Archive: Who is the BTCC's greatest ever driver?
With Jason Plato announcing his British Touring Car Championship retirement at the end of 2022, having signed for BTC Racing for his final season, it reignites the debate on the series’ greatest driver.
Back in 2019, Autosport thrashed it out after Colin Turkington secured his fourth BTCC crown that season.
Here’s how the debate between three series correspondents went down.
EDD STRAW: Apart from Colin Turkington, Andy Rouse is the other driver with four titles so it’s a good opportunity to discuss who is the greatest BTCC driver, and it’s not just between those two. In the title decider Colin knew he was up against it, but he still got in the car, drove a good race, kept it clean. There was a point where he was behind Dan Cammish for a handful of laps – he could have tapped him off, but he kept his cool, he worked his way past. There’s a lot to be said for a driver who can do that. I think that shows a good amount of class to do that, particularly in a sprint race.
MATT KEW: Last year he won the title but with only one race win, so you know he did the business by consistently scoring solid points, whereas this year he sort of showed he can do everything, even with maximum success ballast. He scored a brilliant pole at Oulton Park – I know some people will say BMW is quickest, but touring cars has measures to bring about performance parity so you know up to a point it takes that away. Turkington can devour the pack if he needs to, he can put the car exactly where it needs to be and pull off these brilliant overtakes in a sizeable car, so yeah he’s got the pace and he’s got the brains as well, so it’s quite a potent combination.
KEVIN TURNER: He’s long since been underrated in the way that he can overtake cars. The 2014 Knockhill drive – through the pack from the back to fourth with not a scratch on the car, nobody was fired off. He very rarely gets himself into trouble but he does overtake people, he’s just very good at picking his moment. He’s one of the cleanest racers on the grid.
ES: I almost feel that up to the point when he joined WSR the second time in 2006 he was kind of on the up. It was the difficult experience at Triple Eight and then moving to WSR that allowed him to really start to come of age as a driver.
KT: You see that in the modern age of touring cars quite a lot, in that the quick guys are quick from the moment they arrive, but it takes a long time to work out how to put a championship challenge together. Colin’s really worked it out to the point where he could win the championship last year, in 2018, when there were half a dozen cars that could have potentially won that championship.
MK: Yep he had one win, Sutton had six, and he still converted it.
ES: It’s phenomenally difficult to win that championship because of the three-race format, the success ballast – it’s not a championship you can go out and dominate in the conventional sense. In the Super Touring era you could go out and win nine races in a season potentially – it was competitive but it was possible to do that. But if you’re the best car and driver package in BTCC now you are probably going to come out of the season at best with half a dozen wins. And it’s being able to bank fourths and fifths here and there that’s really the bedrock of your campaigns.
KT: And to back up your point about 2005-06 being the watershed moment, Colin lost to his team-mates in the first four seasons – Gareth Howell in 2002, not by much it has to be said, and then the following year with MG, Anthony Reid and Warren Hughes finished ahead of him in the championship. Reidy beat him in 2004, and then in 2005 Yvan Muller, who many regard as one of the best touring car drivers in recent years, beat him in a difficult car. Since then, since he joined WSR again with the MG ZS in 2006, he’s beaten his team-mates every single season with one exception, which was in 2015 in the BMR VW against Jason Plato. And he has never been beaten in the BTCC by a team-mate in a rear-wheel-drive car, and that includes having Jason the following year when they switched to Subaru – he turned the tables. As a front-wheel-drive racer he was one of the best, but I think he’s the rear-wheel-drive racer of the NGTC era.
Colin Turkington, WSR BMW
Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images
ES: What makes it very difficult to evaluate these drivers is that, on the one hand there are loads more races than there used to be, so this is why people run up quite big victory tallies. But at the same time it’s now much harder to win them. Let’s start bringing in some of the other drivers and talk a bit about Jason Plato. Everybody knows how good Plato has been in the BTCC – 97 wins, which is absolutely sensational. Just the two titles, a hell of a lot of near-misses, but he has to be in this conversation.
