After a year honing his skills with APR Rebellion in the ELMS, and a scoring a memorable LMP2 class win at the Rolex 24 Hours back in January with DragonSpeed, Ryan Cullen is ready for the 2019 season to truly get underway.
The Irishman has signed with United Autosports for his second season of racing in LMP2 for a full European Le Mans Series season. This year, he hopes to build on his experience racing in prototypes and gun for wins. In such a tough field (this year 18 cars in the ELMS) it won’t be easy, but Cullen is used to a challenge, explaining to DSC that throughout his short career he’s had to dive in at the deep end and learn how to swim.
Cullen has only been racing since 2012, a single season of karting as a kid aside. He bypassed multiple rungs on the traditional racing ladder on his way up, and went from searching for jobs as an engineer or mechanic to racing in Formula Ford, to GP3, to one-make Porsches in just three years. In light of that and his incredible run in what was an old-school race of attrition at Daytona, DSC spoke to Cullen at length as the opening ELMS round at Paul Ricard edges closer.
How did it all start Ryan? You’ve only been behind the wheel, really, since 2012. What got you into motorsport?
“I did a year of karting as a kid, but financially at the time, we couldn’t sustain it. I was working for my dad’s company and playing other sports so racing didn’t fit. I always kept up with Formula One though growing up and car racing. I wasn’t thinking of being a racing driver before 2012 though.
“I just looked on the internet about how it worked, looked on the ARDS website and various other bits. I contacted a team, called them for advice on how to do various courses as a mechanic or engineer, anything to do with motorsport, and the guy that ran the team asked me on a track day. I then got my race license and did my first ever race in Formula Ford and finished second.
“It went on from there because my dad enjoyed it and we got involved with Adam Carroll, who coached me for a couple of years. That meant I learned lots in a short space of time, and by then I really wanted it despite coming to the party so late. I saw it as a disadvantage but that made me push. I’ve been doing it for seven years now, and I look back and feel it was all a good experience.
“When I did the year of karts, apparently I was ok, I don’t really remember. My father took a while to build his company, and when I got the chance to do it, I took it with both hands, I was doing something I loved, but had to stop. When he asked if we should go back into motorsport though, I quickly said yes even though I wasn’t sure if I was going to be a driver.”
You climbed all the way to GP3, before moving into racing one-make Porsches. What made you switch?
“I always looked at the Porsche Super Cup when I was in the GP3 paddock as I always liked the way it was operated. I had a test with a GT team with a Porsche and did ok, but they said that if I wanted to impress I’d need to fine tune my skills. Going from GP3 to Porsches is tough when you’re young and pushing as you need two years in Super Cup to get your head around a new style of driving and working with a manufacturer like Porsche.
“It was definitely a move up from GP3, going into Super Cup.
There’s so many guys who go to Super Cup, then do DTM or win big races, you don’t see that as much in single seaters, because so many people hit a ceiling and stop
“There are so many top drivers, that I do think I’m a better driver because of it. There are so many guys who go to Super Cup, then do DTM or win big races, you don’t see that as much in single seaters, because so many people hit a ceiling and stop. So I managed to get rookie wins in my first year, won a title, and came on as a driver. I’d only started racing in 2012, so I was so new to everything when I did that.”
What are the Porsche Cup cars like to drive these days? They still manage to attract such enormous grids around the world. And just how much adapting did you have to do when you moved to LMP2?
“The Porsche is quite a specialist car to drive, everything is rear-ward, it’s almost like going from Formula Ford to a full-on downforce car. It took me a while to understand a few things when driving an LMP2 car. Mechanical balance though was quite similar, I could translate that from my experience racing in Porsches to LMP2. The physicality is different though, I had to change my training and mentality last year.
“In my opinion, Porsche Super Cup and German Cup are very competitive still, with so many good drivers, there are usually 40 cars on the grid, so getting into the top 10 consistently is really hard. Getting practice in is hard too, because track time is limited, you basically go straight to the races after 40 minutes of practice.
“You really push yourself to get the best out of the car in a short space of time, then you’re going toe-to-toe. The level of driving the years I did it, and the years before it was so hard, with so many drivers that went on to do big things.
