This year's field at the top of the 24 Hours of Le Mans will feature some big names — Porsche, Audi, Toyota — but keep your eye on Nicolas Perrin. He used to work in F1, and now he's designing an open-source LMP1 car.
There have always been people in motorsports who turned all conventions upside down, breaking new grounds. Sometimes it's in-your-face visible, sometimes it's modestly subtle. Engineer Nicolas Perrin is doing a quiet revolution for all of us.
Earlier I argued how the challenge of the 24 Hours of Le Mans is accessible for everyone. You can team up with other people and race competitively in various video games, or you can just visit the spot and drive around on the actual circuit. Otherwise - if you are just part of the audience - you surely get the most racing available for your money from the most technologically advanced race cars on the planet.
There is, however, another way to absorb and endorse the complete experience of the real thing by literally having your very own car and name on the actual grid of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Meet ex-WilliamsF1 engineer and race team owner Nicolas Perrin, who was happy to share his thoughts on Formula One and sportscar racing along with his vision of the future of motorsports with me.
I used to race go karts, but I didn't really have the money to drive, so I started as a mechanic. First I was just cleaning the go kart in the garage. Soon after I was doing proper work on the chassis, and later I was offered a drive. Eventually I raced more and more and I got to take part in the international 24 Hours of Le Mans go kart race alongside great drivers like Sébastian Bourdais. I loved driving really much, but I also enjoyed the engineering side of racing, so I started engineering studies in Paris, focusing only on motorsports.
Nicolas pushed to make it to Formula One, but timing wasn't on his side. A few smaller teams just dropped out due to financial reasons. Eventually he landed a job at Le Mans-based Courage LMP1 sportscar team as a race engineer.
It was a small team and I had to learn to do everything - from ordering the parts through designing our own ones to conducting wind tunnel tests when not racing, while being on the pitwall through the races as the race engineer. Normally, you don't do all these at a big team. But it was a great experience - we worked 24/7 and our lives were all about motorsports. It really was a big step up and so much fun for me as I was a race engineer straight away at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Eventually, the doors opened in Formula One and Nicolas became a team member of WilliamsF1 for the next six years.
It was a revelation, because that's where you learn the skills needed, really. It's the top level of racing, and therefore you get all the time you need to focus on technical details. But I split my time there in two stages. In the first three years I was a race performance engineer. When I arrived, it was the end of the BMW-era for Williams, who just switched to Cosworth. First, we had Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg. Then we went to Toyota engines with Wurz, Rosberg and Nakajima driving for us. I was traveling around the world, going to Grands Prix. I was on the car, supporting the driver with the setups, etc. So that was really fun. Pure racing and pure excitement by just to be part of it.
Unfortunately, the car at the time was not very competitive and I was getting a bit frustrated, so I decided to completely switch to design. There it's really about the car and the performance of the car, and we see that all the time in F1. The driver is very important, but even the best ones can't be competitive if the car's not good enough. It's hard to put it in numbers what different parts play in the success of F1 racing, but aerodynamics is definitely a major one. Especially before the V6 turbos. With the V8 engines, everything was more or less similar in that department. It was the chassis and the aerodynamics that made a huge difference. Primarily aerodynamics. But now with the new engines there are big differences between the best and worst one. I guess the engine is as important as aerodynamics this year.
One of the arguments people like to throw in about F1 - when budgets, rule making collide with not-so-exciting racing - is that all the technology put into the cars will somehow transfer to road cars over the years.
To be honest, race car and road car technology isn't as close as anyone would think. The technology for an F1 car is very specific. It's designed for one purpose - to go fast around a race track. A road car, on the other hand, is built to do many-many things and to be cost effective. The technology in road cars at the end of the day isn't driven by F1 much.
The people designing these cars haven't got anything to do with each other. There is just no valid transfer from one to another. It is not completely honest to say F1 cars are here to help developing new technologies. I think people say that only to justify their spending in F1, but this is not the real reason. The real reason is that it is just marketing. Most importantly, the road car industry does not wait for F1 to solve their problems. It's just so much bigger industry than that. One other problem of F1 is that the cars are getting more and more complex, but this is not the way things should go. They will have to go towards more simple designs in the future. The current situation is not very satisfying for engineers - especially for me, who likes pure, simple design.
Now, it's the same group of FIA people who make all the technical regulations. They are pushing towards a similar philosophy, which now is controlling engine power through fuel consumption - as opposed to restrictors, like in the past. So there is convergence between F1 and LMP1 cars at the moment, which is a good thing, because we need to standardise a bit, we need to get the philosophy across the different racing series. At the end of the day it can attract more fans, because we are sending the message of winner cars consuming less fuel. I'm quite happy with the way things go with LMP1s - by making the cars more fuel-efficient and more accessible for the general public, but we need to go much further.
In fact, Nicolas has been working on his own 4WD LMP1-H (full-hybrid) design to race at at Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship.
I want a prototype car you can develop all the time and LMP1 cars are exceptional, because they are so fast and they are so exciting to work on. So, as a company, Perrinn Ltd. always competed in LMP1, because we have the skills and I know not many people can go and design their own P1 car, but we can. We also want to race in the complete WEC season with myTeam, because we want to make it a world team and exciting for everyone, so we need an equally exciting challenge. We need to be on top of the racing, even if it takes a bit longer - because we obviously need more money than if we did GT or P2 cars. At the same time when we say we do LMP1, much more people get interested. At the end of the day we want to inspire these people, so we have to go and meet such a challenge like this.
We designed the car to be the same LMP1-H specification as Audi, Porsche and Toyota. We have already spent three years working on it. We design everything except the engine and the gearbox. In the future, though, we could build an engine probably, but even currently we make 80% of the car. So it's all about raising the funding to go and buy these parts.
