Playing the long game

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Named after an olive farm, a British team with Cypriot heritage has been active for less than a decade and already counts two Le Mans class wins among its diverse achievements. But such success could be just the start for Strakka Racing

This would once have been a hub of tranquillity, a prime slice of Northamptonshire farmland tucked away from the mainstream. Today, it’s a couple of turns off the A43 and within easy earshot of a pre-season Silverstone test that’s in full flow. In this age of overly fussy silencing regulations, it’s nice to stand a mile or so away and be able to hear a racing circuit being used.

I’m in a wind-blown quadrangle with a dilapidated collection of Morris Minors parked randomly nearby amid a sprawling assembly of industrial units, several of which belong to Strakka. This multi-faceted racing team was established in 2007, initially as a vehicle to allow ambitious owner Nick Leventis – by then 27, so something of a late starter – to compete in GT racing. The team’s name comes from an olive farm close to Nicosia, Cyprus, an establishment run by Leventis’s grandmother (who has since passed away, aged 103). Despite his roots, though, Nick is British.

“I grew up near Brackley,” he says, “so was close to Silverstone and motor sport. During my teenage years my father started collecting historic cars and doing a few track days. Aged 14 I was being driven around and thought it was pretty cool – but at that point I was drawn towards professional skiing. Racing didn’t really start until a bad ski accident [in 2003] ended my career ambitions. I felt a need for speed, though, and decided to try my hand at track days – driving this time, rather than being a passenger. It snowballed from there.

“There are parallels between skiing and racing. With the former you’re hitting an apex at the gate and in racing you do the same thing through a corner. It requires the same rhythm and fluidity. I put on my first pair of skis aged two and a half and by the age of 11 realised I was pretty good. I hadn’t really thought about it during my key development years. By the time you learn to drive, those development years are long gone and you tend to analyse things a lot more. I’ve taught people how to ski and found it interesting trying to learn about racing a car on the limit as an adult. There are so many things I wish I’d known when I first started driving, because I think I’ve done this the hard way.

“I felt as though I didn’t belong when I began racing, because I came in at a higher level than I probably should have done and was conscious that I hadn’t really earned my spurs. I had a big inferiority complex racing against ex-F1 stars and so on, but that diminishes as time goes on. When I first competed in the Le Mans Series there was a clear line between pros and gentleman drivers, but that has very much disappeared. It’s now mostly 18-year-old F3 hot-shots!”

Perhaps so, but that doesn’t alter the fact he shared a Le Mans 24 Hours class win as early as 2010, aided and abetted by fellow Brits Jonny Kane and Danny Watts, racers both of significant pedigree (Kane was British F3 champion in 1997, Watts a race winner in the series a few seasons later). They added another such victory three years later, this time in the LMP1 Privateer category, and overall finished those races fifth and sixth respectively.

***

Endurance racing is close to Strakka’s heart, but by no means its only activity. It has been involved in Formula Renault 3.5 (now Formula V8 3.5) since 2013, scoring several race wins, and is this year also running a Gibson 015S-Nissan for Leventis, Watts and Kane in the LMP2 class of the World Endurance Championship and one Renaultsport RS01 for Leventis and former McLaren Autosport BRDC Award winner Lewis Williamson in the Renault Sport Trophy, which supports FV8 3.5.

Strakka is the first UK team to commit to the Trophy – and that came about by chance.

“Several drivers asked us to run them,” says Strakka team principal Dan Walmsley, “so Nick tested a car at Vallelunga and absolutely loved it. We looked at budgets and for the amount of running you get, the amount of downforce the car has, the similarity to LMP2… it’s one of the best ways we can give Nick some usefully relevant experience and it tied in with our other programmes. We’ve ended up doing it, but without the drivers that caused us to take a look in the first place!”

Oh, and in parallel to the above the team plans to start developing its own car for future use in the WEC’s LMP1 Privateer division.

Strakka has some previous history as a constructor, having forged a partnership with Japanese manufacturer Dome to build the S103, an LMP2 car that was due to make its debut in 2014 before various setbacks – including a sizeable accident at Spa – caused the project’s postponement and eventual cancellation. The S103 will, however, serve as development mule for the LMP1 project.

Thus far private LMP1 cars have been significantly slower than their factory counterparts – and the field has hardly been brimming with entries – so why the interest? “The LMP1 Light, or Privateer, class remains probably the only category outside F1 in which innovation still exists for the independent teams,” says Walmsley. “F3 used to allow innovation, but the regulations are now much more constrained. LMP2 used to be quite free, too, but now you have to be one of only four companies with a manufacturing licence. 

