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Inside JAS Motorsport’s Driver Development Programme

An impressive scheme to develop Honda's next generation of racing talent

A freezing November morning, and with frost on the ground at an unfamiliar circuit there was little to suggest that a plan was afoot for boosting the future of a major brand’s racing programmes in Europe.

Aside that was for a single race transporter, and a gaggle of cars and people ready to go to work.

The circuit, at Cervesina outside Milan, dubbed the Circuit Tazio Nuvolari is a spotless tribute to the efforts of its enthusiastic owner and features permanent branding on one garage midway along pit lane, JAS Motorsport.

More, much, much more about JAS in a future article or two but for now let’s concentrate on why the DSC Editor had made the trip, at the invitation of the team, to observe the latest track testing session, and the classroom sessions to follow on the next day, of JAS’s Driver Development scheme.

There are several schemes, from several manufacturers, targeted at young ‘development’ drivers around.

All have broadly similar aims, there is a commercial element both in their marketing and delivery and in the out-turn. Effectively they see young drivers choose to spend their available budget to boost their knowledge and skill levels, thereby enhancing their performance and their marketability in an increasingly competitive, results-focussed and knowledge-hungry marketplace.

Put bluntly, the more you know and the faster you are, the better your chances of attracting attention.

They also allow the organisers to determine whether the talent emerging on the other side of the scheme might add punch to the offer they provide to customers of their customer sport programmes, talented young drivers to fit the ever-more driver ranking sensitive regulations of world motorsport.

Some such schemes feature a large number of young drivers each year, some of whom don’t complete the programmes. At JAS there are currently just two for what is effectively an 18-month programme of significant performance and developmental support, though the team running the scheme were clear in pointing to further availability if a suitable candidate emerged:

20-year-old Irishman Reece Barr and Italian Jacopo Guidetti, who turned 18 years old just last month, are the pair, and despite the challenges posed by 2020, JAS Motorsport have kept their two young charges busy, both with the theory and practice of their paths forward in the sport, and the business of motor racing.

With the garage open, there were two essential tasks to perform, unload the first of two cars to be tested for the day, the other already in the garage’s second bay, and because it’s Italy, fire up the coffee machine!

Major brownie points were scored by young Mr Barr, first duties of the day were as a barista, the first espresso was faultless!

Also present was a familiar face for the DSC Editor, JAS test and development driver and ex Audi Sport test driver Marco Bonanomi, together with a full 11 man crew to look after the cars, tyres, electronics, and the three drivers.

After a sighting lap in a trio of race-prepped Civics for the drivers and engineers, the decision was taken to slightly delay the start of track action, some concern that there might be surface ice.

35-year-old Bonanomi was there with a dual role, as the Pro driver to assist the development pair with their training, and to shake down the car that was being unloaded.  This, the factory Honda NSX GT3 Evo set to compete later this month at the IGTC season-ending Kyalami 9 Hours in South Africa.

The Honda had seen very competitive runs at Indianapolis and the Spa 24 Hours, but there were frustrating shortfalls in performance, and much of the effort of the morning and early afternoon was devoted to trying out some nips, tucks and tweaks to close the gap.

When track action began, part of that was focused on the quick-start programming to save time that the Honda was previously losing in the pits, a large number of ‘drop off the air-jacks, fire up and go” were performed, electronics tweaked as the day progressed, before the team pronounced themselves happy.

Here too though there was ample evidence of the depth of the development scheme that Barr and Guidetti have been provided with – Alongside the factory race car in the garage was the development NSX dedicated to the scheme, but both young drivers were playing a full part in the shakedown of the factory car too, providing feedback to Bonanomi and the factory engineering team, and clearly soaking up plenty of experience along the way.

Barr had raced in the GT Open season finale at Barcelona, putting the Reno Racing NSX GT3 Evo he shared with car owner Jens Moller on class pole, and on the overall front row.

There though the car was racing on Michelins, both cars at Cervesina were running on Pirellis, and there was plenty of opportunities to compare and contrast, as there was with the radically different setups of the three NSXs he had driven, the factory car, set-up for its all Pro line-up, much edgier, ultimately quicker (Bonanomi broke the GT3 track record in the morning).

The feedback was teased out skilfully and with subtlety by Engineers Riccardo Incarbone and the hugely experienced Giancarlo Bruno, both men of impeccable and impressive competitive records.

Both young drivers would complete a run, feedback and then make their own notes, more of that later, and both were keen then to learn what they could from close observation of the live telemetry as well as listening in to further feedback from their colleagues.

Throughout the day the progression was clear, and after the factory car shakedown was completed the development car was fired up and the progress continued, full and honest feedback encouraged, analysed and acted upon, and repeat.

Longer runs, qualifying simulations, both with the experienced Bonanomi providing a baseline run for comparison, again something which would come into its own on day two.

