Lee Mowle has come a long way since he first appeared on DSC’s radar in 2011, when he competed in the GT Trophy in an Optimum Motorsport G50. Three years on, Mowle is now a partner in Triple Eight Race Engineering and races a BMW Z4 GT3 for the team with Joe Osborne in the British GT Championship; and the launch of the Triple Eight Driver Development (TEDD) programme earlier this year [see here] indicated that he has plans beyond simply being your average owner-driver. DSC sat down with Lee at Silverstone recently to see how things were going. It turned out to be a fascinating and insightful half-hour.
What prompted you to launch the TEDD programme?
“The big thing that I experienced – and a similar thing is happening with some of the younger drivers who came through GT4 – is that there’s such a massive step change now between a GT4 drive and a GT3 drive, that we decided to come up with a programme where you can look to bring younger drivers, or even older drivers, forwards, so that when they do jump on to a circuit like here, they’re not starting from the back of the grid, but starting at the more pointy end. And also, racing is so expensive – the thinking in British GT is ‘get the muppet out of the car as soon as possible and get the Pro in’, so you risk spending a fortune and not learning anything, just pounding round and doing something wrong.
“The idea of TEDD is that for a third of the price or a quarter of the price, you can have decent quality time, a full team, and go on a journey with a one, two, three year game plan to take you through that process. So we set it up and then waited to see if anyone would come and take up the idea. Ryan (Ratcliffe) bought into it, even though he had a few people telling him that he needed to go racing, because he could see the bigger picture. British GT is so competitive now that you need a Pro driver who is going to be able to take on the Nick Tandys and Richard Westbrooks of this world, and if your Pro is a second off the pace – even if he’s bringing some money with him – you’re nowhere. When Ryan started the programme he was a second, a second and a half off Joe’s pace – because, like I say, the gap is so large between GT4 and GT3 – but now that gap is coming down all the time.
“We want to get to the position where a driver can show a potential racing partner that he’s within a couple of tenths of the works drivers and is perhaps prepared to put in some money, and he’ll end up with a better Am partner as a result. So instead of spending a fortune in a non-competitive partnership, suddenly the chances of success will be much improved.
“We’ve already got Ryan and Flick (Haigh) who’ve bought into the idea that improving their skills and getting to know the car and team in a controlled environment is better. And that’s an important aspect, because in December/January you’ll have a lot of people making large financial commitments with a group of people that they don’t know they’ll get on with. So TEDD is a kind of ‘try before you buy’ as well.”
So what’s the first-year target? What constitutes success at this early stage?
“That’s not an easy one to answer as it depends on the individual involved. With Ryan, the aim is to benchmark him against the British GT Pro drivers and we’ll see him in the Z4 later in the season, either in British or Blancpain. If we can get him into a competitive drive in 2015 then that’ll be a good sign of success. With Flick, it’s a different situation. She had a bad crash in Caterhams and is looking to rebuild her confidence and speed off the radar, as it were. It will take longer with her because of her circumstances, but the intention again is to ultimately get her a decent GT3 seat in British or Blancpain.
“Some of the Gentleman drivers we’re talking to have ambitions to challenge for the BGT title within a couple of years. Our starting point with them is ‘Here’s where you are now, and here’s where you need to be,’ and we can then tailor a development programme that ultimately leads to them pairing up with a decent Pro.”
When these guys find a Pro or Am partner, is it your intention that they then bring that driver to Triple Eight?
“It depends really. That’s not why we’re doing it. I mean, at the moment, we’ve got more drivers than seats. We recognise that people need to go where the opportunity is, but we’d hope that if we like them and they like us that they’d want to drive with us; but that’s not a primary objective. We’d get just as much satisfaction out of seeing them doing well in a Porsche, say…..in another series, of course!
“I suppose this is a step change in what’s happened historically, in that most teams are purely looking to get someone in their car to go racing; that instantly means that the person is having to write a cheque for a lot of money. Testing is pretty limited and when you get to the circuit you get a couple of one-hour Free Practices, if you’re lucky – second Free Practice yesterday, for instance, I got one lap; you have that risk. What we do with TEDD is remove all that uncertainty, as it’s a controlled environment. There’ll be no more than 10 or 15 cars on the circuit all day, so for example you’d do five laps, come in and review that, and go out again for another five. At the end, you feel that you’ve genuinely got something out of the day.”
When you began your involvement with Triple Eight last year, it was a partnership with Optimum Motorsport. How has that developed since?
“I’m a half-owner of Optimum with Shaun (Goff), and whilst we do a phenomenal job at GT4 level – we’re the defending British GT4 champions – GT3 is a mighty step up for a team and a massive financial investment as well. I spoke to a few teams etc, but ultimately there was only one choice. Ian (Harrison)’s history in motor racing is second to none. The thing that I really liked was, you’ve normally got, it seems, drivers who go from doing clubbies to this, and teams, team managers, seem to go along a similar route; and what you’ve got with ‘H’ is that he’s been in F1 for however many years and then come down a notch to this level. He’s worked with Senna, Mansell and the like and so has just an enormous bucket full of knowledge, and I suppose if you surround yourself with the right people, you end up better than you otherwise might have done. When I started working with Ian, I hadn’t done much driving – it was my fourth year, I think – and I think I went on a massive journey last year; and I don’t think I would have got to where I did by the end of the year had I been with another team, as they wouldn’t have challenged me, pushed me, helped me as much.
