Motorsport: Kiwis going the distance

By Eric Thompson

Scott Dixon and his co-drivers celebrate winning last year's 24 Hours of Daytona in a Riley-Ford EcoBoost Daytona Prototype. This year he is joined in the race by four other Kiwis.
Scott Dixon and his co-drivers celebrate winning last year's 24 Hours of Daytona in a Riley-Ford EcoBoost Daytona Prototype. This year he is joined in the race by four other Kiwis.

Endurance racing is increasingly being seen as a more viable alternative for young drivers as opportunities in Formula 1 dry up.

In endurance racing, drivers are rewarded for what they do, not what financial backing they bring.

In the past few years, only a handful of drivers have been actually paid to race F1. The rest buy their seats and that's simply unachievable for New Zealand drivers, who can't get the same sort of backing.

Not so long ago, endurance racing used to be the preserve of drivers who had had a full career in single-seaters and were in the twilight of their careers. Not any more.

That change can be seen in the fact that the drivers for the 24 Hours of Daytona - the first event in endurance's triple crown, followed by the Le Mans 24 Hour and the 12 Hours of Sebring - next weekend will be aged from their early 20s to their 50s. Of the five New Zealanders racing at Daytona, four are in their 20s: Brendon Hartley (26), Earl Bamber (25), Richie Stanaway (24) and Shane Van Gisbergen (26).

The fifth, Scott Dixon, seems almost middle-aged at 35.

The defending 24 Hours of Daytona and reigning IndyCar champion has noticed a change in the age demographics.

"Right now, long distance and sportscar racing has a lot of stability because manufacturers are involved," said Dixon from his home in Indianapolis.

"Take a look at the young New Zealander racers for example. They can't get the funding to compete on the world stage like Brazilians and Russians for example - they've got heaps of money.

"Having a lot of talent doesn't get you to the top on its own any more, especially in single-seater racing.

"In Formula 1, there's probably only six or eight guys who are getting paid, the rest are bringing money.

"If you're driving well and you're quick, long-distance racing is a good option right now.

"The manufacturers are not necessarily looking for money, so they take the talent and that's why you're seeing an increase of young people heading in that direction.

"A logical step for people like Richie and Mitch [Evans] when the funding runs out is to head to sportscar and endurance racing and get paid like Brendon and Earl as factory drivers. If things work out and they keep winning, they could be at Porsche for the next 20 years.

"In other classes [without manufacturer backing], there are some guys out there with a little bit of talent and a big chequebook.

"In the current economic climate, some team owners will take the cash, unfortunately."

Evans, who competed in GP2 last year, said this week he would give F1 one more shot this year but sees more of a future in endurance racing.

Similarly, Bamber, who won Le Mans last year, has said he would turn down an F1 drive if offered because he had little interest in the politics in the category.

Some say motor sport is a young person's game, but there are plenty of examples to rattle that belief. In Nascar, Jimmie Johnson is 40 , while Mark Martin filled in for Tony Stewart in the 2013 season aged 54. In IndyCars, Juan Pablo Montoya won last year's Indianapolis 500 aged 39.

Juan Manuel Fangio won his fifth F1 title as a 46-year-old; Sebastian Vettel won his first at 23.

In endurance racing, the recently retired Tom Kristensen won Le Mans aged 45, while the youngest winner was Alex Wurz, who was 22 when he won in 1996.

Manufacturers see racing the GT cars they build as a good fit because it encourages sales. Sure, Mercedes and Renault have F1 teams, but the return on investment can't be very attractive and getting your money back is nearly impossible.

As many as 11 car manufacturers have entered the 24 Hours of Daytona in a field of 54 cars.

Scott Dixon. Photo / AP
Scott Dixon. Photo / AP

Dixon won the race in 2006 and again last year for Chip Ganassi Racing (also his IndyCar team). At a pre-race shakedown two weeks ago, Dixon's Ford-powered Daytona Prototype was a little down on pace compared to the rest of the field.

"Oh man, it looks like we're going to struggle on the test results. The balance of performance is really off this year. The P2 cars are two seconds a lap faster than the Daytona Prototypes [Dixon's category is supposed to be the fastest] and we're also half a second slower than the Chevy prototype.

"Right now, unless they change the BOP [balance of performance], which they are thinking about, we're a solid eighth quickest. It's horrible man. We were as slow as s***.

"Even though it's a 24-hour race, with that sort of lap-time difference, at best you might finish fourth or fifth so ... it's going to be long hard race.

"If we get more boost [turbo] and get close to the leaders, we'll be in with a shot."

Hartley will also be in a Chip Ganassi Ford, Bamber in a Porsche 911 RSR, Van Gisbergen in a Porsche GT3 and Stanaway in an Aston Martin Vantage GT3.

- Herald on Sunday

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 28 Sep 2016 05:29:42 Processing Time: 674ms