KT: If you did the championship on who’s won the most races in a season – which is more problematic with touring cars than with anything else because of the success ballast and all the rest of it – but if you did give it to the driver with the most wins then Jason would be a seven-time champion, with two others that would have to be decided on countback.
ES: Of course he won in the Super Touring era – he came in in 1997 with Renault-Williams and got a couple of wins in his first year.
KT: And the only drivers who have beaten him in the same team: Alain Menu in his first two years in the championship; Yvan Muller in 2000, and obviously he did beat him the following year; Colin himself in the Subaru and then Ash Sutton, who is another champion. That’s an awful lot of team-mates that he’s beaten.
MK: In terms of legacies and impact Plato is a household name. Look at the blue-chip names he’s brought in. He’s brought in manufacturers all by himself, so his contribution to the championship has been massive.
ES: If you’re putting him up against Turkington in this debate, he’s got a star quality that’s well beyond what Turkington has. Colin is a class act in the car, he’s a great driver, you know he’s a nice guy out of the car, but he ultimately is not memorable in that same way, whereas Plato’s got this huge character and plays up to things.
KT: It depends what the conversation is. If you’re talking about the greatest British Touring Car figures, or most important people in the history of it, then Jason is absolutely right up there and well ahead of Colin. But I think if you’re talking about just the greatest driver, then I think it’s much closer because Colin has converted more of his chances.
ES: With Plato there were too many times – I know this from when I was covering it – when he had scrapes that he didn’t need to have.
KT: But then he has also been unlucky. It’s a bit like the Fernando Alonso situation – a handful of points here or there and you’d be looking at five championships instead of two. But I’m quite a purist when it comes to the racing. Rubbing is racing, but firing someone straight off the road is not, even in touring cars. And I think the difference between Colin and Jason is that Colin can get the moves done without overstepping the mark, whereas Jason has done on many occasions.
MK: Yeah, there were a couple of times this year when you get the impression the mentality was, ‘You’re not coming by because I’m just better than you.’ The fight is still there and you’ve got to hand it to the guy, he’s still fast.
ES: His longevity is remarkable.
Jason Plato, BTC Racing Honda
Photo by: Jakob Ebrey
KT: It is, but I think when we’re comparing these two we’re not really comparing like for like, because Jason has lost a bit of an edge – there have been a few times this year when I thought Jason from maybe five years ago, maybe 10 years ago, would have nailed a win and he just didn’t get it done. But to be fair he’s had the peak of his career and he’s nearer the end than the beginning. Colin probably isn’t there yet. But we don’t know how Turkington will finish. Will he do a sort of Jackie Stewart/Nico Rosberg-style thing and quit when he’s still at the top, or will we see a gradual decline? It’s a little bit tricky to compare before Colin’s story is entirely finished.
ES: Bringing in Andy Rouse, he has comfortably the strongest wins/starts strike rate of these three big drivers. Four titles, five more class titles, 60 wins in total – he has to be in this debate, doesn’t he? A very different driver and I guess another set of criteria he kind of brings.
KT: If you’re looking at the impact on the championship, then Rouse is perhaps even more important than Jason. He was there through a period when the BTCC was growing, led the way with the Ford RS500s – which everyone still talks about – and was involved in the formation of the Super Touring rules. And when you think he was in touring cars and winning in the mid-1970s and still able to hold his own in the early days of the two-litre Super Touring era, that’s longevity as well, isn’t it? I guess his biggest trump card over the others is his engineering. He was always able to give himself a technical advantage through some of this period and that’s impossible now because of the NGTC regulations.
MK: There’s that 1988 race at Brands Hatch too, between Rouse and Steve Soper; it’s amazing. Rouse had greater turbo boost and was almost laughably faster in a straight line – these two RS500s, supposedly the same car. Soper was so sideways because he knew that to catch up with Rouse he had to just pin open the throttle as early as he could. But yeah, Rouse put him in that position by having a huge technical advantage, and at a young age he was put pretty much in charge of the Broadspeed operation.
