The driver line-up was Switzerland’s Alain Menu and Britain’s Jason Plato. Menu had finished championship runner-up in 1994, 1995 and 1996 – each time in the Laguna which, unlike any other model on the grid, remained highly competitive as it evolved to meet ever-more complex technical regulation.
In charge of design, build and preparation of the Laguna was Williams as an increasing number of manufacturers drafted in the engineering expertise of F1 teams to run their latest BTCC machines – now running to what were known as ‘Super Touring’ regulations.
Significantly the Laguna would set new standards in 1997 with a final set of results that even today remains unmatched…
Meanwhile it was all new to Plato who, having won Renault UK’s Sport Spider sportscar title the previous year, had needed all his guile to persuade Frank Williams to hire him. This, so the story goes, was achieved when Plato – favoured by Renault UK – pounced on Sir Frank as he arrived at Williams HQ and was given five minutes to sell himself!
Imagine the BTCC paddock’s surprise when Plato promptly qualified his Laguna on pole position ahead of the much more fancied Menu for both opening rounds at Donington Park and again at the next event at Silverstone!
Menu was not to be denied in the races, however, and duly started his season with four wins in a row. Barring disasters, people were saying, he already had the title in his pocket even with 20 races still to go. They were not wrong…
The results that followed went like this: two thirds at Thruxton; first and fourth at Brands Hatch; two wins at Oulton Park; second and first at Donington; two wins at Croft; third and a retirement at Knockhill; first and second at Snetterton; 17th and second at Thruxton; two thirds at Brands Hatch; first and second at Silverstone.
To put that into perspective, out of 24 races Menu was off the podium only three times. His wins tally was 12 – an astonishing 50 per cent of the races. No driver has ever won as many races in a single season of the BTCC, even in its current 30-race format.
In fact so crushing was Menu’s performance in the Laguna in 1997 that the title was in fact won at Snetterton in early August – with rounds at Thruxton, Brands Hatch and Silverstone to go. Again, no other driver has ever been crowned BTCC Champion so quickly.
Notably the very same race at Snetterton in which Menu clinched the crown saw Plato take his first in the BTCC. A second victory followed in the season finale – helping Renault/Williams Renault Dealer Racing easily to win the Manufacturers and Teams championships and giving the Laguna an astonishing 14 wins in all in 1997. This is not a record for a single make/model in a single season but, given the level of opposition – against seven other fully-backed manufacturer efforts – can be considered another of the BTCC’s most impressive achievements.