Donington Park BTCC: Can Anyone Stop Plato?


It was déjà vu at Brands Hatch as Jason Plato went toe-to-toe with his Honda rivals for victory in the opening round of the 2013 Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship – though there was one slight twist.

Gordon Shedden may have suffered a weekend of luck only Mark Webber could relate to, but before all that happened Andrew Jordan emerged as the lead Civic at the front of the field. Granted, in race trim he wasn’t *quite* able to topple Plato – only Matt Neal managed that in race three, as Plato was laden with success ballast – but the Eurotech Civic in the hands of the 2012 Independents’ Champion looks every bit a title challenger as its white/red works cousins.

The usual suspects

So what does this mean for Donington? Well, if you read into the media day test times – quite a lot. Jordan carried over his form from the season’s only official pre-season test and looks like his aim of outright glory in 2013 may not be out of his reach. There’s also the sheer pace of Shedden once his title defence got going in earnest in race three. The charges through the field from the Scot – yes, charges, given his race two exclusion after finishing on the podium from the back – proved that the Civic is tried, tested and very much on top form yet again. Neal lacked the same sort of devastating pace as his teammate but emerged with a win, something Shedden’s yet to manage at the Indy track.

However, one man he – and the other three title challengers – will be keeping an eye on is Sam Tordoff. The KX Akademy driver excelled on his full debut, netting three top five finishes and a podium in race three to mark his MG opener in style. He’s targeting more podiums at Donington – but, especially if he plays the soft tyre card right, he could well be in the mix for a win.

Matt Neal was the only non-Plato winner at Brands
Matt Neal was the only non-Plato winner at Brands

One thing to note is both the Donington test and the Brands opener were held in unusually cold conditions. While drivers shouldn’t expect to shed a lot of weight in the car, it will be markedly warmer this weekend – whether that shuffles the MG/Honda pack remains to be seen. It might well bring into play the Motorbase Fords and the WSR BMWs. Both teams endured openers largely to forget in Kent. The Airwaves Focuses were both struck down by reliability problems – Aron Smith rather outspoken on who (TOCA) let who (Motorbase) down – but the car is inherently fast; Mat Jackson’s Silverstone win from the back of the grid shows that. Not only that, but they are bullish a test at Oulton Park has solved the gremlins from Brands…

But what of the BMWs? Colin Turkington had an understated return to the series he won in 2009. Save a trip or two in to the gravel trap at Paddock and some feisty recovery drives in to the top ten he was almost anonymous. That’s not to say he drove badly – far from it – but the new car will take some getting used to, particularly if you’re Rob Collard and spent more time in the pits than on the track.

A Toyota/Audi-shaped opening?

If, and it is an unlikely if, the Fords and the BMWs are unable to push any higher than just inside the top ten, expect that gap to be readily filled with Toyotas and an Audi. Frank Wrathall should have graced the Brands Hatch podium – in fact, more conservative driving in race two would have guaranteed a rostrum finish, in all likelihood. Wrathall’s enthusiasm to move forwards extends beyond impatience and borders on desperate – the moves on Turkington and Rob Austin prove that. But while he yo-yoed up and down the pack depending on whether he was on track or off it; Adam Morgan delivered his most mature performance in the championship yet. Despite just missing out on a maiden podium finish he did manage to secure Independents glory in race three and his Cicely Racing Avensis looked right up for it at Brands – and Donington is a track which all three Toyota teams looked strong at during the media day test.

Wrathall was rapid but ragged at Brands
Wrathall was rapid but ragged at Brands

Step forward, then, Dave Newsham. The Scot was another to endure a rather frustrating race weekend at Brands. It promised so much – serious pace in testing and practice – but ultimately he was let down by factors out of his own hands, before ending his day involved in *that* accident with Austin in race three. Newsham’s a proven winner and the Avensis is a proven front-runner. He was fourth fastest at last month’s test and anything less than top five pace will be disappointing for the popular Speedworks man. His teammate, Ollie Jackson, had a positive first race for the team – finishing in the top ten – but from then on his day only got worse. If he can build on that tenth place finish in race one at Brands, perhaps more of the same beckons at the tougher Donington track.

Assuming he feels no ill-effects from the hefty shunt at Brands – unlikely, given his nature – Austin should be well in the mix at Donington. He led brilliantly for several laps in race one, ended it on the podium, and ran strongly again in race two before Wrathall nerfed him off on the exit of Druids. The Audi is a known NGTC quantity, one of the most advanced on the grid, and Austin’s more than a handy racer – he knows how to win and many feel it’s a matter of when, not if. Wix backing led to many boasts of this being his season but he justified the confidence at Brands – and while teammate Will Bratt had a less-than-impressive time of things, with more mechanical gremlins striking the ex-F2 driver – Austin will undoubtedly be aiming for more silverware this weekend.

Onslow-Cole might just surprise in the CC
Onslow-Cole might just surprise in the CC

Chance of a surprise?

The brilliant thing about this year’s championship is the sheer number of potential podium finishers – and possibly winners. Two driver/car combinations to keep an eye out for at Donington are Dan Welch in his Proton and Tom Onslow-Cole in the PPC Kraftwerk Racing Volkswagen CC. Welch, a good driver who has been unfortunate to yet land a podium in the BTCC, will take heart from a media day test – again, in different conditions – which saw him 11th fastest (8th at one point) despite running a 2012 Brands Hatch GP-spec set-up with no new tyres. He was also a comfortable top ten runner at the opener, despite a number of problems which always seem to target his Welch Motorsport team.

For Onslow-Cole and Tony Gilham‘s ambitious outfit, there were genuinely encouraging times at Brands. Despite only turning up finished at the last minute the car’s fastest time in the third race of the day was a mere couple of tenths of those set by Plato and the other frontrunners. That’s not just a testimony to TOC and the NGTC regulations but also just reward for a monumental team undertaking. With a bit of breathing space between then and this weekend, who is to say that sort of pace can’t be replicated over a race distance? If it is, they could be top ten runners throughout the weekend. Then, all it takes is a favourable reversed grid…

More of the same, please, in the Jack Sears Trophy
More of the same, please, in the Jack Sears Trophy

The Jack Sears Trophy

Liam Griffin leads James Kaye with two wins to one in the JS Trophy and it was brilliant at Brands to see four different drivers – those two, plus Lea Wood and David Nye – take turns leading at one stage or another. Throw in solid debuts for Joe Girling and Warren Scott and this weekend’s S2000 action should be equally epic – with Wood the slight favourite.

Despite the best efforts of the usual suspects, Plato emerged with a nine point lead in the championship. Small change, at this stage of the season, and Shedden suffered a similarly poor opener last year. And we all know what happened there. The difference is Plato’s hit the ground running this season – and has promised more of the same this weekend…