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BTCC Memorable Drives: Final Naval Battle in Vauxhall War

Image Credit: BTCC.net

Image Credit: BTCC.net

While I was walking to work this morning, I came across a navy blue Vauxhall Astra parked on the side of the road. For the others passers-by, there was neither a flicker of recognition nor even a glimpse of acknowledgement. However, for a diehard fan of the BTCC such as myself I was instantly transported to a cold, windy and astronomically wet Kentish winter nearly 14 years ago. You see for me, that blue Astra represents a thrilling finale to a championship filled with change, battles and scandal. For this issue of BTCC Drives, I would like to take you back to 2001 and the thrilling finale of a season long grudge match between two of the biggest names in touring cars.

The 2001 British Touring Car Championship was somewhat of a landmark year; the Super Touring era had made way for new BTC-Regulations which significantly downsized the grid, while adding a new ‘production’ element. The start of the year saw cars as few as 6 or 7 take the start, with Vauxhall the only returning manufacturer. Peugeot, Alfa and Lexus all entered but a severe lack of testing was matched by a debilitating absence of performance. Only when MG turned up at the end of the year did they take a race win away from the Vauxhalls. As a result, 2001 was an all-out dog fight between Jason Plato and Yvan Muller.

Watch that titanic final battle between Muller and Plato at Brands Hatch here!

The year had been dominated solely by the rivalry of Plato and Muller, which had slowly turned sourer as each race rolled by. Things had come to a head at Silverstone when Plato appeared to ‘spin’ Muller which cost him the race win, when it turned out Muller had suffered a mechanical problem and tried to make Plato lose out as a result. On the podium, Muller refused to acknowledge Plato, like a truly petulant child. So when it came to the final rounds at Brands Hatch, the garage was almost literally split down the middle. Two drivers with equal status, two drivers who could win the title but only one title; it was always going to be a good one.

A thrilling championship decider is one thing, but when the scene is set at weather battered Brands Hatch, it was always a contender for an entry in BTCC Drives. Speaking as a spectator at that race weekend, my abiding memory will forever be that final race and THAT rain. Of the years I have been attending race meetings at Brands Hatch, Sunday will go down as possibly the worst conditions there have ever been. On a darkening track, the rain battered the teams, track and spectators with a vicious intensity. But worrying about the weather was the least of anyone’s’ worries; there was a championship to sort out.

The first race of the day was won by the returning Anthony Reid in the late MG entry, with Plato and Muller finishing 3rd and 4th respectively. Therefore, going into the final race of the year there were 6 points separating the top two drivers; Plato on 324 and Muller on 318. Muller would need at least one car between him and Plato to take the title. As the flag dropped on the final race, the weather conditions had deteriorated even further. As Muller charged towards the front of the field, in a cloud of spray and mud Plato spun his car on the entrance to Clearways. Somehow, he managed to merely brush the barrier, get the car moving and power back into the race. Just a few laps later, Muller almost repeats the pirouette Plato pulled, by going straight on at Clearways and collecting a load of mud in the process, just managing to hold it together and retain the lead.

Meanwhile in the production class, Moen chucked his Peugeot off into the gravel, bringing out the safety car and giving the luck-filled Plato a chance to march his way back up the field again, helped by both MGs pulling off at the side of the track with mechanical problems. Thompson took a pot shot at the production Proton and came off second best with a broken suspension, while Graves threw it off on the entrance to Druids. It was all falling into place for Plato, especially with Muller straight lining Clearways again and collecting even more rubbish in his car.

It would be Plato that would come out of Brands as champion. Image Credit: PSP Images/ touringcartimes.com

It would be Plato that would come out of Brands as champion. Image Credit: PSP Images/ touringcartimes.com

It would turn out to be the famous John B&Q that would be the deciding factor in the outcome of the championship. Having beached his car on track, the safety car came out again to close Plato up once again. But as the cars coasted around behind the safety car, the cameras caught a glimpse of the underside of Muller’s car. A fire had broken out which forced Muller to pull off and retire. The mixture of track conditions and Muller’s multiple forays into rally cross ruined the engine and of course his championship.

For me, what made that race so memorable was the potent combination of factors that came together to produce Plato as the outright champion. At no point was the outcome set for any driver on the grid. Plato went from losing control of his Vauxhall to finishing 2nd and taking the title, while Muller drove a masterful race and slight mistakes cost him his propulsion abilities. No one could have possibly predicted anything that happened. This level of unpredictability truly characterises the magic of the BTCC.

In a season filled with scandal in the Vauxhall garage, it was fitting that the championship went down to the wire in a race filled also filled with drama and revelation. I remember sitting at the Paddock Hill grandstand, shivering under the majesty of the winter wind, rain and darkness transfixed on the action on track. I will never forget the gasps from the crowd when Muller’s car spontaneously combusted. Even in truly awful conditions, the fans were united in suspense.

Rivalry. Suspense. Action. This is what the BTCC is all about!

Remember to keep your suggestions coming for your BTCC Memorable Drives!

Follow me on Twitter @lewisglynn69

Keep Driving People!

Peace and Love!

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