“When we worked with Dome on our LMP2 project, it’s no secret that the car fell short of expectations. But we learned an awful lot from that experience about manufacturing processes – and any team moving to a broader engineering base needs to go through those pains. Having done that, the intention became to evolve that car. But with no scope for it to exist in LMP2, LMP1 Light became the place to go. There are challenges: it’s a more expensive category, so development and running costs are higher. There is a financial challenge to competing in LMP1, but also a sporting challenge in that LMP1’s future direction is still being evaluated as we speak. The ACO has made it very clear that it does not expect LMP1 Light cars to beat the manufacturer teams, and I don’t think anyone out there believes that would be fair, but they need to be closer than they are at present.

“LMP2 is littered with high-quality teams and I see a niche being created to sway them towards LMP1, now that LMP2 is a customer-only category. Once you can see that LMP1 Light is a place to showcase technology, and that it will expand, it becomes very possible for a motor sport engineering business to grow around that and turn it into a halo project. We see it as a way to showcase alternative manufacturing techniques. There is a growing business for time-compressed technology. What 3D printing, additive manufacturing and digital manufacturing create for the engineering world is a way to shorten timescales. We think an evolving racing category is an appropriate place to demonstrate all this. ‘We need a new part in three weeks. Right, draw it, print it, bolt it on, win the race.’ That’s what we’re working towards.

***

“F1 is where people often want to be, but if you want to do that nowadays as a mechanic or an engineer you have to be prepared to be a very small cog in a huge machine – and very focused. If you want to be the one who knows everything there is to know about a damper, that might be the environment for you. I still believe people in sports car racing and second-tier single-seater teams become more versatile, because they have to understand the whole car. It doesn’t create specialists, but it breeds rounded professionals.”

That is very much part of the Strakka ethos – and it applies across the board. “Most single-seater drivers are very self-focused,” Walmsley says. “Sports car racing isn’t like that, it’s a team game. In all categories we try to cultivate a philosophy of drivers exchanging information, working with team-mates to establish why one was quicker through Turn Three but the other faster through Turn Four and so on. We’re passionate about creating a centre of developmental excellence – we have young engineers, young mechanics and we’re grooming all of them to be the best they can possibly be.

“We shouldn’t be educating drivers to paint by numbers – we want artists who can draw the best picture. If you teach somebody to drive just one car, you’re not really teaching them. In endurance racing the track evolves more than in any other category – from the heat at the start to the dew at 3am… For us to tell an amateur always to brake at 100 metres would be reckless, because sitting on the pit wall we don’t know! The limit might be 105 at night or 95 in the heat of the day. We want drivers to learn to operate by feel – and exposing them to a range of cars helps.”

A secondary business, Strakka Performance, provides circuit training and has a couple of Formula Renault 2.0 single-seaters for the purpose, as well as a brace of older FR3.5 chassis. While Walmsley and I speak, Leventis is one of those contributing to the nearby Silverstone symphony. “Nick takes things very seriously and is one of the best sportsman racers out there,” Walmsley says. “By late February he had been out testing for 19 days in a Formula Renault 2.0, just to get himself sharp. He’s very committed. There’s no substitute for driving an LMP2 car, but for the cost of a day’s testing in that you can do far more in the Renault, so…”

***

Racing teams can be ephemeral institutions, but Leventis wants Strakka to be competing in the long term – far beyond his own involvement at the wheel. “I had success at Le Mans early on and it’s all rather gone backwards since,” he says with a grin, “but I want to race for as long as I can while developing the team for the future. I see so many others come in, win a bit for three or four years, spend lots of money and then disappear. That’s a great shame.

“I love the way people in this industry work so hard. When we put the Dome together, our mechanics were doing 18-hour days for six months – the passion was phenomenal and I’m very proud to be involved with a group that has such commitment. Looking ahead the WEC title has to be a goal – but I just want the team to keep on winning and building its own legacy, whether I’m behind the wheel or on the pit wall.

“We have lots of things in the pipeline and are trying to build a pathway to the top – not necessarily to F1, which doesn’t interest me entirely, but that doesn’t mean we can’t create an F1 star within the Strakka ranks. I think we operate quite differently from many teams, in that we’re very open and quite family-orientated. Once you’re working with us in one domain there will be opportunities in others.

“It’s amazing how quickly time has gone. The Le Mans victories were great – and both times we did it against teams with all-star driver line-ups and, probably, bigger budgets. We’ve always felt that we’ve punched above our weight. Our focus is on engineering and doing a better job than others. I’m not too interested in subsidising drivers. I won’t pay for them to come here just for the sake of winning a championship – but if I can provide a strong team in which they can compete for a good championship, that’s fine.”

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