“I think the attraction is that there’s no traction control and ABS, some drivers like to drive cars on pure feeling. There are no excuses because of that. Once you get one too, you can race is in so many series around the world, so that coupled with support from Porsche makes Cup racing still so popular.”
What was the Middle Eastern series like? Has it continued to grow?
“I went there with Walter Lechner, and that’s kind of how I got my first introduction into Porsches. I did GP3, tested with Walter, he was really impressed, he likes seeing drivers with potential and teaching guys with less experience before putting them in Super Cup seats. It started off with local drivers with a few from Europe, and now it’s got a solid amount of Super Cup or German Cup drivers who use it for winter track time, even Porsche Juniors race there and do testing. Porsche see it as a championship that is good for drivers to hone their skills.
The logical step would be to race in GT3 or GTE after honing your skills in Super Cup and winning the Middle East title? So why jump straight into prototypes?
“I felt like I got everything out of Porsche one make, so I moved on, I could jump back in but I want to race at Le Mans, drive faster cars, and create a career in sportscars, in a prototype. If I can’t I have GT experience, but I think LMP2 is a good offer. The Rebellion-Algarve Pro offer came and it was an opportunity and a big jump, but I don’t shy away from trying new things.”
So you did your season in ELMS, then took on the Rolex 24 in January. Tell me how you found that first year racing in LMP2?
“It really was a learning year for me, but I had two good teammates (Harrison Newey and Gustavo Menezes) with lots of LMP2 experience. I worked hard, kept my head down and tried to be as consistent as possible.
And then you went to Daytona, you must have loved every minute?
“Obviously I never thought I’d end up a Daytona winner during last year! It was a dream come true, being in a paddock with so many great drivers, and being on the same grid as them. To win that race, alongside other greats is really nice, it’s something I won’t forget!
“The race was crazy. We went four laps down, we got it back to one lap, and I was first in the car when the rain came. It was eye-opening, so tricky, but with seven hours left I was done and the safety car came out. I didn’t realise how bad it was until I was standing on the pit wall. I had night driving to do too, that was my first time and I loved it.
“The reason I loved the week was that I had an RV, I’d never had an onsite bed, and I remember waking up after the race on Monday and seeing just how wet the track still was.
“We were trying so hard to get the laps back, we couldn’t under the lengthy safety car periods, it was hard to watch, especially as we were fighting the sister car and we knew each other’s strategies. It was an inter-team battle that was fair, but it made it stressful. We wanted green flag running because we needed to make up so much ground, even though there were so many risks.
“After my night stint, we were very evenly matched in the class, it took four hours to gain a lap back. There were many times when we were going hammer and tongs with the sister car, after an alternator problem. But everyone was positive because all we needed was four safety cars. We drove flat out and fought back. I went for the experience, and I won, I wanted to just get my foot in the door in America, and I came back with a Rolex.”
How did you feel about the decision making from the stewards during the closing stages of the race, restarting the race multiple times in the rain?
“I understand that it was bad out there, the drivers on track at the end had a really tough task. There’s an event on though, and cutting the race seven hours early wouldn’t have been great. It wasn’t the best conditions, so I understand while some people were upset. But it’s a big event around the world so you at least need cars going around.”
A big part of winning the Rolex 24, is being rewarded with a Rolex Daytona afterwards. What’s it feel like to have one of the most sought after prizes in sportscar racing so early in your career?
“To be honest, I’m not very clued up on watches, but I know it’s a special one, and it’s even better in person. I’m now into watches! I won’t be wearing it all the time, but I’ll always wear it on special occasions, at motorsport events because people will appreciate it. If I wear it at a supermarket people just see a flashy watch, but I know that at motorsport events and dinners people will appreciate that I’m a Rolex 24 winner.”
I’m now into watches!
Going forward you’re racing in the ELMS again. You tested with multiple teams in the winter before switching to United Autosports. How did you find the Ligier in testing?
“I tested with a few teams, it all went very well.
“The Ligier is different. Driving at different tracks and in different cars is hard to make comparisons unless you do back to backs. But there is a difference in the ORECA and the Ligier, and the Ligier has gotten closer in the past year, especially on the right tyres. It’s about how well the team works, some teams with a Ligier are quick, some teams really struggle to extract the best from it.”
Porsche Cup and Formula Ford images courtesy of Jakob Ebrey Photography