News : Plato relinquishes BTCC lead at Oulton Park
Words: Clive Goldthorp Photographs: Simon Davies/Pegasus Photographics
The Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship took to the track again at Oulton Park in Cheshire last weekend after a six week break. MG KX Momentum Racing’s drivers, Jason Plato and Andy Neate, had given the two MG6 GTs their first proper test at Rockingham during that period and were hugely encouraged by the outcome – both went into the weekend in buoyant mood.
Plato told the BTCC’s website: ‘We made some very good progress in just the four half hour sessions we had… From a development perspective, we found some very interesting things. We deliberately tried what we thought might be blind alleys to make sure [whether] they were blind alleys or, in fact, worth pursuing. That will really help us with strategy as we now know which avenues are worth going down.’
Neate, who has had a troubled start to this year’s BTCC campaign, was optimistic that his season was about to turn a corner as his MG6 GT had run faultlessly at Rockingham and said that ‘it was the most productive time that I’ve had in the car since the start of the year… We made some big steps forward with the car and me. The big thing for me was we ran the car all day long and were able to run consistently. Hopefully, the problems we were having and which were getting very frustrating for everyone have been eradicated.’
The two drivers’ optimism was clearly justified by their respective performances in Saturday morning’s two Free Practice sessions with Plato topping the timesheets in FP1 with a time of 1m 37.448 and Neate third on 1m 38.432. Plato was also quickest in FP2 with a time of 1m 27.426 while Andy Neate slipped to sixth on a 1m 28.728 – his late spin at Island Bend, though, left the MG KX Momentum Racing crew with work to do in order to ready his MG6 GT for Qualifying.
Jason Plato, as previously reported, set a new qualifying lap record and procured pole for the first of Sunday’s three BTCC races at the end of an exciting Qualifying session with a time of 1m 26.872 – he beat Matt Neal’s Honda Yuasa Racing Team Civic by just 0.077s. Andy Neate’s time of 1m 28.125 saw him slot into twelfth on the grid for Round 10.
However, on the way round the track for the start of that race, Jason Plato’s MG6 GT suffered a suspension component failure and his car was therefore pushed away. Rob Collard’s eBay Motors BMW 320si took the lead at the start but Plato’s arch-rival, Matt Neal’s, Honda Civic went through under braking for Lodge Corner on the opening lap and stayed in first place until the chequered flag.
Reigning Champion Neal commented: ‘I really thought Jason would be tough to live with today so I didn’t mind when I saw him being wheeled off the grid! This isn’t a result I expected today so I’m really happy.’
Andy Neate had by far his best result of the season to date – by taking advantage of several incidents in front of him, he took his MG KX Momentum Racing MG6 GT to an encouraging seventh. Neate would therefore start Round 11 from that position on the grid while Plato, who had done several exploratory laps in his repaired car, would start that race from twenty-second and last position… However, the other consequence of his failure to score points was that Gordon Shedden, who had finished fourth in his Yuasa Honda Racing Team Civic, took the Championship lead from his team-mate, Neal, with Plato falling to third.
Scotsman Shedden increased that Championship lead when he took his fifth win of the season in Round 11. However, Plato delivered one of his characteristically storming drives and took his MG6 GT from stone last to the third step of the podium having passed the impressive, Welch Motorsport-run Proton Persona of Dan Welch for the position in the race’s closing stages.
Plato remarked: ’I really enjoyed that race – it’s always enjoyable overtaking people. More importantly it’s salvaged my day a bit after our problems in race one. It’s also a bit of a thanks to my team who had a big battle on their hands to get the car ready in time.’
Unfortunately, team-mate Andy Neate’s run of bad luck returned and he retired on the sixth lap with what appeared from the accompanying smoke to be an engine failure. A sterling job from the MG KX Momentum Racing lads saw them complete the engine change on Andy’s MG6 GT in under an hour and a half (see the Gallery below) but he was therefore obliged to start Round 12 from twentieth on the grid. However, when interviewed during MG KX Momentum Racing’s now regular “Meet the Drivers” session about an hour or so before the start, he commented: ‘I’m starting from near the back but Jason’s just shown what can be achieved from there!’
The reversed grid format used to determine the front rows of the grid for Round 12 resulted in Jason Plato lining his MG6 GT up in seventh with Matt Neal’s Yuasa Honda Racing Team Civic immediately in front of him in fifth. The two long-standing rivals where soon past the two eBay Motors BMW 320sis of Nick Foster and Tom Onslow-Cole and into first and second but, despite two interventions by the Safety Car, Plato was not quite able to pass Neal for the victory.
Plato said: ‘I threw everything at it and there was one moment when maybe I should have gone for it when [Neal] got out of shape but after that he was always just out of reach.’ Neal admitted: ‘I really had to stick my neck out under braking to pass Tom and then Jason was there. I thought he’d be the man to beat this weekend so to hold on was a great relief.’
Andy Neate’s hopes of emulating Jason Plato’s Round 11 climb through the field were thwarted by an incident in which Adam Morgan’s Speedworks Toyota Avensis and BTCC first-timer Will Bratt’s Rob Austin Racing Audi A4 collided shortly after the start and pirouetted simultaneously on the downhill Avenue section of the circuit. Neate was obliged to spin his MG6 GT in avoidance and, although he soldiered on with a clearly below par car, he eventually posted his second DNF of the day on the sixth lap…
Jason Plato’s own DNS in Round 10, his subsequent results and those of the two Yuasa Honda Racing Team Civic drivers mean that Gordon Shedden now leads the Drivers’ Championship with 173 points from Matt Neal on 168 points with Plato back in third on 161 points going into the next BTCC Meeting at Croft in North Yorkshire on the 23rd and 24th June, 2012.
Mind you, Plato’s mood remains upbeat: ‘After the non-start in race one it was all about damage limitation after that and that meant a few risks, but the race two result from the back of the grid was very enjoyable. Second in that third race was also very important as it keeps us right in the hunt going to Croft.’