Jason Plato and British Touring Cars: Better Than F1?
After 14 record-breaking years in the British Touring Car Championship (on and off), we probably shouldn't be surprised at Jason Plato's latest exploits in the opening races of the 2012 season – fourth, third and first - but it's hard not to marvel at what he and his new team have achieved in such a short space of time.
Less than 12 weeks ago, MG announced its return to the UK's premier racing series after a nine-year break. That in itself gave a welcome boost to the build up to the 2012 season but the signing of Plato, was the icing on the cake.
The double BTCC champion had kept his counsel over his plans for this season after three years with Chevrolet, a partnership which brought him his second drivers' title in 2010, but in January he was unveiled as the star turn with successful BTCC regulars, Triple Eight Racing, MG's news racing partners and one of the championship's most successful teams (22 BTCC titles and more than 100 race wins and counting).
Developing the MG6 for the BTCC, Triple Eight had just a few weeks to turn the car into a contender for Plato and turned up at Brands with little real testing under their belts. So, to leave the Kent circuit with those results, pick up 52 points and lead the drivers' championship points table was an incredible achievement, particularly for Triple Eight which had only given the car its first real test on track less than two weeks before the season opener.
Plato was naturally pleased - "cock-a-hoop" in fact. Praising his team who "worked their socks off to get this car ready", the 2001 and 2010 champion added what many others were probably thinking: "I imagine the rest of the pit lane is probably feeling a bit scared."
And what of the opposition? Well, Plato's fiercest adversary is Matt Neal, the reigning champion. He also featured highly in the weekend's action (second, first and seventh) behind the wheel of his Honda Civic which, like the MG6, has been put together under this season's revamped New Generation Touring Car regulations. These early skirmishes at Brands hinted that 2012 promises to be another exciting - and potentially surprising - championship in British racing.
So, why does all this matter?
With all the fuss surrounding Formula One this year - wall-to-wall TV shows between two broadcasters, in-depth online coverage and more bells and whistles via mobile and tablet that any normal person can possibly take in - it's worth remembering that the UK has its own leading championship that generates huge audiences (19.4m viewers on ITV4 and 366,000 paying spectators in 2011), attracts worldwide attention and respect and features drivers and teams as equally committed to their craft as those in the rarefied world of F1. And there's plenty of over-taking, nudging and all-round thrills-a-minute wheel-to-action. What's not to like?
The next round is at one of this country's finest circuits, Donington, in 10 days' time (14/15 April). If you've not experienced the sight of the full BTCC field piling down the Craner Curves towards Starkeys Bridge at the Leicestershire circuit, I'd recommend you put the date in your diary.