Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Oliver Webb on his move to sports cars

Britain’s Oliver Webb will make his debut in the historic 24 hours of Daytona this weekend, marking what looks likely to be the start of his first year racing prototype sports cars full time. Recently I spoke with him about the big race and his progression to sports car racing.

For the past few years, the 22 year old has raced single seaters on both sides of the Atlantic, most recently racing in the hugely competitive Formula Renault 3.5 series against the likes of F1 juniors Kevin Magnussen, Antonio Felix Da Costa and his 2013 team mate, McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne.

One of Europe’s brightest single seater prospects, a win in his first ever kart race in 2001 was followed by victories in T Cars, Formula BMW, Formula Renault and Formula Three – The latter two he earned top three championship positions.

Next up was Formula Renault 3.5 with Pons in 2011 where he scored a handful of points positions. It was during this season where he made his first foray into the world of American motorsports with four races for Jensen MotorSport in the highly regarded Firestone Indy Lights Series. He made an instant impression scoring a podium on his debut in Edmonton.

A full year in Indy Lights with Sam Schmidt Motorsports followed and after a pole another podium, this time in Detroit, he returned to Europe in 2013 to once again compete in Formula Renault 3.5, this time with Fortec. Several points scoring finishes secured 15th in the hotly contested series, whilst he also dipped his toes in sports car racing for the first time, getting behind the wheel of a Mercedes AMG SLS GT3 for Fortec in both the British GT and FIA GT series.

Away from racing, when at home Webb has also been working with BAC, testing and promoting the Mono supercar – made famous by setting the second fastest time around the track on hit TV show Top Gear

“It’s been great to come back to the UK and to be able to keep sharp and work with a company like BAC,” he explained. “Its great fun and provides good contacts as well as providing me with a race car on the road to keep the smile on my face! I get to meet some great new people and fly the flag of the BAC around the world.”

A chance to test Sebastien Loeb Racing’s Oreca LMP2 car in Spain at the tail end of last year was what set the ball rolling for a career change for 2014 and beyond, as Webb tells me:

“After a very successful test and falling in love with the car, word spread that I might move from single seater racing into LMP racing”, he explained. “I soon got offers through and started to consider it as a new direction for my career.”

Sure enough, an offer from OAK Racing came to race in the 24 Hours of Daytona, something Webb describes as “an opportunity not to be missed”.  What is already a legendary event, this year has the added draw of being the first event of the new United Sports Car Championship – a merger between both the ALMS and the Grand Am series.

But after that test did he think he’ll be lining up at Daytona this January?

“No I really didn’t! I’ve always looked up to these drivers” he exclaimed.
Despite being his first race in an LMP2 car and his first race stateside since his 2012 Indy Lights campaign, Webb isn’t new to the concept of 24 hour racing.

Last year he competed in the 24 hours of Spa and this year he’s already took part in the Dubai 24 Hours.

In Belgium he put on an impressive performance and with co drivers Alex Brundle and Karl Wendlinger, defied gearbox failure, a puncture and ABS issues to come home a strong 27th in a vast field of 65.

Not only was this Webb’s first 24 Hour race, but it was his team’s too. The Mercedes SLS AMG GT3 that he was behind the wheel of was being run by Fortec Motorsport - the team that ran Webb in last year’s FR3.5 championship as well as Formula Three back in 2010.

The Dubai 24 Hours was another strong race for Webb, finishing second in class and eighth overall in the Rhino’s Leipert Motorsport Lamborghini Gallardo GT3. It was not all plain sailing for the Knutsford man though.

“I had no problems in Dubai until my last stint when I had a trapped tendon and it caused me some severe pain,” he doesn’t expect more of the same at Daytona however “ this shouldn't happen in an LMP2 and I can't wait to get back out there.”

But after so many years racing open wheel, single seater race cars and participating in the odd GT race, how different will racing a Le Mans prototype be for Webb?

“It’s not too much of a change believe it or not; GT is actually much more different,” he says. “LMP2 has the same downforce as, say, an F3 car so very single seater based”. The biggest difference from single seater racing is the 24 hours of racing and other drivers to share the car with, “there’s a lot more to do in the cockpit and tactic-wise in a race like this it’s very different.”

OAK team principle Philippe Dumas agrees: “There’s not a big difference between driving an LM P2 and a single seater at the level at which he’s raced so he should have no problems adapting to the Morgan-Nissan LMP2.

So with an anticipated move to sports cars on the horizon, is this the end of Oliver Webb’s single seater career? Well not completely, but with the struggles that single seater motorsport has been facing since the global financial crisis of 2008, it’s become harder and harder for talented drivers such as Webb to carve a career in the discipline.

“Single seaters aren’t closed off for me” he tells me “however it’s very unlikely to be returned to again unless I see a future in making money.  I need to earn a career doing what I love as a minimum and that’s what is possible in Prototype racing”.

Read the full interview HERE

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