“So it was a logical move to link up with them. At the time I was very much a customer – I supplied the cars – and wanted it as a joint-venture between the two companies, purely because I was undecided in terms of what I did and wanted to see how it would work out. But then come July, it was pretty apparent that Ian and I got on well. We have different backgrounds but complement each other quite well, so for me to get involved and take on the commercial elements of Triple Eight – and to free him up to do what he does second to none, which is run race teams – was a really interesting opportunity and one that I couldn’t say no to.
“The business is really scaleable. They’ve got the skills and the resources, but the top line turnover could be so much more. It’s happening already – we’ve got three Touring Cars out now, where before it was two; we’ve got GT cars doing Blancpain in addition to British; and we’ll be doing some endurance events towards the end of the year. So, we’re just going to slowly build both programs; and if we can split it so I focus on the commercial side and Ian looks after the racing, then that’s a really exciting proposition.
“I’m now a 50% shareholder in Triple Eight, which is why we’ve dropped the Optimum name from the branding. I’m still very much involved with Shaun – he’s got a great entry-level racing, GT4 base, and to a degree those guys can come across to Triple Eight and play with the expensive cars if that’s what they want to do.”
How far ahead are you looking, in terms of a business plan?
“This is an interesting year for us. We’ve got one more year of an MG contract on the Touring Car side of things, so we have some plans in how that will evolve. In GTs, we need to be a European team involved in Blancpain Sprint and Endurance, etc., and also potentially in British, but the British series needs to become more professional.”
Looking at BTCC and BGT side-by-side, it’s obvious that the BTCC is much more popular in terms of paying customers at the moment. Do you see an opportunity for BGT in that respect?
“I think there’s an opportunity for both series. Ian and I went out to watch the Clipsal 500 with the Aussie guys, as obviously he’s got an interest in Triple Eight Australia, and that’s a whole notch up again in terms of how they operate. 110,000 people go to watch it, with £50,000 worth of ‘merch’ being sold; it’s a different world again.
“I think GTs and Touring Cars are on an upward trend at the moment; I think it was a 15% increase in car sales last year, and with manufacturer interest on the rise. BTCC works because the audience understands that whoever’s out the front is out the front – doors get banged, it lasts 25 minutes, everyone gets it. In GTs, the cars are sexier, but whether it’s a one-hour or three hour race, we don’t communicate it very well; people don’t understand what’s going on.
“When I came to my first Formula One race, 20-odd years ago, after four laps I had no idea what was going on – there was no TV, no Apps; we just sat and watched cars go round – and that’s a little bit how GT racing is presented. But if you can inform people better, it works. We have people come and watch the racing from the garages, where they get to experience the tyre changes and the strategy etc. and they absolutely love it.
“I do have sympathy for SRO. They’ve gone from having bugger-all cars to decent grids, and their focus is on making sure that things don’t go in the other direction again, but there needs to be some marketing. Where are the banners [on the A43 and outside the circuit]? Where is there any form of advertising that this event is actually happening? As a consequence, we’ll be lucky to get an average of 5,000 people at most events.
“If SRO sat down with the teams and said ‘Give us an extra two, three, five thousand pounds and we’ll improve the TV coverage and advertising!’, would they pay it? They probably would; because if they get more people coming here, it becomes easier for us to get sponsors on the cars, which in terms makes it easier for us to get better drivers or offer seats to the Gents for less money and it all becomes more sustainable. When you look at how much money we’re paying to do this, you have to ask how sustainable the current business model really is.”
Are moves afoot to organise the team owners?
“I think there’s a desire. There’s a bit too much ‘them and us’ at the moment and it shouldn’t be like that; the success of this championship is hugely important for the teams as their income streams depend on it. So if we can bridge that gap and work more as a single unit in the best interests of the championship, then that’s going to be in the SRO’s interests and the team owners’ interests as well; and ultimately in the interests of the drivers, too.
“TV’s the other big issue. Touring Cars – seven and a half hours live on ITV4. What do we get? I thought this was going to be a live race, but it’s being edited down to two hours and doesn’t start until five o’clock. Blancpain have done a pretty good job with their package to help the spectator follow their racing, but we seem to be further down the chain. In actual fact, this year in British GT is a backwards step, TV-wise; last year we had three live races, this year, none.
“I don’t see any reason why they can’t get there with the right people and the desire to do it. There’s a genuine desire from the teams. Just look who’s here – you’ve got Triple Eight, Motorbase, AF Corse; these aren’t one year fly-by-nights. The series needs to step up and unfortunately there are teams that won’t be able to cope with that; the series will outgrow some of the characters that brought it along. But that’s like any business – there comes a point when people have to jump off in order for it to get where it ultimately needs to be.
“I think the next three years will be really exciting. I think Touring Cars have got a fantastic opportunity, and I think British GT has an equally fantastic opportunity if they develop the off-track opportunities into even close to the possible potential.”