The name has been a familiar part of motor sport’s landscape across three decades, but has never previously been associated with the World Endurance Championship. It is now…
Writer Simon Arron | photographer Drew Gibson
The installation is so fresh that there is no visible signage outside. The door is ajar, though, so I walk in and find myself on a workshop floor with two LMP2 ORECA-Nissans. There is a delightfully old-school motor racing ambience – no battery of receptionists, just a functional, no-frills unit close to Silverstone’s perimeter and a small, dedicated workforce fettling a couple of cars. It is from here that Manor is running its inaugural World Endurance Championship programme, set up by John Booth and Graeme Lowdon after their departure from the Formula 1 team of the same name.
Before we chat, there is one important matter that requires resolution: would I like a cuppa?
The Manor name has been prominent in motor sport since 1990, when former FF1600 star Booth launched the team in Formula Renault. It went on to be highly successful in junior single-seater racing, at home and abroad, guiding Marc Hynes and Antonio Pizzonia to British F3 titles and running numerous drivers who would later grace F1, including Robert Kubica, Lewis Hamilton, Kimi Räikkönen and Paul di Resta. When the FIA invited tenders for new F1 teams in 2010, Manor Grand Prix was one of the three applicants selected, although assorted business partnerships would lead it to run as Virgin Racing, Marussia Virgin and plain old Marussia before it morphed, in 2015, into Manor Marussia. From 2010-2014 it also ran a GP3 operation, scoring 11 race wins. Lowdon has been involved for the past 16 years.
The temptation to take a tilt at F1 was based on a promised budget cap that never materialised. “I think we can be proud of what we achieved,” Lowdon says. “There were many challenges we didn’t expect when we committed to step up, but business is all about dealing with things as they come along – you see that in every industry. Our goalposts moved enormously and it was incredibly hard to predict where they might end up. It’s difficult to plan when there’s a lack of stable governance.”
Booth: “The loss of a budget cap was the biggest shift of all shifts – going from $40 million per season, paid for by TV revenue, to £60 million per year and receiving a third of what we initially thought…”
Reality bit late in 2014, when the F1 team missed the final three Grands Prix and its GP3 sibling folded. “The financial challenges mounted during the season,” Lowdon says, “and then the worst possible thing happened when Jules Bianchi had his accident at Suzuka [the Frenchman died from his injuries nine months later]. Soon afterwards the team went into administration, so John and I worked closely with the regulators and did the best we could to make sure the team carried on. It was a really difficult period, but we managed to create an environment where a new investor [Ovo Energy boss Stephen Fitzpatrick] could come in. Our roles then changed significantly, though, because we were no longer shareholders. Fundamentally we’d been trying to make sure the team survived for somebody else, by which stage we were just employees – and in that capacity you have the opportunity to go and do something else. I felt that was the right course.”
Both pledged to see out the 2015 season. En route to the Abu Dhabi finale, however, Lowdon stopped off in Bahrain on a WEC fact-finding mission. “I’d sat next to Allan McNish on a few aeroplanes,” he says, “and we’d talked about sports car racing. He very kindly arranged for me to go to Bahrain as an Audi guest and that gave me a chance to take a look at what had been happening while we were immersed in everything else. Walking into that paddock, it just felt great.”
Unaware of his friend’s train of thought, Booth had his mind elsewhere. “On the Monday after Abu Dhabi,” he says, “I flew to Australia, for a holiday, and had no intention of going to a race ever again. That was it for me, but I came back with batteries recharged – and that continued as this project evolved. I felt pretty excited heading down to Paul Ricard for our first test.” [He has since also accepted an F1 consultancy role with Toro Rosso.]
Lowdon: “After Abu Dhabi I went out for dinner, had a drink and by lunchtime the following day I was thinking, ‘Right, what’s next?’ John was probably on his plane by then…” ‘Next’ turns out to be our current location, within the motor sport-rich industrial complex known as Silverstone Park. As the smallest F1 entrant Manor had 200 personnel, but team principal Booth and sporting director Lowdon now oversee seven full-time employees and will have a crew of 27 during race weekends. They put in a single entry for Le Mans – that having been the original plan for the whole season – but will run two cars for the balance of the WEC campaign, for defending Le Mans LMP2 winner Richard Bradley, F1 refugees Roberto Merhi and Will Stevens, long-time Manor driver Tor Graves, Yorkshireman James Jakes and former F3 racer Matt Rao.