It was fascinating stuff, to watch the focus, and to hear the progress being made, the quality, depth and vocabulary of the feedback making palpable progress during the day.

“One of the most surprising things for me,” said Reece Barr, after running had finished for the day, “was how different the cars felt, and one of the big learning points was to understand how and why those changes were made, and what the performance gains were as a result.”

The engineers and Bonanomi were clear and concise in explaining just that to both young drivers as they cycled through stints until just before nightfall, still hungry for more whilst this writer retired to the relative warmth of his hire car!

Day two of the trip was spent at JAS Motorsport’s compact but impressive headquarters, and this is where the intensive track activity of the day at the track really began to pay off as both young drivers’ efforts were forensically examined using the full data suite provided by the team, and, as every driver in the modern era knows, there is no hiding place from the data!

The two days together are part of a 20 day commitment to the pair, a total which includes both on-track and ‘classroom’ sessions.

The day I was observing was the second for the pair at the JAS HQ.

There was an assessment by both engineers and by Marco Bonanomi of the performance, with both young drivers challenged to assess where their performances could improve, and, it should be added, some very intelligent responses coming from both.

Next up was an analysis of some of the lessons to be learned from the recent races from both drivers, Barr’s fine qualifying performance at Barcelona followed up with a start procedure that saw the Honda drop down the order.

An equally fine qualifying performance from Guidetti in the TCR Italy Series at Monza fell foul of a restart after a Safety Car, slipstreaming pushing the youngster back into the pack from where his race was ended violently with contact at the rear out of Curva Grande firing his Civic TCR into the barriers.

Each was analysed closely, both drivers ruthlessly honest about where they could have done better, the engineers and Bonanomi dispensing advice on where improvements could be made, in particular some sage advice on awareness of regulations, and the opportunity to contribute and ask questions in drivers briefings, basic advice, but timely reminders of how covering off the basics can help with areas of the race that can make the difference between a fine finish – and no finish!

Following that was a workshop on post-test (and race) reporting, with the young drivers presenting the reports they had prepared, and amended, after their most recent race outings, with feedback on just about every aspect, content, relevance and usefulness, structure and language, of course, more of a challenge for Jacopo (reports are all done in English), the input was clearly having a major impact, drafts were compared side by side and the difference was massive as both drivers grasped and responded to the major lessons, Reece Barr taking some good-natured but serious feedback on his tendency to add too much detail to the reports, both drivers learning just how important their written contribution could prove to be.

Both then joined me for a full tour of the facility. The technical and design areas, the TCR build and service bays and the facilities’ ‘Hall of Fame’

Then a short car journey to JAS’s second facility where the GT3 programme is centred, and where the NSX and Civic ‘bodies in white are stored awaiting the call to the production line.

That involved some teasers about where both drivers are likely to race in 2021, all on the ‘TBA’ list for now but there are some interesting programmes ahead!

All in all, as in-depth an experience as possible with an organisation that, very unusually, combines the ability to design, build, test, develop and race cars in multiple different racing disciplines, with the driver development programme now firmly embedded, all at JAS will be hoping that they can now do the same with the development of future driving talent too.

Sadly there was another appointment for me elsewhere in the building in the afternoon which meant there wasn’t the opportunity to sit in on one of several workshops where Reece and Jacopo were given the opportunity to work through the details of some of the key mechanical aspects of their race cars, all designed to give both a better understanding of the method of operation of some of the major components (Engine, gearbox, suspension and damping, braking, aerodynamics etc) coupled with a briefing on where their input could be used to improve set-up and performance of those same systems.

There are briefings set for the year too on vehicle dynamics, and on more advanced understanding and usage of telemetry and data, utilising the real-world results of the drivers’ own races and testing sessions as well as opportunities to see how the factory team use the same data sources, and the results they achieved by doing so.

The more practical applications of that acquired knowledge will be demonstrated and tested with days shadowing both a senior mechanic as a car is set-up for competition and testing, and with a senior race engineer as they work to analyse and interpret data, explaining how to use the huge amount of available information to move forward in performance on the track.

Add in too, workshops on media and presentational skills, an absolutely essential part of bringing a driver through to the professional ranks and the JAS Driver Development Programme is most impressive not only in terms of depth and variety, but in particular, in terms of the quality of experience offered to the young drivers, and the quality and experience too of their tutors – full advantage being taken of the availability of a full professional race team in-house at JAS to provide both their young charges with real-world, international motorsport relevance.

There will be news soon of the 2021 programmes for both Reece Barr and Jacopo Guidetti, be assured that they’ll be expected to perform to the highest standard and will continue to get the highest level of support and coaching in shooting for that.

Cervesina pics copyright and courtesy Giorgio Secci