Friday, 27 January 2012

An afternoon with...

Just after Christmas, I had the opportunity to spend several hours in the company of Hugh Chamberlain. Hugh and I go back a long way, to before the days when he won the FIA World Endurance Championship for Group C2 cars with his Spice, through the early nineties, which included a rather sordid evening in the Shark Lounge at Daytona Beach, to his more recent appearances at Le Mans in various ‘consultancy’ roles.

I hope Hugh needs no further introduction here, and I hope that one day his book will appear… it will make fascinating reading. I visited him at his house in rural Hertfordshire, and as it was the first time that I had been, I was first given “the tour”. As we wandered the spacious grounds of the grade II listed cottage, Hugh told me how he bought the place.

“It was on a handshake,” he began, and I could feel one of Chamberlain’s stories about to start. “I’d been in the pub all night, and this chap, who I knew quite well, from the pub, was telling me that he wanted to sell, and he particularly wanted to sell it to me. ‘I want you to have it,’ he told me,” Hugh said, pointing his finger and looking me in the eye. “Well, the following morning I had a call from him, telling me that he would be contacting his solicitor later on to get the process started. … it was all news to me! I got on the phone to my solicitor and told him to stall, under no circumstances was he to do anything. After a few weeks, we had managed to agree on a price, and Small (Hugh’s wife) and I have been here ever since.”

As I already mentioned, the location is extremely rural, but there are three pubs close by. Hugh continues his tale: “Well, I asked the landlord of my pub what he knew about the chap, and he just told me that I didn’t want to buy his place because of the drains. ‘The drains?’ I said, ‘how can you possibly know about the drains?’”

“So then he told me how the chap had a bit of an alcohol problem, but that his wife didn’t know about it, so he and the landlords of the two other pubs nearby had an arrangement to leave bottles of scotch for him in the hedge over there,” Hugh indicated the hedge which ran alongside the road that I had used a few minutes earlier. “Anyway, the landlord had said to him ‘how do you stop your wife from finding the empty bottles?’ This chap, the chap I bought the place from, had said, ‘oh I just throw them in the septic tank!’”

Hugh continues: “So when we moved in, one of the first things I did was to drain the septic tank, I’d never lived in a place without proper drains before, so I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I thought that it would be a good thing to do. And when it got down low, all there was to be seen were empty whisky bottles. I don’t know how deep it went, but I do know that the whole of the bottom portion of the tank has just got bottles in there. So I just left them!”

In the garage are Jaguar XK120, a Triumph TR3 and a Mallock U2, formerly raced by Creighton Brown. Hugh’s regular transport, a Jaguar, sits outside. “They are all runners, but I have to confess that the XK120 hasn’t been out for a while. It is taxed, though; I want to give it a run later this year.” There is also another garage (“a shed,” according to Hugh), which houses various historic motorbikes (“black and white motorbikes,” he says).

Inside the cottage is a veritable treasure trove of racing paraphernalia, memorabilia and other stuff. The walls have various pictures of importance or significance to Hugh – I spot the FIA prizegiving at which he received the 1989 C2 Championship award.

“Yes, Nick Adams was there as well, of course, very pleased with himself. And afterwards, we went to the pub (as you do), and Nick has had a few, and his French, you know, it got better the more booze he’d had. Anyway, he wasn’t quite sure of the French for ‘Champion’, so like most well-educated Englishmen, he just spoke English with a French accent. So there he is, dancing on the table, shouting out to anyone who cared to listen that he was the “Champignon du Monde… je suis un champignon du monde!” We didn’t have the heart to tell him that champignon meant ‘mushroom’!”

There is also an autograph on the wall, which I recognise as that of Fangio. Clearly, a source of some pride for Hugh. “We were at Spa, and we’d just won the World Championship – for the team, we hadn’t won the driver’s title at that point, and he was walking along behind the pits. Well I said to him, “you’ve won all those world championships, and we’ve just won this one, would you mind signing something for me?” Of course he didn’t speak a word of English, but he had a translator who went nearly everywhere with him, so he agreed. And I went back to the truck and the only piece of paper I could find was the back of one of our publicity brochures. So that’s what he signed. A great man.”

