MANOR’S FRESH START
Why ex-f1 crew has switched to endurance racing, and why Le Mans is special.
ohn Booth and Graeme Lowdon take great pride in their work. They’ve been there, done it and bought the proverbial T-shirts when it comes to world motorsport events.
Through their Manor Motorsport organisation they’ve scaled the single-seater ladder – from Formula Renault, to F3 and GP2, eventually culminating in a points-scoring Formula 1 entry. It’s been 26 years of hard graft. They’ve reached the heights, experienced the lows, and learnt essentially all there was to learn about formula racing.
Except now they’re right back where they started. The challenge is new. The learning curve is nearvertical again, and this time the races are a tad longer.
The formation of the Manor WEC team to compete in the LMP2 division of the FIA World Endurance Championship wasn’t a total surprise. Instead it’s an inspiration.
The F1 team was ailing. Booth and Lowdon announced they would leave Manor-marussia at the end of 2015, citing a difference in opinion with team owner Stephen Fitzpatrick.
The F1 dream was over. The resources gone, the knowledge retired. So, what now?
“When we left Manor F1 we had nothing – not even a screwdriver to our name,” says Lowdon. “We’d done everything we could in F1, but we weren’t done with racing. We still wanted to compete, so we looked at our options and LMP2 just stuck out as the perfect opportunity.
“There’s such an attraction with a formula like this. As Manor we’ve always fought at the sharp end of everything we’ve done, whether that be actually on track or on the commercial side of things. In F1 it was all commercial, it became as important, if not more so than what happened on track.
“LMP2, and the WEC as a whole, is enjoying such a growth spurt, both in terms of entries and its commercial aspect and fan base. It’s got the right mix.
“There’s a lovely purist element to LMP2. It basically comes down to a good team having good drivers and that’s what makes the difference, not the car or the budget behind it. We’ve always believed that motorsport should be a test of skill, not a test of financial ability, and LMP2 is exactly that at the moment.
“We’ve got a great history of bringing young drivers through. We did it in F1 and LMP2 gives us the chance to keep doing it as it’s a genuine feeder to LMP1 and on a lot of young drivers’ radars now.”
Manor WEC was formed in just two months. Orders for two ORECA 05-Nissan Coupes were placed, the tooling was bought, and the bare bones of a team assembled.
“We only had eight or nine weeks to sort everything, and the WEC still has a selection committee and criteria you need to fulfil before you can do anything,” says Lowdon. “We had to recruit personnel, buy tooling, and start to learn immediately. It’s a tough task, but we’re used to high-pressure deadlines with the F1 projects, as they were always last-minute with having to build the car, sort the drivers and find sponsors.
“We’ve been lucky as we’ve retained some of the F1 guys, such as a few of our high-ranking engineers, and then we’ve recruited people with WEC and sportscar experience as you can’t underestimate the value of knowledge in this championship. To win and be successful it all comes down to good preparation. We’ve also kept Roberto [Merhi] from the F1 days, so there’s a real family atmosphere around the team.”
Going from building bespoke grand prix cars with complex hybrid engines to running essentially offthe-shelf sportscar chassis was also a step-change for Manor. Lowdon says the cars, especially their Nissan powerplants, are more simplified.
“The LMP2 cars are hugely different to F1 chassis, but in the right way,” he adds. “The engines are hugely simplified compared to F1, where teams and brands are spending millions on things fans don’t really care about. Sure it makes a nice engineering article or an interesting chapter in a science book, but F1 fans don’t care what the engine is – as long as it’s powerful, spectacular and produces good racing. Having simple engines in LMP2 controls costs and makes sure the drivers are the differentiator, which is how it should be.
“The level of quality of finish in F1 is also astounding, but the ORECA is on the same level chassis-wise. The carbon monocoque is the same standard as F1. Certain things are simplified – such as the suspension which is basic in both material and design, but why does it need to be fancy? The best engineering is fit for purpose, and LMP2 cars really are. They’re meant to be accessible for drivers and teams and not cost 50m euro per season to run.”
With the team coming together so late, Manor WEC was up against it come the start of the season. A powertrain issue led to the retirement of the Tor Graves/will Stevens/james Jakes car at Silverstone, while the sister entry of Matt Rao/richard Bradley/ Roberto Merhi recovered from a collision to finish sixth in class.
Better was to come at Spa-Francorchamps, where Merhi/ Bradley/rao could have won had they not been tipped into a spin at the start and had to serve a drivethrough for Merhi exiting the pits under a red light. The trio finished third to score Manor’s first podium.
Next up, it’s the big one. Le Mans. A race where knowledge – and luck – is everything.
“My first Le Mans was in 1990, and I remember watching Martin Brundle as part of the Jaguar 1-2-3 and I was bewitched by it,” says Lowdon. “I went to every race after that up until the F1 project in 2009.
“It’s the best race in the world bar none, and how the teams sustain the pace for so long is amazing. Just finishing at Le Mans is an incredible achievement.
“It will be my proudest moment in motorsport to stand on that grid in June and be about to race at Le Mans with a Manor badge on the car.
“We don’t have the most Le Mans experience, but I’ve listened to all the top team bosses over the years and they always say they learned something from each race they did, and that’s the key: to never stop learning. If we do well, then Lady Luck will have smiled on us. The level of competition is high, especially in LMP2 which is the most competitive category at the moment, so we just have to go and do our best.” ■