The DSC Ed and Radio Le Mans’ John Hindhaugh took the opportunity to pop over to Oreca’s Signes factory during the FIA WEC prologue weekend, the promised 15 minutes with the legendary Hugues de Chaunac turned into something altogether longer as his infectious enthusiasm for endurance racing left his diary in tatters!
Where are we with the Rebellion R One project right now?
“The main thing is that we got that the green light to go with the programme quite late, at the beginning of April (2013).
“Normally for a project of this complexity the minimum is around 16 months – We’ve reduced that to just 12 months.
“The target we gave ourselves was to deliver the car between 20 March and 30 March and I think we will have just two weeks delay against that target.
“It was a huge job, a completely new car from a clean sheet of paper with a fairly small team. We are not a major manufacturer with 60 people in a design office. Secondly there are problems with suppliers. For this year we have new regulations in LMP1 and, of course, Porsche is coming. We have new regulations too in Formula One and so all of the suppliers are unbelievably busy and that has led to difficulties in getting parts for the car within the deadlines we set for ourselves.
‘We work a lot with many of these suppliers and we know the difficulties they are facing but it has given us a number of problems to deal with for our project with Rebellion and we hope now to have the car on its wheels between 9 and 13 April, those dates depending on when the remaining parts arrive with us.
“We are disappointed to have missed our targets but it is important to understand what, and to understand that it is not running months behind but rather two or three weeks.”
And is there yet a final decision on when the car will race?
“We are going to take the final decision with Bart next week (this week) when we have a good view of the situation, on whether it is possible and sensible to aim for Silverstone. By the middle of the week we will be able to see exactly where we are.
And when will the second car be ready?
“It is just one week behind the first car.”
Onto LMP2, there is a performance evolution of the current 03 now possible, and we believe that is coming in time for Le Mans. How big a step can we expect from the 03R?
“It is not such a big step, in LM2 we are careful with the team’s budgets. The regulations would allow us to do more, but we need to ensure that we are in step with our customers budgets.
“We are taking the sensible view to make sure that the primary consideration is the financial health of our customer base so this will just be a small evolution mainly on the front of the car.”
And then onto the next new car, the LMP2 Coupe the 05? Where is that project sitting currently?
“The target is to have a car running by the end of this year, or the beginning of next year.
“I have ensured though that we are focused completely for the moment on the R One and with that project moving to a different stage we are just now starting on the new P2. Really we are just at the beginning.
Clearly the 05 will have a test and development phase, but do you have customers already lined up?
And are they existing Oreca customers, or new customers?
“Both. As you know with LMP2 we are the manufacturer with the most cars out there, currently with around ten teams running our cars. Some of those teams have already told us that they want the new car, and that they want it as soon as possible.
“We have also been approached by other (non LMP2) racing teams over the past 6 months. There are several that have found the endurance scene attractive, and to have real potential.
“I think we do particularly well because our customers know that we are very focused on customer support and I think that’s why we keep our customer base, and to grow it, because they see, and experience, that with our presence at the circuits we are looking to do the best we can to supply them with the parts and the advice and support that they need.
“This is certainly the case in the USA with the Formula Le Mans/ LMPC where the customers are very happy with the support that we can give to them at the track, and between races.”
And after the carnage we saw at Sebring, how easy has it been to keep up to speed with the demand for parts from the LMPC runners?
“There have been absolutely no problems at all. Spare chassis are available where needed, there is one always available in the USA and another here. We can make up another tub in two weeks but we have no problem.
“In fact I would say that we are a little surprised because after the number of accidents that we saw we were expecting a big list of part needed but actually it was not so big, completely manageable.
“One of the things we found at Daytona, and again at Sebring is that many of the teams are waiting for the last minute to take the parts. It was a surprise to us, something new, when the teams arrived at the track they go to our transporter and want the parts off the shelf, like a supermarket!
“That’s probably a reaction to our good level of customer support, and that means we have had to adapt again to a different sort of demand.”
