News : Plato’s BTCC title hopes take a knock at Knockhill

Words: Clive Goldthorp Photographs: BTCC Media Office

Jason Plato en route to pole position in Qualifying at Knockhill last Saturday

A slightly-depleted field of 19 entries headed up to Knockhill, near Dunfermline for the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship’s (BTCC) twentieth annual Scottish foray last weekend. MG KX Momentum Racing’s Jason Plato went into the meeting with  a record eight BTCC victories at the challenging and tight, 1.3 mile Fife track which features elevation changes of around 200 feet and has a reputation for producing spectacular BTCC action.

Plato clearly had high hopes of reducing the ten point deficit to Championship leader and Honda Yuasa Racing Team Civic driver Matt Neal, telling the BTCC’s website: ‘…now it’s time for Knockhill, which I love. We’re going there to take more of a bite out of the Hondas and we want to leave either leading it or very, very close to whoever is leading.’ However, in the event and despite putting his NGTC MG6 GT on pole for Round 19, Plato was unable to increase his tally of Scottish wins and he now lies some 36 points behind Matt Neal in the Championship standings.

Neal’s team-mate and local hero, Gordon Shedden, set a time of 52.994s and was the only driver under the 53-seconds barrier at the end of FP1 on Saturday. The West Surrey Racing-run eBay Motors BMW 320sis of Tom Onslow-Cole and Rob Collard were next fastest on 53.147s and 53.246s respectively while MG KX Momentum Racing’s Plato was a solid sixth quickest with a time of 53.498s.

Matt Neal’s Honda Civic was hampered by both a turbo boost problem and poor throttle response so he was only fourteenth on 54.114s – more than a second adrift of Shedden. The other MG KX Momentum Racing MG6 GT of Andy Neate was restricted to just 19 laps by a small technical issue and so finished FP1 with the seventeenth fastest time of 54.913s.

The eBay Motors BMW of Rob Collard topped the time sheets at the end of FP2 – Collard found more than three tenths and set a time of 52.910s. Gordon Shedden’s Honda Yuasa Racing Team Civic was next up on 53.092s while less than a second covered the fastest fourteen competitors. The reigning Champion and current points leader, Matt Neal, was tenth as a result of his Civic again experiencing a turbo boost issue.

Jason Plato’s MG6 GT spent around 20 minutes of FP2 sitting in the Pit Lane after a wrong call on some technical changes and finished the session fourteenth fastest on 53.717s. Team-mate Andy Neate was fifteenth and 0.436s behind Plato.

The two Free Practice sessions on Saturday morning were run in cloudy but dry conditions. However, the heavens opened over Knockhill some 30 minutes or so before the start of Saturday afternoon’s Qualifying session and MG KX Momentum Racing’s Jason Plato was the driver to gain most from the change in conditions – his time of 57.128s was good enough for him to secure his third pole postion of the season when a red flag brought Qualifying to a premature end.

Rob Collard’s eBay Motors BMW 320si was second fastest and 0.297s behind Plato. Dublin’s 21-year-old Aron Smith was a best-ever third in his Motorbase-run Redstone Racing Ford Focus. The works Honda Yuasa Racing Team Civics of Plato’s two closest title rivals, Gordon Shedden and Matt Neal, were sixth and eighth respectively. Plato’s team-mate, Andy Neate, was sixteenth and 1.578s off his time.

Andy Neate summarised his Saturday at Knockhill by saying: ‘An issue in FP1 curtailed my running and then the experimental set-up that JP and I ran in FP2 didn’t really work for either of us. In Qualifying the car was great; I just over drove it a little bit and having now reviewed the data, I understand where I went wrong. We’ve got a decent car for tomorrow though, so fingers crossed.’

However, Jason Plato clearly rated his chances of success on Sunday and told the BTCC’s website: ‘I had a bit more in reserve if required but the main thing is I’m starting from the front tomorrow and the two Hondas have a lot to do. But we’re looking good in all conditions – I was very happy with the car in the dry in the earlier practice sessions so I’m feeling good about tomorrow.’

MG KX Momentum Racing’s Team Principal, Ian Harrison, was understandably pleased with Plato’s pole and commented: ‘We pulled it out the bag today with another pole for Jason, the weather changed to monsoon conditions, which suited us and Jason just did what he does; he got the car hooked and delivered a good lap. If Andy could have stuck all his sectors together, he could have been further up. But that’s all part of the learning, in what were difficult conditions. It’s supposed to be dry tomorrow, so that should help him a little bit.’

Jason Plato takes off during Free Practice 1 at Knockhill on Saturday

The weather may have been bright and sunny for the start of the day’s first BTCC race at Knockhill on Sunday but the mood in the MG KX Momentum Racing garage was soon anything but that… Round 19 was defined by a Lap 2 incident on the approach to Clark’s corner in which Jason Plato’s MG6 GT was sent crashing into the barriers after contact with Aron Smith’s third-placed Redstone Racing Ford Focus. Plato had been beaten off the line by Rob Collard’s eBay Motors BMW and the incident allowed his team-mate, Tom Onslow-Cole, to sneak past into second.

