Jason Plato is a British motor-racing driver and a leading competitor in the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC), which is a race series held each year in the United Kingdom. A two-time BTCC champion having won the series in 2001 and 2010, he has finished in the top three in the championship an impressive total of nine times, and also holds the record for the most overall BTCC race wins.

Plato is also an enthusiastic presenter on popular motoring television series Fifth Gear, which has been broadcast in Australia, the United States and Canada, as well as in the UK. Also a qualified pilot, he lives with his wife and two young daughters in the historic British town of Oxford.

What separates a truly great driver from the also-rans? What difficulties do sound engineers experience when making a car-themed show? Is music important to you? What does music mean to you? What do you look for in speakers to maximise the home-listening experience? How important is innovation and creativity to a successful racing driver? How physically demanding is motor racing on a driver? Has working in TV required the learning of an entirely new skill set? How much importance do you places on aesthetics?

I’m a bit of a gadget man. I appreciate technology. There’s good, there’s better and there’s best, and when my career took off in the late 1990s, I was in a position to go for best. Our main living space at home in Oxford is huge – probably 12 metres cubed – and I needed something pretty substantial to fill that space with music. Anyway, a local dealer gave me a demonstration of KEF Reference loudspeakers, and they just blew my mind. And then, when I thought it was impossible to get better sound, I discovered KEF Blades. My system now combines a combination of Reference and Blade speakers. There’s a real emotional, life-like property to the sound.

Essentially, there are three ways you can make products: so that they are simply functional, so that they are beautiful, or you can combine the two. I’ve always appreciated products that are designed well. In a big room like mine, if you want high-end sound reproduction, you need big speakers with the ability to move a lot of air, and that’s quite a tricky engineering challenge because nobody wants big, ugly boxes in their homes. As a married man, I would not have been allowed to install big speakers at home had they not been easy on the eye. My wife would never have allowed it. That’s the thing about Blade speakers – they are beautiful and interesting pieces of furniture in their own right.

Music can be whatever you want it to be. I tend to use music for two different things. One, to relax – I can take myself away to a different place. And two, to set my mood – to energise me, to help me to reflect on things, etc. I think of music as a means of escape. It can alter your mood, your mind-set. After a race, I get home, put my favourite music on and the speakers start firing out tunes. It’s almost a ritual, actually. It’s very difficult to switch off after a race and music helps me unwind.

When working with cars, the environments are very difficult places from which to obtain good quality sound, so the audio guys are constantly playing with and adjusting their kit, repositioning microphones, determined to get the best possible sound in difficult circumstances. It never ceases to amaze me about how much time and effort everyone puts in to getting everything just perfect. Every one of them is an artist – sound is their baby, and they want to get it right.

One of the first things that struck me about TV is how long everything takes. I present a show called Fifth Gear about cars, and during the making of that hour-long show I might do a video item that, when it’s broadcast, will run at only five or six minutes. To get that five or six minutes will take two days of work for an entire team of people. Most of what we do ends up on the production room floor, and that’s purely because everyone is striving for perfection, to make the show as good as it can be.

It is extremely physical. The current crop of F1 drivers are real athletes in their own right and incredibly fit, and the only way to get fit for motor racing is to do it. You could put an Olympic sprinter, you could sit an Olympic marathon runner, next to me in a two-seat touring car and they would be physically exhausted after a few laps. It’s the adrenalin, it’s to do with the G-forces you pull, there’s a very hot, oppressive atmosphere inside the car… You need a very specific type of fitness and attitude to be a racing driver.

Drivers need to have a mechanical mind, and to be analytical. When I’m in debrief with my team, and we’re trying to improve the car, there are many things we can change or tweak – it’s working with the engineers in an analytical but creative way. It’s saying, ‘This is the problem we have. How can we solve it?’ There’s lots of data involved, and lots of science, but ultimately one thing that cannot be relayed in data is ‘feel’. What I feel in the car is a human thing. No machine can relay that information to the engineers.

Great drivers can produce a performance regardless of circumstance. Take Michael Schumacher, who is incredibly naturally gifted. Michael has the ability to drive a car at its absolute limit without using up all of his ability, so he has bandwidth left to think about strategy, overtaking, race-craft, etc, which lesser drivers don’t have. Look at the best professionals in any field – golfers, pianists – it’s their natural ability that makes the difference. Strangely, it’s drivers with natural ability that also seem to work the hardest.