Would you ever have imagined that the car (the FLM09) would have this long a competitive life?
“No, it has been a big surprise. But having said that I think it is because of the quality of the car, reliability and performance, and the fact that the cars are all performing very closely.
“Far more important though has been the response we have had over customer support. It has helped us to get more and more new customers, including for instance in LMP2 KCMG.”
The FLM car though is closer to the end of it career than its beginning, LMP3 is coming. Are Oreca interested?
“Yes, we are very interested in the concept but at the same time we are discussing with the ACO where the LMP3 needs to be. We have to be careful with LMPC being a little expensive.
“I don’t think that LMP3 has to be an LMP2 ‘less less’ it has to be, for me, a CN ‘+++’
One or two of the smaller manufacturers, they have some concerns about the cost caps that are being discussed are too low for them to be able to engage with the concept.
Clearly Oreca and the bigger manufacturers would like as much business as possible, but do you think it’s important in terms of the variety, and to encourage new companies to come forward, to ensure that LMP3 is accessible to the smaller makers?
“I certainly think that a cost cap is required, but I am saying to the ACO, and they are listening, the first thing to see if there is a market, and to establish how big that market is, and can become.
“The challenge in this part of the market is to attract drivers and in the current market those drivers have offers from GTE and GT3 cars as well as LMP2 for those that want to do Le Mans.
“The ACO absolutely understand why this is so important, and they understand too that for the last several years the racing car market has been not so nice, really quite difficult.
“It HAS to be decided on the firm basis of understanding who the potential customers are, and what they want from a product. In the case of LMP3 the reality is that you are up against the current GT market.
“To achieve success there you need for the cars to be not too expensive to build, but even more than that the running costs need to be contained, and the regulations stable.
“Look, for instance, at the LMP2 customers from the start of the new regulations – Some are now racing these cars for the fourth consecutive year, that is cutting the cost of acquiring the original car in four parts €80,000, nothing relatively speaking to invest. But then the running costs need to be considered, particularly at an entry level.”
And what about GT? Oreca have a proud history in that market with Dodge/ Chrysler and with Saleen. You still have strong links with manufacturers. Have you been involved in discussions over the new regulations for GT and GT + and what do you think should come out of the current talks?
“I have not been involved directly with the discussions on the GT regulations but I have been asked for my pout of view, and my feelings, around the debate.
“In fact several of the key points are as we have just discussed about LMP. You have to be very aware of what the customers want and expect. Costs are the absolute key, in particular the running costs.”
“There will always be areas where the manufacturers want more freedom to develop but it is most certainly an easier thing to place limits on that in GT than it is, for instance, in LMP1.
Might Oreca become involved in the GT market again?
“We are always open minded and yes we have been approached by some manufacturers who are interested in our expertise and technical knowledge.
“At the same time we are always careful to take our time over any choices we make in such programmes. If you start to work with one (manufacturer) you must forget all of the others.
“For instance, many people are expecting us to be again involved with Viper because of the success we had with the older car some time ago but you have to be very sure that you would have the right product for the market right now.
“We have had some discussions, some contacts, much interest and definitively I can say that over the last two years we have been approached by several different car manufacturers to develop, sell and provide customer support for such programmes including marketing and events activities.
What about the marketplace in general – We’ve seen in the close season customers move between Oreca and Onroak – Is the competition friendly, and is there enough of a marketplace to sustain this sort of competition?
“The market is very small, that’ something I have repeated to the ACO – Be very careful the market is very small.
“Our business model is very different from Jacques’. He’s a good friend and he is investing his own money whereas at the end of the year, or the end of the month we need to make it pay.
“Jacques can withstand the cost of design and development of a new car whereas we need to have a business case to support that level of investment.
“With the other specialist manufacturers there is normal level of economic competition, with Jacques though it is different, last year for instance he put together works team with his own money and won Le Mans and the World Championship.
“If Oreca made a decision to win Le Mans then we could certainly do it, but you cannot do that AND have customers, you have to choose, and that is what we have done, and this year it is more what Jacques has done too!”
