Sarah Merritt was at Silverstone last weekend and was given an opportunity to see the team at work in the Manor garage, and chat to a few of their drivers about the team and the challenges ahead with WEC.
The Manor garage was a hive of activity when I entered on Saturday – team members going about their role, checking tyre pressures, drivers sat alongside engineers reviewing the data on screen, and most importantly, family members offering support to the team. I say most importantly, because Manor is about family in all senses of the word – relatives who are there helping out, including Wendy Lowdon who I must say makes a fine brew, drivers and team members who have returned to the Manor fold once again to join Graeme and John on their new project, and of course, fans. I see quite a lot of these over the course of the weekend as the team do their best to give fans a glimpse inside the garage, and hats off to them for doing so.
It’s fitting that my tour guide is Geoff Collins, who I first met on the public pitwalk in Valencia in 2011, when he offered myself and my husband a tour of the Virgin garage. I’ve remained in contact with him ever since, and it’s great to see Geoff back working with the team as they start on this new endeavour. It’s a cold day at Silverstone, and we pause to hug a tyre oven by the door – this momentarily defrosts my hands – before progressing to the front of the garage for my first look at the cars.
I recognise the familiar shape of the ORECA 05 chassis, and take in the livery, noting the car, garage walls and equipment also carry the Manor “Yorkshire rose” logo that the team have emblazoned upon their jackets and team kit. Geoff tells me that the F1 cars also carried this rose on their livery somewhere, something I hadn’t previously ever noticed. And there I was thinking it was new!
We walk through to the back of the garage where the drivers are busying themselves, and discuss the team line up. Car 44 will be driven by Will Stevens, Tor Graves, and James Jakes and Car 45 by Roberto Mehri, Richard Bradley and Matthew Rao.
Tor previously drove for Manor in 1998-99 & 2003 in Formula Renault and Formula 3. He brings 20 years of racing experience with him on his return to the team, including WECLe Mans experience and was part of the runner up team in the LMP2 category in 2012.
Yorkshireman James has returned to Manor for the 3rd time, after being part of the team’s 2007 Formula 3 campaign and GP3 in 2010, before competing in the US for 4 seasons of Indy Car. I was lucky enough to be able to have a few words with him, and I asked him how he would describe himself:
“I’m back where my career started, mainly in single seaters. I’m originally from Leeds and I’ve raced in Indy Car for the last few years, and I have the opportunity to collaborate with John and Graeme again this year, and it was something that I was looking forward to doing.
Indy Car was a lot of fun, but after losing two British guys, Dan, and then Justin, another Yorkshireman, it was time to move on and look for something else. One of the reasons why we chose this was knowing the programme that John puts together, and the opportunity to work with Will and Tor.
We’ve got a good team here and we believe we can do very well this year, and surprise a lot of people. It’s good to be back, shame about the weather here, but that’s April in England for you – it’s crazy, I saw some people camping!”
Will and Roberto join following their F1 drive with the team last year, and here’s what Will had to say on his continuing relationship with the team:
“Last year was cool for me to be with Manor in F1, I had raced with them previously in Formula Renault UK, and now we’ve moved to WEC, I’m new to it and the team are new to it, so we need to learn together. There’s a lot of familiar faces around, so its nice for me to feel at home straight away, and comfortable in my surroundings.
To be P2 on the first afternoon of practice with very limited running compared to the others, I was very happy. Qualifying marks my first time in the wet with this car, and we are here to learn quickly, and I think we can do a really good job. I think the LMP2 category is good for the team at the moment, with no development, and that means they can have a lot more of an even playing field, and coming late, if they had to develop the car, it would be a similar story to F1 again.
When you’re up against the likes of Audi, Porsche and Toyota, their budgets are not that far off of those of Formula 1, so for the time being, LMP2 is a great place to be for me and for the team – you can turn up and if you do a good job, you can win the race, and I’m looking forward to it.”
I asked Will how different it was jumping into this car after F1:
“Quite a lot. Obviously an F1 car is the pinnacle of motorsport and telemetry-wise, obviously now with the hybrid power system, it’s completely different. Obviously being inside (the closed cockpit), although I’m quite liking that today with the weather! It’s different, for sure, and I need to get used to it. I’m also driving in Blancpain with Audi, so that’s helped me acclimatise a little bit. The racing is very cool, it’s very close and I’m excited to see what we’ve got!
Silverstone is a great weekend for me, last year was my first real taste of a home Grand Prix, and the support is great. What is good about WEC is that everyone can get a lot closer to the action – that’s what the championship do a really good job of, bringing the fans closer to us, and to the team.”
British driver Richard Bradley was the 2015 LMP2 winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, racing the same ORECA 05 chassis, so joins the team knowing the WEC series well after partaking for the last few seasons.
Lastly, Silver driver Matt Rao, 21 and a member of the All Road Academy joins the team. He finished as runner up in the 2014 Formula 3 season, and impressed during the LMP2 2015 end of season test in Bahrain. Here’s what Matt had to say when I spoke to him in the garage:
“It would be nicer if it was warmer! We are starting the world championship in the coldest country! To the other drivers, it’s a step down in power and performance, but to me, it’s a big step up, so there’s that to get used to in terms of overall grip and the sheer lap time advantage you get when moving from a Formula 3 to an LMP2 car.
As the silver, I’m here to learn, and it’s a different way of learning to single seaters, where your teammates might not be so keen to share data! With it being a new team, there’s procedures to learn for the pit stops, but we had I felt we had good pace in practice.”
After chatting to the drivers, I paused to look at the wheels stacked up in the garage. It instantly hit me how huge they were compared to the F1 wheels that I’m used to, and one of which I own. I chatted to a member of the team and he described how obviously these 18 inch rims are much heavier than a 13 inch F1 wheel with just slicks on, but that with the full wet tyre, it was even more extreme a difference. I tried to lift one, and it was incredibly heavy, as he had alluded to!
Many thanks to the whole Manor team for their time over the weekend in Silverstone – and fingers crossed for the rest of their season as they learn more and more about WEC on their journey.