An awful lot of time was spent discussing Hugh’s most recent project, which involves a prospective LMP1 entry in the World Endurance Championship. This is a tale that will have to wait to be told until more water has passed under the bridge, and at the time of writing, it is still unclear where it will finish up. But like all of Hugh’s experiences, you live through it merely by listening to the man talk about.

The final story relates again to that World Championship, as Hugh removes the trophy from its cabinet to show me. It is best described as a typical FIA trophy from it era. Lots of artistic shiny metal on a fine presentation stand. “So we got it back and were showing it round to all the boys (at the factory)”, Hugh is giggling as he speaks. “And one of the blokes looks at it points at the metal swirls which adorn the bottom part of the trophy and says: “Cor, who did the welding on that!”

A great enthusiast, a great raconteur, and, yes, a great man in his own right.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

An evening with...

Before Christmas, I mentioned here on the blog that I had had the opportunity for a dinner with the three Audi Race Engineers from the 2011 Le Mans race. Thanks to a chance conversation with David Ingram, followed up by some meticulous planning by Martyn Pass, I was able to spend a light-hearted few hours in the company of Kyle Wilson-Clarke, who engineered the no. 1 car of Mike Rockenfeller, Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas, Howden ‘H’ Haynes, who was on the no. 3 car which Allan McNish drove, and of course, Leena Gade, who was in charge on the race-winning Audi R18 of Marcel Fässler, Benoît Tréluyer and André Lotterer.

In a forthcoming issue of Racecar Engineering you will be able to read some of the results of those conversations, but in the meantime, I have the opportunity to share with you some parts that won’t make it into the magazine, but which are too good to waste.

Most of my readers here will probably have seen Audi USA’s film “Truth in 24”. For many viewers, ‘H’ is the star of the film - and having now met him twice, I am convinced that what you see in the film is no act. Haynes has led a life devoted to motor sport (apart from brief dabbles with girls and a spell in the military) since his first visit to a race meeting, the day he left hospital after his birth, 33 years ago.

Indeed, he was named after Howden Ganley, but as ‘H’ says: “there were some raised eyebrows at the name, because no-one in the hospital knew who he was!” Haynes’ mother and father were both involved driving in sprints and hill-climbs, before moving on to circuit racing, so a life around motor sport was very much his upbringing. The story comes from the family folklore that Haynes senior was pretty dedicated to his racing.

“My mother and father were at the airport after their wedding, waiting to go off on their honeymoon, when my dad got a message from his father that some pistons had just arrived, so he rushed home to rebuild the engine, leaving my mother at the airport with the suitcases!”

Inevitably, Haynes spent many of his early years getting involved in the family’s racing exploits. “From as old as I can remember, I was working on cars - as soon as I was old enough to hold a torque wrench, I was doing the wheels up,” he says.

“Dad was a very committed racer,” he goes on. “I remember my mum and I had been out once and we got home to find that the sofa wasn’t in its usual place in the lounge. My mother said: ‘where’s the sofa?’ and my dad just looked a bit sheepish and said that he really needed a new set of tyres for his race car, but there wasn’t any money left and this chap had made him a really good offer for the three piece suite…”

Whether he acknowledges it or not, his upbringing has certainly left its mark on his character - his approach to racing, even in the role of an engineer, is uncompromising; although his career path, despite his unorthodox youth, was more conventional. He graduated from the University of Wales with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, during which time he also designed and built a National Supersports (Clubmans) car for his father’s race team.

“I got a scholarship at Reynard before I went to University. I didn’t want to go to University,” he says, “because I already had a job: I’d designed two sports cars (we were beating the Mallocks), but for me, University was something I needed to do, to get a qualification, but I didn’t really want to do it. I spent University designing the next car for Zeus - it was a two-litre sportscar. When I left Uni I went back to Reynard, but in the evenings I was doing stuff for Zeus.”

