Out of the blue
Rally success earned the firm cult status, but that was a long time ago. Now Subaru has surprised its fans by launching a maiden British Touring Car Championship campaign | writer Simon Arron
By reputation he’s one of the leading lights in his realm, with a record 94 race wins since making his BTCC debut in 1997. He’s been present for all but two of the subsequent seasons, taking a break only to flirt with a putative NASCAR career. But by instinct Jason Plato is a wheeler-dealer and lover of a strong sales pitch.
“New projects light my fire,” he says. “Turning an embryonic idea into something capable of challenging for the BTCC title? That’s a huge motivation. I enjoy driving, of course, but that bit is relatively straightforward. Getting up on a cold, pissing-wet morning and going out to clinch a deal… that really inspires me.”
Thus it was during the summer of 2015 that Plato began courting Subaru, in a bid to persuade the Japanese firm to become the sixth manufacturer he’d represented at BTCC level, after Renault, Vauxhall, Seat, Chevrolet and MG.
“Ever since the BTCC adopted NGTC (new-generation touring car) regulations in 2012, with the obligation to use lots of shared components, the sexy things you used to be able to do with front-wheel-drive cars went out of the window. I felt a rear-drive package was the way forward.
“Of all the manufacturers out there, Subaru seemed to have the best platform, with a flat-four engine that’s half as high and half as long as everyone else’s. It looked like a no-brainer, a solid foundation for the future. Salesmanship is my thing, so I approached Subaru and brought the deal to a point where both sides wanted to do it. Subaru is synonymous with blue cars and gold wheels thanks to its great rally heritage, but it might be time for the brand to develop in a new direction.
“I think you have to give the BTCC some credit, too, for the fact this is happening. As a marketing platform, with about 25,000 dedicated fans at each race and millions watching on TV, it’s a phenomenal medium for a manufacturer. It has good reach and, relatively speaking, is not particularly expensive. It just works. How many other championships give manufacturers a genuine return on their investment?”
Given the frequency with which he has mopped up factory drives, Plato surprised a few people when he left the Triple Eight-run MG team at the end of 2014 to race a VW Passat CC for former superbike rider Warren Scott’s Team BMR, an independent entity with only two BTCC seasons under its belt – although it had scored a couple of wins. “People thought that was a bit left-field,” Plato says, “but Warren impressed me with his ambition.” The team immediately became a title contender, with Plato (6) and fellow champion Colin Turkington (4) recording 10 victories last year.
“From the start,” Scott says, “it was always our intention to become a works team. We didn’t expect it to happen quite so soon, but I’m delighted that it has. We worked very hard to assemble a strong crew and it’s a credit to everybody at BMR that the team has come as far as it has as quickly as it has.
“The Subaru deal was put together quite late, but we have very good people on the project [its engineers include Carl Faux, who was with Plato at MG, and Kevin Berry, who worked alongside Plato at MG and Turkington at BMW] and I’m confident we’ll be on the pace. The team might be quite young, but we have lots of experience and our guys have dealt before with similar situations. We need to perform for Subaru and that brings extra pressures, but I think we’re ready.”
BMR plans to have four of Subaru’s new Levorg Sports Tourers on the grid, for Plato, Turkington, Scott and a driver that had still to be confirmed at the time of writing.
“We have the right people, all of whom understand the regulations, and I genuinely believe we can be competitive from the start,” Plato says. “Subaru is very engaged in the project and has been incredibly supportive. Reliability is always an unknown quantity, of course. It has cost me titles in the past but, even though you can never be certain, I don’t see it being a problem. We have the know-how and I have total belief in the people involved.”
Does Scott think it will be harder running a works team or keeping a rein on the two champions within? “I have no worries on either score,” he says. “Colin and Jason get on extremely well, worked brilliantly together in 2015 and know the most important thing is to make the car fully competitive as soon as possible. We might start slightly on the back foot, but I hope we’ll be there or thereabouts and then in a position to challenge for the title at the season’s end.”
Plato will turn 49 shortly after the 2016 campaign concludes, but insists longevity hasn’t dulled his appetite. “I still get absolutely the same buzz from driving as I did when I was younger,” he says. “Perhaps more, because with each passing season you have a few extra tricks in your toolbox. And I genuinely believe the racing is good in the BTCC. I know some people think it’s a bit of a pantomime, but I can’t think of anything else that’s quite as intense – other than perhaps karting at a very high level. And as they add ballast in an effort to equalise the cars, you constantly have to raise your game to adapt. The person behind the wheel really can make a difference – and you can’t say the same about every racing category.”
He expects Subaru’s chief opposition to come from the usual suspects – defending champion Gordon Shedden and team-mate Matt Neal in their works-supported Honda Civics, 2013 champion Andrew Jordan who has transferred from MG to a Motorbase-run Ford Focus – but last season’s 30 races were won by 10 drivers in six different types of car, so he expects competition to be diverse and fierce in equal measure.
“I was surprised by the BMWs’ relative lack of performance in 2015,” he says. “We know how good that car should be and I expect it to be back on form. You can’t rule out some of the younger guys, but one of the reasons the old guard – if I can call them that – are there year in, year out, is that they know how to put together a complete racing season, looking after tyres when necessary, rolling with the punches and picking up a few points here or there in adversity.”
For some he’s the routine TV villain, the driver to whom cameras turn for instant provocation, a no-punches-pulled quote about one or other of his rivals, but beneath the extrovert lies a very serious racing driver. Ask 2013 world endurance champion Allan McNish about his early karting career and he’ll readily concede he wasn’t the benchmark.
That was Plato.