On 31 March 1997, Jason Plato made quite a stir on his British Touring Car Championship debut at Donington Park.
Claiming pole for both races, he finished second in the opener behind Renault teammate Alain Menu and, then aged 29, was a welcome injection of youth into a championship dominated by veteran drivers.
At the time, Ashley Sutton probably wasn’t paying much attention to Plato’s debut season; he was only three years old, after all. Fast forward to 2017 and Sutton was racing in the BTCC alongside Plato, the latter aged 50, for the Team BMR Subaru Levorg squad. And it was 23-year-old Sutton who claimed the championship.
Sutton was the youngest BTCC champion since John Fitzpatrick in 1966, and yet his success didn’t seem all that unusual. Although the likes of Plato and triple champion Matt Neal, 51, are still the most high-profile drivers, a host of 20-something drivers are regular visitors to the top step of the podium this year.
“It’s tremendously exciting,” says BTCC boss Alan Gow. “The young guys are the future of the BTCC.”
Traditionally, touring car racing was the domain of older drivers who had fallen off the single-seater ladder, but the fast-rising costs of Formula 1’s feeder formula and the BTCC’s high profile explain why more drivers are targeting the latter from an early age.