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Catching Up With Dan Walmsley

Strakka Racing’s 2013 sportscar racing season stalled after Le Mans and it wasn’t until the end of the year that we found out finally that the team would be back in 2014 with a very different looking programme.

Now we know that the team will return to the FIA WEC in LMP2, a class where they have won Le Mans and won a Le Mans Series race overall against LMP1 opposition. But this time, instead of HPD they’ll be fielding a very different car, the brand new Strakka Dome S103 Nissan, again though for the by now very familiar Strakka trio of Nick Leventis, Jonny Kane and Danny Watts

dome_S103_1

Team Manager Dan Walmsley spoke at length just before Christmas to the DSC Editor about this year, next year – and beyond!

2013 didn’t go as well as you’d hoped in LMP1?

“The HPD development over the winter (2012-2013) was focussed on going over to the new wider front tyre, a direction we had to take as Michelin were ceasing to supply the narrower front rubber.

“There was then a significant rework of the car needed to accommodate that, way beyond the physical changes for a different size of tyre, full suspension geometry change, a different power steering system to deal with the increased loads and, in order to get the tyres working properly there was a significant amount of work that went into getting the set-up right which included weight distribution changes and a whole lot of other stuff, it was a big technical challenge.

“We thought we got on top of the tyre quite quickly, others I think thought we were struggling with them but that wasn’t so at all. We had a very good level of grip, very good balance and the whole thing was going very well.

“We know that the Rebellion Lola Toyota package got some Multimatic aero tweaks which we obviously believe brought them some real performance improvements, but the most important change that we think they made was a move to fly by wire direct injection engine, that is what we believe gave them their most significant step forward relative to our pace. It gave them the ability to attack the corners and downchange a lot quicker, better throttle response and an ability to play with the power signature of the car.

“We certainly didn’t have the development budget remaining to get on top of the powertrain differential but we were fully committed to giving it our best shot with a reliable car that, on a good day, we could try and give them a good run for their money whilst quietly making our plans for 2014.”

Dan

The decision to stop came after Le Mans? Thereafter there were a lot of rumours flying, What would the ’14 programme look like? Would there even be a ’14 programme?

“Yes, we were fully committed to there being a programme for next year. A huge amount of work was going on to make what we are doing evolve to a sustainable organisation that has many years to run.

“By the time we got to Le Mans this year we already knew that we wouldn’t be able to run this years car in 2014 in competitive form with the regulation change in LMP1 and we believed too that in grandfathered spec we would not be permitted to race closely with the new cars so there was very little merit to racing for another year knowing that you would be finishing last in every race.

“Because of that we’d started to diminish our stock of spares. We run a policy which means that we are never left compromised in a race situation but we took the strategic view that to invest our budget in a programme for 2014 we needed to start diminishing those spares throughout the season as the car would become defunct at the end of the season.

“The biggest problem, and a major turning point, came on the Thursday night at Le mans when we had a fairly significant shunt in the final stages of qualifying. That, in itself took out just about our entire stock of spares for the right hand side of the car, we were left with literally an example of each component on that side which, going into a 24 hour race meant we thought we had no real chance of bringing it home, knowing how punishing the circuit can be.

“But then we had an excellent clean run and took the class win. To furnish ourselves after that for the rest of the season though we’d have had to invest significantly in spares again and that was a decision we were no prepared to make in the interests of securing a long-term future for the team.”

lm_preview_Strakka

There was a rumour circulating that the team had initially commissioned the new Wirth designed HPD LMP1 Coupe but that by September of this year that decision had been reversed?

“There’s some semi-truth in that. We had been in touch with several parties, one of which most certainly was HPD and Wirth, but also including Dome and also including Multimatic and even some of the smaller names, we entertained every proposal with the respect it deserved including Perrin and Addess, we were looking forward with open minds and trying to figure out the best programme to move forward with.

“We definitely wanted to be something more than just a customer buying a car. We wanted to be involved in the development of the car, to be able to steer the project to where we wanted it to be and as we were moving forwards a couple of things were quite prohibitive. One was the sheer scale of budget that certain parties were requesting to make the programme happen, some so large I’d describe them as laughable, close to budgets that some are talking around for a cost-capped Formula One season – Ridiculous.

“It was clear that we needed to find another solution. There were though some contacts with HPD but even by Le Mans it was fairly apparent that we would not be able to go in that direction. There were simply not the finances to do that.

“It’s worth saying too though that our earliest conversations with Dome started towards the end of 2012 and our immediate feeling even that early was that it was a company that we had a good feeling around, we had a lot of synergies with them, their working methods, their excellent facilities and it was a potential relationship that, when the opportunity arose, was always a front-runner and eventually that we were very keen to strike up.”

