbos and S2000 cars. They knew what had to be done.” As we spoke at Donington, Plato was contemplating a qualifying time 1.2sec slower than polesitter Matt Neal.

“It’s ridiculous – you may as well put an F3 car on an F1 grid, the difference is that big. Without wishing to speak out of turn, I’m not racing against the people I should be.

“It takes no skill to drive down a straight fast, but that’s where the turbos’ extra speed is.” And to equalise the Cruze on weight to match the turbo’s pace? “You’d have to take 200kg out of the car.”

Plato, though, prefers a reduction in turbo boost, to equalise the grid. “They’re running 1.8 bar – that’s effectively a 3.6-litre engine against a 2.0-litre.

“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t really mean that – it’s far too simplistic – but the turbos do still have a clear performance advantage that’s getting them ahead of us.”

(TOCA has, for the Thruxton round, reduced boost pressure by 0.1bar. This might not be enough for Plato – he had in mind a bigger reduction, down to 1.2-1.3bar…)

Jason Plato on RML

BTCC is the pinnacle of British motorsport that, says Plato, “attracts very good people and very professional teams.” One team stands above all others to him though – RML.

“RML are the best in the business. There is a passion about the team, and they also both employ the right sort of people and pay them accordingly.

“Everyone works in an accurate, precise, engineery-type way: you walk in the garage and can ‘feel’ the engineering vibe there. This is how I work and, believe me, it makes a big difference.

“There is only one ‘proper’ team on the grid, and it’s RML: the people behind me are the best, and I know I can count on them.

“If we do make a mistake, we’ll only make it once…”

A few hours later, the RML boys rebuilt a Chevrolet Cruze in hours that, by rights, should have taken days. With such skill that Plato then raced it from the back of the grid to 6th place in the final round. The impossible became possible: incredible.

Jason Plato on how BTCC can help car manufacturers

“The BTCC is not just about on-track success. It can also really help car makers who are new to market or who want to change perceptions and build their brand.

‘With my previous team (SEAT), BTCC racing helped turn their model mix towards a sporting one. From 90% of their sales being cars under 150hp, they doubled their higher-end sports-series sales in four years.

“This was with no expensive TV advertising, either. Motorsport did it.” For comparably much better value and with much more far-reaching results.

“Done right, it can help a manufacturer not only sell more cars, but sell more of the profitable ones in the model mix. Selling the right-spec cars is how you build successful car businesses and BTCC really does aid things here.

“It’s motorsport as a marketing tool. It engage people and means you can show them what you’re about.”

It’s not simply about spraying the Champagne, either. “The old ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ saying is true: a win is a fantastic tool for the brand. However, the real success comes because it’s not all just about the track.

“Harnessing what the spectator ‘feels’ about the racing, and maximising opportunities here, is how you alter perceptions and images.”

Jason Plato on the BTCC

Plato genuinely loves the BTCC. “It’s the best in the world, full stop. I had offers for Europe in the late 1990s, but I declined.

“Reason? The racing. That’s why I’ve been in it for so long.”

And, by the sounds of it, will continue to be so, too.

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