SCI Interview: Marc Lieb

30-year-old Marc Lieb has been a Porsche junior or factory driver for over a decade now. In addition to a very successful driving career that has encompassed GT-class wins at the Le Mans, Daytona, Nürburgring and Spa 24-hour classics, the well-rounded German is also a qualified and highly accomplished vehicle engineer. This combination puts him in a better position than many of his peers when it comes to having a deep understanding of the dynamics of racecar driving and setup, and also looks likely to secure a high-profile role for him with Porsche once his full-time driving career comes to an end. At the recent Spa 1000km ILMC race, Sports Car Insider caught up with Lieb, who had suffered a nightmare start to his European Le Mans Series campaign a few weeks previously at the Paul Ricard circuit in France. A race control error meant the pace car did not pull off after the formation lap and in the ensuing pile-up, Lieb’s Team Felbermayr Porsche was one of several cars to have their race ended before they had even covered a lap.

Errity: Do you feel like the season hasn’t really started yet after what happened at Paul Ricard?

Lieb: “No, it’s already bad, we have to catch up, we have to fight back. We don’t look at it like we have zero points, we look at it like we’re 15 points behind. The team’s that weren’t involved in the accident have a joker to play now – they can have a DNF, but we can’t afford one anymore. We have to be in the points at every race, we have to be up at the front to make it back.”

Errity: How did you see the incident from your point of view?

Lieb: “Well, today in the driver’s briefing at Spa, they said it was a mistake by race control. It’s not very good that happened, but it’s good that they admitted their mistake. It’s impossible to talk to race control about things like yellows or passing under yellows, but three minutes after the start we had a discussion with them and the drivers were blamed, but it was obvious what had happened from the TV pictures. It’s good that they apologised and I think it’s a good sign for the championship.”

Errity: Turning to Spa now, the track must be very busy with a grid of almost 60 cars…

Lieb: “It’s worse than the last two years, but it’s still okay. The problem for us is the slow Formula Le Mans cars and slow gentleman drivers in LMP2 cars. They have better acceleration, so they overtake you on the long straights, then at the top end they are slower but they can brake later, so you’ve no chance to pass them. It’s a disaster!”

Errity: You’ve been racing Porsche 911s for over ten years now. Although being a Porsche factory driver gives you great stability, have you ever been tempted to try something else?

Lieb: “I have a long relationship with Porsche, this is my 12th year with them. I’ve never been looking for other opportunities or other deals, I was always very pleased with Porsche, but one thing that would be very nice would be to race a prototype. It’s something in sportscars that you always want to do – win Le Mans overall.”

Errity: Over the years as a factory driver, you’ve been placed with several different customer teams. Is it case of fitting in with their way of doing things or do you try to influence their organisation?

Lieb: “Everything really. You have different mentalities – I’ve raced for German, Italian and English teams and they all act a little differently, but I like it, because you get to know a lot of people and it’s very interesting. First you have to look at how the team is working, then you start picking out some things that could be improved. Sometimes, you come to a team and they are perfectly prepared and you don’t have to do anything. For me, it was always nice to develop teams. With this team [Felbermayr] for example, everybody involved started in amateur racing and made the move to professional racing. It’s a lot of work but a lot of fun, and when you start being successful it’s really nice, because you can feel the team spirit.”

Errity: It’s somewhat unusual for a young professional racing driver to also be a fully qualified engineer. Is this something you always wanted to do from a young age, or did you decide it was something that could help with your driving?

Lieb: “It was always there. When I was at school it was the only profession I could imagine doing other than racing driver. Being involved with cars was always the goal, I’ve been a car maniac all my life. Before I got the opportunity with Porsche, I was basically done with my racing career and I had enrolled in the technical university in Stuttgart to study engineering. Then I got the offer from Porsche, so I deferred it, but after a while, when I was having a tough year in 2004 and the success wasn’t there, I thought maybe it would be a good idea to do something to develop another profession. Porsche gave me the opportunity to pursue my engineering studies while keeping my factory driver status, but I wasn’t doing as many races as the others. That’s why I didn’t do Le Mans from 2006 to 2009, as it always clashed with the big summer semester exams. In the end it worked out, it’s good, it helps with everything, I look closely at setup and discuss things with the engineers on a different level than before – they really respect my input. I like it, but sometimes I have to clear my mind of it. On a race weekend I’m there to drive the car, we have the full-time engineers after all, but sometimes you can’t help thinking a little harder about setup and so on.”

