For a while, it looked all too familiar – Groundhog Day, déjà vu, call it what you will, but Jason Plato was once again struggling towards the rear of the field.
Throughout practice and qualifying in the BTCC season opener at Brands Hatch, the double champion was beset by crippling understeer, a problem he hoped had gone away with an all-new chassis on his Subaru Levorg.
But then, a “Eureka moment”, and after a host of significant set up changes, Plato and his engineers believe they have found the key to making the car work the way he needs it to.
Clues started to emerge deep in the data
Photo credit: Gergo Toth Photography (Also main image)
“The moment I asked the car to do anything, there was heavy, terminal understeer,” he said. “It was not giving me any feel as to what was going on underneath on the contact patch – I just could not feel the road properly and could not place it where I wanted. It was just like last year.
“It was like all the head-scratching moments from last year – I was still having this ‘what the hell is this about?’, almost like Groundhog Day.”
Qualification in 29th place led to a late-night session on the eve of racing with engineers and analysts, and clues started to emerge deep in the data.
“I was with the engineers until past 10pm on the Saturday night and, looking at the data, we hatched a theory of what it could be. We found something and made huge changes to the set up overnight.
“These were monumental changes, which we would not normally make during the year. Throughout the course of the three races we were making changes and in the last race of the day I had a good feeling with the car, and my lap times proved that.
“In terms of the pace of the car and my feeling, I’ve got my mojo back. I can feel the car. I left Sunday night with my tail in the air, even though we had a shocker and didn’t score any points, because I can see a light now.
“I left in a good frame of mind and so did Paul, my engineer, and I think we are on the right trajectory. “We’re confident we’ve found a problem and a complete new thought process on how to make the car work. The feel of the car is a departure from where I’ve been since the beginning of last season. It was a real Eureka moment.”
Plato believes a new tyre introduced by TOCA at the start of last season has played a part in his car’s handling, an issue masked by the task of unravelling the damage to his Adrian Flux Subaru Racing Levorg sustained in the second race of the year.
“Our initial set-ups all come back to the work me and Colin (Turkington) did in the first year on a different tyre,” he said. “The sensible diagnosis last year was that my problems started with the crash and they’ll be cured by a new chassis, but as it turns out I’m confident we missed something last year and it all comes back to not doing enough work on the tyres.
“I think it was being masked by all the other problems we were having last year.”
Then Plato makes ground…
Photo credit: Gergo Toth Photography
In race one, Plato made ground from near the back of the grid to finish 20th, before suffering with all the other rear wheel drive cars in race two as the slick-shod front wheel drive cars took advantage of the drying conditions.
The track was simply too damp at the start of the race for the rear wheel drive cars to risk using slicks.
Come the final race in dry conditions, effectively a dry test session for the final round of set-up changes, Plato made progress from 22nd on the grid to finish 19th.
Testing this week at Thruxton will give further clues to Plato’s prospects at Donington on April 29.
“We’ll continue to work and at Donington I’m going to be in a much better place where I can start working at getting some decent lap times out of the car,” he added.
“The science and the maths point to us heading in the right direction. Now we’ve got to start undoing lots of stuff. The deep set-up can’t just be bolted on and it works, you bolt it on and change everything else around it to make it work.
“We’ve also got lots of work to do on the engine, but I went home with a smile on my face. It was not a very productive weekend as far as points are concerned but very productive in terms of progress.”
Read our pre-Brands interview with Ash Sutton.
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