At Brands Hatch last month, Jason Plato claimed his second British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) drivers' title, comfortably finishing ahead of his rivals on what was classed as 'Judgement Day'. For Ray Mallock Limited (RML), Plato's success represented their first BTCC championship since 1999, but this statistic scarcely represents the heritage of a team that has been at the forefront of international motorsport for over 25 years. Behind-the-scenes is a dedicated team of people, all committed to ensuring that this tradition of success is maintained.
To fully appreciate the sense of achievement, it is important to consider what goes into the ethos of this team. RML Group are one of the motorsport industry's 'quiet giants', with a breadth and depth of experience, expertise and success matched by few other companies. Alongside the motorsport projects, RML undertake a variety of high-performance road car engineering projects. They have also expanded into race engine development and motorsport event management, in addition to selling and preparing cars for customers across different categories of racing.
I was fortunate enough to be a guest of RML Racing Silverline for the final round of the BTCC at Brands Hatch. My guide for the weekend was Michell Seaman, events manager for the RML Group. She is a key part of both the BTCC and WTCC programmes, and thus was perfectly-placed to highlight what a typical BTCC weekend involves.
RML's association with the BTCC dates back to 1992, running two Vauxhall Cavaliers for Ecurie Ecosse. The success was rewarded with the team being fully-backed by Vauxhall in 1994, and they duly claimed both the drivers' and teams' titles in 1995. Following this success, RML then developed an association with Nissan in 1997, with the team building the Nissan Primera. Again, this relationship was to prove fruitful, claiming the drivers' title in 1999 with Laurent Aïello, as well as the manufacturers' and teams' titles in both 1998 and 1999.
2004 saw RML running two Seat Toledo Cupras in the BTCC, but this partnership was dissolved at the end of the season when the team won the contract to run the Chevrolet Lacetti in the WTCC. This was a bold move, considering that at this time, Chevrolet had a relatively low profile in Europe. However, one win in 2006, seven in 2007 and five in 2008 proved what could be done.
RML re-entered the BTCC in 2009, with Jason Plato arriving at the team in a last-minute deal, having lost his drive following the withdrawal of Seat. Indeed, the deal was struck so late that neither Plato nor the team were listed in the race programme for the season-opener! The car chosen was an ex-WTCC Lacetti and the BTCC effort was run independently, as parent company GM didn't want two of its brands – Vauxhall and Chevrolet – running in direct competition with each other.
One of the iconic images of the season was Plato's sideways slide through Paddock Hill Bend. The resulting national media coverage helped the team to attract essential sponsors such as Silverline, and their funding enabled RML to field cars for Mat Jackson and latterly James Nash, with Plato narrowly missing out on the drivers' title, despite being only the second driver in BTCC history to win all three races in a day in the final round at Brands Hatch.
Having spent 2009 developing the Lacetti into a winning car, RML and Plato started from scratch again in 2010. Vauxhall's withdrawal from the sport enabled Chevrolet to offer full works support, and as part of this RML was to run the Cruze. Although they were already running with this model in the WTCC, differences in tyre-supplier and regulations meant that there wasn't as much common ground as you would have thought. However, constant development helped Plato to five wins and the championship lead coming into the final weekend.
The Chevrolet Cruze may appear to be similar to its road-going version, but there are many differences. Aside from the obvious bodywork and structural variations, the engineering is exquisite in its detail. It takes about six weeks to build a car from scratch, but it can be done in four at a push – a situation that arose after Alain Menu's car was virtually destroyed by less-than-competent marshals in a WTCC race... Most of the work is undertaken 'in-house', with very little outsourced. This enables a continuity that ensures there is a seamless transition from one area to the next.