"After you've slugged it out for a while you develop mutual respect"

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Switching from Formula 1 to endurance racing requires drivers to embrace an alien culture based on honesty, integrity and a willingness to help those who were previously sworn enemies. Toyota’s world champions Anthony Davidson and Sébastien Buemi talked to fellow racer Johnny Mowlem about this attitudinal shift
Photographer: James Moy

Most successful racing drivers, professional or amateur, have certain things in common, not least an extremely healthy ego and large dollops of self-interest. This is most obvious when looking at the working relationship between Formula 1 team-mates, but it is prevalent in all forms of motor sport. The need for a driver to establish a clear team pecking order is paramount, to ensure success and also to boost future employment prospects. Not beating a team-mate can seriously jeopardise a professional racer’s livelihood.

Over many years competing in single-seaters and sports cars, I have always been fascinated by the psychological dynamic between team-mates – and nowhere more so than in endurance racing, where the need for drivers to work together, potentially helping a team-mate to improve, is a vital component that flies in the face of every racing instinct.

Before the World Endurance Championship began, I sat down at Paul Ricard with Toyota’s defending champions Anthony Davidson and Sébastien Buemi, to discuss how drivers are able to cast aside the innate selfishness that is part of every racing driver’s mindset.

Johnny Mowlem In single-seater racing it’s often like a civil war between team-mates. Starting with Seb, because you were most recently in F1, did you find it easy to be open with information when first you came into sports cars?

Sébastien Buemi [laughing] It took a bit of time…

Anthony Davidson At first he treated me like [former Toro Rosso Formula 1 team-mate] Jaime Alguersuari!

SB But also we had a strange year in 2012, with Ant having a big accident at Le Mans. The first real year for us was 2013, when we shared the car for the whole season. Initially you need to find your place in the team. Last year it worked really well, because we really started helping each other. Now we just need it to work with the third driver! But Kazuki [Nakajima] is a good guy so I am sure we will be fine.

AD Kazuki fights as hard as anyone when out on track, but he is also a very humble character so I am sure he’ll fit in well. At the end of last year Seb and I got to the stage where we didn’t even need to say anything to each other, we just knew that we had the same game plan and we approached race weekends identically. Every challenge we had, I would see from his driving and my driving that we were attacking in the same way.

SB In the last three races especially, we felt really good and that it would be difficult to beat us.

JM I could see that happening even as an outsider. Do you think that the WEC qualifying format helps, where two drivers are used and an average lap time is taken, rather than one guy being the hero who sets pole? Does that help you gel?

AD I think our car was stronger with that format, rather than it being one driver over one lap.

SB With the old system it was difficult to beat Porsche over one lap.

AD We had fun trying though…

JM It sounds as though both of you cared only about the opposition and that neither of you was worried about who was quicker in your own car. Would you agree?

AD Yes, although obviously you never want to be the slower one…

SB But when you are so close to each other, as we were last year, it is impossible to say exactly who was quicker.

AD You know every dog has its day and that one driver might suit a different track or conditions slightly better. You get to learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

SB But when you are so close it doesn’t really matter any more. What you don’t want is to find that someone is really a long way off, but this never happened.

AD Psychologically it was important to remain upbeat and on the same page all the time. Last year there was no longer any competition between us, to show who was the fastest. We were in it together. In 2013 I think maybe people were trying to mark their territory.

SB Yeah, but after that it then worked really well for 2014. What we both understood was that the relationship takes time. We didn’t get there straight away.

AD When Seb first joined I could see that he was fresh from F1, I could sense that he felt he had a point to prove! I spent a lot of time as an F1 test driver, where you had to be quite selfless in tuning the car and then giving it up for someone else to race. Seb didn’t really do that part in F1, he was always racing for himself and came into sports cars very much with that attitude.

JM Especially I guess for Seb, because he was coming into sports cars after an F1 season under pressure from Red Bull to keep his drive. That must have been pretty intense?

AD [laughing] Yeah, Helmut Marko staring you down every lap! Not an easy environment. I could sense that he was slightly sensitive when he arrived – the Red Bull driver programme can be quite vicious and he had gone through that and come out the other side, a bit beaten up by it mentally.

SB You really have to show what you can do, all the time.

AD You could almost see the insecurity, where he felt he needed to show the world what happened in Toro Rosso was not fair. That’s what I sensed, anyway.

JM Ant, is that a little bit what you also felt when you first came into sports cars? I know you dabbled with GTs quite early on.

AD I could fall back on my F1 testing experience and slip into the sports car mindset quite easily, but you did feel like a youngster racing against older drivers and that you had to prove you were faster than them. Seb and I went through a rocky period, probably around the time of our first Shanghai race together. Things came to a head and we had a chat, as we both knew it couldn’t go on like that. Instead of trying to bring each other down and tell each other the negatives, the things we weren’t doing well, we developed a mutual respect for the things we were doing well.