Andy Neate’s MG KX Momentum Racing MG6 GT also went out on Lap 2 and crashed at McIntyre’s following contact with Lea Wood’s BINZ Racing Vauxhall Vectra. The various incidents prompted a lengthy Safety Car period but, after that, Collard and Onslow-Cole drove away from the rest of the field to record an impressive 1-2 for the West Surrey Racing-run eBay Motors team. Gordon Shedden brought his Honda Yuasa Racing Team Civic home in third while team-mate Matt Neal finished seventh and so now had a two-point Championship lead over Shedden. Plato’s DNF meant that he was 18 points adrift…

Irishman Smith was fined £500 and received a three-point endorsement on his Racing Licence for the incident at Clark’s corner on Lap 2. However, a furious Jason Plato told ‘All it was down the back straight on Lap 1 was bang-bang-bang in my backside and the same on the Start/Finish straight. He must have hit me 15 times and I was on the radio to stop it. He completely and utterly fired me off. There are only two things you can deduce, either he did it on purpose and wanted to take me out, or it was an accident and he needs to have his licence taken away. I’m going to go all the way on this [getting Smith punished] – I’ll take it to the MSA Tribunal and beyond.’ afforded Aron Smith the right of reply: ‘It was a racing incident. Because it’s Jason I’ve been hit with a penalty, but similar things have happened this season and they’ve been called racing accidents. Look at what Jason and Matt [Neal] did at Snetterton [where they hit each other]; they got verbal warnings. He was hanging me out to dry and I got to the point where I had to either drive into the gravel or turn in.’

Smith also commented on the earlier Start/Finish straight contact and added: ‘Jason was slow out of the hairpin and went to the inside to defend. Tom [Onslow-Cole] was right there and started to move to my left so I had the choice of going across the front of him or hitting Jason and I even lifted to not hit him too hard. It definitely wasn’t intentional. I’ve got a lot of respect for him and it’s a shame we’ve got off on the wrong foot.’

The two MG KX Momentum drivers’ respective DNFs meant that they both started Round 20 from the back of the grid with Jason Plato in seventeenth and Andy Neate in nineteenth. Both drivers made some progress through the pack but neither was entirely happy with the set-up of his car and both were affected by technical issues. Plato finished eleventh and Neate twelfth so neither had the chance to gain an advantage from the reverse grid draw for Round 21.

The two eBay Motors BMW 320sis of Rob Collard and Tom Onslow-Cole, on the front row thanks to their 1-2 in Round 19, scored another convincing 1-2 in Round 20 and were again followed home in third by Gordon Shedden’s Honda Civic. Team-mate Matt Neal finished eighth so Shedden went into the day’s final BTCC race with a five-point advantage over him at the top of the Championship standings. Plato, although still third, was now some 26 points behind Shedden.

The reverse grid draw for Round 21 saw the top ten finishers from the previous race switched and so Inverness-based Dave Newsham’s ES Racing Vauxhall Vectra started from pole position. Newsham pulled clear of Jeff Smith’s Eurotech-run Pirtek Racing Honda Civic in the opening laps but struggled with his Vectra’s tyres as the race wore on. The three battling NGTC Hondas of Smith, Matt Neal in the Team Dynamics-run works car and Smith’s team-mate, Andrew Jordan, were therefore able to close the gap to Newsham down but he held on to cross the line 1.549s ahead and claim his second BTCC victory in a fortnight.

Gordon Shedden’s Honda Yuasa Racing Team Civic retired from the race with front-end damage sustained when avoiding a clash between Aron Smith’s Redstone Racing Ford Focus and Nick Foster’s eBay Motors BMW 320si on the exit of McIntyre’s. However, by then, MG KX Momentum Racing’s day had aleady gone from bad to worse. Jason Plato’s MG6 GT had failed to make the start because of a recurrence of the turbocharger trouble which had blighted his second race. Andy Neate’s gamble to start the race on wet tyres when light rain fell as the cars assembled on the grid did not pay off because the rain came to nought. Neate pitted, switched to slicks and eventually finished in fifteenth position.

Jason Plato’s Sunday had definitely not lived up to the promise implied by his pole position on Saturday and he remarked: ‘I was optimistic for today following our Pole yesterday, but being removed from Race One by the Ford set the tone for the day and I guess it’s never a great day when your best result is an eleventh! The technical issue restricted my progress in Race Two and stopped it all together in Race Three. Rockingham has to go better.’

Andy Neate was also more than ready to move on from Knockhill and commented: ‘A tough day at the office for me and all of the team today. It didn’t start well and went downhill from there. I thought it was worth taking a punt on the strategy in Race Three, having retired from Race One and struggling with the technical issue in Race Two, but not even the weather would help me today!’

Ian Harrison, MG KX Momentum Racing’s Team Principal, concluded: ‘We have had a nightmare day to be honest. After a good qualifying yesterday, it’s gone wrong ever since we got out of bed this morning. The contact from Smith in Race One has ruined Jason’s day and it’s put us in a compromised position in the Championship now. Andy’s day’s not been much better – he was unlucky with a wrong tyre call at the end there. Let’s forget about this weekend now and move on to Rockingham.’

Matt Neal’s third place finish in Round 21 moved him back into the Championship lead past team-mate Gordon Shedden. Neal now has 287 points while Shedden has 277 points so Neal, in fact, left Knockhill with a greater – 10 point – lead than that with which he had arrived. Plato, on the other hand, left Knockhill on 251 points – some 36 points behind Neal and most definitely not the outcome which he was expecting. The eighth BTCC Meeting of the season takes place at Rockingham in Northamptonshire on the 22nd and 23rd September, 2012 – that does, at least, give everyone at MG KX Momentum Racing four weeks to regroup after what was their toughest weekend of the season to date.

Andy Neate’s MG6 GT on the grid for Round 21 at Knockhill on Sunday
Clive Goldthorp

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