Through contacts that he made at Reynard, Haynes found himself at Team Bentley at Le Mans in 2001, through to the car’s triumph in 2003, and thus he became known to Joest Racing. A role as Assistant Race Engineer at the Veloqx Audi squad followed, which led (via Champion Racing) to Haynes working as race engineer on Joest Racing’s R10, R15 and R18 cars at Le Mans.

If you look closely on the “Truth in 24” film, you’ll see Leena Gade sitting on H’s left through the 2008 Le Mans race. In 2011, Leena became a star in her own right, and if you haven’t already seen it, check out this year’s short film from Audi, “13.854 seconds”. For me, the most memorable part of the film is when André Lotterer is passing the unrecognisable wreckage of the number 1 Audi. Viewers can hear André on the radio, saying: “… who is it?” There is an emotionally charged moment of silence, followed by Leena’s voice replying: “André, it’s Rocky.”

For me, this cameo is an illustration of how close the “Audi family” operates. Although Howden, Leena and Kyle all work for Progressive Motorsport, on a contract basis for Joest Racing, who are Audi Sport’s partner in Sports-Prototype racing, you would never be able to tell, walking through Audi’s garage, who belongs to which organisation. The Audi family is a very strong ethos within the organisation, to a large extent driven by Dr Wolfgang Ullrich, Audi’s head of Motorsport. “There’s a danger, with all the success we’ve had, that we could be regarded as arrogant and insensitive,” Martyn Pass, the team’s UK Press Manager says. “Dr Ullrich is keen to ensure that Audi is a team with a human side.”

The 2011 Le Mans 24 hours was an excellent example. After the two accidents which removed McNish (Haynes’s car) and Rockenfeller (Wilson-Clarke), all eyes in the Audi garage turned to Leena. Having assisted Haynes for three years on the pit wall, she was no stranger to Le Mans, but this was her first time there in charge of a car as Race Engineer.

Wasn’t there a temptation to move across the pit wall and move Leena aside? “No,” replies Haynes without hesitation. “I just told her that I was there if she needed me and left her to it. I got my head down and had a kip.” Leena casts a sharp eye at H, who responds with a quick shake of the head that suggests that, this time, he is joking.

We move on to discuss the tactics used by Peugeot in the last hour of this year’s 24 hours, when the Peugeot driven by Marc Gene in particular, was accused of blocking the leading Audi. “It was a war,” says Leena.

“I think if the roles had been reversed we might have done the same thing,” opines H, “we’re racing after all, and racing is all about winning. You use whatever tactics are open to you.”

Kyle appears to disagree: “I think that’s the point at which Dr. Ullrich would take the decision though,” he contends. “I’m not sure that he would want to win under those circumstances.”

Another interesting view is expressed by both Haynes and Gade about racing in America. “The yellow flags make it cool,” says H. “That’s the point at which you can take a decision and gain an advantage. Look at what Allan did at Petit Le Mans in 2008, when he pulled back two laps. There’s no way even he could have done that without using the caution periods correctly. That’s where we make the difference.”

Leena takes up the theme: “I remember there was one of the European Le Mans Series races at the Nürburgring, when we were just waiting for the end of the race. There was simply nothing happening.”

This reflects a different view of endurance racing in the 21st century, more akin to the view of a sprint racer. Every lap counts, every decision is crucial and the battle for the lead is intense, throughout the race. The days have long gone when at Le Mans, the Team Manager would work out a target lap time, in the hope that by restricting its pace, the car would last until the end of the race. Haynes again: “I know that’s what they used to do, but I’ve never done that; I’ve never run to a pace. It is always flat out.”

Where Haynes is rather old-fashioned though, is in having a stop watch. “You should never rely on the timing screen,” he says, “what if the power goes down, for example at Spa in 2010?” Haynes times every lap, and has taught Gade and Wilson-Clarke to do the same. “Every track I go to, I write out the points on the circuit map where I can talk on the radio to the driver, so I don’t interrupt him when he’s flat out through Beckett’s.”

It’s the type of attention to detail that makes Haynes one of the most sought-after Race Engineers in motor-racing.