Rewind to the end of 1996 and Plato had just won Renault UK’s Spider sportscar title in front of the BTCC team bosses.
A seat alongside Swiss superstar Alain Menu in Renault’s touring car team was still up for grabs and the world and his dog it was after it – particularly as that year’s Laguna, developed by Williams Engineering (an off-shoot of the title-winning F1 team), was now deemed to be the best in the business. Hence the team title Williams Renault Dealer Racing.
Tales of Plato door-stepping Sir Frank Williams at Williams’s Didcot HQ have gone into BTCC folklore. Nearer the truth perhaps is the one about him parking outside Williams at 5.00am, a bundle of nerves, chain smoking through a packet of 20 fags and then downing a pack of Polos and confronting FW as he arrived for work. And Mr Frank giving JP ten minutes… Ten career-defining minutes that swayed the world and a factory Renault BTCC team contract in Plato’s direction…
Now fast forward to the end of March 1997 and the BTCC’s opening two rounds, at Donington Park. Testing suggested what many had long feared… Menu and the Laguna were going to blitz the opposition. No question. Er, not quite so…
Plato, in arguably the most astonishing debut in BTCC history, qualified on pole position for both races – ahead of Menu. In the space of five months he had not only got to grips with the BTCC’s super-sophisticated ‘super tourers’ but now immediately established himself among the championship’s hierarchy. Nor did the fact that Menu won both races deter the newcomer.
At the very next event Plato did it again – qualifying on pole position for the first of two races at Silverstone. This time he learnt the hard way, though, stalling the car at the start but notice of his future stardom in the championship had been served.
He’d go on to finish the season third overall – his first win coming half-way through the season at Snetterton where Menu and the team also put the title out of their rivals’ reach. Another win would follow at season’s end and two more (one in each season) in 1998 and 1999 when the Laguna, now somewhat long in the tooth (it had first seen service in 1994) was withdrawn along with the Renault team.
Plato was left looking for employment elsewhere and, like his big break back in 1997, made the most of it. As JP prepares to begin the 2017 BTCC season, now with Subaru, he can look back on a career unmatched by any other driver in championship history in terms of race wins – since his four wins with Renault he has achieved a further 93 to take his current tally to 96 from just over 500 starts (an astonishing wins ratio of one in five or thereabouts).
Consider too prior to his Spider title in ’96 Plato had also won the European Formula Renault crown in 1991 and also come very close to the UK title that same year. Plato is and forever will be a Renault Sport legend…
All photos © Jakob Ebrey Photography