In Europe, in particular in the ELMS, we have seen a resurgence in the LMP2 market, but in America things are a lot slower in P2?
“Europe is good this year but you have aways to be careful because in the case of several of our customers it is their 3rd or 4th year with an Oreca car so their budget is smaller and smaller.
“In the US, I was in Daytona and in Sebring, I am not convinced personally that the merger between DP and P2 can work because there is a complete difference of culture.
“In America you need a big engine, you need noise and power and they don’t care about technology. For LMP2 it’s just technology.
“They want several hundred horsepower and don’t care about carbon tubbed safety. They can accept it but they are not interested in mandating it.
“So I think in the end it will not be easy to mix two cultures – European technology vs the other side with power, noise etc! It’s good to see the situation this year, to see how they are trying to balance, but I am not convinced at all that it can work because the approach is so different.”
Oreca has been involved with so many manufacturers at Le Mans, Peugeot, Mazda, Chrysler, Audi and now Toyota (plus engines for Nissan) – What next?
“Good question! To decide what’s next we first have to win with Toyota – That will come, I am sure, this year. An exclusive for you!
“One thing is for sure, Toyota have made it very clear to us that with the introduction of our team within the Toyota LMP1 programme they have been able to tie a short cut to the potential that they already have. They are clearly happy, they have again extended our contract ”
And it is seamless, there is no differentiation to the outside world between Toyota, TMG and Oreca staff on that team?
“No and I think that is a major strength of what we do and how we do it from a manufacturers point of view.
“For instance when we ran the SEAT effort in the WTCC to the outside world it was simply SEAT, not Oreca, there was never any question of looking for or asking for anything other than king the best we could for the manufacturer that was employing us to represent them and to win!
You work too with Nissan (on the LMP2 customer engines)
“That work is done by our engine shop at Magny Cours where we have around 50 people working.
“We have so many manufacturers coming to Magny Cours for assistance because we have a very high level of technology there – We are working in rally with Skoda and with Peugeot, Renault and Citroen.We do other manufacturer work too in one-make series where we have the capability and the capacity to support multiple programmes.”
When we think about Oreca we think of Le Mans, GT Racing, Rally, Rally Raid, single seaters, Touring Cars, and Ice racing amongst many, many others – Is there anything left that you would like to do?
“For the moment I would like to stay in motorsport – Sometimes I have some dreams about perhaps taking football team, it has become something of a joke with my family!
“Then all the friends that I have in football remind me that there you have 30-40 young players that you cannot control – That perhaps would be less of a pleasure!
“In racing there are some things that I would still like to do, but one thing that I am not really attracted by is Formula One. It is a different planet, a different world the people are…..
“I have had the opportunity several times to do it, with Ligier, with Prost etc it’s too difficult to understand, too political.
“One thing that I perhaps have always had in my mind, but I don’t see that there will be an opportunity, maybe one day, would be the Indianapolis 500. Mainly because it is one of those big, big events and it would be great to say that we have raced there and won, rather than the technical challenge. It’s a real world for specialists.
Hugues you are guided by emotion?
You say that but it’s something that other racers can connect with, we saw that most graphically with your reaction when your team won overall at Sebring?
“Everyone here would tell you that I run this company by emotion and for emotion I invest everything in the company. I have no boat, no castle, nothing!
“At the same time it is good, all the guys here, we are now more than 200 people, they all know that I put everything I can into research and development just to help us to win races and at the same time retain the balance to keep a normal company around me.
“I have seen so many companies in one moment fall victim to their owner’s disconnection from the market realities and I am determined that this will never happen here. I want to be realistic and I have good people around me to help with that.
“I have built in the centre of this company one of the best motorsport operations in Europe, in good financial health and re-investing in growing the company, making a big investment for instance now in composites, to become more independent, more re-active and quicker to deliver.
“I believe, and I think we all here believe, that there is a lot more to come.”
GG and JH