Featured: Ferrari Drivers And Team Managers Tell Us What It Takes To Tackle 24-Hour Racing

Ferrari Drivers And Team Managers Tell Us What It Takes To Tackle 24-Hour Racing

Alex Sobran By Alex Sobran
February 12, 2018
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Photography by Alex Sobran and Jamey Price

The Rolex 24 at Daytona concluded without any Ferraris on the podiums in the race’s two GT classes, but through a headache of technical conniptions and a veritable fire early in the day, the Scuderia Corsa and Risi Compeitizione teams displayed some wicked quickness—the lone 488 in GTLM set the fastest lap time in its class—and set a perfect example of how to act like you’ve been there before. As if their resumes didn’t make that clear enough.

The California-based team of Scuderia Corsa has cinched the IMSA championship in the GT Daytona class for the past three years running, and earned a class win at Le Mans in 2016, meaning, in other words: they know what it takes to sustain a car for the course of a season as well as the trials of endurance racing. They’ve only been campaigning cars since 2012, making a rapid ascension to the top rungs of international GT racing. On the other hand, Risi Competizione has been in the mix for far longer, and began back in 1997 with a series of entrants in prototype categories. Besides the connections with Ferrari, the common thread between the teams is rapid achievement, and for Risi this manifested in a string of successes in with the Ferrari 333SP, including a second place overall at Le Mans. Today, both teams are consistent front-runners in IMSA and GT racing abroad. Prior to the start of this year’s Rolex 24, I had the opportunity to talk with Risi team manager Dave Simms, as well as Scuderia drivers Cooper MacNeil and Gunnar Jeannette to get their perspectives on the event.

The Road to Daytona

Each has taken a different path to arrive in Daytona Beach, FL, but they all share a drive to compete at the top level of sports car racing. Cooper and Gunnar were more or less brought up on motorsport and have since spent nearly every weekend in a race car, while Dave Sims has built up over five decades of experience overseeing the efforts of everything from Lotus and March Formula 1 teams to the BMW M1 ProCar series, early Toyota endurance efforts and his own prototype teams.

Alex Sobran: Mr. Sims, how did you become a racing team manager? Where would you say that story of your life began?

Dave Simms: Well I joined with Lotus in ’65, for their Formula cars, and I was Jim Clark’s mechanic before he was sadly killed in ’68. Colin Chapman put me on F1 full time by the end of the decade, and then I went to March Engineering, then Williams, before going to sports cars in the U.K. and the rest of the world.

Simms’ history of in the sport is deserving of its own full-length article, but further highlights of his globetrotting career includes involvement with IndyCars (he oversaw two-time Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk in his first Indy ride), and the creation of his own team, Lanesra Racing (“Arsenal” spelt backwards, his favorite premiere club football team), which campaigned the front-engine Panoz LMP cars.

AS: With all the years you’ve been in this position in some capacity or another, what have you seen change the most?

DS: It’s sort of strange to me that, you know, the new rules. It’s like come on, build your car. Make it a three-liter, or whatever. This is the size of the engine. This is the wing height. This is the silhouette, yes? So go racing. But not now. Those days are gone.

AS: Speaking of days gone by, how long have you been with Risi?

Dave: 15 years. I used to know Giueseppe Risi through the old Formula 1 days. He was running a private Lotus with a guy from Mexico called Hector Rebaque. It was one of the old Lotus 72s I’m sure, because believe me, Colin Chapman wouldn’t sell anything new to anyone else!

So got to know him from there and he called me one day saying, “What are you doing now?” I say, “Well my own team has not got sponsorship, so I can’t carry on.” Well, he says, “Come over to the London airport, I’m flying to London, come there and see me.”

So I went there and saw him and we talked a that was it. Been here ever since. I commute backwards and forwards only a few times a year during then as I live in England, but I work in Houston for the team.

