Daytona24: Johnny Mowlem preview

2010 Rolex GT Preview And Looking Back To 2004 - With Johnny Mowlem Johnny Mowlem has been racing GT Porsches for a decade or more, and with his successful record at the Rolex 24, it seemed appropriate to gather his thoughts ahead of this ...

2010 Rolex GT Preview And Looking Back To 2004 - With Johnny Mowlem

Johnny Mowlem has been racing GT Porsches for a decade or more, and with his successful record at the Rolex 24, it seemed appropriate to gather his thoughts ahead of this weekend's event -- in which he'll be racing the #88 Orbit Porsche, with Guy Cosmo, Lance Willsey, Tom Papadopoulos and John Baker.

Mowlem and Orbit were GT winners at the 'World Center of Racing' six years ago, so it's rather neat that they're back together again this time, with Rodger Hawley at the centre of operations, of course. Let's start by going back seven years though, to that classic 2003 event, when the GT cars defeated the DPs at the first time of asking. Kevin Buckler's Racers Group had the kind of run in '03 that every endurance team aims for: faultless, no delays, no incidents on track.

Johnny Mowlem was racing the Risi Ferrari that year, "and although we finished second overall, I didn't get a Rolex watch, because we were second in class. In 2004 we had another shot at it and again finished 2nd overall with the Orbit Porsche GT2, but this time we took the GT honours as well, so I finally got that Rolex!

Then Grand-Am got tired of GT cars finishing so high up overall, and revised the GT rules for 2005 for the GT class to consist of Cup (GT3) machines, rather than full-on GT2s -- and that year I raced for Red Bull in their Porsche with Karl Wendlinger, Vincent Vosse and Dieter Quester, but the chance to finish on the overall podium was kind of gone from a GT point of view. However, this year, with the smaller field, I'm reasonably certain that the GT winner could be a top six overall finisher, if not better.

"2004 was that wet year, with rain falling almost throughout the race. Sharing with Robin Liddell, Mike Fitzgerald and the Policastros, we three pros. cycled through the drivers right through to Sunday morning, and I thought a long (almost three hour) stint would be my last spell in the car. That stint ended with about 45 minutes under yellow -- and that's the only time in a 24 hour race that I've struggled to stay awake while driving! At one point we came to a halt on the banking, and it's then that you realise how steep it is. I was hanging there, falling sideways in my belts!"

Mike Fitzgerald followed Johnny Mowlem into the Porsche-- but do you remember what happened next? That was the year when, allegedly, there were insufficient wet tyres for the DPs, and Grand-Am took the decision to red flag the race -- officially because there were pools of water on the track.

Johnny Mowlem was called up to finish the 24 Hours -- and he had an almighty threat (almost) in his mirrors: Mike Rockenfeller in the Flying Lizard Porsche. Rocky had a couple of advantages: firstly the Orbit Porsche had lost its rear window, which handicapped speed on the banking a little. Secondly, the Lizards car had specific 'Cup car' bodywork, and therefore was faster anyway on the banking.

"I had a 30 second lead with around an hour to go," recounts Johnny Mowlem, "but circumstances dictated that I lost a chunk of that on just one lap. Coming into the Bus Stop, on slicks in a light drizzle, I managed to pass four, admittedly rather tardy, back markers. Then I saw the yellows! I had to back off and let them pass me again, to avoid a penalty -- and it seemed to take an age! At one point I had to come to a complete stop on the exit of the Bus Stop!! I lost nearly 20 seconds on that one lap and Rocky was suddenly more of a threat. My radio wasn't working, but I could judge the gap by looking across at him from the infield kink as he arrived into the first horse shoe Turn 2, and that allowed me to control my pace, given how tricky it was to know how hard to push in the damp conditions with slick tyres.

"I think the team thought it was more of a drama than I did. Rocky had nothing to lose, while I had everything to lose! I brought it home with six seconds on him, but if the gap had shrunk to more than that, I could have pushed harder. It was still a great finish after nearly 24 hours of racing. Poor Rockenfeller was distraught, and I did feel for him, but that was his first Daytona and I'd already missed out on the watch three times by finishing second, so I figured his time would come!"

