Thursday, 14 April 2011

Duncan Dayton, Highcroft Racing

At the end of last month, I put a call in to Duncan Dayton, the team principal of Highcroft Racing, primarily to congratulate his team on its second place at Sebring, but also to discuss the prospects for the team for the remainder of the season. The idea was that the interview would appear in the pages of, but as it is now nearly two weeks since I delivered it to them, and it still hasn’t appeared, I thought I would post it here as a reward to my loyal readers.

Of the performances at the Sebring Twelve Hours, perhaps the most noteworthy was that of Highcroft Racing, with their brand new Honda Performance Developments ARX-01e. Although the Highcroft team were riding high as back-to-back ALMS champions in 2009 and 2010, they seemed to be starting the 2011 season on the back foot, having spent the majority of the winter “busting my butt trying to put a programme together” as team principal Duncan Dayton put it.

The main disappointment in 2010 had been a character-building run at the Le Mans 24 hour race, which perhaps merely confirmed that the French classic does not come easily to transatlantic visitors.

Some suggested that the step up to LMP1 for 2011 was perhaps too far for the Connecticut-based team, but for Dayton, partnering with HPD, it was a logical step, and where the Honda Performance Development crew wanted to be.

However, at Sebring, the timetable was mighty tight. The car arrived at the circuit straight from manufacturer Wirth Research, and proceeded to run faultlessly, confirming Dayton’s faith in the project. When I congratulated him on the result, he was typically modest: “Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good!” he joked.

Surely it wasn’t a question of luck? I put to him. “Well, clearly a couple of things were in our favour,” he replied. “One obviously, Wirth built us an incredible car and given the fact that it’s an evolution of a proven drivetrain, we had got a lot of miles on that package and we were reasonably sure that it would run the distance.”

Dayton went on to say that bodywork pieces for the car were being delivered up to the day before the race. And there were some issues getting those to fit.

And after the race? “We stayed on afterwards and completed 3,500 miles of testing and never even took the engine cover off. It’s a huge tribute to the boys and how they put things together.”

The biggest issue so far for the team has been getting the Michelin tyres to work. “We’ve had a hard time getting them to really come in as well as we’d like,” said Dayton on the subject of the tyres. “We just need to have some time to get that to be where it needs to be.”

In the light of the fact that the HPD was only 32 seconds behind the winning Peugeot at the end of Sebring, I suggested to Duncan that the indications were that the petrol cars were now on the pace of the diesels. “I don’t think so, because if you look at the R18 times the following day, they were running mid 45’s and I’m sure they weren’t running flat out. So there’s something like 3 seconds advantage at Sebring, which would be six seconds advantage at Le Mans. Marino’s best time in the test was 47.5 and they were routinely 45.5 and we were just carrying on with a real good base set up, and I’m sure they were still improving the R18 at Sebring.”

But racing is not all about ultimate pace, it’s about speed in the traffic, in race conditions, I reminded Duncan. “Yes, but even if you look at our race pace, we were a second or two slower than the R15 or the Peugeots. I’ve got to believe that at Le Mans with the R18, which is even a step up, with less drag on the straights, the bigger tyres for the corners and all the different advantages that they have, it’s going to still be a significant challenge for us.

But it must be reassuring that Pagenaud was able to keep ahead of the works Peugeot in the closing stages?

“Right, we were pushing as hard as we could. You know we weren’t full rich, because we were trying to save fuel; we realised quite early that the only chance that we had to beat them was on one less fuel stop. We weren’t going to be able to beat them on pace. And at the end, we kept telling Simon we’ve got to save fuel and go fast, which he was able to do, but we were on mix 4, which was as lean a mix as we’ve ever run, usually we would be running mix 3 and that would be as lean as we would ever go, but we weren’t making the fuel numbers so it was unfortunate that we couldn’t really chase the Oreca down, but I’m sure they had more in hand too, they had more fuel on board and they could have gone richer if they’d needed to.”

Despite the fact that the new car hasn’t yet done any running in the wet, Dayton was upbeat about prospects for Le Mans. “I will say that the car traditionally has been extraordinarily good in the wet. The P2 car was phenomenal in the wet. Oftentimes the drivers would hope that it would rain because it was just so fantastic. So I don’t think it’s anything that would be anything that would worry us.”

Also the fact that the HPD is an open car might be advantageous if it rains at Le Mans. “We think for sure it is better to be in an open car in the wet. We’ve heard from some of the drivers that the visibility in the R18 is quite bad. Clearly they’re going to have a heated windscreen, they’re not going to have to worry about fogging or anything like that, it’s more the debris. From that standpoint, then I think the drivers would much prefer to be in an open cockpit.”

Duncan’s last words were for the folks in Japan: “Obviously our hearts and minds go out to the folks in Japan… last year’s championship winning car was sent to Japan to HGT, which is the Japanese equivalent to HPD which was the base for their Formula One development, and they had the car on high stands and were looking at it, and just about to start taking it apart when the earthquake hit and the lift collapsed, and the car was crushed. One of the HGT associates was unfortunately killed in the earthquake so it’s definitely a tragic story from our standpoint. They were 30 miles from the epicentre. The uncertainty for us is that we don’t know - I don’t think they know yet - how that will impact the program in the long run - whether it will be cancelled because they have to focus on their own population and try and get things up and running and where they should be, or whether it would be something that would be a great rallying cry for the Japanese people to find some motivation and support.”

