2016 is set to be another huge year for GT3 racing across the globe, in no small part because a new series with sky-high aspirations is set to join the arena. The Michelin GT3 Le Mans Cup, featuring a projected field of around 20 cars with pro-am drive line-ups, was announced by the ACO this year as another viable stepping-stone to racing at the 24 Heures du Mans.
Its six race calendar supports the European Le Mans Series, and includes a race at Le Mans itself on the weekend of the big race, encouraging gentleman drivers to progres and earn a place on the Le Mans grid in future years.
It’s unlikely that the ACO will reveal any sort of entry list for the series until the deadline for registration in March, but what we do know already is that one team has already committed: FF Corse, with drivers Ivor Dunbar and Johnny Mowlem.
The duo were at Yas Marina earlier this month as part of their preparations for the new year, during which Mowlem sat down with Stephen Kilbey at the Gulf 12 Hours to discuss how the decision to pioneer the new series was made.
Mowlem and Dunbar have known each other and worked together for a number of years on and off. Originally, Mowlem did some coaching with Dunbar at RMA Track Days, through a relationship with the company’s managing director Graham Clarke as an instructor. Dunbar was a busy man back then, but as his work life became quieter, he was able to set aside more time to dedicate to his hobby of driving fast cars. And that, is where the GT3 cup comes in, as it seems to have come along at the right time for the pair.
“I was an instructor at RMA before I started to earn real money from racing,” Mowlem explains. “I used to coach at Brands Hatch, Silverstone and anywhere I could to earn money and survive. And Graham (Clarke) recommended me to Ivor, as he had a Lotus Elise that had been modified.
“So I went along for a day with him, we got on very well and I was surprised at how good he was considering he was only doing one track day per year. He bought himself a Ferrari Challenge car, a 360 then a 430 and he would say to me ‘Johnny, can you do this date?’ and if I wasn’t racing we’d fly to Mugello, do a couple of days and fly back.
“When I started earning real money, I stopped coaching, except for Ivor, because we got on so well.”
For Dunbar, racing at the Le Mans 24 Hours has always been a dream, but few years back, they discussed the possibility of him racing there, to which Mowlem’s response was; “Why don’t we put a three-year plan together?”
Their entry to the GT3 Le Mans Cup, stems from the fact that Mowlem believes Dunbar is capable of racing at Le Mans, given more time. He’s an advocate for taking the event seriously, so paying a great amount of money and throwing Ivor in was never going to be on the agenda.
“It takes time to get to the point where you feel ready, I don’t want Ivor to feel out of his depth when he gets there,” he said. “I want him to feel like a useful part of the event, he has the talent to do that but obviously it takes time and experience to get to that level.
“You need time driving round and round in a race situation, that’s why we’re here.”
It’s clear that amongst other things, the ACO believes that the GT3 Le Mans Cup’s purpose is to train gentlemen drivers. The latest details on the regulations state that the mandatory Bronze driver in the team will have to do qualifying, and that the round at Le Mans will feature LMP3 cars.
The Le Mans 24 Hours has become increasingly competitive at the top, as has it become increasingly quick. If you’re going to drive in GTE you need to be more prepared than ever for dealing with traffic, and exaggerated closing speeds. Racing a GT3 car at Le Mans with LMP3s is going to create effectively a training environment, as well as a golden opportunity to race at the prestigious 8.4 mile track.
That’s only once a year though, Mowlem expressed passionately that having more experience having prototypes coming up behind Ivor would have helped him learn faster and prepare for Le Mans quicker. There were plans to run in the ELMS’ GTC category, but those fell through with the creation of the GT3 Le Mans Cup and the subsequent departure of the GTC class from the series.
“We decided in the end the best option was to buy a brand new 488 Ferrari for the Cup,” Mowlem revealed. “And the logical team to go with was FF Corse because of the relationship with Anthony Cheshire was so strong, and because the team are looking at ways to be come an important figure internationally.
“But initially we thought it may be a problem, because the ACO were considering only allowing bronze and silver rated drivers into it, or only bronza and gold, while I am a platinum. So I filed a request to be down-graded, and that’s only just come through the other day.
“It’s wacky,” he chuckled. “The fact that a professional driver is happy about being down-graded just shows you the craziness of the ranking system, but that’s for another interview!”
Crucially, the 488 which FF Corse will run in the series can be upgraded to a GTE car easily, making it even easier down the line if the pair feel ready to enter the 24 Hours.
“If things were to go swimmingly for Ivor and I, as we’re in the process of setting up a company for sponsorship acquisition, we’re putting our heads together so that in a few years there’s a chance of doing WEC. It’s not inconceivable, it depends on how quickly he progresses.
“The beauty of the 488 is that all you have to do is change the engine and the bumper and it’s a GTE car, we will not go straight from the GT3 Cup to Le Mans, we may end up doing GTE in the ELMS first for example. I’d say 2018 is a good target.
But what does Mowlem feel about the new GT3 Cup and its place among the plethora of other series which feature GT3 cars?
“The thing is, that while we have no idea who’s going to be on the grid yet – though I know that AF Corse are going to enter at least a couple of cars – I have no doubt that some good drivers from the professional side will be there, allied with bronze guys, so I’m sure (Matt) Griffin, (Marco) Cioci and guys like that will join in.
“This whole thing is set up for Ivor, it’s a mentoring scheme, it’s like Manu Collard and what he’s done with Francois Perrodo – this is the ACO recognising that we need that sort of thing to keep the grids healthy at Le Mans. There’s still factory teams, but there’s so much pro-am, there’s so much hinging on the driver ranking. It’s a business model that I didn’t had to deal with until I raced with Ram in 2014.
“It’s a shot across the bows of Blancpain. The ACO will never admit it, and the big thing going for it is the race at Le Mans, and getting an entry if you win the series. Being a part of the ACO family, if you want to race at the Le Mans 24 Hours, is crucial, doing this sort of thing will really help.
“Ivor and FF Corse want to go to Le Mans, so it’s nice for me to be in a position to help a team like that, because I’ve got the experience to help them do it.
“This is just the beginning really.”