Thursday
Nov172011

SCI Interview: Nissan's All-Rounders

 

UK-based Australian David Brabham has one of the most varied CVs of any racing driver active today. Over the course of a long and successful career, he has driven everything from Formula Ford and Formula 3 single-seaters to Brabham and Simtek Formula 1 cars, Jaguar XJR-14 and Toyota TS010 Group C cars, Panoz and Peugeot prototypes and a whole host of GT machinery. After a long spell racing primarily in the US, in 2011 he has returned to Europe to pilot a Nissan GT-R for the British Sumo Power team in the GT1 World Championship. Over at Sumo’s sister Nissan team JRM, meanwhile, we find Lucas Luhr, who has spent time in Porsche, Audi and Aston Martin prototypes; and Britain’s Richard Westbrook, who, after many years spent exclusively in Porsches, this year drives both a Nissan GT-R and a Chevrolet Corvette. SCI caught up with the three GT-R pilots at Silverstone recently to find out how their seasons are progressing and reflect on their interesting and diverse careers.

 

DAVID BRABHAM

 

Errity: You’ve raced single-seaters, F1, Australian Touring Cars, ALMS and Le Mans, but the GT1 World Championship with Nissan is a new challenge this year. How are you finding it?
Brabham: “I’ve driven lots of cars in my career, alright, and the GT stuff is not too dissimilar, although the last few years I’ve been racing prototypes, which is a bit different. My last time in a GT1 car was 2008 when I won Le Mans for Aston Martin, so it has been a few years. Once I got in it was fine, but yeah, the context of the racing, with the one-hour sprint format, is different to what I’m used to. And every track until we got to Silverstone [Abu Dhabi, Zolder and Sachsenring] was one I’ve had to learn, which was great.”

 

Errity: Almost exactly 20 years ago, you won the Spa 24 Hours, which was then a race for touring cars, also driving a Nissan Skyline GT-R. What can you tell us about that race?
Brabham: “Yeah, it was a great event for us. Spa is just one of those big touring car races you’ve got to win and I just got lucky, I suppose. The Nissan GT-R of the time was a very fast four-wheel drive, and for the whole race we had the quickest car – we never lost the lead. I think we won by 25 laps. We had a great battle with a BMW, and were three laps in front with a lap to go, then the BMW retired, and the next car was 24 laps behind.”

 

Errity: Can you pick out the single most accomplished car you’ve driven?
Brabham: “I think the most impressive that I’ve ever driven was the XJR-14 Jaguar, the Group C car. I’d come out of Formula 1 in 1990 and I went to join Jaguar halfway through 1991. It was a shock to the system. I’d gone from F3, where everything centred around me and I won the British championship and the Macau GP, then on to F1 and Brabham, when it was on its decline and the car wasn’t particularly competitive or reliable. So when I went to Jaguar, and started working with Ross Brawn and Tom Walkinshaw, Teo Fabi and Derek Warwick, all of a sudden this was a whole new environment. I was working at such a higher level compared to what I was used to. The car just had buckets of downforce – it was such an impressive car to drive. But the gearbox had an incredibly short throw, so it was very easy to mis-shift. Everyone who drove it buzzed an engine at least once.”

 

Errity: So it was quicker and grippier than a mid-grid F1 car?
Brabham: “It was. I joined the championship just after Silverstone, so I never raced it there myself, but the time the car recorded in qualifying for the Silverstone WSC round would have put it in the top ten of the Formula 1 grid that year.”

 

Errity: How do you find moving from prototypes to GTs and back again?
Brabham: “I didn’t find jumping into this car too bad, actually, but if I drive this for a bit, then get into a prototype, backwards and forwards in the one year, it does take a few laps to readjust, for sure. Certainly in a prototype, it’s so much faster in a corner, it takes a lap or two for the brain to go ‘oh, you can do this, the thing will stick.’”

 

Errity: You do a lot of work with young, up-and-coming drivers in the Team UK scheme. With the likes of Vettel, Hamilton and Alonso all making very big impressions at very young ages, do you feel we’re missing out on some good talents, who are being written off just because they haven’t got into a top F1 team by the time they’re 20 or 21?
Brabham: “You see a lot of really good drivers out there that never made it to F1 or should have made it to F1, it’s a tough business like that. Obviously in my role as Team UK coach, I see a lot of young, talented drivers go through our programme, and we try to help them develop the skills they need, but it’s very much budget-driven as well. Hamilton and Vettel have come through McLaren and Red Bull schemes where everything is paid for. There’s very few of those schemes out there, so for young drivers to find the sort of money it takes to compete is very challenging. Guys with talent get pushed aside and ones with the money get in. It’s even harder now with the economic situation.”