In any event, Duncan Dayton’s enthusiasm is still on full throttle for the remainder of the season, and Highcroft must be a favourite for another ALMS crown. And hopes are guardedly high for Le Mans, too.

This concludes what I submitted to dailysportscar, but our conversation also included some fairly stern comments that Dayton had for the ACO, which I didn’t include for dailysportscar readers, as I wasn’t sure how helpful they were. As your reward for reading this far though, here are some of Dayton’s thoughts about the Le Mans organising club.

In response to a question about the ability of the petrol-powered Highcroft HPD to compete equally with the diesel-engined cars from Audi and Peugeot, Dayton said: “The thing that frustrates me more than anything is the fuel fill time, because (at Sebring) we were 32 seconds down at the flag and every single pit stop their fuel time was anywhere from five to seven seconds faster than ours. And while I realise that they have a smaller fuel tank, as I understand the ACO regulations, the fuel fill times are supposed to be the same because the amount of energy is supposed to be equivalent as well. So they shouldn’t have an advantage in taking less fuelling time than us.”

Duncan has analysed the data well - by my calculations too, comparing the Highcroft car with the #2 Audi, fuel fill was on average 6 seconds faster for the diesel car.

The fuel tank sizes stipulated by the regulations are 75 litres for petrol and 65 litres for diesel. Fuel flow into the tank is governed by a restrictor, which is the same diameter whether for diesel or petrol, and since the viscosity of diesel is greater, it will flow more slowly into the tank. However, the viscosity is also dependent on temperature, so it may be that the high temperatures experienced at Sebring led to the faster diesel fuelling time.

I could find no mention in the regulations that the fuel fill times should be the same between diesel and petrol, though, so Dayton’s complaint would seem to be that the regulations have not been written the way that the ACO told him that they would be.

It is now clear that Highcroft will not be at the Le Mans test day on Easter Sunday, but when I spoke to him, that decision had not been made. Dayton was definite that the team would not - could not - be at both. “We’re weighing the relative merits of Long Beach versus the Test Day - ideally we would do both, but given the short turn-around time that the ACO has put in place, in some ways I think it’s kind of a slap in the face for the American competitors. Given that they (the ACO) own the circuit, that they could do it any day they want, why do they pick Easter and why do they pick a date that makes it almost impossible? Particularly for someone like us, who’s shop is on the East Coast, three days travel time by transporter to get the cars back here (to Connecticut from Long Beach), so that prohibits us from being able to ship it to the test day.”

I asked which event HPD would do, in that case.

“We do which ever one that HPD wants us to do. We hope to be able to defend our championship in the ALMS - the importance of having front line teams and really good prototype competition in the ALMS is critical at this juncture and the International Le Mans Cup (sic) has robbed American fans of consistent appearances by front line teams like Audi and Peugeot. And I think the ACO needs to be very careful about what they do in promoting this because if they kill the ALMS prototype division and they kill the LMS it’s cutting off their nose to spite their face. Without having a significant travel fund to support the privateers, (although we’re supported by HPD, we are a privateer team, clearly), we pay our own drivers, we pay our own staff, all that stuff is on our nickel, so for us to try to do six fly-away races, at a million bucks each, is beyond our capabilities. Is it really a “world championship” if you’ve only got Audi and Peugeot duking it out?”

Dayton’s enthusiasm for the sport is clear, but like many small fish, his passionate feelings spill over into his conversation.

“The other thing I would do if I were in Scott Atherton’s shoes - I’m not trying to tell him how to run his business - but I would say to the ACO: ‘you know, we would love to have two ILMC rounds, but they’ll be Elkhart Lake (Road America) and Laguna, but we’re not going to give you Sebring and Petit Le Mans because you’re going to come to those events anyhow.’ ”

“The other thing - this is an aside - but it galls me: if the ILMC comes to an ALMS round, (Sebring) why do I have to put a zero in front of my number, when they’re coming to our championship? We’re not going to theirs. It just goes to show the mentality that the ACO approaches this all with.”

At least you know where you are with Duncan Dayton. He is honest, straightforward and good at what he does. I can’t imagine such a straight-talking interview with anyone from the ACO, although I would love to have the opportunity!

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting comments. It is a tough challenge to keep some balance of interest between the ILMC as - for now - the multi-national championship on one side and LMS or ALMS, which are open to competitors from, essentially, anywhere, but are more about catering to the European or the American sports car racing scene. On the one hand, no one should promote the ILMC at the expense of these national championships, but at the same time, i seems that it was the manufacturers who were supporting the idea of having something more akin to a world championship again.

    The point with Audi and Peugeot being the major forces involved is important, too. It would be great to see Aston Martin do a larger programme with the new car they've rolled out this year, another one or two manufacturers on top of that would make things potentially a lot more interesting. Then again, though, it needs to be a competitive environment where privateer squads should have a chance to be somewhere up with the big guys, although there's an obvious difference in the resources available.