Jason Plato is a well known racing driver and television presenter who lives in Oxford. A big name in the British Touring Car Championships which he won in 2001, he has always finished in the top five places over the last ten years and is known for his aggressive driving style and for thriving on confrontation as well as success. He won the British Karting Championships aged twelve in 1982, and got his first big break in 1997 with Frank Williams and Renault in the BTCC by camping outside Williams's factory in Didcot until Frank allowed him in for a five-minute interview! He is also a keen pilot, charity fundraiser and businessman. Here he talks to Theo Sloot about racing, being a television presenter and what wines he likes to drink.
Having driven on my own for hundreds of miles between the ages of ten and twelve in Africa, I have an interest in cars - and especially sports cars, so it was with interest that I met Jason Plato for lunch in the Cherwell Boathouse in Oxford. I'd heard a bit about the so called bad boy of the BTCC and his liking of winding up the opposition on and off the track, and had seen Jason on Fifth Gear doing some amazing things in cars, but my own experience of him was somewhat different. He reminded me at the beginning of our lunch that we had met regularly in the 90s when I was running the Oddbins Fine Wine section in the back of the Little Clarendon Street shop and selling him some rather serious wines. Then it all came back to me - the physical presence, the cheeky demeanour, the loveable rogue, the easy strong-but-friendly personable manner, the humour, and, of course, the passion. As the interview went on a picture emerged of a man busily engaged in the building of Brand Plato, and I was interested to learn how much of Jason's success has been the result of very careful planning, as well as his natural talent for driving cars and for being in front of the camera.
TS So it was me that got you into drinking good wine?
JP You did actually - this would have been around '96 or '97. Before I did drink wine but I didn't understand it. You certainly got me spending a few quid on a bottle of wine which I then started to appreciate. I fact you've spoiled my taste buds (laughs). Back in the early '90s I was quite happy drinking four quid bottles of wine and now it's elevated somewhat. So thank you for that. My bloody bank manager says thanks as well! You got me into Peter Lehmann Stonewell Shiraz and that was just phenomenal - I'd never tasted anything like it. Since then I've tried other big Aussie Shirazes but I still think that that's one of the best. Then you got me tasting all sorts and I'd come in and say "I like this one - what else can I try?" And you'd say "Try that one over there." I'm fairly sure you got me onto Olivier Leflaive Montrachet as well - we had that for our wedding actually. And you know, these days I just can't drink basic Chardonnay - it's much too oaky for me. You got me into all kinds of stuff just through me saying "Give me a white wine that's this or that." And yes - it worked.
TS What do you like for everyday drinking?
JP I quite like a Sauvignon Blanc actually. One that's just dead easy to drink. I find that they've often got a little bit of fizz in them. The problem is, if I sit down with a bottle of red wine I'll wake up the next day with a headache. My wife will occasionally have a bit of red too but when it sits there in the big wine glasses that we all drink out of now, it scares me a bit! (laughs) But I do like the big, bold, strong red wines - they've got some poke haven't they? I don't like light reds. I like rich Riojas too. I went to a Laithwaites wine tasting awhile back at The Manoir and they were showing wines from a small wine producer in Patagonia who made both red and white - we tasted some really unusual stuff there. There was a red we tried which you'd almost think had a bit of port going on in it. I'm not fond of over tannic wines though - they often taste too dry and metallic to me. We've got some friends who have this amazing hotel in St Barths in the Caribbean called Eden Rock - we were over there for Christmas one year and were drinking some very well known expensive French wine and actually I just didn't like it. I think that kind of wine is very much an acquired taste. I can't ever imagine a situation when I'd lay a wine down either. Crack it open and off we go - that's my kind of wine! I'm passionate about it all right but I like to actually drink the stuff and I also like wine to go with food. We're often out of wine in the house, simply because it gets drunk. I could go in there now and there would be bugger all to drink.
TS So what led to your love of cars?