 

Errity: You started off in motorsport quite late, relatively speaking. Did you ever feel this put you at a disadvantage?
Brabham: “Well, when I first started racing I was 17, but I had driven vehicles on a farm from an early age. I was always flat out and sideways, whether it was a tractor or a ute or a motorbike or whatever, so I think I was training myself to know the limits of something pretty quickly. Then when I jumped in a go-kart, I got on the limit really quickly and it just felt very natural to me. After about 18 months, I went into cars. I came over to the UK to race Formula 3, which I won, racing against the likes of Hakkinen, Salo and McNish, who had been racing for a lot longer than I had, even though I was older than them. In 1990, when I went into F1, I was 24, which sounds a bit old now, but I was the second-youngest on the grid, so I was seen as someone quite young coming in. The perception has changed since then, the preparations that the young drivers now go through for an event, in terms of simulators and the way they train, is so much more than what it used to be.”

 

Errity: Are there any races you can remember where you were hugely satisfied with your own performance, but you finished well out of the spotlight?
Brabham: “There were a few F1 races like that, where you’re driving your heart out but you’re scratching to qualify at the back of the grid. You get out and you say to yourself, ‘I can’t drive that thing any faster,’ but you’re still slow – that’s incredibly frustrating for a driver. I’ve been very lucky over the past five years or so, where I’ve been with very good teams and won a lot of races and championships.”

 

Errity: Obviously, you must be hugely disappointed to see the Highcroft Acura programme come to an end. Will you be travelling to Le Mans anyway in another capacity?
Brabham: “At the moment I have no plans to go down there, no. Obviously with Highcroft we knew it would be tight, and for me it was really a case of go there with them or not at all, because I didn’t see anything else out there that would challenge the diesels. It will feel very strange sitting at home watching an event that I’ve been involved in for so long and enjoyed a lot of success at over the past five years.”

 

RICHARD WESTBROOK

 

Errity: After many years driving only Porsches, recent months have seen you race a Ford GT, a Chevrolet Corvette and now the Nissan GT-R. How are you finding the experience of changing between different cars once again?
Westbrook: “I obviously had that tag as being a Porsche specialist. It’s not necessarily something I particularly wanted, but I guess I had it for a reason. I never set out to exclusively drive Porsches, it was just the way it was, and when I did look at doing other things outside the Porsche world, a lot of people did say ‘well, you know, should we take him on, because he’s only good at driving Porsches?’ so it was difficult to get that opportunity. I eventually got it at Daytona in a Grand Am DP car. I had a really good race there, the whole team did very well, we ended up third overall. I think that’s maybe when the perception changed slightly, and then even more so when I got the chance to drive the Ford GT in the GT1 World Championship. It didn’t clash with any of my Porsche commitments, so it worked quite well. I have to say I really enjoyed driving the Ford, it was a very good car and that meant I could challenge at the front. It was a really good race car, good on its tyres, so I could always have good races. That definitely stood to me when the time came to decide what I was going to do this year.”

 

Errity: Looking back over your career record, you had couple of quiet years. Did you ever feel your chances of ever driving professionally again had vanished?
Westbrook: “I chased the dream of single-seaters, of going all the way in open-wheel cars, but it didn’t work out. At the time, I didn’t see the opportunity in GT cars. You could say I wasn’t managed, I was too young, didn’t have a mature head on my shoulders and didn’t look at other opportunities in racing, I certainly didn’t want to give up racing, but I ran out of opportunities for a while. But then in 2002 I got the chance to drive a Porsche. It was very tough in the beginning because I’d had so many years off, and even when I felt I was back in the groove, I was still a long way off the pace. It took a while to get back into it.”

 

Errity: Are you keen to pursue a drive in a protoype or are you happy to remain in GTs?
Westbrook: “When you race for lots of different teams, you come to learn that it’s very important to be backed by a manufacturer. The manufacturers have always been the forerunners in motorsport, they dictate what happens and pay the bills at the end of the day. It’s always difficult when you’re racing for small teams that rely on sponsors, so I don’t think it’s necessarily important whether you’re in a prototype or GT car, it’s more important to be racing for a manufacturer.”

 

Errity: You’ve done the Nurburgring 24-hour race a few times. What makes that unique among the big races?
Westbrook: “Yeah, it’s very different, because you’re racing at a track where there’s 240-odd cars on the grid and maybe 200 of them race every weekend at that track and have done so for the last 10 years. So you do get a lot of these track specialists that race nowhere but there; they’re very, very good and very tough to beat around there. It’s one of the hardest races in the world. You never get a safety car there, so you have to win it on pace.”

 

Errity: The Porsche 911 was seen as the benchmark car in GT racing for many years – how would you say the Nissan and the Corvette compare?
Westbrook: “Well, in GT the goalposts are moving all the time, and with the different regulations, it’s very difficult to pick one car of reference. With the other cars, the weight is in a different place, but you don’t try to drive in a different way, you just adapt to it. I never consciously say, ‘okay this is a front-engined car, so I have to use this technique.’ I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to do that – you just have to drive it, you get a feeling through your arse about what the car’s doing and you react to it with your hands.”

