Jason Plato has arrived at Silverstone Circuit with a mobile phone clamped to his ear. He’s trying to sort out a repair to his Porsche SUV after the family dog mauled the headrests, which now need £3,000 to put right. The two-time British Touring Car champion is anxious about the costs, as well as the damage I’m about to inflict on his nerves.
Plato has won more races in the British Touring Car Championship than any other driver: the season’s finale is this weekend, at Brands Hatch. Before then, though, Plato has agreed to come on to the Silverstone track with me, in an Aston Martin supercar. While I’m kitted out and ready to go, there’s already a problem. Heavy rain has left dangerous puddles around the track and Plato has only now realised that I really am going to take the wheel, rather than just watch.
“I’m a terrible passenger. It doesn’t matter whether it’s my wife or somebody else, I’m a control freak,” he says, drawing on a cigarette. “Having children has made me think about the dangers of driving a lot more – I look at motorists on the road and see accidents waiting to happen.”
Fortunately, the £85,000 Aston Martin Vantage belongs to Silverstone’s own driving school and is fitted with an emergency brake pedal in the passenger footwell. It doesn’t fill me with confidence but I bolster my belief with the fact that it took Plato three attempts to pass his driving test, while I managed it in one.
Walking to the pit lane, Plato tells me he has had petrol in his veins since he was four years old. “My grandfather would take me to woodland near our home in Oxford so I could sit on his lap and steer. Then my father took over a BMW dealership in Newcastle and he would come home in fantastic cars. Once he took me out in an E-Type Jaguar and we were stopped doing 130mph down the A1. Dad somehow talked his way out of that one.”
While other boys were playing soldiers with Action Man, Plato was avidly following Formula 1. Then his father was given a 100cc racing kart as part of a bad debt on a car and young Plato was hooked. “I found a go-kart club and never looked back. I was a tearaway as a kid and the one time I almost blew my career was when my father caught me driving my mother’s car. I was grounded for months and couldn’t race.”
Driving a car around a racetrack is like a science. You have to understand the forces at work
His big break came in 1997 when he door-stepped racing legend Frank Williams. He stayed for five hours, begging for a seat with the Williams-Renault BTCC team. Williams put Plato in a drive-off against the more experienced Jean-Christophe Boullion and Gianni Morbidelli, with Plato coming off best. He won his first BTCC championship with Vauxhall in 2001 and again in 2010 driving a Silverline Chevrolet. He is now in fifth place in the 2013 season driving an MG.
Strapping himself into the Aston Martin, Plato decides to drive first to help me orientate my way around the circuit, talking nonstop for the time it takes to complete eight laps. “When I’m on the racetrack, I like to push myself to the limit. It’s always been my style and in the past it has probably cost me championship wins when I tried too hard.
“Driving a car around a racetrack is like a science. You have to understand the forces at work and how you can affect them to go just that little bit faster. I can teach anybody to steer quickly around a circuit but the outstanding drivers are the ones who have a natural talent.”
Plato soon has the Vantage gliding around the tarmac despite the rain, carefully setting up the car as it approaches a corner so that the braking and acceleration don’t send the vehicle skidding into a tyre barrier. He approaches each bend wide, braking hard until the moment he turns into the corner and steers towards the apex of the curve. Then he applies throttle and the car drifts wide out across the track, without the slightest squeal of complaint from the wheels.
“It’s easy to drive quickly in a straight line but finding the racing line around a corner takes practice. No two corners are the same and a lot depends on the car and the conditions on the track. If you exit the corner correctly, you are then in the right place to take the next bend too.”
It’s now my turn to slip behind the wheel but Plato manages another quick cigarette first. As a motoring journalist I’m used to driving all types of cars so it is disconcerting to see Plato’s foot hovering over the emergency brake. As I drive out on to the circuit, Plato tells me to increase my speed and steer wide at the first left-hand corner. The Vantage is growling in third gear as I decide it’s time to hit the brakes and turn in to the bend.
One of the challenges of steering around a corner correctly is not coming off the brakes too soon and turning too early. Plato is laughing because in doing so, I send the Aston Martin at the wrong angle into the curve, clipping the apex as planned but running the car wide out of the other side of the bend and hitting the rumble strips.
On the next corner, Plato talks me through the process, telling me when to brake, turn into the bend and then apply the power. Within a couple of laps I’m starting to judge the angle better and my speed is increasing, to 80mph on the corners. “We often put cones by the side of the track to identify where each manoeuvre should be made but you don’t have those when you are racing. Taking a corner correctly comes with experience,” he says.
Back in the pits, just before he heads off, Plato reassures me that even professional racing drivers get it wrong sometimes. Several of his friends have been badly injured or killed and he himself has suffered cracked vertebrae.
“I’m 46 now but I feel as competitive as ever. I’ve been very lucky because if my father had sold that go-kart when he caught me in mum’s car, none of this would ever have happened.”