ES: Turkington talks about the importance of WSR; in Rouse you’ve basically got someone who’s Colin Turkington and [WSR boss] Dick Bennetts rolled into one. And in fact, in that period of Broadspeed and the Triumph Dolomite Sprint he was developing the car and running it and doing his day job. Kind of the last thing on the list was getting in the thing and racing it, which is a very different world to what Turkington’s doing. Again, it’s just someone bringing so much more to the table. But I think if you were to find a way to create a race where all things are equalised and you take each of those drivers at their peak and put them in, Rouse is not going to be the quickest of them.
KT: But one point Soper did make about Andy was that when Rouse made a move and came down the inside, you knew the move was done. There was no point blocking because he’d pick his moment and that to me is more of the Turkington-type thing, of ‘he’s waited for his moment and he’s gone’. There’s none of this kind of nudging and edging off. Now, OK you might say touring car racing wasn’t as close, especially if you could just turn the boost up and blow by; the pressure is different.
ES: Rouse had to deal with a much wider range of machinery in terms of his winning in Ford Capris, in Dolomite Sprints, Alfa Romeos, and was still winning in the Super Touring era for Toyota. So in terms of just the broadness of what he was doing, that’s just a phenomenal range. And if you watch footage from the 1970s when he started out, the way you have to drive those cars, the nature of the tyres etc, is so different and the fact that he was still able to be competitive enough in the early days and was a title contender right at the start of Super Touring speaks well of him, doesn’t it?
Andy Rouse, Rover Vitesse
Photo by: Sutton Images
KT: Yeah, absolutely, and going to the team-mate thing – a little more awkward in the Rouse situation because quite often he was the only guy in his team or he had team-mates come in and out – but there were three drivers that beat him as team-mates. One was Gordon Spice, who was the guy in Capris and Rouse was the up-and-coming guy, although already a champion by then. Andy lost to him in 1980 and beat him in 1982. Will Hoy, 1992 in the Toyota, and then Paul Radisich both years with the Ford Mondeo. So if you think that’s a span of basically 20 years, to have only been beaten by three drivers, one of them who was a champion and one of them who should have been, that’s not too shoddy either.
ES: Absolutely and it’s also that thing of different times – the nature of the racing was very different, with no performance balancing. The way you had to go and race and win in the 1970s was different – it was more amateur, but Rouse also did bring some professionalism to it. He was one of those guys who had a kind of 360-degree view of race driving and engineering. To use a Formula 1 comparison, you’re kind of comparing a Jack Brabham-type figure to perhaps a driver you might think was quicker.
KT: Yeah, I think that’s fair, and actually if you look at most wins in a season he’d have actually got another championship. And he was robbed of several titles because of what I regard as a ridiculous, idiosyncratic class system. He obviously gained a couple of times early on in his career with that, but then lost it towards the end with the RS500. Until Robb Gravett came along with the Yokohama tyres, Rouse was the RS500 guy, but he didn’t win the championship because he kept losing to people in the lower classes. So four championships actually is an injustice to Rouse; two is an injustice to Jason. Perhaps you’d say at this point Colin’s done well – his strike rate is very good.
ES: Of course, Rouse was the only one of our three to have raced 500bhp touring cars as well.
KT: It’s fair to say that a 500bhp RS500 is very different to a Triumph Dolomite Sprint, but on the other hand the only thing Turkington needs to do now to enhance his reputation is to win this championship in a front-wheel-drive car. And he has won races in front-wheel-drive machinery. He is more convincing as a front-wheel-drive driver than Jason has been in a rear-wheel-drive car. And Rouse was in an era where most of the cars, unless you were in a Mini, were rear-wheel drive, so Colin scores quite well there I think in the modern context.
MK: One thing that helps Rouse is he won through different sets of regulations. But the thing that helps Turkington is, if you look at the field now – Rouse and Soper were 30-odd seconds ahead of Karl Jones in that Brands race – 25 cars qualify within a second. To extract that pace, especially when he’s got the full payload of success ballast, to find that, not even a tenth, that hundredth of a second, over a two-mile lap, that’s extraordinary. Without taking us down a rabbit hole, what do we think of the people they were beating at the time, so the depth of the quality? How does a Dan Cammish and Andrew Jordan as your main title protagonists compare to people Plato’s beaten, the people Rouse has beaten?
