British Touring Car Championship veteran Jason Plato first came to the series at the height of the manufacturer-dominated Super Touring age, has seen the rise of the S2000 class, and this year will be up against the first machines of the Next Generation Touring Car era.
He's also on the cusp of a record. If he wins just once during 2011, he will surpass four-time BTCC champion Andy Rouse as the most successful driver in the series' history.
AUTOSPORT caught up with the double champion, who will begin his title defence in an RML-run Chevrolet Cruze at Brands Hatch this weekend, to look back at some of the best - and worst - cars of his tin-top career.
Fresh from winning the Renault Spider Cup, Plato arrived in the BTCC in 1997 with a drive in the crack Williams Renault squad alongside Alain Menu. Almost immediately he got an insight into the huge budgets being spent as car and tyre manufacturers battled for supremacy.
"When I jumped in, Super Touring was about at its peak," he says. "The cars were really special bits of kit.
"My first ever proper test with Williams was for a week at Jarama. I had an articulated lorry of [Michelin] tyres just for me. We had new tyres, did five laps, then new tyres, five laps. It made the difference because I had the confidence to go right out and do it.
"They were wonderful times, but it's good they've gone because I'd hate to think what it cost!"
Plato at the wheel of the Renault Laguna in 1997 © LAT
As well as all that testing, which would help Plato to three consecutive poles right at the start of his BTCC career, the 1997 Laguna proved to be a devastating weapon.
"I didn't have any previous experience of touring cars, so I didn't know, but watching Alain and his body language I could tell what he was thinking about the car," he says. "At a test at Albacete he got out and said 'we're going to kill them in this'. He just knew."
The result was two wins and third in the table for Plato, while the experienced Menu stormed to the title with 12 victories. Perhaps not surprisingly, Plato has a soft spot for that '97 car.
"From the 1996 season to '97 the cars made a big step. The finest Super Touring car I drove was the 1997 Williams. Aerodynamically the car was really special. The engine wasn't the best on the grid by a long way, but it just worked.
"The '98 car was a step backwards - we were pushing the envelope so much and we didn't quite get everything to work together. Aerodynamically it wasn't as good and it was harder to drive."
That was apparent in the results. Despite a season of experience behind him, Plato dropped to fifth in the 1998 standings with a single victory, a feat he duplicated the following year.
With Williams-Renault gone for 2000, Plato joined the works Vauxhall team. While Ford trio Menu, Anthony Reid and Rickard Rydell fought it out for the title, the Vectras struggled. Nevertheless, Plato took two wins - and handed another to team-mate Yvan Muller at Thruxton - on his way to fifth once again.
Surprisingly for a car that was rarely a pacesetter, the Vectra sticks in Plato's mind for positive reasons. "The best car I ever drove at Thruxton, which was unbelievable, was the 2000 Vectra," he says. "It was an understeering pig anywhere else but it worked there.
"Church [a fast right-hander] was easy flat in top. Even the '97 Williams was really twitchy, pointy and nervous there. You had to hang onto it, it was a bit scary, but the Vectra was just easy to go really quick in. It just didn't work anywhere else!"
END OF AN ERA
With the Astra in 2001 © LAT
Eventually, of course, the pace and sophistication of the Super Tourers proved too costly. More and more manufacturers pulled out, forcing the BTCC to come up with a more affordable rules package for 2001.
The new cars were not as spectacular, but - armed with the new Vauxhall Astra Coupe - Plato pipped Muller to secure his first title.
"Compared with the Super Tourers it didn't stop as well, it didn't have the same sort of grip," remembers Plato. "It was a step backwards, but in touring cars it doesn't really matter how sexy the car is to drive, so long as the racing is good. That's the bit that excites me.
"I was fortunate, I was in the Astra and it was special. It didn't excel at anything in particular, it just did everything well."
With the championship won, Plato took a couple of years out from the BTCC. One of those was spent in the ASCAR oval racing series, where he finished third, and he also got brief tastes of sportscars (in a Lola-Judd outing at Spa) and Australian V8 Supercars.
