Plato on the civil war for his BTCC crown: 'It was disgusting'

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A scheming team boss, a bitter team ripped apart by rivalry and one conflagrated Vauxhall – Jason Plato recalls how he somehow came through it to win the 2001 BTCC title

17 Nov 2000: Jason Plato of the Holden Racing Team in his teams pit during the V8 Supercars practice session at Mount Panorama, Bathurst, Australia. X Digital Image. Mandatory Credit: Nick Wilson/ALLSPORT

Plato somehow overcame his own team boss getting him disqualified to win the '01 title

Nick Wilson/ALLSPORT

If any season could sum up both all-action style of both the BTCC and the swashbuckling Jason Plato, then 2001 could well be it.

Clashing controversially with a fierce rival and team-mate in Yvan Muller, his own team boss Roland Dane trying to get him disqualified – twice – before said stablemate’s car ends up in flames during the season finale to hand him the championship: Plato’s title campaign was not for the faint-hearted.

“I got told to pull over for Yvan – that really stuck in my throat”

Looking back with Motor Sport on his crowning glory 20 years later, Plato described the antics that went on within his own Triple Eight Vauxhall team that season as “f****** disgusting” but one that brought “really great life lessons – I wouldn’t change it.”

The tin-top charger maybe should have seen it coming. The Plato/T8 honeymoon period hadn’t lasted long after he first signed for the squad for 2000.

“At Thruxton in 2000 – event number two – I was leading the championship and the race,” he explains. “I get the call saying ‘Will you pull over and let [team-mate] Yvan [Muller] win?’

“It went against everything I’d been told when signing. That really stuck in my throat.”

Plato team

Smiles early on in the Triple Eight camp, but it wouldn’t last long

Alamy

As so often in his career, Plato decided to solve the matter in his own inimitable fashion.

“I thought, ‘If you if you put team orders on me now, then the world has to know.

“On the last lap, I pulled over on the start finish line, put my indicators on and almost brought the car to a standstill. Then it was obvious what was happening.”

This set up Plato and co for a tumultuous 2001.

“The pressure started to build internally within me”

“It was even more clandestine for the rest of 2000: hidden in radio messages, strange words on pitboards,” he says. “All that bullshit didn’t sit right, and it just drove a wedge between me and [team co-owner] Roland Dane – he was a Muller man. Going into 2001, it was an interesting situation.”

That following year was a new dawn for BTCC, as it transitioned from the Super Touring regulations to the new cheaper BTC-T rules. As a result, the top class Plato and his Vauxhall outfit were in only featured six cars to begin with. However, the BTCC’s now-all time wins record holder says that made the racing no less intense.

“I didn’t see it as a reduced field if your biggest competitors are in the same car – clearly Yvan and Tommo [other Vauxhall team-mate James Thompson] were very good,” he reasons.

From the archive

“So though the competition was down in terms of numbers, it was still very tough at the sharp end. For me it was no different than other seasons.”

Plato got the year underway in a solid fashion with a second and a win at Brands Hatch, but after six races, Muller had four wins to the Englishman’s sole victory. It already looked like the Frenchman might steal a march towards the crown.

“There was many stages in ‘01 which I can look back on fondly because I had to raise my game,” says Plato. “There were trigger points, and going into the summer break, in all honestly Yvan was just a little bit quicker than we were. He really got himself aligned with the car just a little bit better.”

To make matters worse, the way the championship had been going had starting to affect Plato’s driving.

“The pressure started to build internally within me,” he remembers. “I probably started to grip the wheel a bit too tight, over-searching for that extra bit of pace and then you make things even worse.

“[Team co-owner and former F1 driver] Derek Warwick had a chat with me before the summer saying ‘Look, just keep going, think about ways you can find this time.’ When I came back, we turned the tables. The pace was on my side of the garage now, and Yvan then got himself into a bit of a pickle. Again, he was only off by a tiny bit, but he started to get edgy.”

BRANDS HATCH - AUGUST 26: Portrait of Triple 8 Vauxhall Astra driver Yvan Muller during the British Touring Car Championship held on August 26, 2002 at Brands Hatch, in England. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

Yvan Muller: not a team-mate Plato saw eye-to-eye with

Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Plato capitalised on the momentum to put together a string of wins which hauled him back into contention by the time of the third to last event at Silverstone – but going in the opposite direction was the atmosphere in the team garage as the battle intensified.

“In terms of politics internally within the team, what Yvan’s view of what he did in the races is very different to what he did in reality,” says Plato. “I can’t cope with that.

“There were definitely two sides of the garage, with a line running through it”

“If we’re in the team bus having a frank and open discussion then I demand 100% truth, and that’s not what was there that year. So it just became really f****** boring to be honest.

“And it was difficult because there were definitely two sides of the garage, with a line running through it, and it was not nice at all.

“I learned a lot about myself, and I learned a lot about the politics of motor sport.”

Plato would hit those sometimes undiplomatic racing relations head on with incidents at both Silverstone and the season finale at Brands Hatch – things first starting to unravel during the final laps in Northamptonshire.

