As the eyes of the endurance racing world turn towards Le Mans, Jon Wilde takes an exclusive look at WEC’s latest LMP2 team – Manor Endurance Racing – whose journey from F1 to Prototype has been spearheaded by team principle Graeme Lowdon.
It was six years ago – in 2010 – that Graeme Lowdon and John Booth announced plans to enter Manor Motorsport into Formula One. With a racing pedigree dating back to 1990, Manor’s place in motorsport has seen the team compete in numerous racing categories, including British Formula Renault and Auto GP, and boasting the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen as past roster drivers.
Nonetheless, Lowdon and Booth’s time in the Formula One paddock was not without its challenges.
Entering the sport in 2010 with the understanding that budget caps were to be applied to all, the team soon realised that this new era of Formula One was something of a false dawn. And with that, their hopes of competing for success quickly became a battle to remain on the grid. Over six seasons, the team entered into numerous partnerships and investment relationships. And, whilst the team did manage to score a point – and, in doing so, becoming something of a fan favourite – midway through 2014, the team faced bankruptcy. Complete closure was inevitable, with a critical investor removing backing from the team.
Lowdon and Booth fought to overcome this through establishing new backing for the team in 2015, with the objective, not of finding success in Formula One, but to secure the financial wellbeing of the many employees, each of whom had helped bring the team their Formula One dream.
At the end of the 2015 F1 season, Graeme Lowdon and John Booth stood down from their roles with the Manor F1 Team.
The racing resolve of the Manor team remains fully intact. Determined to go racing in 2016, the pair set about a new challenge, turning their attention to the World Endurance Championship – following in the footsteps of an increasing number of manufacturers and an increasingly dedicated group of fans seeking a purer, more accessible form of racing.
For Lowdon, the decision was one of ambition.
“In 2015, we had a job to do”, he said. “ That was to ensure the F1 team would compete. Once we had achieved that, we looked at what was next. I’ve always been interested in sportscar racing, and have long-followed the growth of WEC”.
And so, armed with little more than a thirst to compete, only 9 weeks prior to the opening WEC test of the season, a reborn Manor Endurance Racing team announced plans to compete in the 2016 LMP2 field.
With the announcement made, the team set about bringing the plan to life.
“The LMP2 field ticked a lot of boxes. There is no need to design and manufacture a car to take part, and the category is competitive and professional. WEC is a high profile and well-organised series in that respect.”
And then, of course, there was Le Mans.
“Le Mans is arguably the most iconic and challenging race there is. It’s a privilege for us to be able to take part in the race.“
The LMP2 category is traditionally reserved for teams seeking to compete in the championship, essentially as private entries working with supply partners. In the case of the Manor Endurance Racing team, the supply partner takes the form of Oreca Nissan.
The agreement facilitates an element of off-the-shelf racing, with Oreca Nissan providing a baseline vehicle, as well as performance commitments for the Manor team to work with and build upon.
Such a relationship allows for an extremely streamlined, cost-effective form of racing.
“Operationally, LMP2 represents a sound business model. This is seen through the stability in teams participating. Revenues are significantly lower than those seen in F1, but so are the costs. Our target for 2016 is to break even, but – as a new team – we know there are many initial costs which may be unforeseen.”
As is the case with many other teams competing in WEC, Manor operates with a full-time pit lane staff of single digits; hiring race engineers on a freelance or contract basis, many of whom will also be found working in Formula E or GP2.
LMP1 teams are no exception to this trend, with members of the Porsche and Audi teams sharing their time between Carrera Cup and DTM commitments, respectively. The difference with these employees being that they are contracted to work only for a single manufacturer.
This realisation of a shared workforce – or ‘jobbing’ motorsport mechanic – goes some way to explain the necessity of certain racing series to endeavour not to compete over the same dates (hence, the fallout and largely negative public response to this year’s Le Mans being scheduled on the same day as the Azerbaijan GP).
Indeed, though the World Endurance Championship is undoubtedly a series on the rise, the operational setup realistically represents a stark contrast to team headcount numbers surpassing the multiple hundreds, even thousands, that followers of Formula One have become accustomed to.
This mentality is echoed throughout the Manor Endurance Racing team, with director John Booth recently announced as a consultant for F1’s Scuderia Toro Rosso.
Speaking about the role of his engineering partner, Lowdon remarked:
“John is the best in the business. His taking on the consultancy role of race director with STR is representative of others acknowledging his skill set. The role is perfectly compatible with his position within the WEC team, and he will continue in both positions.”
One interesting by-product of a streamlined team structure is the approach to pit stops.
With a total race weekend crew totalling less than 20 people, teams simply cannot dedicate the entire pit crew to servicing a car when it enters pit road. The World Endurance Championship support this approach by implementing a simple rule that no more than two members of a team can touch a car when it is in pit lane.
This simple rule results in fantastic choreography, with three personnel effectively dancing around a car in order to perform the required elements of the pit stop – tyre change, refuelling and driver change – all the while ensuring no more than two of them are touching the car at any given point.
Established teams on the grid have long perfected this routine. And as relative newcomers to the grid, Manor Endurance Racing team have spent many hours working through how best to approach this new challenge.
Nonetheless, it’s fair to say a resource-conscious form of racing does nothing to detract from the on-track spectacle.
The World Endurance Championship has become synonymous with a culture of relentless performance. In-race variables such as tyre life and fuel loads have been regulated to minimise their impact on a driver’s ability to push a car to its limits. And dynamic performance regulations have been implemented to dissuade excessive in-season development, whilst also encouraging a freedom in technical solutions to take a team racing.
With the Manor Endurance Racing team at the very beginning of their Endurance Racing journey, the team are still finding their feet in the series. They are defining their own path in a new category, and working with their partners to resolve issues as they arise.
“First and foremost, we want to gain the respect of our competitors”, said Lowdon.
“Alongside this, we want to be competitive. We have a strong driver line-up, and a competitive package with Oreca. It is too early in the season to define specific targets, but we expect to be competitive.”
A core strength of the Manor heritage – and that of Lowdon and Booth in particular – has been their ability to build and maintain relationships.
Every role within the team has been filled, not through advertised vacancies, but through people wanting to be part of a new and exciting challenge. This desire, and the opportunity for success at the end of it, is typified by the driver recruitment, many of whom – notably Roberto Merhi and Will Stevens – were already known to the team.
And whilst entry into the World Endurance Championship represents a new beginning for the Manor Team, Lowdon suggests the team will not rule out a possibility to enter LMP1 in future:
“LMP2 is very much the focus in the short term. Of course, we have our eye on LMP1 should the right opportunity present itself, either as a customer or privateer”.
With Le Mans on the horizon, Lowdon and Booth will first have to cut their teeth in LMP2 before setting their sights on competing with the likes of Porsche, Audi and the other manufacturers in the LMP1 field. But with a wealth of experience between them, the pair will no doubt believe they can spring a surprise or two come June 18th.