The fourth round of the 2007 Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship at Croft marked a milestone in the series as the North East venue wracked up ten years as a fixture on the calendar.

From an inaugural meeting that at times looked like a sailing regatta more than a motorsport event thanks to the weather, the former airfield has played host to some dramatic moments over ten years of racing - with some memorable racing action both on, and off, the circuit (think back to the 'unique' line employed round Clervaux by Jim Edwards en-route to the Production Class win back in 2001 as a example...)

However, 1997 didn't just mark the first appearance of Croft on the BTCC scene, it also signalled the debut of driver by the name of Jason Plato, who had grown up in the North East of England and was making the step up into touring cars with the crack Williams Touring Car Engineering outfit - an offshoot of the Williams F1 squad that had clinched the 1996 Formula One title with Damon Hill.

Securing a double pole for his debut in the Renault Laguna at Donington Park, and then adding a third straight top spot in qualifying for round three at Silverstone, Plato would quickly make his on the BTCC - with wins later in the year at Snetterton and Silverstone helping him to third in the championship standings, just a point behind the outgoing champion Frank Biela.

Since that debut season, Plato has gone on (at the time of writing) to start nearly 230 BTCC races, with 36 wins putting him second on the all time winners list alongside former team-mates Alain Menu and Yvan Muller - the latter being the man Plato defeated in dramatic style to clinch his only BTCC title to date back in 2001.

The home circuit:

With Croft and Plato both celebrating ten years since their respective BTCC debuts this year, Crash.net took the chance to sit down with the current points leader to look back at the last ten years - with the circuit itself being a good place to start, even if Plato's so called 'highlights' aren't necessarily choices that would be top of many peoples list...

"You mention that this is my home track and I guess it is as I was brought up and spent my formative years and misspent youth in the North East, but amusingly I'd never been to Croft and never came to watch a race here until we came with the BTCC in 1997," the SEAT Sport driver recalled. "I remember it was new to the calendar and I remember very well that we came on a test before the first race with a view to finding out what was what.

"I was a new guy to touring cars and my voice was very small back then and it was interesting to come and see the effort that had been put in to get the circuit up to the scale needed to attract a series like the BTCC. However, it quickly became apparent that things weren't as they should have been as there were some trees you could hit - but I thought it was ace. However the big voices of touring cars kicked off and we went on a circuit walk with 20 odd drivers of international repute saying 'this isn't right, that isn't right'. I'd never experienced that before and overnight, they made the changes.

"It was apparent that Croft was going to be one of those special places on the calendar where they aren't a big corporate entity - they are people. It's always great to come back here year in, year out as they put on a great show and make everyone welcome in that Northern way - which I miss from having lived in this neck of the woods.

"It's a great track that always produces great racing and I remember back in 1997 ending up on my roof at Clervaux, over the spectator enclosure in what I thought was going to be one of those incidents where I would just get a rear left in the gravel and lose a tenth of a second. However, I remember three or four seconds later - what felt like an hour - getting on the radio saying 'Guys, I'm upside down and I have no idea where I am!'. That was something they had to change, the shape of the gravel traps - thanks to me - and I also had the biggest crash of my touring car career here driving for Vauxhall in 2000.

"I had a carbon fibre component come off in the cockpit which got stuck behind the brake pedal and the throttle, so when I came off the throttle going into the complex - which is fifth gear and around 130mph - the throttle jammed open and when I went for the brakes, they wouldn't go down. You could say I was in the shit and I had a split second to decide what to do and that was either have a monumental accident with the wall or try and slow myself down with someone else - and unfortunately for Gabriele [Tarquini], he was the choice I took! I fired him out of the race but I think I stopped myself being put in hospital, which he understood and was fine with. It was one of those things where you have to make your call and live with it - but it was a big shunt."

The highs and lows:

Looking back over his BTCC career to date, the obvious highlight to an outsider looking in would be the 2001 season, when - in the first year of the new BTC regulations - Plato became embroiled in a titanic battle for the title with Vauxhall team-mate Muller.

In a season featuring 26 races, the pair took 14 wins between them but as the year progressed, so the relationship between the two soured - culminating in an incident in the feature race at Silverstone where Plato was given a 30 second penalty for contact with his team-mate on the final lap.

At the end of the season, it was Plato who took the title by 18 points but then came a split from the team and a departure from the BTCC scene for two years.

"I look back and I won the title in 2001 but I wouldn't have said it was the happiest time of my life," he said. "There was huge politics going on at Vauxhall at that time and I didn't like the way things were run - and ultimately I left at the end of 2001 after winning the title. But it is in the record books, I won the title at the end of what I think is one of the hardest battles that touring cars has ever seen. It was tough stuff.