JM I think with most team-mates, especially ones that are evenly matched, that process has to happen. A quick team-mate comes in and you are almost like boxers, walking around the ring eyeing each other and then battling it out to try and establish a clear pecking order. But after you’ve slugged it out for a while you develop that mutual respect and, in my experience, you can develop an even closer friendship with that team-mate. Not only have you established mutual respect, but it can lead to a genuine desire to see the other driver do well, which is completely at odds with the normal default mindset of a racing driver. But this always takes time and some drivers never achieve it.

AD We had enough fights or moments on track and realised that, however hard we tried, there was never going to be one person who clearly came out on top! So we might as well work together. But, as Seb says, when we now see one or the other is struggling, perhaps because the set-up needs to be improved, we don’t see that as a negative. You just think, ‘If I were in that car I wouldn’t be able to do any better, so there must be something wrong’. That’s how we both look at it now.

JM From talking to you both together, I feel this positive relationship is a large reason for your success. The dynamic between you appears very strong and healthy. It appears that Toyota provides a good working environment for its drivers.

AD It is good. It is an engineering-driven team, but I mean we are still under pressure and we still get reports…

SB Yes, we still get reports and know who is quicker, but they don’t want us to fight. They just show the facts. But we are good enough together now that if one of us is not happy, we can change the programme. The two of us are really strong like that. When I came into sports cars I was straight up against Ant as the benchmark, you could argue the quickest, so it was not easy.

AD Not that I ever saw it like that…

SB No, but it was good because straight away you see where you are, but it was also hard. The more we drove together, the better it got.

AD Initially in 2013 we were only supposed to do two races, which then became three, and because of our performances, even though we hadn’t completely gelled, we ended up together all the way to the end.

JM By working so well together you two have created an increased value for yourselves as a duo. It’s no good having three people in a car with one superstar and two unhappy drivers, you need everyone to be happy.

AD Exactly, and that is what we are very keen to achieve this year.

SB Normally, when you are sat on the pit wall watching your single-seater team-mate and he is being really, really strong, you hate that. You get that horrible feeling in your stomach. But last year things started to work really well for us. I often took the start while Ant would do the first part of qualifying, and we started to get into a rhythm. He was really good at extracting the maximum from the new tyres and I got quite good with the older tyres, and that was basically the only chance we had to fight Porsche for pole position.

AD With that qualifying format, if you really wanted to be a little bit spiteful and your ego got the better of you, you would maybe intentionally go a little bit off line on your in-lap to get pick-up on the tyres, or you could scrub the tyres a touch too hard to generate a little bit too much temperature. There are evil little things that you could do, but for our mutual benefit I made damn sure that I didn’t push too hard on the in-lap. I wanted to get my two laps done cleanly and not take a third, to give Seb the best possible package for his laps. He’d get in the car, I’d give him a big slap on the back and send him on his way!

SB Because he kept doing this, we kept the same format and that helped us against other teams as many of them kept changing things around.

AD When you’re fighting for a championship, you find another level and I think we both found it last year.

SB When you see there is a chance, you just keep pushing, sometimes even when it looks like the chance to win has gone.

JM Both of you seem to have found a really good balance.

AD Yeah, he’s keeping me younger! Seb is only 26 and, when I think back to myself at that age, I wasn’t as mature as he is. I wouldn’t have been ready to drive in this type of environment. I feel like I’m more towards my peak and I’m excited for Sébastien to see how far he can go and how much more he can improve.

SB I think this also helped us to make virtually no mistakes on the track last year.

AD It’s funny because it was only in Brazil, when we had already won the championship, that we admitted to overdriving slightly and maybe a few small errors crept in, although we nearly won that race!

SB Yeah, we said we’d push harder than ever before and both went off at different times.

JM Circumstances led to there being just two of you in the car last year [Nicolas Lapierre stood down before the season’s end]. Did that help your relationship in terms of both bonding and performance?

AD There are pros and cons.

SB It is better for the six-hour races, because you get more mileage in free practice, you get more new tyres. In the six-hour races there are almost no negatives. The only thing was in Austin, where it was hard for two drivers because it was so hot….

AD And also maybe in Brazil…

SB Yes, but for Brazil it was really good. By the time we were back in for the third stint, we were really up to speed, whereas the other cars had their third drivers getting in and they took a few laps to acclimatise. We were gaining up to 10 seconds.

AD Yeah, because it was taking about five laps for them to get themselves fully dialled in.

SB The only downside is how much you lose at Le Mans by not having someone who has done the whole season, so isn’t fully sharp. For Le Mans the three drivers have to feel good. You can’t test much and it is the biggest race.

AD You can do as many endurance tests as you like, but it still is not the same as being at a race with all the pressures and it is still difficult to gel as a threesome.

SB You take away the maximum for the six-hour races to make sure things are perfect at Le Mans. Theoretically you could say that the best option would be to have three drivers up until Le Mans and then finish the championship with only two.

