Sterling Insurance with Power Maxed Racing made the annual migration north to Knockhill in Scotland for rounds 22, 23 and 24 of the Kwik Fit MSA British Touring Car Championship. The Knockhill circuit requires real commitment as the drivers look to attack the dips and hollows of the tight and twisty strip of tarmac that overlooks the Firth of Forth.
Dunlop had elected to bring the soft (prime) and medium (option) compound tyres north of the Border, reflecting the twisty nature of the circuit.
Having not run at Knockhill since last season, Saturday’s first free practice session saw both drivers looking to dial in the Sterling Insurance with Power Maxed Racing Vauxhall Astras on the slower medium tyre before looking to step up the pace in FP2 ahead of Qualifying.
Whilst Rob’s progress in car 9 was hampered by a slight brush with the barriers, to languish down in P19, teammate Jason put the sister #11 Astra into a solid P4 as FP2 drew to a close.
With an optimistic air, the PMR crew looked to further optimise both cars’ set ups for qualifying, initially with mixed results as Plato went into P3 and Collard suffered a lock up before going P25, only for a red flag to hamper further progress.
On the restart both cars looked to get clean laps in and Jason was 2/10ths quicker again in sector 1 before a small error and traffic conspired against him. The loss of that push lap proved critical as the former Knockhill qualifying record holder found it difficult to get back into a rhythm to finish an unrepresentative P15, while Rob struggled with time consuming understeer to end qualifying in a similarly frustrated P22.
Rob started Race 1 on the harder tyre, looking to get the slower rubber out of the way before looking to attack later in the day, whilst Jason immediately went into attack mode with the soft tyre, albeit challenged by the prospect of dealing with three RWD cars ahead at the start.
As it turned out Jason struggled over the first lap, dropping back to P17, whilst Rob made up a place into P21 before the Safety Car was called on lap 2.
On the lap 8 restart, Rob moved swiftly and expertly into P17, the multiple race winner now right on the tail of his double Champion teammate and following Jason through as both Sterling Insurance with Power Maxed Racing Astras moved past Jackson at Duffers Dip.
Soon after though, the 9 car got hit on the left rear, forcing Rob into the pits for repairs. The hard working PMR crew turned the Astra around quickly, with Rob re-joining on lap 21, albeit 4 laps down.
Out on the track, Jason had moved the # 11 car into P13 with a move down the inside of Simpson at Duffers Dip, the Astra’s fastest laps now matching those of the leaders as he closed in on Cook ahead.
As the race drew to a close, the Astra managed to get down the inside at the hairpin for P12. However, with uncertainty over whether the move was completed under a yellow, Jason and his race engineer decided to hand the place back, before re-engaging battle on the last lap. This time Cook defended the inside line only for Jason to run around the outside with the Sterling Insurance with Power Maxed Racing Vauxhall Astra managing to win the drag race to the line by a tenth of a second to finish a hard fought P12. Rob was a non-classified finisher, but at least fit and ready to fight again in Race 2.
The sun came out for Race 2 and the temperature rose accordingly, not by too much, but enough to be noticed by the large, enthusiastic and knowledgeable Scottish crowd.
On track Jason made another solid start to hold onto P12 in the frantic battle for position into Duffers Dip on lap 1, whilst Rob was making great progress to immediately move up inside the top 20, lapping in P18 on lap 3, only to lose a place on each of laps 3 and 4, before fighting back into P19 and fighting hard.
By lap 8, Jason had moved clear of his pursuers, before closing and ultimately catching Morgan at the tail of the lead train in P7, lapping as the fastest car on the track as they approached mid distance.
Indicating that set up changes had taken the # 11 car in the right direction, Jason searched hard for a way past but was rebuffed, as the field spread out into a processional race. By lap 22 Cook had closed up to the Plato / Morgan battle, causing Jason to start looking in his mirrors and releasing the pressure on the car ahead as his mind turned to consolidation and the grid 3 draw.