JP My dad was in the motor trade as far back as I can remember. When I was growing up, he was manager of a BMW dealership in Newcastle, so of course he used to bring home whatever car he liked. One of my earliest memories about getting my rocks off about cars was dad dropping me off at school. I was always late. The other kids would already be lined up in their forms and about a hundred yards away down the slope was the road where my old man would drop me off. He'd go one way, turn around and come up the other way. From turning round to stopping he would reach maximum revs in first gear and not change! He got me there at two minutes past nine - I was always late for assembly. But after awhile this became not so much a source of annoyance for the teachers, but almost a source of interest - what bloody car is Plato going to turn up in today?
I'd always thought of my old man as an amazing driver - and he was good although he wasn't tremendously quick. But he did have certain skills which you don't normally see on the roads. I can remember as a kid watching him drive and thinking "That's groovy, that's cool." I can remember going to motor racing events with him, including the 1977 Grand Prix at Silverstone which James Hunt won. So there's always been a passion in the family for motorsport.
TS When did you actually start racing?
JP The racing itself all started when my dad took a kart in as a bad debt around 1980. Someone owed him a few hundred quid and it was basically a bit of fun for him. On Sundays when the dealership was closed we used to drive the kart round the petrol pumps. And then we found a local track and I had a go and was quick. I was quicker than Dad. And on that day I discovered what I wanted to be.
After that our family became a little team. Dad was my engineer and my mechanic. Mum was team catering and negotiator - she sorted out the arguments. We used to travel up and down the country and camp in a little Volkswagen LT28 van - we built a partition in the back and that's where all the kit, engines and tool boxes were kept while we'd sleep on home made bunk beds in the front. Nearly every weekend we'd be racing somewhere. And it was ace! It was just the best thing to do. Whilst other kids were playing football I was off racing karts. And these were proper racing karts, not the fun things you see around. At the age of twelve I was doing 100 miles an hour.
TS You're known to be a pushy and aggressive driver on the track. How much of that comes from your personality?
JP I'm a very bad loser. I hate losing with a passion. When I hear people saying that it's not the winning that's important, it's the taking part - I just think "Utter bullshit!!!" I honestly believe that we shouldn't teach kids that. You should bloody win or not at all!! Or at least try to win but win rightly and fairly - but that's all we want to do - win. No matter what field it's in. I've always had that philosophy.
TS What about the car itself?
JP That's about being at one with a piece of kit. It's a bit like pulling on a golf glove, or it should be like that. But more often than not you're not fully at one with it. And that's when you've got to make the changes to the set up to make the car do what you want it to do. When you get it absolutely right it's almost a thought process. The car will do what you want it to do without a great deal of effort. To get to that is a real challenge. But just driving a car on the absolute limit is a sexy thing to do. It's very rewarding and you get an awful lot back from what is a basically a bunch of nuts and bolts.
TS Tell me how you prepare for a race when you're on the grid and waiting to go?
JP Funnily enough I had a conversation about this a little while ago with a sports psychologist and he said that there's two types of people. There's the 'have a look at the tits on that' type and then there's the guy who locks himself away and won't speak to anyone before the start. Both ways work well but you have to discover which one you are. I'm a more 'have a look at the tits on that' sort of character because I use distractions and having fun as a way to stop me winding myself up. I've learnt over the years that if I try to visualise what's going to happen in advance of a race I get too fired up and that can lead to becoming a bit too aggressive and a little bit too punchy in those crucial moments in the start of the race. The start is normally the point where shunts can easily happen and there are those people that just always seem to thread themselves through the mêlée. And that ain't coincidence.
TS How do you do it?
JP By distracting myself - by not letting myself get wound up. We've all got twelve minutes when we're sat on the grid before the start of a race. There's a lot of things going on - a lot of radio chatter and banter and there's also a lot of people on the grid - nice girls and good things to look at. Everyone's getting a bit twitchy and a bit anxious. I just tend to take the piss and have a bit of fun just to take me completely away from what's about to happen. There's certain things I have to do, such as setting things up in the car, but once I know all that work's done I probably have about six or seven minutes to potentially wind myself up. And that's just what I don't do.