Cooper and Gunnar, drivers in the #63 for the weekend, both grew up with car-obsessed parents who introduced them to the joys of cars and competition from an impressionable age. They don’t so much recall the first moment when they became enthralled by it all, more so they look back on it as a more general formative experience.

AS: Can you tell me how you became racing drivers? How does one go from leaning on the trackside fence to being in the car?

Cooper MacNeil: So, my dad raced for about 20 years in amateur series and had his professional debut in ’99 at 12 Hours of Sebring and finished second with Alex Job Racing, driving a Porsche. Then he decided to stop racing and learned how to fly airplanes. But me, growing up, I always went to his races when I was little, and when I was just three, four years old, I was at the race track with the little ear muffs on watching him. Race cars are fucking cool.

AS: I think most of us agree with that.

CM: Yeah, right? So I just kind of gained a love for it from doing that, going to the race track and watching him. I was always around cars—thankfully always around cool ones—though I never drove go-carts at all. I tried my hand in a 1992 BMW 325is when I was 15 and that was my first crack at it.

AS: Everyone’s first track car.

CM: Exactly. Also, Randy Pobst was my coach, as well as my father. Randy is the second winningest sports car driver in the country, so not a bad person to have teaching you how to drive on a race track.

Then I started in SCCA regionals in the BMW before going to an M3 and doing SCCA nationals. Then I did both the Ferrari Challenge and IMSA GT3 Cup, and 2010 is was when I was introduced to Alex Job through my father because they knew each other from ’99. The next year I ran the IMSA Cup full season with Alex, and I did Ferrari Challenge as well, and decided to make my professional racing debut in 2012, in the American Le Mans series GTC class. We won the championship in ’12, won the championship in ’13, and won Sebring in ’13. That kind of kick started my career.

AS: And Gunnar? You also grew up around this kind of environment, what was your path to get here?

Gunnar Jeannette: So, my father is the largest restorer of Porsche race cars in the world. He was also a crew chief on IMSA racing teams in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s. So he’s won Daytona and Sebring overall as a crew chief. So, sort of like Cooper, but on a different level, my whole life I just grew up around race cars. Brian Redman, Derek Bell, all these guys and their cars were coming into our shop.  The first time I got to ride in a race car I think I was two years old, and it was in a Porsche 908 Long Tail!

AS: That’s not a bad start.

GJ: Not at all. So, kind of the same thing with me, I had never really planned on being a race car driver but just grew up around the track and being on the crews and sweeping the floors and all that kind of stuff. Then we did a track day when I was 15 years old in a Porsche Boxster and we saw that I had some talent. Got the old, “Hey if you get straight A’s you can go to Skip Barber” type of thing from my dad after that.

AS: Finish up well in one school and you could go attend a more fun one.

GJ: Ha, right. So my dad was able to con some of his customers into letting me co-drive with him in historic racing events, by giving them deals on working on the cars and stuff, and the first real race I ever did was Road Atlanta in a 1981 Interscope K3 935 when I was just 17. Did a couple of those races, then still when I was 17, I did the 24 hours of Daytona here in 2000 with Paul Newman. Paul was 75 and I was 17! I was the youngest driver to ever do the race at the time and he was the oldest to ever do the race at the time.

AS: That’s wild, all of it. And you’ve since been into modern cars as well as the vintage racing for a while now right?

GJ: I’ve had a career driving for various teams over the years. Porsche, a Panoz Factory driver for several years, Ferrari lately. I finished on the podium at Le Mans a couple times, done the race eight times total and in multiple classes; I finished fifth overall in the Panoz for instance, and have done plenty of LMP2 and GT there too.

24 Hours in America vs 24 Hours in France

Since Le Mans had come up in our conversation a few times already, and seeing as it’s a natural point of comparison to the Rolex 24 which both drivers have participated in, our next topic was a given.

AS: You guys have both done the 24 Hours of Le Mans a few times; what would you say are the biggest differences between this and that track, or this and that race?

