One of the surprises of the FIA WEC Awards night was the recipient of the ‘Man of the Year’ Award, it went not to a participant in the Championship but rather a back room player, in fact THE backroom player, President of the FIA’s Endurance Commission Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones, the man responsible for the body of people whose role is to influence FIA policy with the interests of the endurance racing community in mind.
His background in business no doubt helps with that process, Sir Lindsay was Chairman and CEO of L’Oreal and remains as a Board member of a number of companies including Ferrari.
Was it a surprise to get the FIA WEC Man of the Year Award?
“It was a total surprise, we do a lot of work behind the scenes in a way that very seldom is seen, and I suspect that gets very little awareness or recognition at a public level so yes, very surprised, and very touched too.”
Your era as a race driver in the BPR may well be the last time that endurance racing was spoken of as being in the midst of a golden era, we do now though seem to on the verge of something of a sweet spot again?
“Yes, I think we can all feel that there is something growing here and whilst everyone is saying it in a slightly different way there is certainly a feeling that endurance racing is coming back into the limelight and that’s a great joy for me because I love this particular branch of the sport and we’ve been working very hard on all kinds of ways to help the whole movement to grow and now, I think it really is happening.
“Obviously we have a very original set of rules for next year which, I hope, will also help to get us some attention from the media and help to grow the game again.
“It was though too great to hear from several of the drivers that there’s a good spirit in the paddock, that’s always been a particularly special part of sportscar racing.
Can you quantify in any way the level of interest that is out there from the major manufacturers at present?
“I’m not sure I could do that but what I sense is that the way endurance is going interests large scale manufacturers because it is much closer to the technologies that they actually sell every day than some other forms of the sport, precisely because there’s the mixture of either diesel or petrol fuelled engines, different degrees and technologies of energy recovery systems, this is exactly what they live with, what they have to sell and it makes it more relevant.
“I think too that they feel that the way it is now, if they invest in, and are serious about their commitment to the sport, that it will pay them back if they succeed whereas I think the feeling, for example in Formula One, is that everything might be decided on what one very clever aerodynamic gizmo does despite the fact that they have spent huge amounts of money in being very virtuous.
“One manufacturer involved in endurance racing told me that whilst this was money they were spending, they regard it as ‘intelligent money’ and I knew exactly what he meant. Often now the money comes from the research budget rather than the advertising budget and that tells you something too about the current or future relevance of the technology.”
So are we at the gateway of a new golden age of endurance racing, or is it already here?
“I’d like to be modest – I think we can all feel it’s there and that there is more coming, but we actually now have to show it. I can feel the enthusiasm, for example also in the GT category, it’s drawing in and getting the manufacturers attention. It’s not just a matter anymore of letting anybody come with anything, they are investing, they are taking the rulesets and the racing seriously.
“Maybe some of the excesses of other forms of the sport open up opportunities for this particular discipline.”
On the GT front do you see what is emerging there as being a positive direction to take?
“Yes absolutely, I think there is a convergence process that will take take a little time. The serious GT Manufacturers do not want others to bring in a disguised touring car, and I have to say that I understand and respect that point of view. They want the winner to be decided not just on balance of performance but on virtue and good engineering, again that’s something I can relate to entirely.
“Here in the WEC I think there was a feeling initially that it looked pretty expensive but very many players are now finding and seeing some real return, it’s something serious that a serious manufacturer can get a return from and should participate in because this is also the way he’s going to improve his everyday product.”
F1 dominates of course in terms of budgets and media attention, but where on that pyramid topped by F1 would you place the WEC currently?
“We all have everything to learn from Formula One. What they have done in terms of media success and public following is just unbelievable and I think that all of us measure ourselves agains that with humility every day that goes by.
“There’s no way we can challenge that but we can learn from it and we can be complimentary to it. But I also believe that it has sacrificed some of its initial virtues precisely to court and maintain that popular success. There’s therefore a space for a more traditional approach to motor racing which is that it really matters who wins, and who made what wins etc and I think that’s the space that we can occupy. I think that’s something that the media can understand as a unique positioning that they and others can relate to and get interested in.
Here in 2013 do you still recognise that the spirit of endurance racing prevails?
“Absolutely, just this evening for instance, the whole evening was very warm hearted, not just within teams but as a community as a whole. So many people saying that they enjoy being a part of this in so many different ways, whether they were winners or not. People see this as being a nice place to be and a nice thing to be a part of.
“We all know the emotional and physical challenges here. Everyone that’s ever been a part of it knows that endurance racing has the ability to lift you at times of success, or to break you when things go wrong, it’s a real melting pot for the human spirit.
“I think we’d all like to show that motor racing is something beyond just money and hype, it’s as much about people working together as teams and enjoying each others company and successes.”
You have had achievements yourself in that vein, as a driver and as a team player. How much does it mean to you to have you behind the scenes efforts now recognised?
(Sir Lindsay campaigned his own McLaren F1 GTR in the BPR for two seasons)
“It means a lot. I worked for very many years in industry, enjoyed it and got paid for it. What I do now I enjoy and don’t get paid for it. It’s the idea that I am trying to give something back to the sport that I enjoyed so very much.
“What I do now is usually a fairly anonymous sort of job, usually no real recognition. There are very few prizes for making rules! It is extremely kind of them to recognise that behind the scenes somebody is putting some effort into this.