KT: Rouse comes out of that worst, because I think the quality of the touring car field falls away, when you look at any entry list from the 1980s. At one stage the championship almost died. The grids were really small before they sorted it out and got BBC Grandstand and Murray Walker and it all took off again. You remember the times that Eggenberger turned up with its car with Gianfranco Brancatelli or Soper because somebody was there to race Rouse, whereas I think both Plato and Turkington have had lots of people to deal with. Jason was competitive in that Super Touring era, which has to be the peak of British Touring Cars, in terms of professionalism of the teams and the quality of the drivers. But I don’t know whether the modern era actually scores any worse on that, because fundamentally if you could get into the best car, you didn’t have to worry about how good the other drivers were in Super Touring, whereas now that just doesn’t really happen. The thing that puts Turkington above his peers is that whatever the situation, whether it’s wet, dry, ballast, no ballast, coming through the field, leading from the front, he’s got it all covered. He doesn’t really have an obvious weakness. Andrew Jordan you would say is one of the quickest guys, who went toe to toe with Gordon Shedden when they were in Hondas, and in three years as team-mates he’s failed to beat Turkington.
Colin Turkington, Team RAC BMW 320si E90, Jason Plato, RML Chevrolet
Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images
ES: The way you probably look at it is it’s easier to be a BTCC race winner today than it was at the peak of Super Touring, but it’s every bit as hard to win a title, perhaps harder.
KT: If you look at the four championships that Colin has won, in 2009 it was a proper three-way fight between lead drivers in different teams; in 2014 he had a car advantage and he absolutely nailed it and won eight races; in 2018 he won in a car that I think was no better than three or four of the other cars; and then this year he did have the best car but he also had one of the best drivers as a team-mate. Other than win the championship in a front-wheel-drive car, I can’t think of what else he could do.
ES: Before we try to come up with a conclusion, shall we throw in some honourable mentions? Matt Neal has been a great servant to the BTCC, a cult figure, and scored that famous independent win at Donington Park in the Nissan. He’s a three-time champion so a great competitor.
KT: Yeah, he’s an important part of the story and he’s got a very similar sort of career in that respect to Jason, but for me is just not quite as good, not quite as big a figure for the championship, not quite as good a driver, even though he’s got more titles. Jason has got 97 wins from fewer races. It’s a much better strike rate than Matt’s, and Colin’s on a better strike rate as well. He’s not quite up there in this debate, but he’s worthy of a mention because of the Plato-Neal rivalry that helped the championship through some difficult times.
MK: This season he has been trounced by his team-mate Cammish. I think the development of the new Honda has suffered without Gordon Shedden, who I’m going to throw into the ring as one of the greats. But then again Matt Neal is still cutting it and every time he looks down and out he can bang in a really good result.
ES: He’s got incredible longevity. He’s 52, so it’s remarkable what he’s been able to do. It was a great moment when he won his first title in the Dynamics Integra; that was really popular because it was the underdog getting the title. There are a lot of guys who’ve won a few titles, aren’t there? Fabrizio Giovanardi won back-to-back, Chris Hodgetts in the Toyota, Win Percy was a very quick driver and seems to be overlooked quite often. Richard Longman in the Mini; Bill McGovern, famous for the Sunbeam Imp…
KT: And Frank Gardner would have to be in there. I’m sure there are some people shouting ‘Jim Clark’ as well, but that’s a slightly different debate. He was one of the greatest drivers of all time who did the series. He’s not a British Touring Car driver, if that makes sense. That might sound like a tenuous decision, but for me it’s quite clear – he’s a double F1 champion and Indy 500 winner who had fun very effectively in touring cars. It’s not quite the same.
MK: He’s not got the titles, but I can’t not worship the ground Steve Soper walks on. He was fantastic. He had lots of success overseas, but was a class act in the British championship as well.
