Stephen Errity, GT Correspondent
“When the wiper stops working, don't allow your team boss to let you continue!” Jamie Campbell-Walter said when sitting in the paddock at Spa-Francorchamps, recalling a particularly memorable moment at the track's famous 24-hour race back in 2003 when he shared a Lister Storm with Tom Coronel, Nathan Kinch, Robert Schirle and Bas Leinders. “That was a nightmare weekend. Bas crashed on his out lap in the first free practice session and wrote the chassis off.
“The team did a fantastic job rebuilding the car, but we didn't make it out for any of the qualifying sessions and had to start from pit lane. We were leading after about four hours, with Tom and I doing the lion's share of the driving. It started to rain and Tom pitted, saying the wipers weren't working. Laurence [Pearce, Lister team boss] put me in the car and said I had to go to the six-hour mark when points were awarded, and the wiper would be fixed then. That was two hours away; it was raining heavily and starting to get dark. I couldn't see a thing, got two wheels on the wet kerbs at the top of Eau Rouge and went off, ending up with the car on its roof – so that was memorable for all the wrong reasons,” continued Jamie in Motorsport.com’s exclusive interview.
That was a really satisfying moment as a driver.
Not a high point of Jamie's long association with the British Lister marque, then, but there were plenty of those: the 1999 British GT Championship and 2000 FIA GT Championship titles being the most prominent. Both those successes were achieved with experienced co-driver Julian Bailey, but Jamie commented in this exclusive interview that one of the most satisfying victories of the Lister days came later, when he was paired up with German gentleman driver Nicolaus Springer.
“Here was a guy who was five seconds off the pace, and I had to bear that on my shoulders,” recalled Jamie. “His ability was down to me, and the better he could do, the better I could do. In that situation, your attention shifts from being the fastest all the time to getting this guy who's five seconds off to be 2.5 seconds off – your whole focus and mind-set changes.”
The duo's first race together was the opening round of the 2002 FIA GT Championship, held at Magny-Cours in France. Prospects didn't look good at first. “Everyone thought we'd be nowhere,” he remembered, “but I qualified the car on pole and did the first hour. Then Nicolaus did his stint, which left us a minute behind the leaders when I got back in the car with an hour and 40 minutes of the race left.” There was only one thing to. “I pushed like a bastard – and we won!” laughed Jamie.
“I remember Christophe Bouchut standing next to me on the podium having finished second: he just looked at me and said ‘I cannot believe it’." The win was a reflection both of Jamie's skill behind the wheel, and as coach and mentor. “That was a really satisfying moment as a driver,” he said, “as I'd managed to get Nicolaus to improve enough that he could do his target laptime, not spin or crash and hand the car back to me in good shape. The Lister team did a fantastic job, too. Laurence was one of the hardest bosses you could have, but he was also a great boss – tough but fair, and knew how to get the best out of drivers.”
But the next chapter of the Lister story was not a happy one – an LMP car project that is forever destined to be described with the adjective 'ill-fated'. It was the car in which Jamie suffered perhaps the most serious accident of his career in practice day for the 2003 Le Mans 24 Hours. It remains something of an enigma, even to him. “Did it have a lot of potential? I don't really know,” he commented. “It looked ugly, yet it always felt like quite a good car, but we never got to properly find out – we didn't do any development, as the engine was always breaking. Laurence made the decision to build his own engine, and at the time it seemed the right thing to do. But I think in hindsight, he should've got a 5.0-litre V10 Judd – you just bolt it in and know it will work – then we could have spent all that development money on the car instead.”
The experience didn't put Jamie off driving prototypes, however: following Lister's withdrawal from sportscar racing in the mid-2000s, he found himself driving a top-level LMP car again, for the Creation Autosportif team that had run the Lister Storm in its final year of competition. The move to Creation also saw the beginning of a strong driver partnership with Frenchman Nicolas Minassian. “Nic was probably one of my favourite team-mates: he's still a good friend of mine and a fantastic guy”, said Jamie. “Our wives are good friends and our kids play together. I shared four fantastic years with him at Creation and we formed a very good partnership.”
