Starting to make cents
Making a living as a professional driver is ever more difficult in Europe, so Scot Robin Liddell opted to cast his net a little wider
For the past five years there have been about 32,000 annual MSA competition licence holders in the UK. How many of those do you think are paid professionals? One per cent? The figure is probably even lower than that and, without any official numbers, you have to estimate a ‘miniscule amount’. Put it this way – people don’t usually treat motor racing as a quick moneymaking scheme.
Scotsman Robin Liddell is one of the few MSA licence holders who is paid to drive, but he races in the American Grand-Am series. His father, 1960s Ford GT40 racer Eric, took him to Group C races in the ’80s, but, like the majority of aspiring young racers, he started with single-seaters. Lack of money meant that he struggled through Formula Vauxhall Junior, Formula Ford and the Formula Palmer Audi Winter Series and it came to a point when he needed to start making some money. “If I wasn’t going to do that, I wouldn’t be racing any more,” he admits today. “I think it’s fair to say that I showed some pace and some ability, but in terms of winning races and championships I never actually did anything.”
Despite that shaky start in junior single-seaters, he was quick and his talent was rewarded when he was crowned 2001 European Le Mans Series Champion driving a Porsche 911 GT3 RS for PK Sport – a drive he had secured on the back of performances in three British GT races for the same team in 1999. This not only led to the ELMS drive, but also opened his mind to racing sports cars for a living. At the end of the 2001 season he travelled out to Petit Le Mans and spoke to fellow Scot Allan McNish. “It quickly dawned on me where the manufacturer interest was and that, ultimately, the US was probably the place to be.”
The following year was a “bitty season” with the Le Mans 24 Hours, Sebring 12 Hours and some British GT and FIA GT races, but come that winter he was scooped up by Pirelli, which wanted to use motor sport, and sports car racing in particular, to broaden its market share in the US. A Daytona 24 Hours class win in 2004, aboard an Orbit Racing Porsche 911 GT3 RSR, was the big break Liddell needed and he’s raced in the States ever since, although he still lives in the UK. At the time of writing he lay second in the Grand-Am GT Championship, driving a Chevrolet Camaro.
“It strikes me that it’s almost impossible to earn money as a driver in Europe, unless you are with a factory team like Audi or Porsche,” he says. “There are more paid drivers in the US and I think that’s down to a culture difference. American teams don’t go looking for European drivers – why should they? – but if you are prepared to get off your arse and head over there, you’ll find they welcome you with open arms if you show you can do a good job. A case in point is Olly Gavin – he was the 1995 British Formula 3 Champion and he’d tested in F1, but in America no one had heard of him. Once he showed that he could pedal, his career went from strength to strength.
“Frankly I am racing in America for one reason – there are better opportunities than there are here in Europe. I’d love to be racing at Spa and Monza every weekend, but…
“In the US they realise that you’re a professional driver and the conversation between teams and drivers is immediately ‘how much do we have to pay you?’ instead of Europe’s ‘how much can you bring?’ model. I was offered a drive in the Nürburgring 24 Hours two years ago and the guy laughed when I asked what the deal was. I said to him, ‘You’re a professional team, you win races all over the world, you have a great reputation and you pay your mechanics, are you honestly telling me that you want me to do this for nothing? You need to pay me something, anything, just as a principle.’ I never heard anything more.
“There’s a lesson here for young drivers, because if they always bring money then they are making a rod for their own back. If they want to be a professional racing driver then they need to learn that, first and foremost, you get paid as long as you do a professional job in the car.”
Liddell is not against paying one’s way in the junior categories, but doesn’t agree with young drivers who go into professional touring and sports car categories and bring money. “If you can write a cheque,” he says, “you should be writing one for single-seaters.”
Once drivers do that in other disciplines, they are forever labelled as payers. Very few then escape into the rarefied world of being paid to race.
It’s difficult to be too cut-throat, however, as many teams rely on pay drivers. If there weren’t any drivers with deep pockets we would have fewer teams in every series. But Liddell has a valid point – would you go to a potential new employer and say you could bring money?
“The other thing about racing in America,” Liddell continues, “is that in Europe a lot of the tracks are influenced by Formula 1. In the US the design is driven by NASCAR, so road courses such as Road Atlanta and Road America are absolutely phenomenal race tracks to drive. They haven’t been messed with and remain unspoilt.