“For the record with a lap to go, Yvan had me beaten in that race,” says Plato. “but then on the left coming up towards Bridge, I suddenly started to take yards out of him. I thought, ‘Oh here we go, this is interesting.’

“I caught him on the way into Priory, and he just didn’t accelerate off the corner in towards Brooklands.

“Now we know why, he was clearly having a fuel surge – he said that over the radio, and I have the fuel traces printed in my book! – and effectively his front left wheel had connected with my right wheel.”

Seeing his chance for a last lap win, Plato had dived down the inside of the ailing Muller, who desperately tried to block him. The two collided, with Plato gleefully dashing off for the win whilst Muller dragged his screeching, smoking Astra over the finishing line before abandoning it there, its front suspension very much skewed.

A bizarre sequence of events then followed. As soon as Muller was back in the garage, his Triple Eight team – under the direction of Dane – immediately managed to get Plato penalised and shuffled down the finishing order for an apparently dangerous move.

The Englishman wanted to appeal, but didn’t have time to run to his road car and find his cheque book to pay for it. Ian Harrison – co-owner with Dane and Warwick – then personally wrote out a cheque for Plato to appeal, much to Dane’s displeasure, before the driver was then finally persuaded that he’d lost this one.

It’s fair to say Plato hasn’t mellowed in his view of the event two decades on – including Muller refusing to shake Plato’s hand on the podium before the penalty was applied.

Muller Plato

Plato and Muller spent more of the season than not nose to tail

Alamy

“Yvan’s performance post-race with the team and with the media, in hindsight – bearing in mind I know what happened and he knew what happened – was f****** disgusting.

“Just a bare-faced liar, pretending it was all my fault, didn’t mention that he ran out of fuel. To this day it winds me up, because I won that race and it was taken off me after a big fight with stewards.

“It became apparent that all’s not well here – it’s totally against me internally. Not from Ian or Derek, but Roland was the boss. They even took the damaged front left wheel of Yvan’s car and put it on the left rear and showed the officials that, to make it look like he was alongside me. All bull****!”

Matters became even stranger at Brands Hatch, when now-championship leader Plato was minutes away from qualifying for the first race of the season finale.

From the archive

“Going into the last round, I thought ‘This is going to be a bit fruity,’” says Plato. “I even had my lawyer with me, because you knew something was going to kick off – and guess what, it did!”

“Lo and behold Derek comes into our little debrief before Brands qualifying to say the stewards wanted to see me as soon as possible.

“They basically told me it had been brought to their attention that I had too many points on my racing licence to compete.

“Derek said, ‘A few weeks ago we were at Silverstone, why weren’t we told then?’ They replied, ‘We weren’t aware of it then.’ ‘How are you aware now?’

Perhaps Plato could have predicted the reply.

“‘Roland Dane came and told us,’ the stewards said. Derek managed to get dispensation from the other teams so I could race, but I now knew that no matter what happened I would not be retained by the team at the end of the year – there was just no way.”

Torrential conditions greeted the BTCC field for that final race of the year, with Plato just ahead on points. He had been lobbying for the race not to occur at all, but in the end, the weather would look down favourably on the Englishman.

To take the title, Muller needed a win with Plato third or worse, and early on in the race it appeared the Frenchman had got his wish – Plato spun off at Surtees, and it looked like it was all over.

16 April 2001: Vauxhall Astra Coupe driver Jason Plato in action during the BTCC race at Brands Hatch, in Kent, Great Britain. \ Mandatory Credit: Mike Hewitt /Allsport

Ultimately it was Plato who prevailed, despite numerous visits to the stewards

Mike Hewitt /Allsport

“Everything slowed down,” remembers Plato. “Probably in real time it took a second and a half, but it felt like ten minutes.

“I already had the car in reverse, and I thought there’s a good chance I could almost spring off the tyre barrier and, you never know, get back on track – which is actually what happened!”

Plato managed to gingerly get back onto the slippery asphalt, but spent the next lap admonishing himself.

“I felt quite lonely and hollow”

“I had real pace straight away, but it was a pretty awful place to be – I’d probably just tossed the championship down the road, and felt quite lonely and hollow,” he says.

“But you just have to crack on, and then Yvan made some mistakes…”

The Frenchman had indeed made several errors at the same spot as Plato, and had been fiercely ploughing through the wet, muddy turf as he cut the corner each time. He had maintained position, but at what cost?

It soon became clear.

A safety car had been called out due the sheer number of cars stranded in the gravel trap, and whilst following, flames began to sprout from underneath Muller’s now-leading Astra. The punishment which he put his car through off-track had damaged the oil rut, causing a fire. Abandoning the flaming Vauxhall meant Muller was out, and the title was Plato’s. Urged on by Warwick on the radio, Plato managed to finish second in the race through all the chaos.

He was out of the team, out of a drive for the 2002 season, but five years after having doorstepped Frank Williams to get his first BTCC drive, Plato was champion.

“It was a relief, and a great sense of achievement, actually, because we weren’t just fighting a fair battle,” he says.

“As a driver, I have utmost respect for Yvan. He’s phenomenally talented, bloody quick, complete car control etc. He’s brilliant, a clever, clever guy. But as a human being, not my cup of tea.

“Did I feel any karma? Maybe.”