KT: Absolutely. There are three drivers who never won the championship who are kind of the Stirling Moss of touring cars. Soper is probably number one, Gordon Spice is another, and Anthony Reid. He was probably the best driver of the Super Touring era that didn’t get a title. We should mention some of the top Super Touring guys!
ES: Laurent Aiello is probably the one who stands out with his stunning 1999 performances in the Nissan.
KT: But if you were talking about great British Touring Car drivers, it’s one season so he fails on longevity. You would probably have to talk about Alain Menu. For me he falls down because I don’t think he was particularly brilliant in wheel-to-wheel combat, but he was a very fast driver.
ES: That’s probably fair. We should also mention John Cleland, who had a couple of titles.
Steve Soper, BMW Motorsport Team, BMW 318i, leads John Cleland, Vauxhall Sport, Vauxhall Cavalier, and David Leslie, Ecurie Ecosse Vauxhall, Vauxhall Cavalier
Photo by: Motorsport Images
KT: To raise his game – he’d come through club racing – and be able to take on and beat people that almost got to F1, at the height of the works Super Touring era in 1995, was phenomenal.
ES: So let’s try to get some conclusions. We’re sticking to a final selection of Turkington v Plato v Rouse. Shall we play the elimination game and knock out one of the three?
KT: I’ll eliminate Jason on two counts. One is that he’s got into too many scrapes and lost himself championship fights, and the other that I just think he’s overstepped the mark too often during his career in terms of wheel-to-wheel stuff. That is a criterion for me, so I can now hand over the more difficult question of Rouse v Turkington…
MK: I would say Turkington is the greatest. I’ve had the privilege of covering this year and I think he’s a class act. He took his 50th BTCC win this year, so we did a piece about all the cars he’s won in, and when he got to the Vauxhall Astra Sport Hatch he said, ‘Yeah, I didn’t care for that one’, but he could still drag it to results. Turkington has had to drive what’s in front of him, and he’s still dragged results out of bad cars.
KT: I wasn’t sure when I walked in who I was going to go for, but I’m thinking about Edd’s argument concerning the impact on the championship and what they’re like as a figure within that. If we’re including that in this debate, then it has to be Rouse – he’s still Mr British Touring Car Championship. But the caveat is let’s see what the rest of Turkington’s career is like. If he can consistently keep knocking out titles and race wins in such a competitive era, then the longevity argument begins to push it towards him. You can make a case for any one of these three and right now I’m leaning towards Rouse for his overall impact on the championship. So, Edd, are you going to go for Jason so we’ve got a split panel?!
ES: It becomes really difficult because you’re starting to judge different qualities. If you were to pick a driver who at their peak was going to race for your life, perhaps Turkington’s the one you’d choose in terms of just executing that race – you know he’s going to get the most out of the machinery. But then if you start bringing in other factors about prepping machinery or about sponsorship, the answer could be different. I still just lean a bit towards Rouse, just for that all-round impact, and I always like drivers who have that full gamut of things – doing his day job, running the cars, prepping them, developing them and jumping in them and winning. But I wouldn’t for one moment argue that if you were talking about who’s the greater driver fundamentally, that he’s the third of this group.
KT: I think that’s fair. Does that mean he gets to keep his trophy that we gave him at the start of the year for the greatest British Touring Car driver?
ES: Well, I think for now, but let’s give Turkington more time. Each of these three are probably drivers of their time.
KT: I know that, whenever we do one of these greatest debates, there are some naysayers that say, ‘Well you just can’t decide, there’s no definitive answer’ and of course they’re right, but that’s not very much fun, is it?
ES: The fun is the journey. And understanding what makes them work, what makes them so strong and effective.
KT: And quite often by doing this you highlight the differences of the eras and you get them into context as well, which I think is important.
ES: Well, it’s 2-1 in favour of Rouse then, so we have to say Andy Rouse is still ahead, but it’s tight, isn’t it?
Andy Rouse, Rover Vitesse
Photo by: Sutton Images
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