Drayson on the Road to Le Mans

Photo Credit: American Le Mans Series / John ThawleyFive years ago, he wasn’t even behind the wheel of a race car. Now, Lord Paul Drayson is competing in one of the world’s elite road racing series, eyeing a drive to next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. The former British government minister and successful businessman has taken a green approach to his racing, and at the same time, pursuing a life-long dream.

“I certainly believe that we all have one life, short time on the planet, and we have to make the most of it,” Drayson says.

Drayson is indeed making the most of his life by racing in the American Le Mans Series. The 48-year-old Englishman, who holds a PhD in robotics, has joined forces with British outfit Barwell Motorsport to compete in the sports car series, the first part of a three-step program that will hopefully end on the podium at Le Mans in 2009. It’s an ambitious plan, but Drayson and the team are up for the challenge.

Growing up near Brands Hatch, Drayson got the racing bug at an early age. He idolized motor racing legends Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart and has been a racing junkie his whole life. But before becoming involved in motorsport, Drayson first made a name for himself in business and politics. 

photo by: John Thawley
Drayson founded biotechnology firm Powderject Pharmaceuticals in 1993, which specializes in the production of vaccines. He served as the company’s CEO until 2003. Two years later, he made the first shift in his career. In May 2005, Drayson was appointed to Britain’s House of Lords as Minister of Defense Procurement. There, as a high-ranking government politician, he was responsible for allocating resources to British armed forces.

Just one year earlier, Drayson began his own journey as a driver. He dabbed in historic sportscars and single-seaters before moving up to Formula Palmer Audi in 2005. The following year, he jumped into the seat of a Barwell Motorsport Aston Martin DBRS9 in the British GT Championship, placing sixth in the GT3 category standings, all while still holding his day job in government.

During the off-season in 2006, Drayson and team director Mark Lemmer began formulating a plan to showcase green racing technology in their Aston Martin. With support from Aston Martin Racing, the team converted the car to run on bio-ethanol fuel for the following year.

“When people heard that we were going to come out for the next season with a car to run E85,” Drayson recalls, “the reaction from the other teams was that we weren’t serious about our championship in 2007. But nothing was further from the truth.”

Right from the start, heads started turning. Co-driver Jonny Cocker put the bio-fueled DBRS9 on pole at the season-opening race at Oulton Park. Drayson and Cocker went on to win twice that year, finishing runner-up in drivers’ standings and helping Barwell secure the teams’ championship.

photo by: John Thawley
A new challenge dawned when Drayson decided to put his government role on hold and pursue his dream of competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Last November, he sent a letter to Prime Minister Gordon Brown requesting a leave of absence from the Ministry of Defense. Drayson was about to embark on an opportunity of a lifetime.

“Paul had put a lot of effort into British government with his work in the Ministry of Defense,” Lemmer says. “On the other hand, he realized that there’s a great opportunity here to develop new technologies, and also for him to realize a dream. It’s like all of us in life: times ticking, and you shouldn’t put off things that you want to do now.”

All of the pieces fell into place to make Drayson’s pursuit start this year. With the American Le Mans Series announcing its green racing initiatives for 2008, and Barwell’s experience of running bio-ethanol fuel, Drayson knew it was the right time to make it happen. It also fit in well for his family. Drayson’s wife, Elspeth, and their five children were able to also move stateside and travel the circuit.

“I thought it was important to take action now,” Drayson says. “I wanted to show that I was serious. I didn’t want to wait until the [green] industry came into its own. I went green 18 months ago racing in the British GT Championship, but when I heard what the American Le Mans Series was doing, I just knew I had to be here this year.”

photo by: John Thawley
With the goal of being invited to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2009, Drayson decided to spend this season in the ALMS, honing his driving skills and promoting green racing technology. He formed an alliance with Lemmer’s team to create Drayson-Barwell, a two-year joint venture program. Next year, the team will be focused on its second step, the European-based Le Mans Series, before Le Mans itself later that June.

Drayson’s past success in the UK has given him the confidence to enter a whole new, more daunting arena in the US. While the ALMS is on a whole new level compared to British GT, Drayson has the full support of the team that’s helped guide him to where he is today.

“He works really hard at his driving,” Lemmer says of Drayson’s never-give-up approach. “He puts in the effort to develop himself, and that pays off. Last year, we saw him have some pretty good race performances.”

Co-driver Jonny Cocker has been instrumental in Drayson’s development as a racer as well. The 21-year-old, who’s also embarking on his maiden season in the ALMS, is impressed by Drayson’s perseverance and dedication while behind the wheel.

“We’ve pushed really hard to get Paul learning all the time, and he’s here to win,” Cocker says. “He’s not interested in having a play in the car. This is what he wants to do, and to be successful in it. He’s more than prepared to do whatever it takes to get faster and faster.”

photo by: John Thawley
Cocker, the 2004 British GT and 2005 Porsche Carrera Cup Asia champion, has been mentoring Drayson since the end of 2006. Over those two seasons, he’s seen Drayson make immense improvements on the racetrack.

“It’s certainly working because Paul’s making massive steps,” Cocker says. “Each time he gets in the car, he’s getting that little bit quicker. Now it’s smaller steps because he’s getting closer and closer. It’s an ongoing thing but it’s all going in the right direction.”

Drayson was in large part attracted to the ALMS for its focus on the environment. The introduction of cellulosic E85 ethanol as a fuel choice sealed the deal for the British team to compete stateside. It’s part of a global push Drayson is helping steer to bring the world’s climate issues to light.  

He became more aware of the deepening climate issues about two years ago, when a report by the UK government chief scientific officer revealed that climate change was indeed having a dramatic effect on our world.

photo by: American Le Mans Series
“It was convincing that we’ve got a serious problem and the biggest challenge that our generation faces,” Drayson says. “We’ve got to do it now. In a small way, what motorsport can do is inspire people. That’s what I hope to do with this: is to inspire people to think about a way that they can [help]. Not to stop doing things – go racing, do things we always love doing - but do so by using the science and technology we have to make it less damaging to the environment.”

The inspiration to make a change in the environment is being pushed through green racing programs on the racetrack. Drayson says his program hopes to change perceptions, drive innovations and make fans realize that being green doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be dull and boring.     

“Motor racing changes the perceptions of millions of people,” Drayson says. “The opportunity is that if we, as racers, can make being green cool and exciting, and if the fastest, most beautiful cars are the greenest, then everybody will want to aspire to have green cars.”

Drayson is most excited about what lies further down the road, in technologies that are still in infancy stages. He thinks those will really make a difference in the battle to save our sport, and planet at the same time.

photo by: John Thawley
“I think that’s one of the really exciting things about this time,” Drayson says. “We’ve had like 80 odd years where the internal combustion engine has been the answer. Now there’s a whole innovation around fuels and engine technology. No one knows which one is going to be the most important.

“It’s probably going to be a mixture, but it could be a dynamite technology which could evolve. Is it going to be hydrogen fuel cells? Is it going to be electric? Is it going to be a bio fuel of some kind - an ethanol or a diesel? The future is going to be different. The future has to be greener.”


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