British Grand Prix Preview -- BTCC -- Vic Lee Motorsport
Going for Broke
The Grand Prix weekend at Silverstone finishes with a round of the British Touring Car Championship, and it will inevitably see another battle royale between the Vauxhall Cavaliers, the BMWs and possibly the Toyota Carinas. And although the works-backed Prodrive team can never be discounted, it seems likely that the Bavarian banner will be flown by the Vic Lee Motorsport cars of Will Hoy and Ray Bellm, the cars which this year have suprised everyone by their competitiveness. But who are Vic Lee Motorsport and where do they come from?
It was quite by chance that I met Vic Lee a year and a half ago. I was on a Golf GTI High Performance Driving course at Goodwood and my instructor for the day was Vic Lee. The name rang a bell before he reminded me that he had been mixed up in racing since 1974 racing Minis, special saloons, but that he had had a lay off from motor racing between 1979 and 1985. He then came back and won the Monroe championship in 1987. It was his involvement with the Toyota Supra challenge in the BTCC the following year, however, which really set the seed for Vic Lee Motorsport "It was really then that I started getting a strong love for British Touring Cars although the Supra unfortunately never really went anywhere and it was a disastrous year. It was through that year that I felt that I could set a better team up. It had always been one of my ambitions to set up my own race shop, but I had never had the money, the fire and the contacts with any manufacturers."
It was in a partnership with Richard Asquith in 1989 which saw Vic Lee put aside his helmet and driving gloves and concentrate on running a team, running Robbie Head in the Honda Civic CRX Championship and Karl Jones in a Sierra in the BTCC. "We won the Honda championship and got a class win in the Autoglass tour, but we had only limited funds to run Karl, and it showed, for we could never go testing as much as we would have liked."
The Lee Asquith team lasted just this one year, Asquith and Lee agreeing on an amicable split which enabled the latter to put all his energies into establishing his own team in the British Touring Car Championship. The question was with what and with whom?
To be successful Lee realised that his driving days really were over, appreciating that to be competitive he had to put all his energies into running, managing and financing a team rather than drive himself. There was also the question of which car to run and how was he going to pay for it.
"I've never been a spender, I've always been a saver so I took a chance and put all my savings into the team and also, as in any new business, borrowed money from the bank using my house and everything I owned as collateral. It was a burning ambition to own a top Touring Car team so I really threw everything I had at it, and really I was quite prepared to make or break."
The first move once the funds were in place was to buy a BMW M3, Lee buying the ex-Ravaglia car from the Bigazzi team in Italy and converting it into a 2-litre car. "It was dear to buy, but it was even more expensive to convert into a 2-litre car." Why a BMW? "I've always been a great believer that if a car looks like racing car then it will perform like a racing car, and the M3 was designed for motorsport anyway."
The team's results that first year with Jeff Allam as driver were quite encouraging, from the first race they entered when they outqualified both Prodrive cars, to the end result when they finished third in class. "We were very pleased with that first year, particularly when we considered that we were up against the might of Vauxhall and Prodrive with the works cars and the only funds we had come in through the door for Jeff s car was £35,000. The investment was mine personally, but I always perform better when the pressure is on. Fortunately the bank was very kind to me, and believed in what I was trying to do. I had set them out a short, medium and long term plan of where I saw Vic Lee Motorsport going and as long as I didn't deviate from it, I had their support. We are always under tremendous financial restraints which does hold us back in some of our development areas, but the funding we have received this year from Securicor and Labatt's, whilst they're not the best funded deals, has allowed us to have more money than we've ever had before and that enables us to do more."
For this year Vic Lee has invested in developing his own specially built 2-litre cars, "not converted Group A cars" he is keen to point out and has employed ex-Prodrive engineer David Potter to look after them. "I am a seat of the pants engineer," explains Lee, "I can look at a car and tell you what it is doing, and I can give people ideas. Dave is a young engineer. He has some fancy ideas which we have to tame now and then as we would probably have ended up in the same scenario as Trakstar, but his strength is in chassis and suspensions. His thesis at university was damping and hydraulics, so he's very good in that area."