As the race drew to a close Jason retained P8 in the middle of a 3-car sandwich and Rob came across the line in a rather lonely P17, in his first run on the softer tyre.
Plato’s former Vauxhall teammate, Alain Menu, conducted the reverse grid draw, placing the #11 Astra on grid 3 for race 3.
For race 3, there was hope in car #11 that the slower lap time delta offered by the harder medium tyre would be minimised by the rising track temperatures. For Rob, he had work to do from P17, although he felt he was on the right tyre.
Whilst the start was orderly, the next 2kms were far from it, as cars clashed and spun left right and centre. Unsurprisingly the Safety Car was deployed for the second time in three races. What was a surprise was the fact the marshals managed to clear the mess in just 6 short laps, with the re-start commencing at the end of lap 7.
At the original race start Jason had expertly held on to P3 as he brought his tyres up to temperature and Rob had progressed a place into P16. On the restart however, Jason struggled a little more, as he dropped away from the top 2 and into the clutches of the soft tyre shod Morgan, relinquishing P3 on the entry to Duffers Dip on lap 13.
Meanwhile Rob had closed rapidly on Jackson, Sutton, Turkington ahead in P15 although Butcher was closing on the #9 car also, forcing Collard to focus on defence rather than offence. After Butcher got passed, lap 14 saw Bushell also try his luck to get past, clattering into the right rear of the Sterling Insurance with Power Maxed Racing Vauxhall Astra with such force that he ripped his own front left wheel off. With said wheel making its own bid for freedom, the Safety Car was re-deployed.
At the lap 18 restart, Jason was starting to struggle in P4 and was assaulted into the chicane as Smiley pushed the Astra into the gravel, losing momentum and another place to Ingram, before sinking further as first Chilton and then Cammish, with a similar but more subtle assault at the chicane, demoted the increasingly frustrated former Champion down to an eventual P8 finish. And whilst Jason was the third of the front runners on the slower medium tyre, both he and the Team had expected a little more from race 3.
Teammate Rob was a very close observer to a real bunfight just ahead over the final points paying positions and just missed out himself with a P16 finish, ruing a general lack of pace across the weekend.
Rob Collard, Sterling Insurance with Power Maxed Racing Vauxhall Astra #9 said: “We came here with high hopes after such high hopes after Thruxton, and I’m just disappointed to go away with no points. Just a very frustrating weekend; it’s a track I normally excel at, but it’s my first time back here for a while with front wheel drive and I’ve just not been able to get the maximum out of the car. It’s a long journey home, with a lot of time to reflect, so we need to dig deep and get back on form at Silverstone!”
Jason Plato, Sterling Insurance with Power Maxed Racing Vauxhall Astra #11 said: “I think that we’ve just been on the back foot a bit since Qualifying. We haven’t quite been able to get the car where we wanted it, which has been frustrating for all of us. We only missed out on where we should’ve been a couple of tenths, but here that’s the difference between P4 and P15. We’ve got a couple of weeks now to crunch the numbers before Silverstone though, and we know the car’s quick, so I’m confident we can pull it together.”
Adam Weaver, Team Principal, Sterling Insurance with Power Maxed Racing “Whilst it was an enjoyable weekend up in Scotland, I can’t help but think what a weekend it could have been for both our drivers. We showed great pace in FP1 & 2, but it just didn’t come together in Qualifying, with, unfortunately, more of the same come Race Day. We have a competitive car and a great team, so now we just need to scratch some heads and get the best out of it for Silverstone.”
Martin Broadhurst, Technical Director, Sterling Insurance with Power Maxed Racing “It was something of a frustrating weekend all around really, especially following a somewhat successful Thruxton. The cars showed great pace during FP1 & 2, but unfortunately it just didn’t translate into results on the day. We’ll be working hard in the short time before Silverstone to make sure the cars are at the sharp end, where they should be.”