AD The only thing to remember is that, physically, the LMP1 cars are becoming more and more like F1 cars to drive, so with the closed cockpit and high ambient temperatures they can be quite physically demanding.

SB Compared with F1, the impressive thing is not so much our speed but more how long we stay at the wheel. The performance of an F1 car is impressive, yes, but you drive it for only an hour and a half. We have nearly the same level of car performance but you keep going for so long.

JM How do you reckon you’ll split driver duties with Kazuki Nakajima who is joining you as your third driver for the year?

AD We don’t know! Kazuki had pole position last year at Le Mans and won the Super Formula championship outright in Japan, so his confidence is high. But he’s not the type of guy who is going to put his hand up and say he wants to do qualifying.

SB We don’t want him to feel any extra pressure because he is joining the current champions. He has nothing to prove to us. Generally we are really open. If someone is not feeling great then we can change driver rotations or whatever, we don’t have to stick to a set plan we decided two weeks beforehand.

AD Two years ago I pulled out of qualifying in Austin and let Stéphane Sarrazin do it, because I wasn’t feeling quite right.

JM That shows maturity from which many drivers could learn. Most would rather suck on a razor blade than give up a chance to qualify.

AD I suppose so! This year will be different, going back to three drivers, although obviously we know Kazuki and he knows us and the team.

JM Will the two of you be involved in any readjustment?

SB We decide almost everything. The team leaves it pretty much up to us. If we say that we feel better doing things a certain way, like me doing the start and Ant starting qualifying, nobody will go against us.

JM That is really supportive. I have driven for teams that are not like that, which can be detrimental. I think drivers should be allowed to decide between themselves how they break up the weekend, as this helps keep the harmony.

AD It is good. I am already thinking about Kazuki potentially doing qualifying for Le Mans, because he was on pole in 2014 and has always gone well there.

JM But pole position at Le Mans? That’s one to tell the grandkids…

AD Yeah, but it’s all about winning.

JM To be fair, pole position at Le Mans is all about getting that clear lap when you’ve got the new-tyre/low-fuel run.

SB The only problem at Le Mans is that you need to be lucky.

AD For the whole event…

SB When we looked at Kazuki’s qualifying lap last year, we just laughed! He took the slipstream everywhere, he just caught and overtook cars in all the right places. It was incredible.

AD Equally, we don’t want him to feel pressured, to feel that he has to come and repeat that feat.

JM Would you give up winning the world title again if someone said you can win Le Mans but not the championship?

AD Yeah, for sure.

SB With the way the points work, if you win Le Mans because you were fast, rather than lucky, you will probably also win the championship. I think it was a one-off last year that the Le Mans winners didn’t also take the championship.

AD But Le Mans is one of those races that you can win by being lucky. And that helped me deal with not winning last year. Plus I didn’t realise how good it would feel to win the World Endurance Championship. I spoke to cyclist Mark Cavendish and he likened it to the Tour de France. Yes, it’s a massive race, but the people in his sport regard the world title as more prestigious because it means you were performing for the whole season.

JM With Le Mans, the more times you do it, the more you feel you’ll take a win any way you can get it.

AD I already feel like that. In a way I’m kind of ‘over’ the race. I know it’s fickle, so if I luck into winning it this year it will justify all the times that I feel I should have won it on merit.

SB At Le Mans you just need to make sure you do your stuff right. It is so big and everyone attaches so much importance to it that you put extra pressure on yourself. We must try to do it as we would any other race.

AD We looked back at last year’s race and worked out that [without Lapierre becoming involved in a time-consuming three-car accident] we would have won the race by six laps…

SB More! Even more!

AD And we were the lucky ones in terms of reliability. That was a bit frustrating.

SB After the accident our car was not very good, with the steering like this [holds his hands at 45 degrees], the brake pedal shaking and a strange noise from the hybrid. I’d not heard it before and haven’t since. I was thinking, ‘I am going to do one straight and it is going to explode’.

AD And it kept going! I jumped into the car after Seb had first driven it following the accident, expecting it to be OK. He’d told the team it was ‘perfect’. I couldn’t believe he’d been driving a car that bad for two hours…

JM Well let’s hope you have better luck this year! All the very best for the championship and, of course, for Le Mans.

Johnny Mowlem
Career in brief

Having cut his teeth in Formula Ford, Formula Vauxhall and F3 during the early 1990s, Johnny Mowlem switched to GTs and won back-to-back Porsche Carrera Cup GB titles in 1996/97 (taking 17 wins from as many starts in the second of those campaigns). In 1998 he stepped up to the American Le Mans Series, the dawn of a long international career that has included 10 starts at the Le Mans 24 Hours. He has taken part in all the world’s major endurance races and credits include class victories in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Sebring 12 Hours, and in 2013 he became European Le Mans Series GTE champion with Matt Griffin. In 2015 he is racing in the North American Endurance Championship.