Aside from the change to Dome though there’s another big difference in 2014, Strakka are going back to the future -and back to P2, a class where the team had some real success?

strakkahpd 2010

“Yes, we still believe that as an organisation we still have the ability to compete at LMP1 level but the change in regs left us unsure as to how things would balance out between the manufacturers and privateers. We fully respect the intent of the ACO to try and make the regulations work for private teams but we have no guarantees that that would work in the first season so we wanted to make sure that we weren’t ploughing in finance to a project that would leave us uncompetitive.

“Also though we wanted to provide ourselves with a project that would offer us the opportunity to move onwards as an organisation, from being a customer to being a technical partner on a project. That opportunity simply wasn’t there in LMP1.

“The decision on Dome and on LMP2 very quickly then started to make real sense from a financial, operational, technical and, to be honest, from an enjoyment point of view as well.”

You were, of course, the only 2013 LMP1 outfit in the WEC to start the year with a Pro-Am driver line-up, that aspect of the Strakka programme certainly wasn’t going to get any easier into 2014 was it?

“Of course not. That said we have got a lot of faith in Nick (Leventis) and his ability as a driver. We do a lot of work with him behind the scenes with our Strakka Performance programme to develop him, and to develop other drivers alongside him but the reality is that the difference really isn’t in his ultimate pace, it’s in the depth of experience that the Pros always have to fall back on when the going gets tougher at night or in the rain.

“That said it is part and parcel of who we are and in LMP2 we’re going to be up against the challenges of the driver rankings system, for us driver to driver it will be a more even competition but certainly it won’t be an easy one!

“Look at the strength of the LMP2 field in 2013, and especially at Le Mans. It’s no step down to LMP2, you’re certainly fighting against a very strong set of teams and against very strong driver line-ups too.

“We were keeping close tabs on the competition this year and the last race saw an LMP2 car on the overall podium! Of course we’d like to be in contention for something like that next year but are fully aware that there will be another couple of factory P1s to contend with!

“For 2014 we have tried to put together the strongest package that we can against what we know is a very, very competitive LMP2 field running pretty close to the pace of the LMP1s.

“Our decisions on the package involve looking at the strongest choices on the chassis front, the powertrain and the tyre package too. We’re very confident that it will be competitive based on what we know on paper and on screen right now but, of course the next challenge is realising that potential on track.

“That is really why we have taken the decision that we have – we wanted to be in a position where we can help steer the programme to where it needs to be and that shows the depth that we have not just with the drivers but with the other human resources that we have too.

“That means that if we do initially find ourselves a little off the pace we have the ability to move forwards with our partners to where we want to be. We have the ability too to shift the philosophy of the design of the car and the adjustability that we have within it along in a direction that will show better results.”

And the depth of the partnership is such that the Dome cars will actually be built not in Japan but by Strakka?

“That’s correct. The cars will be manufactured in component form from a range of suppliers. A high proportion are in the UK but there are others in Italy.

“There are some components coming from Japan but I’d say that they are the minority, certainly nowhere near the majority. The suppliers for those part though have been selected by Strakka, working hand in glove with Dome and their design team to make sure that we can get drawings to suppliers that we are selecting at the right times to meet the lead times and cost constraints that we are putting on the project.

“It is very much a production and manufacturing exercise for Strakka, something we have never engaged in before and, again, that’s part of the interest and appeal of this project. It furnishes our business with another element that we have never demonstrated before.”

What around the difficulties of communication, not just language, but the fact that you are working on different time zones?

“We aren’t finding it difficult at all. We’ve had our people on the ground in Japan at times when deadlines have been very tight and we’ve needed to keep the pressure on in a positive way but to be honest, the fact that their working day is starting as our working day is drawing to a close means that we can feed back anything that we observe as critical, or needing work or focus and they can be working on that overnight and getting answers back to us by the time we restart work in the morning.

“It’s actually like having a team working on it for 24 hours but just with one part of the team here and the other on the other side of the planet. With the technology available to us with conference calling and Skype etc it’s very easy to keep in touch. Karl Patman has taken the lead on that programme and is really driving it forward very well. We have every confidence that Dome are going to keep delivering as they have done so far so that the whole project hits the deadlines that we’ve set.”

And what effect is it having on your need for human resource?

“In the short term we have a very busy team of people of the same size as we started the year. They’re managing the quality processes and build procedures as new parts come on line that have to be at a higher level than we have done in the past because this time these are part of a car that we are building, not a car that is being supplied to us.

“In time of course we are going to require an increased resource and clearly the running of a second car is going to need us to find a crew with people of the same kind of quality as our current staff so we are looking at that now as well, including economy of scale on those resources. It isn’t a matter of taking twice the number of people to each race just because you have two cars, there are ways of working smarter and more efficiently.”