GJ: I think the biggest from a driver’s perspective is at Le Mans there are three drivers, and here most teams will have four or more, so the amount of rest you get in between stints at Le Mans is normally less. On the other hand, Le Mans is easier to drive because the straightaways are actually straight. Here, even when you’re on the banking, the “straightaway,” you’ve got over a 1G exerted on you the whole time. So physically, you get weird things from being pushed into the right side of the seat for that long and that doesn’t happen at Le Mans.

AS: So the Mulsanne is kind of like an extra rest period almost? Just make sure the headlights aren’t directly behind you and you’re good?

CM: Yes, and another thing about this place compared to Le Mans is this place is so modern with all the lighting. It’s really not like you’re racing at nighttime anymore even though so much of this takes place after the sun goes down. Driving at Le Mans, there’s no lights anywhere basically. So that’s true darkness. Here it’s bright just about everywhere.

GJ: Right, at Le Mans there is more opportunity, I don’t want to say to “chill out: when you’re driving the car, but to sort of be on your own. Because, Le Mans, they’ll start 55 or so cars and it’s an eight and half mile track. Here we have 50 cars and it’s a three and a half mile track. Just the safety car situation car here alone is vastly different; every restart there’s all the cars packed up together while at Le Mans, the race starts and it kind of gets into its own rhythm and everybody is on their own plan. Here, your rhythm is constantly interrupted by other stuff going on. Because as soon as there’s a yellow, it’s like, boom, reset.

Preparing for 24 Hours of Racing

Regardless of where one sets off on a day-long race, the preparation that goes into the mechanical equipment and the minds of those responsible for driving, maintaining, and managing it is paramount to not just outright success, but simply finishing. Of course, as the 2018 Rolex 24 proved for the Ferrari 488s in GTLM and GTD, not everything can be anticipated, so teams anticipate every hurdle they can imagine in hopes they won’t be bogged down when the inevitable issues arise. It takes a little luck to do well at Daytona, but no one wins without doing their homework.

AS: Mr. Simms, as a team manager or from a general perspective, how do you think about the necessary preparations for a race like this one?

DS: Well the cars are so technical now, you collect all this data that then needs to be made sense of. So with practice, you start to get a sense of how the cars will want to perform given the conditions you predict, because we have so much quantified history to illustrate what happened back then and why. That said, you can’t have everything all set too much in advance because at Daytona the weather is very unpredictable, always, every year.

So yesterday, the wind turned on us and made the cars under steer into certain corners. What do you do with a development like that? Do you change the car and then show up the next day to find there’s no wind whatsoever? No, you have to have a happy medium here. It can get very cold at night too, and we’ve had years here when it’s been 32 degrees freezing! Last year, it rained all night. You know, it’s very, very, very different to run here. It’s just different than any other circuit because of not only the day and nighttime considerations, but the fickle atmosphere too.

AS: So do you do a lot of updating to the setups during the course of the race, or is it mostly just kind of minor tweaks?

DS: Changing during the race? No, you don’t want to do that. If you have to then you’ve got problems. Obviously, it’s up to the weather for the basics though. If it’s wet, if it’s rainy, then you can do quick adjustments and the obvious tire change. Normally, if it’s dry all the way through, you want to try and leave the setup alone. We do pay attention to how it’s performing of course, how the tires are behaving, things like that. You know, are the tires lasting the full stint? Are they maintaining grip levels long enough?

AS: What is your process for coming up with a setup? Is it all based in practice sessions, or do you look at the weather forecast and tweak right up to the start? Is it just kind of a balance of compromises?

DS: Well, first you go back on what you’ve run here before. If you’ve been here before, you have lots of records and lots of data to draw from for the initial setup, which is done in the workshop. Then you go from there and hinge on the day’s practice and get the best out of the drivers of the car. You know, Driver A, B, and C are in the car and you’re trying to get them together on one setup. It won’t be perfect for everyone though, it just never happens. You’ll get little bits of “oh, I’d like a little bit more this,” “a little bit more that.” You’ve got to have a happy compromise.