Classic 24 hour finishes like that are rare -- but the GT class at Daytona is always fiercely competitive. Perhaps it could finish in some similar fashion this weekend, to 2004?

A question for Johnny though: how is it that the 2010 cars are about five seconds a lap faster round Daytona than the 2004 cars?

"A good chunk of the time comes from changes at the Bus Stop: it's much quicker through there now than in '04, and it's been re-profiled slightly, especially making the exit faster. The rest is technology: improvements to the cars and tyres, year after year. It's a shame we're not in proper GT2 Porsches. I would think we'd be lapping in the 1:44s, rather than 49s and 50s."

So what about the GT form of the various marques at the test days earlier this month. What did you learn about the Mazdas, Camaros and the BMW, compared to the 911s?

"I didn't come across the Turner Motorsport BMW, the Auberlen / Hand / Said car, so I can't comment on where that car's pace is coming from -- but I saw plenty of the tubeframe Camaros and Mazdas.

"On the banking, the Porsche is still a tad quicker than the tubeframe cars, but the advantage is much smaller than it used to be. The stability of the tube cars is phenomenal under braking, and they both look much more lively in responding to steering inputs, especially on transitions like through the fast Bus Stop corner. My old mate Anthony Lazzaro is driving a Mazda this year, and he told me that the RX8 is really responsive in the corners -- but in a Porsche, we're having to really hustle it all the time, really working the car constantly.

"That could influence whether the Porsches have clean races or not. When you're permanently hustling like that, it does make an incident of some sort -- getting on some dirt or oil, contact, that sort of thing -- more likely. And if we lose time in a corner, we can't make up much of it on the banking, where our advantage is small. The new Camaro is almost as quick as us on top speed -- definitely quicker than the 2009 Pontiac "If you were selecting a make to give you the best chance of winning at Daytona, you'd probably go for the Mazda -- on both speed and the fact that it is now bullet-proof. There will probably be at least two of them there at the end.

"Robin (Liddell) told me that Stevensons with the Camaro are preparing their own engines this season, so we'll have to see whether that factor affects their 24 hour form, given the newness of their overall package, but they will definitely feature if they run reliably - and having Jan Magnussen on-board is a real boost for them."

One of the Mazdas was quickest at the test days -- the Dempsey Racing / Team Seattle car, with a 1:49.214, four-tenths faster than the best of the 911s, the #23 Alex Job entry.

The two TRG (TRG/Flying Lizard) Porsches were third and fourth fastest -- and when you list the drivers in these three fastest Porsches, you get an idea of the challenge facing the Orbit crew. How about this lot? Dominik Farnbacher, Martin Ragginger, Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas, Spencer Pumpelly, Jorg Bergmeister, Patrick Long and Johannes van Overbeek.

"We were tenth fastest, looking at the test days as a whole," continues our man Mowlem, "a little over half a second off the fastest Porsche. But we lost virtually the whole of the first day's running with silly little problems, and so effectively we were always playing catch up. On the last day we wound up seventh, only four tenths off the best time, so if we can keep improving the car up to the race we should be thereabouts in terms of outright speed. The Orbit chassis is a 2007 car, with some of the 2010 updates, but not all of them. We haven't got the wide wheel arches, or the wide track for example. We're a few tenths away from the Job and TRG cars -- but they're all well sorted, so I was reasonably happy with our pace."

Now here comes the important bit: can Mowlem and Orbit compete for the win again?

"If the cars ahead of us at the test - four Porsches, two or three Mazdas and the Stevenson Camaro - run trouble-free in the race, we won't win it. If that happens it will be a mighty struggle to get into the top six -- but cars do have problems in 24 hour races, so you never know. With a bit of luck, we can finish on the podium, but we'll need a lot of luck to win. In 2004, we had the fastest car -- but that's definitely not the case this year."

-source: johnny mowlem PR

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Series GRANDAM