MANOR’S FRESH START

Why ex-f1 crew has switched to en­durance rac­ing, and why Le Mans is spe­cial.

Motor Sport News - - Le Mans Preview - By Rob Lad­brook

J

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.” ■

Photos: LAT

Manor’s F1 life was a dif­fi­cult one

Booth (left) and Low­don in F1

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