The Creation years yielded several podium finishes in European and American Le Mans Series events, but an overall victory eluded them, and with Audi now at the height of its Le Mans pomp, a win there was out the question, too.
Campbell-Walter's last race for Creation was the 2009 Le Mans 24 Hours, and the next stage of his career would see him once again driving a big, brawny and powerful GT car: the Sumo Power Nissan GT-R running in the newly formed GT1 World Championship for the 2010 season.
The series' sprint-race format of short, one-hour races demanded a different approach from the word go: “As a driver, to have wheel-to-wheel, touring-car-style racing for an hour in a big, powerful GT car with about twice the power of your average touring car, was great,” enthused Jamie. “It's a different mentality: if you have the odd knock, well, rubbing is racing – you'd never do that in an endurance event.”
The GT1 years of 2010 and 2011 also gave Jamie the opportunity to work alongside two highly rated team-mates: Warren Hughes and Le Mans winner David Brabham. “Warren is good, a very under-rated driver I think,” commented Jamie. “He did F3 for years, but he's really a fantastic GT and sportscar driver. And then you have David: a Le Mans winner and a true pro in and out of the car. I actually learnt some things from him last year, in terms of how to behave when you're out of the car and how to conduct yourself with the press and sponsors.”
Championship glory went the way of Sumo's sister Nissan team JRM in 2011, and 2012 saw the GT1 World Championship switch to GT3-spec cars, forcing the mighty GT-Rs into early retirement. But Campbell-Walter has popped up again, this time in the Blancpain Endurance Series (also for GT3 cars) driving a McLaren MP4-12C with Gulf Racing. “It's gone really good so far,” he said ahead of last weekend's Spa race.
“I've done the race at Silverstone and we did a test here at Spa about a month ago. The team is still in its infancy, but the core of mechanics and engineers are ex-Dave Price Racing, so they're very good. It's working well, the car is running well and everything is nicely presented. The McLaren is a very new car compared to the Audi, Porsche and Ferrari, which means it's not as easy for us, as we're still developing it, whereas many of the others are fully developed.”
The hi-tech McLaren is certainly a long way from the Harrier GT1 low-volume special in which Jamie started his sportscar career back in the mid-'90s. But, he says, that car was surprisingly similar to the MP4-12C in some ways, and even superior in others. “Those GT1 cars were a good deal lighter – about 850kg versus around 1,200kg for today's GT3s – and they had a lot more power: around 700bhp,” he explained.
“Both the Harrier and Lister had carbon tubs like the McLaren, too. We also had expensive stuff like carbon-ceramic brakes and so on, so they were definitely quicker and more challenging cars to drive. But technology has moved on in some respects, too: the GT3s have ABS and traction control to help out the gentlemen drivers. Although I'm not a huge fan of those systems, as they can mask the gap between a slower and faster driver, at the same time I'm quite grateful for them when it starts bucketing down with rain and I'm still on slicks!”
Although some drivers have commented that the carbon-monocoqued McLaren feels closer to a single-seater car than other GT machinery, Jamie doesn't agree: “At the end of the day, it's still a road car, and the Blancpain Series regulations mean the driver is very limited in what they can do with the car,” he elaborates. “You get three sets of springs, and you can only use those three sets – you can't mix springs between sets. The weight is the weight and the ride height is set at a minimum. So you have what you have, really. I wouldn't say it feels much closer to a single-seater than any other GT I've driven.”
Although the McLaren's early appearances were blighted by poor reliability, recent strong performances – including sprint-race wins for HEXIS Racing in the GT1 World Championship and United Autosports in British GT – show that teams are beginning to unlock the true potential of this ultra-modern race car. And with strong co-drivers and a promising Gulf Racing team around him, Jamie Campbell-Walter is well placed to enjoy some of that success himself, both in the remaining Blancpain Endurance Series races of 2012 and beyond.