So in physical terms where are we now (in Christmas week)?

“Parts are arriving, so far we have around 10% of the first car, albeit they are mainly the smaller components. The big architecture of the car starts to arrive in the second week in January, all on target, including the first monocoque (from HP Composites in Italy), engine (Zytek supported NISMO V8) and gearbox in the third week of January.

“Shortly after that we’ll start a very slow, controlled build procedure to make sure that we get that first car set-up correctly with all of its alignments bang on. It’s really important that we get those initial geometries correct and that we aren’t building any imperfections into the car so we’ll take our time with that aspect of the initial build to make sure the quality is good.

“I think by the end of January if you were to walk into the workshop you’d see what you would recognise as the backbone of the Strakka Dome S103.

“Our programme has the first car on track dong it’s first performance and reliability test early in March and we wouldn’t have wanted to do that unprepared so we’ll have shaken down in the last week of February or the week before that but with some other activity to programme in including rig testing and torsion testing to make sure that the car is what we expect it to be but all of that is on target too.

“Beyond that we’ll have five days of Strakka organised testing before the official test at Paul Ricard with the potential if needed for some extra track time if needed before Silverstone.

“We’re confident that the car will be quick out of the box and we’ll concentrate on any nuances that we feel the need to dial in around Silverstone and Spa with the focus very much on a successful outing for the car at Le Mans.”

And the second car?

“The monocoque is about two and a half weeks behind the first one. the key thing that we are trying to stage in the right way is that we have crash tests to go through for safety and homologation, plus the full homologation process to ensure that the car is properly eligible for racing.

“The process then is to dovetail the build of the second car with the signing off of homologation with the first car, that allows us to implement any changes that the ACO or FIA may pick up on during the homologation process into the build of the second car.”

And can you say what level of interest there has been so far in the second car?

“There’s certainly been a lot of interest but at the moment it’s quite difficult to give a confidence level as to exactly where we are just now. We have two drivers that have indicated that they will commit during the first or second week of January when their budgets are signed off by sponsors or by the bodies that their funding comes from.

“We are then still looking for drivers to complete the car and until we have three people together who agree that they want to be team-mates it’s quite tough to get even one of them signed because they all want to know who the others are, the money, the relative performance etc.

“That said I am very confident that we’ll get there. In the past we’ve always said internally that if we were to decide to run a customer programme, and if we got the customers then we’d go and get a second car. Well we’ve turned that on it head and we have the second car to try to flush out customers. We are very confident that this is going to be the car to beat for 2014, but also for 2015 and ’16 too, it’s an exceptional package.

“So we are very interested in talking to others who might be interested. We are hugely motivated to do this, it isn’t a profit-making exercise, this is an economies of scale exercise which means that the running of a single Strakka Dome in year one becomes much more of a reality.”

And because of that I guess you aren’t looking anywhere further than the WEC?

“Correct. We are interested to talk to customer teams who might be interested in purchasing a Strakka Dome S103 in the future but the reality is with the production and manufacturing schedule that we have got at the moment, providing a third chassis to anybody outside of WEC is impossible in 2014. We are though already engaging with a couple of teams for their plans in 2015 so those potential customers can gather their confidence from observing our progress in 2014.

And the intention is two cars for a full WEC season and therefore two for Le Mans?

“Absolutely, and even if we can’t get a second car nailed down for the full WEC we already have customers prepared to commit for Le Mans, even if it were Le Mans and the second half of WEC with a view towards a 2015 programme so we hope and expect we’ll have two cars at Le Mans and I am very hopeful that we’ll have two for the whole of the WEC.”

I gather that you are already evaluating data provided by Dome on your simulator? How is that going?

“We’re very proud of the work that we’ve done on our internal simulator an we’ve taken the data that came from the early wind tunnel tests on the S103 and married that up to much, much more data from the S102 (the earlier LMP1 coupe).

dome_S103_2

“Dome provided us with on-track data, wind tunnel data and the level of correlation between their theoretical and practical data is exceptional, we are really impressed with that so we have taken those figures and have started working with them on set-up optimisation and things like that, albeit that we have to a little careful not to set things in stone before we hit the track and can correlate data.

pescadome2012

And after a long chat about the future, just a word about the past – What’s going to happen with the HPD?

“She’s here in the workshop, our final spare front bodywork went over for Muscle Milk to use after a shunt so we have repaired some older parts to prep the car as a show car and are just trying to decide where that will live going forward.

“The association with HPD and Wirth was one that we really enjoyed and even though that has come to an end we are really proud of what was achieved across those programmes, we want to keep it as a nod to the past and a reminder of what a good run we had at Le Mans in 2013.”

GG