"This is a political game at times, more often than not, and it is a shame it happened, but I'm friends with Vauxhall now. It wasn't with Vauxhall that I had my differences, it was with two people who are no longer involved with running the administration of the Vauxhall team - we just didn't see eye to eye. They had their ideas on who should win and it wasn't me - and I wasn't happy with that.

"There was awful team orders imposed on me in 2000 where I was leading the championship and they made me move over for Yvan and I did, on more than one occasion, yield to him when I didn't feel it was right - but I did what I was told. We were told in 2001 that it would be open and it wasn't. I was told to do stuff which was hidden from Vauxhall, there were messages given to me from the pitwall which meant move over - although they couldn't show it as they weren't allowed by Vauxhall - and it was crap.

"In then end I said 'stuff it, I'm not doing it' and then it was a case of who do I side with - I've told Vauxhall what is going on and caused a storm and they have said they don't want it, so I sided with Vauxhall. But the team make the choice and Yvan was the chosen one - but as it turned out he didn't win."

With the political wrangling going on in the background, it is perhaps little wonder that the 2001 isn't right at the top of Plato's highlights of his BTCC career - although two very different debuts were deemed worthy of a mention.

"Winning the title is a highlight I suppose, but an equally big highlight was my actual debut with Williams Renault," he said. "I muscled my way into that drive by stalking Frank Williams and I turned what wasn't even an opportunity, into a life changing opportunity. I can remember, like it was yesterday, the first three races.

"Back in those days it was two races to a day with two qualifying session and I was on pole for both races at Donington Park and then took pole again at Silverstone. My team-mate then [Alain Menu] was the yardstick and it was great as I was out there in the shop window and was proving that I was worthy of being there - so it was a massive highlight. I remember getting a call from Frank at home and not being able to tell who it was on a crackly line and saying 'Who is it man, who is it?' and he replied 'It's Frank you tosser, I just want to congratulate you' and I remember things like that. They were great days at Williams and I learnt a huge amount and back at that point I was the only English driver racing for Williams, including the F1 team. Even though I wasn't in the Formula One team, I had access to Frank and Patrick Head and met a lot of great people and it was a very special time for me.

"But moving more to date, my debut win with SEAT in 2004 at Thruxton was a wonderful time. The era I am in now with SEAT, and have been in since 2003 - when we first sat down together and there was nothing there, no Cupra championship, no team, nothing - has been really good as it wasn't a case of getting a call to drive a car, it went way back from there. It is really nice to be enjoying the success that we have achieved in the short time we have been in the championship and I think I've been instrumental in the success so far. It is a different kind of joy to just turning up, jumping in the best car and going on to win. We started with nothing and look where we are now."

Then and now:

The BTCC of 2007 is a world away from the BTCC of 1997 - with only Plato and double champion Matt Neal remaining from the field that lined up ten years ago at the height of the Super Touring era.

Back then, Audi, Renault, Volvo, Nissan, Vauxhall, Ford, Peugeot and Honda all fielded factory teams but only one of those - Vauxhall - remains to this day, having now been joined in a two-horse race for the manufacturers' title by SEAT.

However, while the manufacturer involvement isn't there at the moment, something series director Alan Gow is keen to address, a raft of leading Independent teams having taken up the challenge of representing other marques such as Team Halfords with its Hondas and Team RAC with its BMWs - ensuring that the BTCC remains as diverse as ever.

"I think it is a different era," Plato admitted. "Back then there were nine or ten manufacturers, but those days are gone now because the manufacturers all own each other - so you'll never get Ford competing against Volvo and you'll never get Audi competing against Volkswagen, SEAT and Skoda.

"In the modern era you can maybe hope for four or five manufacturers but I think the series is getting back to where it was in the 90's. The TV deal is as good, if not better, the crowds who turn up are as good if not better and there is a buzz coming back. We have colourful characters like Fabrizio [Giovanardi] and some new blood coming through and it is a great championship.

"The names are different but a good driver is a good driver. We don't have the international flavour now, but so what? Okay, it would be nice to have a few more foreign drivers as it gives the paddock a different feel and you get some Latin temperaments which is good for a bit of fun, but the quality at the top is as good as it ever was. It is as hard to win here as it is in the WTCC - there are just a few more 'i's and 'o's on the end of names there!"

As for the best driver he has ever raced with in the BTCC, Plato admitted that there is one, still competing - and winning - at the highest level, who stands above the rest.

"I think in terms of the all time complete guy, I would have to say Menu," he said. "I learned a tremendous amount from him at Renault and look at him now - he is still winning at the highest level [and was in the process of winning at Pau in the WTCC as this conversation took place]. I think Alain is the best driver I ever competed against but if you look at guys like Biela, Rydell, Tarquini, Thompson, Muller, Fabrizio - there were some classy, classy drivers. But there are some very good guys out there, and everyone on their day will be a winner."

To listen to Jason look back at the last ten years, Click Here.

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