LMP2's long and winding road

New teams and entries flood into the LMP2 class, but they face tough opposition from one venerable warrior

Gibson LMP2 car

The car that sits before us is the 2016 Gibson 015S LMP2 racer. Carbon-fibre monocoque, carbon discs, carbon fibre and Kevlar bodywork and a 4.5-litre V8 NISMO VK45DE that produces 450bhp. Cutting-edge stuff – isn’t it? Well…

The car is four years old but its design is technically 16 years old – yet it’s still active in the front line of sports car racing. Even the Porsche 956/962 was only at the top of its game for seven seasons. In Formula 1 the Lotus 72 competed between 1970 and ’75, and the McLaren M23 arrived in 1973 and won the championship in 1976. But there’s nothing that comes close to 16 years. Sixteen years!

We must go all the way back to 2000 to trace the seeds of the car you see here. It’s an extraordinary length of time, especially when you consider how competitive the design has been since 2003: it has won races throughout, from a round of the old FIA Sportscar Championship to, most recently, the opening round of the 2016 European Le Mans Series.

Beforehand we’d asked whether the team thought it would be competitive despite having had no updates over the winter. The reply? “We’ll be disappointed if it’s not…”

We’re at Silverstone prior to that first race and Jota, the team running the car, is readying it for Friday practice. To our left is a small indoor heater drying some 9323 epoxy adhesive on a front splitter vane, to our right is an immaculate pit set-up – and in the air there’s that racing staple: the smell of frying bacon.

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The name above the garage now is Russian oil brand G-Drive, but this LMP2 car has only recently changed moniker. Dubbed ‘Trigger’s broom’ by Jota driver, team owner and businessman Simon Dolan, little remains of the original car bar the gearbox casting.

The engineer behind the operation is Tim Holloway, who emerged from the Rocket Propulsion Establishment at Westcott and went to March Engineering before helping set up the Leyton House F1 team. “I spent a lot of time with Adrian [Newey], and the magic on the Leyton House cars was the aero,” he says. “It was easy to drive, benign. That was Adrian’s philosophy and, despite joining March as a young lad, his emphasis was already on aerodynamics. I understood the power of aero from then on and have held onto that.”

It was a lesson that would have a bearing on this LMP2 car so many years later. After running a company that built F1 cars for customers, Holloway went to Jordan and then Zytek.

“There were lots of gentlemen drivers and the key was to give them an easy car.”

Back to the matter at hand – the origins of this LMP2 car. “It was designed to be dual-purpose,” says Holloway, who created the original chassis at Zytek. It was intended to be both an LMP1 and an LMP2 car and ran as a P1 for the first few years of its life. The basis for the chassis came from the Reynard 02S – designs to which Zytek bought the rights when it started its chassis division. Holloway says, “We changed nearly everything on the Reynard and when it hit the track it was competitive. Interestingly Jota was our first customer [in 2003], that’s how we got to know [then driver, now Jota partner] Sam Hignett.

“It was a great baseline car and very easy to drive. We worked hard to make sure we didn’t lose that ability from it. Especially in those days, when there were lots of gentlemen drivers and the key was to give them an easy car.

“We did develop it, but we never had the budget at Zytek to do a new car. The first big upgrade was an aero kit, but we fitted that to the old chassis. The following year we did a new chassis and fitted that to the aero kit. It was always compromise, compromise, compromise. That meant the basic shape and fittings didn’t change. In some ways it instilled more discipline and made sure we didn’t go off on a new tangent as you might with a new car. That’s what made it so sustainable over a period. At the time we thought it was a negative, but actually it was a positive.”

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Fast-forward to 2012 and Jota was running the Zytek Z11SN. “It’s odd how we ended up there,” Dolan tells me. “We did a deal with Aston Martin Racing in 2010 and the deal was that we’d buy a GT4 car and race that for a year [2010], then race a GT2 [2011] before buying an AMR-One to do LMP1.” For those that don’t remember, the Aston Martin AMR-One was a rare blot on Aston’s copybook. Designed as an open-top P1 car with a 2-litre straight six, it proved uncompetitive and was abandoned after one year in January 2012.

“We were back to the drawing board,” adds Dolan, “and looked at various different options. Sam [Hignett] had a long relationship with Zytek because of racing with them a few years beforehand, so we decided to go and have a look and it all kicked off from there. I much prefer slicks and wings, prototype stuff and that’s why we were keen on LMP2. We looked in a very casual way at doing the BTCC, but almost everyone I spoke to said, ‘Oh no, you’re not going to like that…’”

After only a season of Radical SR3s and two seasons in the European VdeV series aboard a Ligier, LMP2 was a sizeable step up for Dolan. “It was a big change, but I took to it straight away, I don’t know why. Probably because I was used to driving smaller cars and when I saw something bigger with wider tyres it just seemed that it would be more capable, which it is. Visually I had a lot of confidence that the car would stick to the road. It had loads of grip and loads of power. Perfect.”

Jota first campaigned the chassis in 2012, with Dolan and Sam Hancock as drivers, and managed a class win at the Spa Six Hours. The following year Oliver Turvey replaced Hancock and then, for 2014, it recruited Harry Tincknell. That year Dolan, ably abetted by Tincknell and last-minute stand-in Turvey, achieved a life ambition – a class win at the Le Mans 24 Hours (above). “It’s interesting how Simon has grown with the car,” says Holloway. “In order to make this car easy to drive we got the basics right. The centre of gravity is low and, because of the position of the fuel tank, it doesn’t change if you have full or empty tanks.

“It’s on the weight limit and the aerodynamics were good from the start – the centre of pressure moves in the right direction when you’re braking or accelerating. Other cars might be a tenth of a second quicker, but I am sure Simon would be half a second slower in some other LMP2 cars. Maybe not over one lap, but over 20 laps and that’s what counts.”

