SUBARU’S TIN-TOP CHALLENGE
How Jason Plato, Team BMR and Subaru are entering a new chapter in the BTCC. By Matt James
The traditional way of building a British Touring Car Championship racer is to find a road car, strip it out, fit it with the appropriate parts and then go racing. That is simplifying things, of course, but Team BMR and Jason Plato have taken a different approach this season.
It has reverse engineered its way to what it hopes will be a title-winning machine. It has lured Subaru to join the grid with a quartet of factory-backed Levorg models. The estate-shaped car will certainly make an impression on the BTCC grid this season.
It wasn’t a question of Plato approaching the manufacturer and then making its prime model a race winner, he knew what he wanted. “I had looked at the Subaru for a number of years, and spoken to [engineer] Carl Faux,” says Plato. “The way the car is laid out is perfect for the BTCC. I was committed to MG and so there was nothing I could do about it. It was frustrating, and I had my fingers crossed that nobody else was going to have the same idea as Carl and I had.”
Plato made contact with Subaru and pulled the deal together. From the initial contact in October, an agreement was made in November and the green light was finally given in mid-december.
While that is a boost for the championship, it meant that the timeframe for the build of an ambitious four cars – for Plato, ex-champion Colin Turkington, James Cole and team owner Warren Scott – was extremely tight.
Faux was the technical director of Triple Eight Racing and worked as the MG6 took 20 wins in Plato’s hands. He had done the groundwork on the Subaru.
Faux said: “I was on the BTCC Technical Working Group when we devised the NGTC regulations [to which all cars are built now, which mandates a number of dynamic factors and stipulates a high level of mandated parts].
“I was working for Triple Eight, which was running the MG. The further we went down the NGTC road with the cars, I was exploring the options with different cars, and the Subaru definitely stood out – but I was in the wrong place to do it. Then I joined BMR and, at the beginning of last season, this option came about.”
The reason that the Subaru is a stand out car is the engine. It is a flat fourcylinder configuration, which means that the pistons are horizontal as opposed to every other engine on the grid, which have in-line four-cylinder units. It means that the weight is low down, and that has inherent handling advantages from its Mountune-developed engine.
“The Subaru Levorg is essentially perfect for an NGTC,” explains Faux. “Within the rules, it is all about the engine and the positioning of its centre of gravity. Previously when the rules in the BTCC were freer, it was possible to engineer something trick with the suspension set-up or change something else on the car to overcome any problems. But, with the NGTC rules the way they are, there is little freedom to do that because everyone has the same suspension. That meant that the boxer configuration of the layout of the powerplant played an important part. It is a flat engine, and it carries the weight low down – its mass is low – which helps with the centre of gravity.”
The team has been hard at work building the car, but timeframes are tight – indeed, only one car was ready in time for the media day at Donington Park last week, and even that didn’t run.
The squad decided that, while it could rush through amendments to get the car out on track at Donington, it would prefer to perfect the machine and run at a private shakedown later in the week at Millbrook.
It was the next landmark in a project that has been full of twists and turns. One of the first obstacles to overcome was the rulebook. Four-wheel-drive cars are outlawed from the BTCC, so an amendment was needed. Teams voted in favour of the tweak that allowed a fourwheel-drive road car to run as either front-wheel drive only (if the engine is transversely mounted in the road car) or rear-wheel drive if the engine in the road car is longitudinal. It was unusual to get a consensus from rival team managers in the BTCC, but Faux thinks he has spotted a reason why the number of privateer teams might have had another reason to push through the change
Faux says: “The other teams agreed to this tweak – I think it was a lot of the smaller privateer teams that didn’t want us being a privateer anymore and stealing all their prize money [from the Independents Trophy]!”
The fact the Levorg is rear-wheel drive was crucial for Faux. He’d looked over the garage and seen what Team Dynamics had done with the estate-shaped Honda Civic Tourer in 2014 and the struggles it had initially to make it work with trick handling from the rear of the machine.
But the drivetrain configuration in the Levorg means that he is confident he won’t have such a struggle: “The aerodynamic numbers that we have from Subaru are very strong and, even though it might not look it, it is a small car. It is narrow. And you have to remember it is rear-wheel drive too – when Honda did its estate BTCC car that was front-wheel drive. Carrying more weight over the rear of the car is actually going to be more of a benefit to us. We wouldn’t have tried this programme if it had been based on a front-wheel-drive car.”
Now the car is up and running, there are still concerns before it gets to the opening race at Brands Hatch. Plato has been through a number of new manufacturer programmes and knows what it takes to get the most from a programme. However, even for the veteran of 94 race wins, the Levorg is something new.
“We have just got to get the car running straight, doing the right sort of thing, and understanding what we have. That will be the aim for Brands Hatch,” says Plato. “It is going to take a little bit of time to hone the car but actually, as a package, its maths and its physics should be spot on and it won’t take long to get right.”
As usual with engineers, Faux is cautious about making any bold claims for the 30-race campaign ahead.
“It is going to be hard for us: this is a new team, we are building a new car,” he says. “There are lots of people at Team BMR who have not been through this process before. But Subaru has shown its commitment to the programme for three years and that means it is important that we get it right. So if that means that the first part of 2016 is spent nailing any reliability issues we have, then so be it. We want to get this thing absolutely right.
“It is unrealistic to expect us to be winning right from the outset. We want to improve as a team. This is the first new car BMR has built and that, in itself, is a huge step. But, with the support we have from Subaru and the level of support from the public too, then this is going to be a very exciting and rewarding programme.”
But Plato is expecting much bigger rewards to come right from the outset. He is aware that there is a great deal of work to do, but that hasn’t stopped him targeting the biggest prize of all.
“I will put my neck on the line and say that we will be winning races before half way though the season, and the championship is on my agenda this year,” says Plato. “If I don’t win the title, I will be pissed off.” ■
“I am aiming for the title” Jason Plato
Scott, Turkington, Cole and Plato will drive the Levorgs