How a racing driver puts a season together

This post is the second in my series of posts about how the world of motorsport works behind the scenes. The idea of this series of blog posts is to give you a bit of an insight in to the motorsport world away from the track, cameras and (occasional) glory.

For this post I went to see GT3 driver Julien Draper. Julien’s racing career started in Caterhams before moving to the G50 Cup and then on to GT racing in the G4 class and GT3. 2012 has seen Julien make the move to the Blancpain Endurance Series in one of the new McLaren MP4-12C GT3 cars prepared by Von Ryan Racing.

I started by asking Julien perhaps the hardest question, where do you start? His reply, “there are a number of factors that you have to plan out”, the car that you will be racing, the team to race with, which championship to run in, who will be your team mates and of course the big one – budget.

When deciding on which car Julien explained that “it all depends on your situation”. If you have a backer willing to buy a car then that decides the car. This person may be a collector of a certain marque, simply like the look and sound of a car, buys it to add value to their collection or simply be “looking for a winning car”. If you have the money to buy it yourself then you buy the quickest car out there, if you have to rent it you go with the fastest car you can afford. Other times a team may already own a car and this will act as an incentive to join that team.

However, another aspect to think about is the cars name. Julien explained that this may sound silly but a name like Ferrari or McLaren evoke strong mental images of racing, winning and glory both past and present and this emotional response is important when you are looking to get sponsors on board. Sponsors are much more likely to respond positively to a name like Ferrari, Aston Martin and McLaren then to less well known marques like Ginetta.

Once the car has been chosen a driver will then look for a team to run that car. The first thing a driver does is look for a team with a history of running that car. It will mean that they have the experience and knowledge of the car that can give you the competitive edge. Even though Julien is going to be racing in the the new McLaren MP4-12C this is still something to take in to account. His new team, Von Ryan Racing is run by ex-McLaren Team Manager and Sporting Director Dave Ryan. In 2011 he ran one of the development cars in three races. He now brings that experience to his new team and to Julien’s new car.

A teams history, however, is not the only factor. A driver will need to look at the team as a whole; what are the mechanics like? how does the management of the team work? what are their workshops like? and of course how much do they charge. As you would expect, the better the team the more expensive they are.

“So”, I asked, ” we now have a car and a team to run it, how do you decide which championship to run in?” Julien explained that you have a set out your “wish list”, you look at the pros and cons of each championship be it FIA GT3, Blancpain, British GT or something else. This list would include such things as what is the next best step for your career progression, what will best lead on to other (hopefully semi- or fully-funded) drives in the future, what championships are attractive to sponsors, where the racing is and what are its “blue ribbon” events such as the Spa 24 hours and the competitiveness of the championships. Julien told me, “If you want to prove that you are the best you have to race against the best and in 2012 Blancpain is where the best GT3 drivers are”, and of course ever on the horizon – budget.

You then take that list to your new potential team and see what they want to do. Some teams (and all the best ones) already know what they want to compete in and so you have to make sure that your plans are in agreement. If they are then great, it’s time to talk money.

But how does a driver come up with this money? Julien began this answer with a big sigh and saying, “finding sponsors is not easy, it takes a lot of work and can easily turn in to a full time job”. To get money to fund 2012 the whole process starts mid-season in 2011. You start by looking at your existing sponsors to make sure that they want to stay on board for 2012, “having continuity with sponsors means that both me as a driver and the sponsors themselves will get much more out of the relationship”. To get the additional funds a driver will have to rely on their personal networks and relationships with people built up over time. He explained that trying to approach companies who don’t know you will mean that you will be rejected “99 times out of 100”.

This is where a good manager is a great asset. He can help expand your networks, use his own, and use his experience of the industry to help open doors. A good manager will also play a supporting role for a driver, providing advise, a helping hand and even protection from an angry team! For this reason a manager has to be someone a driver trusts, a bad manager is worst then useless, they are detrimental to a successful season.

After explaining all this Julien then added a cautionary note about getting sponsors, “Because of the sums of money involved, even when a sponsor agrees to provide funding, it can take a very long time indeed for the money to come through.” This can create problems when deadlines loom.

Deadlines are ever present in motorsport, getting a car ready to go racing, out to qualifying, and getting it to the start of a race. However the deadlines start long before any car turns a wheel. To give an example, Blancpain was sold out in less then two months after the championship entry dates were announced. This means drivers have to be on the ball in getting everything organised, either that or take a leap of faith by booking their place, paying the entry fees and hoping that it all comes together. Julien said, “In an ideal world everything would be tied up by February in time for the entry forms and be ready to go testing, however reality is different”. The main reason for this is that many people are reluctant to commit, sponsors, teams and drivers are all included in this. “The motorsport world is full of bull-shitters, everyone is talking themselves up, trying to get their funding together or trying to ride off of other peoples success. However, people also forgive a lot. Everyone involved, from the person that cleans the wheels all the way to the head engineer, are all there because of one thing, a deep passion for motorsport”.

The final piece of the puzzle is a drivers team mates. In GT racing drivers share their car. This can be anything between one other driver to three others and getting the right team mate is just as important as getting the right car or team. It can also be as hard as finding sponsors and involves much of the same methods to find one. Julien explained that a good driver, at the same stage of his career (as Julien), with a budget, is a rare breed indeed. Added to this you also need to get on with him, he is your team mate after all, and ideally “you want someone of the same standard or better, so that you are continually working hard to better each other and improving all the time”. Failing that, if you partner up with a gentleman driver with money he has to be willing to work with you to improve his driving. After all you can only win if you have a good team mate.

“So once you have your car sorted, team arranged, sponsors lined up, entry forms submitted and team mates on board what’s next?” Personal preparation Julien replies.

This means making sure that your racing license is valid for the series you want to compete in, your medical is in date (these last for 2 years at a time), and your fitness is where it needs to be. To make sure he is both physically and mentally fit before the season he sees a personal trainer 3 times a week, trains by himself another 3 days, has a carefully controlled diet, no red meat, no dairy, and no wheat, “just good, clean, healthy living”. This includes no booze for at least a month before he even steps in to the car. Over the winter some drivers also go karting to keep them sharp.

However it’s not all bad, before a season begins a driver needs to go shopping for new kit, something every driver loves. New gloves, new overalls, new boots, new HANS and a new helmet. We finished by talking about his helmet design. Julien works with a friend of his to design his helmet, the aim is for it to be individual and unique with personal touches that reflect him and what is important to him. The most obvious of these is the three flags ofFrance, where his Mum is from,South Africa, where his dad is from, and Julien’s own national flag, the Union Jack.

After all of this a driver is now ready to do, by what comparison would seem the easy bit, go racing!

I hope you have enjoyed this post, I want to say a massive thank you to Julien Draper for giving me a very open and honest account in to how a driver puts a season together and wish him every success for this season.

As always if you have any comments, questions for me or Julien, or feedback then please do so in the comments box below, and don’t forget to check out the Reuben likes Motorsport pages on Facebook and Google+ and other social media platforms like reddit, stumble and twitter!

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