The team may run BMWs, but as Prodrive is the official team, VLM, as with the other BMW teams, receives no support at all from the factory or the official importers. "I can honestly say that from day one we've never had any support from England. We've knocked on the door several times, but have been informed that Prodrive is the only team they support. It was interesting in the early days when I rung up BMW to ask a technical question that I was actually put onto Prodrive to answer it. Until this year I never got so much as a phone call." Not even BMW Motorsport in Germany can help them, not wishing to meddle with the policy of BMW GB. "They can only advise BMW GB and I do believe that they put a good case for us for this year, but unfortunately the UK had already decided that the route they would like to go would be with Prodrive. After the first two results of the year, however, we do at least now have the use of a loan car." The closer relationship Vic Lee Motorsport has with BMW Motorsport in Germany, however, pays off in other ways. "We get engineering support so we have access to a lot of technical knowledge from them. If we feel that we want to try something, we consult them first before we do all the drawings, in case they have already gone that route and know the answers. Having this engineering facility available to us in Germany has saved us a lot of money." The engines themselves are rebuilt by Eurotech of Coventry.
What started as a one car operation last year has now expanded into a five car operation, although the fifth car, the Demon Tweeks BMW, has just been brought to make it eligible for the Thundersaloon championship. It is a new project for the team, but Lee is adamant that it will not detract them from working on the four other cars, their own Securicor-backed cars and the Labatt's cars of Bristow Motorsport. Isn't there the danger, though, that the customer might feel that his cars will not receive the same attention as the VLM works cars?
"When Laurence Bristow came to us he already knew that we were running two cars for Will Hoy and Ray Bellm and was a bit concerned as to whether we could handle 4 cars. It's always going to be politically difficult, especially with the situation we find ourselves in at the moment where we've got the two Securicor cars quite dominant over the Labatt's cars. Very early on in the season there were rumours that maybe the cars were slightly different, so the easiest way to kill that rumour was to take all the cars to Snetterton where Will Hoy drove all the cars ending up a little bit quicker in Laurence's car than in anything else. Bristow then accepted that all the cars were the same and that it was down to himself and team-mate Tim Harvey to improve their techniques. Both had been used to a lot of power having driven the Sierra Cosworths the year before, but it is a lot easier to drive a powerful car, especially one that handles, than it is to drive a car that's not got a lot of power."
With regard to his own drivers, Lee had his line-up sorted out at an early stage. "Ray Bellm approached me last October after a terrible season running a Rouse-prepared Sapphire to run a single car for him. We had a meeting and I suggested that two cars would always be better than one, because it is always very difficult to beat a two car works team with just one car. Ray already had the funds to run one car but obviously we needed more. It was just by sheer luck that we heard that Securicor were pulling out of rallying and were looking to get into some form of motorsport."
Despite a late application and overcoming the fact that they were not affiliated to a manufacturer, Vic Lee Motorsport won the contract. "Their worry," according to Lee, "was that they were sponsoring Vic Lee Motorsport so we had a lot of convincing to do. Our results from last year, when we started from nothing, and our driver line-up, obviously helped. It was a huge relief when we got the news in January that they were coming in with us."
Although not contracted to drive in the team at this stage, Will Hoy had already been contacted by Lee in the autumn when he realised that he was losing Jeff Allam to Vauxhall. Initially it was just to act as a test driver but when they discussed the 1991 season, they realised that Hoy's Japanese programme dovetailed with the British Touring Car Championship quite well. What also helped was the fact that Bellm didn't want the pressure of being number one and was quite content to act as a back-up for whoever was selected.
Lee's ambitions don't just extend to being one of the leading British Touring Car teams, but also to Germany where he would also like to run a Touring Car team. "I personally would like to see 2-1/2-litre cars run in the British series as well. Whilst the British cars are quick, I don't think they are dramatic enough. If you go to a German series the noise, the crowds, the way the cars are set up are exciting to watch. The only problem I foresee over here is that we would lose the front-wheel drive cars since they would not be able to handle the extra horsepower. The point in favour of the British series, however, is the fact that there are seven manufacturers involved whereas in Germany there are only four."
Vic Lee Motorsport is a small team, just 12 people including secretarial staff, and everyone is as committed in making it succeed as Vic Lee is himself. They do not have the backing of a manufacturer and they still have some way to go to prove that they are not just a flash in the pan, but the fact that they perceive themselves to be the underdogs against the like of GM DealerSport and more particularly Prodrive, it gives them just that little extra edge over their rivals. -- WPK