A detailed conversation with Strakka Racing Team Principal Dan Walmsley.
When Strakka Racing won the LMP2 class of the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2010, just three years after driver Nick Leventis founded the team in 2007, the next question seemed obvious to them...
“We kind of got to the point of ‘Well how do we make this business faster?’” Strakka Team Principal Dan Walmsley tells ESM. “We could come and win Le Mans next year but is that going to be any better than this year? Probably not… So you look for the next goal.”
Leventis’ success as part of the three man driving team at Le Mans in 2010 was the direct product of a bespoke Strakka Performance Driver Development Programme which successfully turned him, an amateur driver in 2004, into a Le Mans Champion within three years.
“What we were looking to do was develop Nick into a very competitive racing driver,” Dan recalls of the programme’s inception. “So we introduced HD cameras on the cars to give him driving lines, we got driver coaches, we got a second car so we could have a professional driver chasing him, leading him, blocking him or showing him racing lines – building all these elements in. Then we brought live telemetry to the table. So that means that while Nick’s driving, the data is coming live to our screens and we can tell him, ‘no you braked too early there, you need to brake later,’ so next time around he can improve.”
Expansion and driver development
After a record breaking 2010 season that also saw Strakka achieve the first overall race win for an LMP2 car in European Le Mans Series history, the team’s next move was to open the Driver Development Programme up to other drivers and expand their participation into other racing competitions.
“The relevance of what we were doing infiltrated into the business and we started getting young and up-coming racing drivers wanting to work with us to try and improve their driving techniques… And at that point we recognised the opportunity to dovetail that with actually running single-seater, what I would term Formula cars, in racing categories.”
Formula One is a money pit.
Strakka Racing Team Principal Dan Walmsley
As of next season Strakka will have eleven drivers and nine cars/karts racing across four different competitions – allowing their youngest drivers to naturally graduate from the Zanardi Strakka Karting Team to Formula Renault 2.0 and then ultimately into either the FIA World Endurance Championships or a Formula Renault 3.5 Series that in recent years has seen the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Kevin Magnussen and Daniel Ricciardo all make the leap to Formula One.
“What the ideal scenario for a driver is, we believe, that they know they can come to the right people from an early stage and join this ‘staircase of talent’ we’re trying to introduce – and know that they don’t need to look anywhere else… I think we’re probably the first organisation to offer the top to bottom opportunity…with the integration of our in house simulator to both develop our cars and further our understanding of how to get the best from drivers… And we’ve got bigger plans for the future which will grow that and strengthen that bond even further.”
The team’s simulator at Silverstone is available for both professional and amateur drivers to hire and, uniquely, the sessions are monitored by the team’s race engineer, who is able to provide feedback using the same Performance Analysis programme that has been a key contributing factor to Strakka’s success so far.
“A lot of teams believe that their engineering knowledge is their intellectual property,” Dan says, “Well it is, but we kind of believe if we can’t out-think our rival again to the next step and again and again and again then we shouldn’t be here. So that’s what we promote… we work very openly with our customers and drivers and sponsors.”
Formula One is, in Dan’s words, a ‘money pit’ and any notion of Strakka joining as a car manufacturer or team is not something that they are able to entertain. Instead Strakka see their role as a provider of future drivers to the Formula One teams and a place where talent can be nurtured.
It’s a vision that in part stems from Dan’s belief that that the landscape of Formula One is shifting.
“What’s happened this year is that Jules Bianchi is driving for Marussia in Formula One, and he’s driving for them because he’s a Ferrari Academy driver and Marussia is running Ferrari engines… What Jules has done this year is he’s demonstrated his ability massively and he has dragged a car that is not a front running Formula One car into the points on occasion. And him scoring points this year will reward Marussia to the tune of probably $30m at the end of the year… Sometimes a really talented driver is the answer and that will bring you more money than someone just writing you a cheque and putting an average driver in the car.”
The incentive for Strakka to provide the next generation of Formula One drivers is the opportunity to further enhance their own, already very creditable, reputation.
The organisers are trying very hard to help teams build and race competitive LMP1 cars but the category is still very much geared towards manufacturers and hybrid technology.
Strakka Racing Team Principal Dan Walmsley
“It probably sounds like a bit of a cliché but we don’t want a trophy cabinet just full of trophies, we also want a trophy cabinet in the form of a portfolio of drivers who have achieved success because they worked with Strakka Racing.”
Dan also believes Strakka’s presence in different competitions will help them to engage with sponsors – which in turn will give them the opportunity to help drivers engage with sponsors as well.
“The drivers who get to the top now, they really have to tick more boxes than anyone has ever had to before and that’s what we feel we can assist them with,” he says. “We can certainly take anyone to the maximum of their potential and sometimes that potential isn’t realised because of other circumstances such as financial, such as fitness or such as engineering understanding of the car.”
As for the immediate future Strakka has now moved firmly into the realm of race-car manufacturing and is currently developing its new LMP2 car in collaboration with DOME in Japan – with the aim of returning to compete in the FIA World Championships before the end of the season. Their previous participation in the competition saw them withdraw their LMP1 car mid-way through the 2013 season after regulation changes ultimately hampered the car’s performance.
“The organisers are trying very hard to help teams build and race competitive LMP1 cars but the category is still very much geared towards manufacturers and hybrid technology, which brings cost complexity. Unless you’ve got a budget of €100m plus, you’re not going to compete… It’s expensive in monetary terms but deeper than that it’s expensive in energy terms…to put that level of commitment into a project to know that you’re going to struggle to compete against the factory teams is simply not something we’re interested in engaging in at this time.”
Having made the decision to redesign the car to compete in the LMP2 category their progress was then further delayed by the biggest rule change in Formula One of the last twenty years – which resulted in F1 teams block booking pretty much every engineering subcontracting facility in the country.
“The F1 rules change did two horrendously negative things for our programme,” Dan recalls, “it pushed the timing the wrong way and we also paid a king’s ransom to push it the wrong way… That caused a lot of issues in getting the car delivered for the start of this season and as a result the testing programme was delayed – and then once we got testing we had a crash and subsequently wanted to make some changes to the rear… We have felt the right decision is to get those components right before we take the car racing again.”
Strakka hopes the results of its Driver Development Programme will be a selection of drivers able to compete in the forthcoming LMP2 car or able to move into Formula One.
“We definitely want the ladder to infiltrate into sports cars so when they get to the top of the ladder they’re looking with one eye on F1 and maybe one eye on sports cars.”
With the Driver Development Programme set up and the launch of the new LMP2 car on the horizon the next question is, of course, the same as the last.
“Build the ladder,” Dan says, “That could be, in the first instance, a couple more rungs to make sure we have got a really coherent programme. And then when the customer joins us at the very beginning they will not even look elsewhere… They wouldn’t even dream of it. And that’s the next goal.”
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