“Spa is probably all right for an F1 car, but I remember when I went there for a European Formula Ford race. There were 60 of us on the grid and at Blanchimont the guardrail was only 10ft away from the side of the track. Now it’s 100 yards away, which is fine if you’re doing 190mph in an F1 car, but in everything else it just feels a bit lame, especially when there’s loads of high-grip Tarmac in the run-off areas.
“When we were walking the Road Atlanta track I was thinking, ‘This is a bit like Oulton Park – I wouldn’t want to go off there because I’ll be having a massive shunt!’”
While we might miss the likes of Dario Franchitti, Mike Conway and Justin Wilson in Europe, it’s easy to understand the lure of America after chatting to Liddell, especially when you factor in the consistently high quality of the racing, too.
Meanwhile, paying your way in Europe will continue to be the norm.
As we all know, whichever business we work in, it’s hard for someone to start coughing up when they’re used to getting something for free.
In pursuit of silent speed…
Fresh landmarks loom as racing’s electric pioneers target 400mph runs
It’s not just the Bloodhound SSC that’s trying to break land speed records – two electric vehicles are on a charge to crack some, too.
Bloodhound is the highest profile project, and rightly so considering it is aiming to break the 1000mph barrier, but there are alternative and equally serious LSR projects on the go at the moment, too.
I wrote about James Toseland’s aim to break 400mph on a ’bike streamliner in the May issue and news has reached us of two electric vehicles that are trying to break different speed records.
First up is the Drayson B12 69/EV LMP project that Lord Drayson spearheads.
The electric racer went up the hill at the Goodwood Festival of Speed last year and was the test bed for a lot of the electric technology that will feature in next year’s FIA Formula E single-seater championship. The sports car was due to contest the sub-1000kg electric category at Elvington’s 1.86-mile runway just after the magazine went to press on June 25. At the time of writing the record, which was set by Battery Box General Electric in 1974, stood at 175mph, but Paul Drayson wasn’t taking success for granted before the event.
“It’s not the outright speed that is impressive about this record attempt,” he says, “but the engineering challenge of accelerating a 1000kg electric vehicle to such a high speed and sustaining it over a measured mile, before stopping safely within a relatively short distance then turning it around and doing it again within an hour.
“It’s a great way to build up to the Formula E Championship that we are contesting [with spec racers] from 2014. It will also demonstrate that Britain is at the forefront of this vital technology, which I believe represents the future of the automobile.” Log on to www.draysonracing.com to find out more.
Lord Drayson isn’t the only person trying to crack electric speed records this year, though: the Venturi Buckeye Bullet racing team (yes, it’s American) is off to the Bonneville Salt Flats in August for Speed Week to try and break the 400mph mark. The team has a long history with electric vehicles and has been preparing and running cars since the 1990s.
Ohio State University entered the collegiate open-wheel Formula Lightning Series, which ran until 2000, with ‘The Smokin’ Buckeye’ and won more than 50 per cent of the races. When the series wound down the team decided to go for outright speed and has since built LSR breakers such as the Buckeye Bullet 1, which set the international speed record for battery electric vehicles with a figure of 271.737mph, and the Venturi Buckeye Bullet 2.5, which raised that record to 307.666mph. Version 3 aims to hit 400mph – a massive speed for an electric vehicle.
While few of us want to see the future of motor racing dominated by electric vehicles, it’s great to see records of all different types being broken. Watch this space.
Green light for my lean machine
Somewhere south of F1, you’ll find the 2013 Piaggio Ape World Championship
Usually it’s my height that gets the most ribbing from the editorial team at Motor Sport, but recently the hilarity of my stature has been replaced by the unsuitability of my latest racer. While many of you might also find the Piaggio Ape very unbecoming for a Motor Sport journalist, it is the only thing that will fit in my London lock-up and doesn’t need a trailer to get to races. Yes, it has only three wheels, but that’s one more than a motorbike…
I’ve just returned from the first race at Rye House, Herts (venue for all four). While our carefully designed extra pair of front wheels didn’t quite work according to plan (they were supposed to stop the Ape toppling, but kept falling off and bouncing into gravel traps), my brother and I managed to scrape home second (out of, cough, four).
We were, however, off the pace. Thankfully this isn’t F1 so we can test before the next race on July 14. What’s more, tyres weren’t mentioned even once. Then again, everyone was too busy floating around on two wheels to wear them out…