 

Errity: You’ve recently got involved in marathon running for charity with some other BRDC (British Racing Drivers’ Club) members. How would you compare the physical challenge of a 24-hour race with a 26-mile marathon?
Westbrook: “I guess it’s similar. I find a 24-hour race goes by tremendously quickly, and I also find the marathons go by quickly once you’ve started. It’s the training that goes slowly. You do go into some sort of zone in the race. The thought of doing a marathon is impossible to quantify for me, I think my legs can’t do it, but when you get down to it, it always goes very quickly and is actually very enjoyable!”

 

LUCAS LUHR

 

Errity: Are you happy to be back at Le Mans in the Flying Lizards Porsche?
Luhr: “Yeah, last year I was a reserve driver for Audi so I couldn’t drive. It’s really the biggest pain to be in Le Mans when you cannot drive. It’s not really nice standing around and being involved in everything but not getting in the car. But I’m looking forward to driving there again, and for Le Mans, I think the Porsche has always been a really competitive car. We have a good lineup with Patrick Long and Joerg Bergmeister, so I think it should be a good week for us.”

 

Errity: Do you think the current 911 can remain competitive against the new Ferrari 458?
Luhr: “Well, I think the two Corvettes are strong for sure, as well as the Felbermayr and IMSA Porsches. You cannot understimate the BMWs, as well as the Ferraris, so it’s  going to be a hell of a battle in the GT class and I’m really looking forward to being a part of it.”

 

Errity: You raced at Sebring in the Muscle Milk Aston Martin LMP car. How does that compare with the diesel Audi prototypes?
Luhr: “Just from a fun driving point of view, the Aston Martin is nicer, because it has such a nice sound from the engine. Obviously the diesel is quicker, and has more power, but in the Aston you feel the car more, you feel the engine more, you hear it when you apply the throttle, so it’s a good car to drive. I feel really happy as well with the Muscle Milk team, Greg Pickett and Klaus Graf and all these guys, they are really, really good people and it’s just fun to work with them. It’s the same with my engineer Brandon, he has come from Champ Car so he really knows what’s going on and he’s been a huge help. And it’s the same here in Europe with the JRM Nissan team – it’s a really nice atmosphere. Sometimes if you do a lot of races in a year, you can start to feel that it’s too much, but when you’re always in a nice environment, when you get along with your team, you don’t mind. I’m racing for three teams this year: JRM Nissan, the Muscle Milk Aston Martin and the Flying Lizards Porsche. The team almost becomes your family, and it’s really important that you feel at home and are enjoying yourself. That’s what I have this year and I’m really pleased and happy with it so far.”

 

Errity: Is it a case of being able to play a bigger role in the smaller teams than was the case when you were with Audi?
Luhr: “I think so. Of course Muscle Milk is really very small compared to Audi, but then you look at the amount of engineers, drivers and mechanics we have in the Nissan teams, with two cars at JRM and two cars at Sumo Power, it’s a big team. We also have some support from NISMO, so it’s similar to Audi in that way. You can’t say one is better than the other, but after being with Audi for a few years, I realised that sometimes in life you feel comfortable, sometimes you don’t and in the past I didn’t feel comfortable all the time.”

 

Errity: What are your thoughts on the Balance of Performance regulations in GT1 this year?
Luhr: “I have no clear evidence about it, but my personal feeling is that Nissan our GT-Rs are not really the favourite car. If you look at the Aston Martin, for example, this car is quick on every track, and I think that’s unfair. We had to take a Balance of Performance change after the Algarve round, which is by far the Nissan’s strongest track. We knew that and everyone else knew that from the past, but still after a strong result there we immediately get hit with more Balance of Performance restrictions, so I think it’s unfair.”

 

Errity: Do you enjoy the challenge of developing a car from the beginning, as you did with the Porsche Spyder LMP2, or do you prefer to just show up, jump in and race?
Luhr: “There’s two sides to it. When Porsche said they were going to do LMP2, it was clear I’d be involved from day one to develop the car. Obviously, we knew we were going to race with it, so you do all the hard work, but then you reach a point where you say, ‘okay, I want to go race it now.’ Winning the first race was the perfect reward for the hard devevlopment work. In testing, you’re on your own somewhere really secure, just going round and round with no competition, no reference, nothing, so sometimes you just want to go racing and prove that you’ve done good work. With Porsche and Roger Penske (one of my absolute heroes) involved it was fantastic. That was probably the best time of my racing career so far.”

 

Thanks to Simon Slade for arranging these interviews
All images: Ed Fahey
« Raging Bulls | Main | SCI Interview: Bas Leinders »