Errity: There’s a rumour a going around that the next-generation 911 could be the last of the line. Do you think Porsche should look at developing a racing version of the Cayman, to better compete with mid-engined opposition like the new Ferrari 458?

Lieb: “The philosophy from Porsche has always been to run a 911, it’s the sportscar  of the last 30 years. Looking at the pure physics of it, yes, a mid-engined car is better, but we’ve shown that the 911 is still very competitive. At the moment it’s silly anyway – with the balance of performance, you can basically build a really s**t car and still be very quick, which is not really what we like. Having said that, the ACO/Le Mans Series regulations are very good compared to other GT regulations, where you can basically build a car with a big engine, put weight in it and race. That’s not the Porsche philosophy. I think the 911 will always be their top sportscar. As a road car, I think it has a lot of advantages – the rear engine always gives you a lot of traction, especially in difficult conditions like rain or snow, and it’s easy to drive on the road. The GT3 RS is a great car – it’s just as at home driving to the grocery store as it is on the racetrack.”

Errity: Tell me about the 2011 updates on the 911 GTE car. Will they be enough to stay on terms with the Ferrari 458s?

Lieb: “It’s mainly details, a lot of small things we’ve done to the car, as there was just no budget for building a brand-new car. It didn’t make any sense to build a new car with a new 911 coming soon, so we made smaller steps like having a wider front tyre so we can run wider rims. We improved the damping settings a little bit, did some small stuff with the differential and we also have paddle shift for the first time. It’s not much compared to BMW or Ferrari, who have basically built brand-new cars. So this year and the next will probably be very hard while we wait for the new car.”

Errity: You haven’t driven the hybrid 911 racer in competition yet, but were you involved in its development and testing?

Lieb: “Yes, I was very involved, in fact I was engineering the car for a bit over the summer. We had a shortage of engineers, so I was running the programme for four weeks in Weissach. I had Timo [Bernhard] and Mike [Rockenfeller] as test drivers and it was good fun. It’s a nice project to work on, but it’s really tough as well, because you have so many brand-new components on the car. The benefits in terms of both performance and efficiency are very interesting. When the car is recuperating energy, it behaves like a two-wheel drive, but when you get on the power and all four electric motors at the wheels kick in, it’s like a proper four-wheel drive. There’s lots of traction and the corner exit speed is amazing.”

Errity: There’s another rumour going around that the R18 is possibly going to be the last Audi prototype. With the final phase of the VAG/Porsche merger happening later this year, do you think it would be a good time for Porsche to become the group’s LMP1 entry, maybe using the class as a platform for further green technology development?

Lieb: “From the driver’s point of view, it’s always a good time to step up. I would go now, but there’s no decision been made so far, and these decisions are made by the board. We want to do it, everyone wants to do it, all the engineers and drivers, but I’m also thinking about myself. In three or four years, I’ll be 33-34, and I don’t know if I’ll end up in an LMP1 car, maybe I’ll stick with GT cars. But it’s still a big ambition for me to race in LMP1.”

Errity: Would you like to move up to a management or engineering role with Porsche in a few years, and maybe reduce your driving commitments or stop altogether?

Lieb: “Yes, that’s the plan for sure, but I’ve just signed a three-year contract as a driver. For the next three years I’m gonna be a factory driver, then we’ll see how the performance is and how everything is going, Then maybe I’ll continue driving for another two or three years, but obviously I can’t go on forever, so I’m keeping an eye on what’s going to come after that.”

Errity: How are Team Felbermayr’s preparations for Le Mans going? How did you get on at the test day?

Lieb: “Quite good, we tested a lot of parts and different downforce configurations, but when you look at the laptimes we weren’t competitive. We’re struggling a little bit at the moment with bringing it all together – we have a good car, but we have to bring everything together to have a chance. In the last two or three years if some aspect wasn’t perfect we were still competitive. But this year it’s tough, with the other manufacturer cars being brand new and with lots of potential, while we’re waiting for the new car.”

Errity: And could you do any preparation for Le Mans at Spa?

Lieb: “Not really, no. At Le Mans, with the size of the restrictor that the GT cars have to run, we use a really low-downforce configuration. We need to run a bit more downforce than the other cars, especially Ferrari, as they’ve made a good step with the new car. You can see it in the sector times, especially sectors one and three. We’re good there, but in the middle sector where it all comes down to downforce, we struggle a bit.”

« Petrol Heads | Main | GT3: The Magic Number? »