But he couldn't stay away from the BTCC. In 2004, he joined the SEAT Sport UK team, and took seven wins and third in the standings in the Super 2000 Toledo. The car took him to fourth and three wins the following season, but it's the Leon, which arrived in 2006, he remembers best.
After a year developing the car in 2006, netting another eight victories and his first championship runner-up spot, Plato led the standings for much of 2007.
"We developed it into a great car and a great chassis," he says. "It just made a big hole in the air. The World Touring Car team ended up adopting a lot of what we developed, which was nice."
Sadly for Plato, it wasn't quite enough. Fabrizio Giovanardi's works Vauxhall Vectra overcame a points deficit to snatch the title at the Thruxton finale.
The raw statistics for 2008, for which SEAT introduced the turbodiesel to overcome the Leon's less-than-ideal aerodynamics, look good. Plato scored eight wins and took third in the championship. But the man himself does not remember the car fondly.
Plato during the 2008 BTCC season © LAT
"I hated the diesel," he says. "It wasn't a racing car, it was a dragster. It was heavy, lazy, horrible, wouldn't turn, wouldn't stop, but by God would it go in a straight line. That's not what it's about. It was dull and didn't make a noise.
"The first time I tested it was at Brands. I did the first bit and then Darren Turner jumped in. There was a guy strimming the grass on the other side of the pits.
"The car went by at flat chat and I could still hear the strimmer. One of the things we sell in racing is noise; cars should be loud and spit flames."
THE CHEVY YEARS
Much more to his liking was the RML Chevrolet. After SEAT pulled out it looked as though Plato would be left without a BTCC drive in 2009. Then along came the RML deal and he was again in the title fight.
"I went straight from the SEAT to the Chevrolet Lacetti and it was like getting back in a proper racing car again. We really got that thing working well. In the second half of the year we switched it on. It was one of the best touring cars I've ever driven."
Nevertheless, it wasn't quite enough to stop Colin Turkington and his WSR BMW securing the crown. Plato was second. Again.
It all came good last year. The Cruze, which was based on the 2009 WTCC car but developed for British tracks and regulations, helped Plato to seven wins and that long-awaited second title. "The Cruze is quite a bit more sophisticated - it's a better car than the Lacetti," he says.
Plato will again be driving an S2000 Cruze this year, but the next BTCC era is already on the horizon. The NGTC turbo machines, introduced to cut costs and attract new teams, will form part of the grid Plato is up against.
Plato's current machine
It's a direction Plato is happy with: "In the economic climate, if we can make it a small part of a manufacturer's marketing spend we'll tick the boxes. Anything that can drive down the entry point for a professional outfit is a good thing."
Whether Plato will get to add any of the new cars to his CV is open to question. The NGTC machines will be phased in over the next two years, but Plato could head off in a different direction.
"I'd love to do some enduro stuff," he says. "I drove a sportscar at Spa a few years ago and loved it.
"I'm not interested in the WTCC. I think it's on its last legs now. I want to do Le Mans and get back to Australia again and drive some big hairy arse V8 cars. And maybe do some DTM."
PLATO'S BTCC CAREER
1997 - Third (two wins) in Williams Renault Laguna
1998 - Fifth (one win) in Williams Renault Laguna
1999 - Fifth (one win) in Williams Renault Laguna
2000 - Fifth (two wins) in Vauxhall Vectra
2001 - Champion (eight wins) in Vauxhall Astra Coupe
2004 - Third (seven wins) in SEAT Toledo Cupra
2005 - Fourth (three wins) in SEAT Toledo Cupra
2006 - Second (eight wins) in SEAT Leon
2007 - Second (six wins) in SEAT Leon
2008 - Third (eight wins) in SEAT Leon TDI
2009 - Second (seven wins) in RML Chevrolet Lacetti
2010 - Champion (seven wins) in RML Chevrolet Cruze
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