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Jason Plato


Early Memories

As far back as I can remember I have always had a passion for cars. Growing up in the North East, as a six year old, I remember my Dad would come home in a different car virtually every night as he ran a BMW dealership. He was really into motor racing and my career really started through him taking in a racing kart as part of a bad debt.

I persuaded him to let me have a go in it and on a weekend I’d drive it round and round the forecourt in-between the petrol pumps! I remember lots of trips to go watch racing with him including the first time we went to the British Grand Prix, which was in 1976, the race was won by Niki Lauda and whilst I didn’t quite appreciate it back then, I also got to see one of the great rebels in the sport, James Hunt. My first real hero in motorsport was Giles Villeneuve who drove for Ferrari and sadly died during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix in 1982.

I began competing in karting in 1980 and graduated to racing in Europe. I raced against a number of drivers who came through to compete at the top levels of motorsport including Michael Schumacher, Alex Zanardi, Allan McNish and Dario Franchitti. I actually think karting at the top international level is probably THE most competitive form of motorsport in the World. The late, great Ayrton Senna’s one regret in life was not winning the World Karting Championship.

Heading to Race School

When I finished karting in 1987, there was a racing school in France called the Winfield school. It was run by an English guy called Mike Knight and was regarded as the best you could go to. A number of F1 drivers – thirty in total graduated from there, including World Champions - Alain Prost and Damon Hill. It was a Formula Renault school, so prior to going there in 1989, I decided the best course of action was at least to have a little bit of experience. We basically hired a team on the quiet to go to Pembrey circuit in Wales and get some experience in a Formula 3 car, just so I could get a feel for what I was getting involved in and so I could make the right impression when I went to the school. It was my first racing car experience. I knew from competing from the age of 12 that I wanted to be competing in motorsport. Mum and Dad had made so many sacrifices to try to make it happen and the test reaffirmed all those thoughts and determination to succeed. It was an amazing moment making that leap from karting into a proper racing car. I recall thinking at the time, this is just cooler than cool.

My First Race

After attending the school I got involved in a new series in the UK which was Formula Renault. I remember my very first race, which was at Thruxton, a real high speed circuit. I can remember it like it was yesterday. When I started to get things right, time seemed to slow down a little bit. Up till then, I was always a little bit behind the car, reacting to things which were happening in real time, but then I managed to get myself into a zone, which I still replicate now, where I can slow everything down, where I guess your mind is operating at a higher level or speed and you have more time to make decisions. Sat on the grid, first race, all I wanted to do was win. It was a really competitive series and there was only one thought on my mind. I think I finished fifth, but by the middle of the year I was beginning to win races and people were starting to notice me.

Getting into Touring Cars

The story of getting into Touring Cars is certainly memorable. At the end of 1993 my single seater and F1 aspirations had well and truly stalled. I didn’t have enough sponsorship money, couldn’t get myself into the right team. I started doing some test driving for Nissan in 1994 in their BTCC team. One of their drivers was leaving and I hoped, by doing the testing it might yield an opportunity for me. Anyway at the end of the year Nissan pulled out of touring cars completely so I didn’t really have anything going on. I was working in racing schools, earning a bit of cash but was getting a bit disillusioned with the whole thing.

Throughout my career I’d always had a great relationship with Renault and did a bit of racing in Formula Renault in Europe. At the end of the year Renault UK approached me about a new sports car championship with their new Renault Sport Spider car and asked me to go and have a look and chat. My initial thoughts were it really wasn’t for me but they persuaded me to give it another look as they said the winner of the championship would be given a test with Williams. They also pointed out that Will Hoy’s contract was coming to an end after the 1996 season. So you never know, I grabbed the chance, won nearly every race and blitzed the championship. I was duly offered the chance to test for the Williams team, it went well and I did a good job. Will Hoy was indeed leaving. I met with Frank Williams after my test and everything looked rosy.

I then got a letter in the post from Frank that basically said there isn’t a drive for you in the 97 season, you did a brilliant job but in reality there isn’t anything you could have done as we’ve given the drive to an ex-F1 driver who has got profile and you don’t. That was a massive kick in the balls. At this point I just thought f*** this for a game of soldiers, this motor racing lark is just s*** I’ll go and do something else.