“As soon as I drove the car with Simon,” says Tincknell, “I saw he was quick. It’s so important to have a fast silver-rated driver in the car in LMP2.” Tincknell, having never been to Le Mans before, won it at the first time of asking. “I got on really well with the car because it felt similar to the F3 cars I had been driving.

“Our advantage came from a number of areas at Le Mans. All the drivers were strong: it’s Simon’s strongest track, Oliver is quick everywhere and I got up to speed pretty quickly. We also had a good strategy of staying off the kerbs and looking after everything. The car had the pace for us to do that and Tim [Holloway] knows it inside out. It’s a car that gives you a lot of feedback, so it’s easy to come into the pits and be very specific about what it’s doing. It doesn’t do anything like trick you into thinking that it has oversteer when actually that’s triggered by understeer on turn in.”

By now we’re walking around the car in the Silverstone pits and Holloway is explaining all the developments over the years. “At the time you think you’re not changing too much, but when you look back it’s very different from before,” he admits. The car used to run with a Zytek engine, the chassis had only one exposed roll hoop, the oil tank bell housing has been changed to accommodate different engines and the gearbox internals have all been modified. And while the suspension layout is the same as it was 15 years ago (because of the same gearbox casting), the pick-up points have shifted along with the geometry. “It’s had an amazing life,” Holloway says as he watches the mechanics take the engine off the back of the chassis.

“We’ve saved an enormous amount of money running this car. When someone buys a new car they say ‘It costs £500,000.’ That’s not the end of it, though, because you have to buy all the spares and suddenly it’s £1m. There are all these people complaining about the price of cars, but they change manufacturers so that costs them a fortune.

“Given that this car has been so competitive over such a long period, it’s amazing that more weren’t sold. It’s always a dangerous statement to make, but if ORECA had built this car they would have sold a lot more because people didn’t see Zytek as a chassis builder.”

At the end of the season the car is finally being retired because of a change in the regulations. As of 2017 it will be compulsory in LMP2 to buy a closed-cockpit chassis from ORECA, Ligier or Dallara and you’ll need to run the Gibson (née Zytek) engine. Holloway: “Would we run this car in 2017 if the regulations allowed it? Of course.”

“The worst thing as a driver is not knowing what a car is going to do,” says Dolan. “You don’t understand it and then you can’t push because you never know when it is going to bite. With this car you get in, you feel confident and you can push straight away. It’s just fundamentally a good design – it’s a shame that Gibson didn’t pitch to be one of the 2017 chassis manufacturers because I think they could have done something really good.”

“This car is special,” says Holloway. “To have a car that’s been competitive for so long is amazing. I’m not sure what it says about the competition, though.” Four days after talking to Holloway the car won the first race of the ELMS season by more than 90 seconds…

Towards the end of my conversation with Dolan I asked how many cars he has kept from Jota’s history. “None, they’ve all gone. I don’t have fond memories of any of them!” But will he keep this one?


Feats of endurance

What the faithful LMP2 has achieved over the past five seasons

2012 (Jota)

European Le Mans Series 

Drivers: Sam Hancock, Simon Dolan. 6 Hours of Castellet: 13th overall, 9th in LMP2 class. 6 Hours of Donington: DNF

Le Mans 24 Hours 

Drivers: Sam Hancock, Simon Dolan and Haruki Kurosawa (DNF)

World Endurance Championship 

Drivers: Sam Hancock, Simon Dolan and Nicolas Minassian. 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps: 8th overall, 1st in LMP2 class. 6 Hours of Silverstone: 14th overall, 7th in LMP2 class

2013 (Jota)

European Le Mans Series 

Drivers: Oliver Turvey and Simon Dolan. 3 Hours of Silverstone: 1st overall (pole position). 3 Hours of Imola: DNF (pole position). 3 Hours of Red Bull Ring: 4th overall (pole position). 3 Hours of Hungaroring: 3rd overall. 3 Hours of Le Castellet: 3rd overall (pole position)

Le Mans 24 Hours 

Drivers: Oliver Turvey, Simon Dolan and Lucas Luhr (13th overall, 7th in LMP2 class)

World Endurance Championship 

Drivers: Oliver Turvey, Simon Dolan and Lucas Luhr. 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps: 10th overall, 3rd in LMP2 class

2014 (Jota)

European Le Mans Series (2nd overall)

Drivers: Harry Tincknell, Simon Dolan and Filipe Albuquerque. 4 Hours of Imola: 1st overall (pole position). 4 Hours of Red Bull Ring: 2nd overall (pole position). 4 Hours of Castellet: 4th overall. 4 Hours of Estoril: 3rd overall (pole position)

Le Mans 24 Hours 

Drivers: Simon Dolan, Harry Tincknell and Oliver Turvey (5th overall, 1st in LMP2 class)

World Endurance Championship 

Drivers: Simon Dolan, Harry Tincknell and Marc Gené. 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps: 9th overall, 2nd in LMP2 class

2015 (Jota)

European Le Mans Series 

Drivers: Simon Dolan, Filipe Albuquerque and Harry Tincknell. 4 Hours of Silverstone: 2nd overall. 4 Hours of Imola: 3rd overall (pole position). 4 Hours of Red Bull Ring: 1st overall (pole position). 4 Hours of Castellet: 3rd overall (pole position). 4 Hours of Estoril: 4th overall (pole position)

Le Mans 24 Hours 

Drivers: Simon Dolan, Oliver Turvey, Mitch Evans (10th overall, 2nd in LMP2 class)

World Endurance Championship 

Drivers: Simon Dolan, Harry Tincknell and Mitch Evans. 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps: 9th overall, 1st in LMP2 class