Jason Plato and RML - success breeds success
4 November 2010
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.
For the first time in BTCC history, four drivers were in a position to claim the title heading into the 2010 finale, and as such, the build-up was always going to be frantic. The showdown captured the imagination of the general public, with the event featured on the ITV breakfast show Daybreak, and ITV4 clearing their schedules to cover the whole event on Sunday. Indeed, arriving at the circuit on Saturday morning, it was apparent that there was a decent-sized crowd to witness qualifying even though the promised sunshine never actually arrived...
For RML, the free practice sessions proved to be a good indicator of how the weekend would pan out. Plato was comfortably fastest in both sessions, which was all-the-more impressive when you consider that he was carrying the maximum success ballast of 45kg. Indeed, qualifying was to confirm his earlier form, as despite the session being interrupted three times due to on-track incidents, Plato managed to secure his first pole position of the season. The good form of the Cruze was confirmed by team-mate Alex MacDowall who, after a promising morning, qualified fourth. From the team's perspective, this was a perfect start to the weekend, and to ensure that this continued, they were trying to ensure that their approach was to be as 'normal' as possible, with PR commitments being kept to a minimum to allow the drivers to focus on the race. However, an event of this stature meant that there was a constant throng of media and fans around the RML pit area.
After qualifying, I was able to get 'up-close-and-personal' with the Chevrolet Cruze. The amount of preparation that goes into running two successful cars cannot be underestimated. In essence, the body shells are delivered by Chevrolet – these are straight off of their production line. Once RML receives the cars, they then proceed to shed the weight, paint and prepare them. Certain components such as the door seals, headlights and windscreen wipers are original road parts, but what is created is a pure racing thoroughbred. As you might suspect, the demand for spare panels is usually quite high after a typical weekend, and Michell recounted the tale of a weekend where, having won, Plato clambered onto the roof of his car to celebrate, and very nearly caused some major damage due to his exuberance!
Sunday – race day – dawned bright and warm. The atmosphere in the paddock was filled with anticipation of the day's events. At RML, the feeling was optimistic, but tense. The paddock was buzzing, and whilst Team Aon had the greater visual presence, plenty of Chevrolet flags and banners could be seen around the track. For the manufacturers, there are few better ways of promoting your brand.
Everything to this point had gone to-plan, but anything could still happen. Despite the presence of numerous guests and representatives of Chevrolet UK, Plato was displaying an air of relaxed confidence. In eleven seasons, he had never finished lower than fifth – and was runner-up in three out of the last four years – and was focussed on the job in-hand. Behind-the-scenes, the team of mechanics, engineers and event staff were united in their efforts to ensure that the job was completed. The pressure was immense, but for RML this was normal – following success in the LMP series, the team are also heading the standings in the WTCC going into the final round in Macau.
Plato would start race one from pole position; at Brands, this can be seen as a disadvantage due to the camber of the track. However, as Matt Neal got too much wheelspin, 'JP' had the start he must have been dreaming of, as he leapt into a convincing lead that he would maintain until the chequered flag. The extra points gained from pole, leading and fastest lap meant the championship could be won in race two, despite the two factory Hondas finishing second and third – the team were hopeful this would be the case, before the lottery of the reverse grid in race three.
Between races, there were a few PR commitments to honour, including a Q&A in the team's hospitality unit. Meanwhile, there were no dramas from the team, ensuring that the normal checklists were completed prior to sending the cars out for race two. As it transpired, aside from a minor concern over tyres, Plato once again led from start-to-finish, to claim his seventh victory of the year and 60th career win – equalling the all-time record set by legend Andy Rouse – and become the 2010 champion.
As he climbed from his car in parc fermé, it was evident how much this meant to both the driver and the team. It seemed that everyone from RML had arrived to greet their number one driver, and it is clear to see that even with the years of hard experience behind them, behind the slick exterior lies a team of dedicated people who are passionate about what they do. The only cloud was the retirement of team-mate MacDowall, who succumbed to damage sustained in a first lap incident with Neal.
“It's been a fantastic weekend and I'm just over-the-moon,” Plato said. “We really hit the sweet spot with the car. Sixty wins sounds nice, but not as nice as 61!”
Plato was equally as complimentary about RML, adding: “I've thought for a long time that RML is the best team in the paddock, and this is just proof of that. The BTCC is one of the very best championships in the world, so to win it is a very magical feeling. Everyone in my team, Chevrolet and RML who prepare the car, are the best in the business and also a great family of people, so it's a very joyous experience winning it for them.
“The Cruze has been a phenomenal car to race but, like I say, that's very much down to the people at Chevrolet and RML. Personally, I am of course delighted. I've been runner-up three times in the last four years, so to finally get that second crown probably means I won't be such a pain in the backside to live with now!”
With the reverse grid in race three, and the championship wrapped up, it was always going to be an uphill battle to claim the triple, and so it proved, with youngster Andrew Jordan claiming victory with the distinctive Pirtek Racing Vauxhall and Plato finishing ninth. As the record crowd left the circuit, and the sun had set on the 2010 season, it was time to reflect on a job well done for all at RML...but not for too long, as some of these people were soon off to Japan to ensure that the WTCC crown could be added to the BTCC title. For RML, success breeds success, and plans are already afoot for the title defence in 2011...
Thanks go to Michell Seaman and the RML team for their hospitality and assistance throughout the weekend.
by Jon Gurr