About two weeks later I woke up absolutely full of hell and thought “I’m not having this, I’m going to go and see Frank, what have I got to lose?”. So I put on a suit, picked up my empty briefcase (I’ve really no idea why I took it but I did!) and marched into the offices at Williams at 9AM. I got past the receptionist because I’d met them two weeks earlier. I was sat in reception for about 15 minutes until Frank’s PA Nichola, who was quite fearsome, appeared. We basically had a big argument in reception. I was told in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t jut turn up to see Frank, he was one of the most important people in motorsport and you just couldn’t simply walk in. It was then that she let out the golden nugget of information. “Anyway you couldn’t see him as he’s not here till lunchtime”. I thought it better to exit that particular situation and not do what I had intended which was to just camp out in reception until I got to see him. But armed with the knowledge he was going to arrive later, I thought I’d best leave and come up with a strategy. The obvious thing was to wait and hi-jack him when he drove into the car park of course! That’s exactly what I did. I ran after his car, I opened the door and basically begged and pleaded for five minutes of his time. He agreed and we went up to his office. I told him he shouldn’t be signing an ex has-been F1 driver who probably wasn’t going to be any good anyway, he should at least give me a chance, because this was the most important thing in my life and came out with all the superlatives you’d fire at Frank in that situation. He thanked me for coming and I left. I ended the day thinking; “well I’ve given it my best shot.”

Less than a week later I get a call from Frank’s office to say there was a test at Snetterton the following week. It was to be between me, Gianni Morbidelli and Jean-Christophe Boullion. We’d each be given equal amounts of equipment, the same amount of tyres, the same amount of time in the car. The fastest man would get the job. And here we are today! It was a life changing moment. First bloke to have door stepped Frank and we are still good friends today. I’ve a real soft spot for him, he saw some determination in me, he gave me a chance and I’m eternally grateful for that. I have to add that I did reward him by putting the car on pole in my first three races! Looking back to that initial rejection letter, I couldn’t just give it up, I believed in myself and wanted the chance to prove myself. It’s a lesson to carry through life that you can make things happen if you have the grit, determination and belief to do so.

Favourite Race Victories

Other than my first ever win in Touring Cars, which was a very special moment, I think the final race meeting in the 2009 championship really stands out for me. A similarly challenging situation to the one at Williams occurred. I’d just signed a new three year contract as the works driver for SEAT when they promptly pulled out of BTCC with no warning and left everyone high and dry. I suddenly had nothing for 2009. I managed to cobble together a privateer drive with a team. We did no testing. Despite that I arrived at the final meeting of the year with a bit of an outside chance to win the championship. I won all three races on the day and only just lost out on taking the championship title. It’s only ever been done once before and that was when someone had a massive car advantage. To win all three races and just miss out on the title, when just seven months prior I had two years left on a works drive and was left with nothing was truly special. Had the guy who won the championship finished just one place lower I’d have even won the championship. It was an epic day.

Friends and Rivals

I’ve raced against many guys and most who I race against I have no real feeling for at all, they are simply someone who is in my way. I don’t form friendships, I think probably 99% of drivers are just two faced ***-holes. I might be wrong on that but that is how I like to think about it. Over the course of the years, I’ve probably only made continuing friendships with two or three of the drivers I raced against. One of those is a fierce competitor, but who I have the greatest respect for, not only for his ability in a car but also as a human-being and is Fabrizio Giovanardi. We’ve had some fantastic ding-dong races over the years but we remain as good mates. My best buddy in the sport is someone I’ve been sparring partners with for many years, James Thompson. Fair to say we’ve been drinking partners and general party animals. I think in most walks of life, you can probably count your absolute true friends on one had and Jimmy is certainly one of them..

Bathurst

If I had to choose just one circuit in the world to race at, it would have to be Bathurst in Australia. I hold the lap record there for a Super Touring car and that will remain the record forever now, no one will ever beat it. It is the most amazing piece of tarmac, it is simply epic. I can remember the first time I went round there in 1997 with Williams. Me and Alain Menu were sat in the back of a road car. Didier Dubai the Team Manager was sat in the front passenger seat and we were being driven round the circuit by Alan Jones. It all looked nice as we went round, quite amazing really but then we got to Skyline and The Dipper. Seeing that piece of track I piped up to Didier and said “ you’re definitely not paying us enough money!!!” but in all honesty, if he’d turned round at that moment and said he wasn’t going to pay us anything and we’d have to pay to drive I’d have actually done so, it is just an astounding circuit.

Jason Plato

Follow on Twitter @Jasonplato

Jason drives in the BTCC with MG KX Momentum Racing and is a double BTCC champion, having won the championship in 2001 & 2010. He holds the record for the most BTCC race wins -89, the most podiums, pole positions and fastest laps.

http://mg.co.uk/motorsports/btcc-team/jason-plato/

 

 

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