Although endurance racing is new to both men in terms of hands-on participation, it has played a significant part in their lives. “One of my greatest moments was watching a Group C start at Donington Park,” Lowdon says. “I’d really never seen anything like that before and in June 1990 I went to Le Mans for the first time. That left a big impression and I went back every year until 2009. That’s where I was when I received the phone call telling me we’d been granted an F1 entry. If I were to draw up a list of things that make me passionate about motor sport, there would be a lot of F1 on it – but also a great deal of sports car stuff.”
Booth: “The first race meeting I ever attended was the Kosset Six Hours at Silverstone in 1977 – Porsche was trialling the new whale-tail ahead of Le Mans and was expected to reach 200mph on the Hangar Straight, so I wanted to see it. On the way out, I watched the Formula Ford race from Woodcote and thought, ‘I’ve got to have some of that’.” He did, too, remaining a competitive force well into the mid-1980s.
Captains apart, the new team features a blend of past Manor employees – some of whom were on the F1 roster – and a number of people with solid WEC experience. “It’s a different challenge when you’re not manufacturing a car,” Lowdon says, “but you still need people of the highest calibre because we’re competing against strong rivals who operate from the same rulebook. One of the things that swayed our choice was a meeting with WEC CEO Gérard Neveu and his team. They told us that the WEC was not really their championship, but that it belonged to the competitors and that we should talk to them. I thought that was a powerful sales pitch, because the people running the show had such a level of confidence in the product. That told me it was a really good championship.”
Booth admits to being bowled over by what he saw when teams arrived for the pre-season prologue at Paul Ricard. “The paddock was absolutely full of spectators,” he says, “which was great – much better than having tumbleweed blowing through, as happens in F1. The drivers smile, too.
“It’s quite interesting that the LMP1 teams have their spendathon, with absolutely massive operations, while LMP2 is much more tightly controlled and nobody is allowed to steal a march in technical terms. It’s almost like they’ve written one set of rules for the manufacturers and another for the spectators. I watched most of Le Mans last year and every time I switched on the TV the top three LMP2 teams were less than a minute apart. It’s outstanding for the fans to see that kind of racing. It’s a clever idea – two separate categories that complement each other.”
Lowdon: “They’ve managed to achieve it without being contrived in any way, too. I don’t want to make direct comparisons, but look at the mess surrounding F1 qualifying at the start of this season. I fear that F1 could become a victim of some people wanting a random number generator, but if the end result is just to shake up the grid you might as well get the drivers to dress in fancy costumes and pick a ball from a hat. Fans are not interested in contrived randomness. They want to see drivers taking their car around as quickly as possible, a level of purity, not for the chairs to be whipped away one at a time like a children’s party game…
“Spectators understand endurance racing – look how many Brits go to Le Mans. It takes a while to get there, but they are passionate about what they’re watching and understand it. There’s a straightforward leaderboard and you don’t need 17 stopwatches to work out what’s going on. The best games are the simplest.”
While the short-term focus is LMP2 in the WEC, Manor is keeping an eye on other opportunities in sports car racing and elsewhere. “It was never an option to go back to F3 or GP3,” Booth says. “We’re done with that particular part of our lives, but Indycar was a thought because we haven’t yet tried it. The new LMP1 Light regulations could also be quite interesting – if ever they get released. We might consider becoming a manufacturer again. I never say never, but firstly we need to concentrate on LMP2 while being prepared for anything else that might arise. We could in future expand the current programme by running in America or Asia, but the priority is to earn our spurs here. We want to be competitive and I’ll be disappointed if we don’t score a victory this season.”
And is F1 to be put on the same ‘been there, done that’ shelf as junior single-seater racing?
“It changes all the time,” Lowdon says, “so who knows? Whatever we do has to be a challenge, has to be competitive and has to be something around which you can develop. F1’s biggest asset is its fanbase, which is massive, passionate and global. It should be the most attractive series around which to build a business, but at present quite clearly it isn’t. People ask whether we’re serious about sports cars in the long term, but we are very committed to our business and believe we can create something solid in the WEC.
“Our primary objective is to gain the respect of our peers in a formula that’s new to us – that’s always the first target. Everyone else is trying to build the best sports car team in the world and we’re no different, but you have to go step by step.”
By their own estimation, neither party has previously been directly involved in a race lasting more than four hours – and that was the 2011 Canadian GP, which dragged on due to a lengthy rainstorm interruption. The 2016 campaign is likely to throw up rather steeper hurdles, but you get the sense that they relish the prospect. “What is nice,” Booth says, “is that we’re in control of our own destinies once again.”