AS: And what about the mental preparation, how do you keep yourself levelheaded when thinking about the race from the human side?

DS: A good bout of relaxation if you can and honestly, to eat properly. You know, we don’t do like the old days when I was in F1. Catering? Never heard of the word. Mobile home? Never seen one. No food delivered hot whenever you need it. No breakfast if you didn’t bring your own. Can’t have any lunch and you know, those days, you just got nothing! Here, you know, you’ve got catering and you’ve got expense money as well. You know, it’s a whole different world.

AS: Easier to relax now and focus on the important parts?

DS: Oh yeah. All the boys eat properly and go to bed in comfortable places. They can have a beer or be more sensible and go to bed early like tonight, soon as we get out of here, you know, head to bed early tonight and relax before the 24 hours ahead.  So, you know, you’ve got to enjoy it and reduce the nerves if you’re going to have a good race.

The Challenges and Rewards of Driving for a Day

Back in the Weathertech hauler for the #63 Scuderia Corsa 488 GTD, I ask Cooper and Gunnar to tell me about their favorite moments and sensations from past weekends at Daytona, as well as the aspects of the race they find frustrating. Even as a spectator, the hours of shaky-legged adrenaline-fueled unsleep put a strange tilt on your perceptions.

AS:  What are the biggest challenges you face in a 24-hour race? Is it stressful to share a car with so many other drivers here?

GJ: The most important thing with this race, nowadays, with the modern machinery, is staying on the lead lap until the last three or four hours in the race. You don’t want to go faster than you need to, to put any undue pressure on the car. In terms of traffic, and in terms of curb usage and that type of stuff, you want to go as fast as you need to to stay on the lead lap and maintain a gap to the leaders. That gap will obviously ebb and flow over time, but you wanna do that with putting as little stress as you can on the car.

For me having started racing when I did and being around famous endurance cars, the stuff today is so good now that as long as the drivers or the teams don’t screw it up, the amount of cars that will DNF from just having a technical issue is probably smaller than 60%. Whereas, it used to be, you just had to look after things constantly in order to finish. Now, if we don’t really fuck something up, the car is gonna be okay.

AS: If the car’s aren’t a major issue, what tends to be the hardest aspect of the  weekend from a driver’s perspective?

CM: My least favorite thing about the weekend is simply the tight schedule. The scheduling is just so dense for the race, and you’re just so busy with all the extra stuff that by the time you get to the race it’s only 3PM and you’re already exhausted!

It should be noted here that in Cooper’s case the weekend included two additional races on the circuit for the Ferrari Challenge series, one of which Cooper finished in first place and the other seeing him take second.

GJ: Yeah, I agree, it feels like I’m treading water here. I’m like, “Oh I just have to get to this next thing. And then you get to the race, and it’s like, oh shit alright it’s time to do this now I guess.” So it feels like I should have a break right about the same time things are really about to start!

CM: It’s kinda like being a duck—looks nice and calm above the water. But underneath it’s going crazy trying to stay up!

AS: I can imagine being ready for a nap rather than a race can make one resent the schedule a bit, but to turn it around, what do you most look forward to about being back here at Daytona each year?

CM: Personally I think the fan base that comes to Daytona is very interesting. You have a huge mix. I mean, at the Roar before the 24 you’ve got Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts everywhere all smiley. Then you come here and everybody’s wasted with the sun rising. It’s cool. When I get out of the car and I’m done driving at whatever, four or five in the morning when my stint is usually pretty much done for the night. I like to hop on a golf cart and just drive around and get the lay of the land and see what’s going on, see who’s showed up to watch.

GJ: I just love being here. I love the history. I’ve loved to see this event grow as it has in the last couple of years. And to see it being at capacity is really, really cool. It’ll be neat to look back on it and go, “Oh yeah I was a part of that.”

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