TS How did you get into television?
JP I was driving for Williams in the BTCC. I'd done a Lewis Hamilton - I'd got the best seat in the business with Williams and - first ever race - pole position. Second ever race - pole. Third race - pole. So I delivered on all the first three races. And that was a blessing really because that put me into the perfect frame of mind to then think about my business, my brand and where I wanted to go. At the time Murray Walker was commentating, it was prime time BBC, there was a lot of exposure - I was a new kid on the block and something just occurred to me - there's a link between television and being a character on the grid. And also, what did I want to be - a hero or a villain? And I chose the villain - the bad lad. And, touch wood it's proven to work so far - though it might not prove to be the right choice in the second chapter of my life.
Then I got a call from Grenada who said that they had this new men's show called Members Only. They needed a motor racing guy to test a few cars. So I screen tested and got the gig. I loved it and what's more I got paid! It was great. But then I looked at car TV and saw an opportunity. No one who was doing car TV was actually racing at the same time and at that point there were three or four car shows on television. Getting into television became quite important but also tricky in case it became a distraction to my racing. But it became a tool to enhance my brand if you like. So it was a very premeditated move. I had a three year deal with Williams and didn't know what was going to happen after that. And because I was getting a lot of coverage it was getting up other driver's noses - which was sweet music to me (laughs) - because it meant that it was working.
TS So what did you do after Members Only?
JP After Members Only I co-presented a show on Channel 4 called Driven. Richard Hammond screen tested for the same programme but didn't get it. I'd known Richard from the old days because he was a press officer at Renault UK when I drove for Williams. Richard had done local radio and a lot of fairly average television programmes on weird satellite channels, and every time I met him at a party it was always "You've nicked my bloody job!" But look what he's doing now, God bless him. But although I was on television I actually didn't find it easy at all at first - in fact I found doing TV really difficult.
TS What did you find hard about it?
JP I wasn't confident enough to be myself. I've found that you have to over project on television and I couldn't quite understand why at first. How can what you're saying to camera feel so over the top and cheesy - yet when it comes through on the TV it just looks normal? I felt like I wasn't being me, it wasn't natural, but as it turned out it was fine, and over the course of the years I got to just know what to do. You just lift it up an octave, you over present a little bit, and then all of a sudden you get comfortable and you get to experience it from the other side, which actually looks OK. So I didn't find it easy at first and in fact I'm still a bit twitchy when doing live TV. But I also love it because it's a buzz. Fortunately I've managed to persevere with it and it's working out well.
TS What are your plans now that Seat have decided to pull out of the BTCC?
JP My plan is to find another manufacturer to drive for. There's three possibilities in BTCC at the moment - Ford, Mitsubishi and BMW. So I'm speaking to all three of them. I want to remain in BTCC because it fits well with my brand. If you type BTCC into Google, my name will pop up, and that's very valuable. The other thing is that I don't have to travel all around the world with my wife and new little baby. My days of thinking that worldwide travel is a glamorous thing are long gone. Sticking with BTCC also means that I can spend a bit more time with my new marketing company which is going really well.
TS And what about your future in television?
JP The new series of Fifth Gear will be broadcast at the beginning of next year so we'll start filming for that in November. And there's some other new opportunities with TV as well. I'm looking at anything to do with motoring, or anything to do with quirky sports - I'm desperately trying to get onto Strictly Come Dancing next year.
There's also a new show for BBC 1 to be broadcast in late November called the Ice Man Cometh, in which the producers need four athletes that they can train up to compete in the Italian bobsleigh championship. They want a racing driver, and I'm in line for that, but it's the other three athletes I'm concerned about. I need to know that the bloke who's got his hand on the brake is going to be there at the end - you know what I mean - and there's no way anyone else is going to steer the bloody thing - that's my gig or I ain't turning up!