The message is very clear - we are getting ready to race at the very top level and I know what it takes and I know what the car needs to be, so we wait until we have the budget and the number of people who follow us. That's all we need to go there.
This is the part where funding becomes crucial in racing, but Nicolas is not thinking about selling his ideas, nor housing at obscure companies for money. He gives all his knowledge away for everyone - even his competitors - along with all insider information one can imagine, in exchange for a small contribution.
We allow people to help - which is why we started the membership. That looks like a small thing, but actually I do think we will have thousands of members eventually, and these people will help leading us to other ways of funding to develop our car. At the same time, the more people will gather and become members, the more we can justify to sponsors to come and help us. Because sponsors will want to come. I want to call them partners because there will be grounds to collaborate with us. They want to share our message and value of sharing and opening to the public. Because when we have thousands of members, we will be able to share their message, too, so it will be a very fruitful marketing platform. But the sponsors will not come unless they see more, so we need to start by getting the funding from our members.
We have a target of signing 3,000 members, which is quite a lot, but at the same time we have 30,000 people coming and visiting our website from everywhere around the world, because we open and share our files to get them excited. Now we say we need to get to the next phase and get people to sign up and give us their financial support, but what we give in exchange is that we share the design with them, we share the stories and we get them in the team with us by involving them in decision-making as well. Also, they will be the first to get to know about job opportunities with us.
Stirring up interest surely isn't as easy as it sounds.
When we start racing, we actually want to do a tour of Europe with the car - going to schools, universities, businesses, and our members will name our destinations. If you are a member and if you lived in e.g. Hungary, you would love myTeam to come to your town and visit the school where your kids are. You make your suggestion, we will put it in our calendar as a part of our tour. By doing so we have a new way of getting our message across, because by going to each place we also sign new members and the local media will be aware of what we are doing. We want to go to these places to inspire people, to tell the story that for the first time we are doing a team that crosses borders, regions, countries - anybody can be a part of it. It's a world effort and we go and race at Le Mans.
Nicolas's team is not only looking for money specifically, but it is also looking at the talent one can share with them.
We are constantly in discussion with universities, including the University of West of England in Bristol, UK - specifically because of the Bloodhound SSC program they are endorsing. Obviously, what we are doing is a bit different, but for the first time we are doing it in motorsports and as a racing project, which is normally never shared, so it's going even further.
Universities are very important for us and students are contacting me all the time, because they see it as an opportunity. When I was a student, everyone was doing side projects. We always want to be involved in something exciting, because that's where motivation comes from. You don't want to study what's been there for 30 years. You want to be part of something that is modern and potentially you can watch it on TV.
One might wonder, how much racing costs at the very top of the ladder in an age when McLaren F1 can't find a full-time sponsor.
To compete for a full season with one LMP1 car costs a minimum of £6 million [€8 million or $10 million] and that is a small budget compared to e.g. Audi, because they spend 10 times more. But the reason we can exist on such a low spending is because we use the open innovation model. We share information for free, other people share their ideas, suggestions for free, too. For innovation and R&D, I anticipate there will be a lot happening through universities - by people who are very skilled and willing to help us. That in itself will not make me employ many people, bringing down the budget. What costs a lot of money in racing is when you have to go to compete quickly and don't have time for preparing - so you have to employ a lot of people to do a lot of work in a short time. We do not share this philosophy. We will have a car based on the same specification, but we will spend more time on it and hire less people to do it.
Surely, it may sound sensible if the team just went to Le Mans.
Even for myTeam, it would be very beneficial to participate in the FIA World Endurance Championship, because we will have members from all around the world. Yes, Le Mans is the biggest race and maybe we will do only it for the first year and then we will do the full championship. It depends on the budget. But also, the organizers of Le Mans will give priority to the teams competing in the full championship. So if you do not do the full championship, you are not sure to be invited to Le Mans. And as the championship is going, myTeam will reach more and more people - so it just makes sense to make the whole championship. It's therefore great to go to e.g. Brazil and get lots of members there, because I want myTeam to be global.
Reaching more people does not only mean to get global and talk to a crowd of certain interest.
I want to reach all audiences, not just motorsport people. And this is what we are working on in the upcoming months, which is why we need to go out with our car. That's where we want to get in touch with people who are not necessarily into motorsports. If you go along the street and see a car like that, you have to stop, because it's like a spaceship sitting there. For me that's much more than racing. I, myself, want to focus on racing, because that's where our skills are but I think we can really inspire people through it.
I want to reach the point where somebody - who is not into motosports at all (like my wife) - would want to join to be part of a team and to share high values for the next generation. We want to be the people who say there is a new way to do (global) projects. And the new way is that we open everything and involve everyone. We need a leader and we took the initiative to be the leaders of this movement and we are trying to get as many people to trust us as possible. With a great amount of trust you can achieve amazing things. Competing at Le Mans is our first objective, a massive challenge, and it will probably keep us busy for the next five or more years. But just imagine what we can do after Le Mans if we are successful there. And to further inspire and motivate people, everybody who makes a special contribution in some sort of tangible way, will be listed among our "Champions" on our website and in the cockpit of our car.
The biggest thing I think we can give back to our supporters and the world is the confidence that we can achieve great things. When you are in school or university, there is a great challenge about what to do in life, where to work, and also there is a big challenge for everyone to get access to a job, get access to a country or going somewhere and earn money that you can live on. And myTeam is here to say if everyone gathers together and if we are pushing in the same direction together, hopefully we will be able to create lot of jobs, opportunities and excitement. And I want to think that all our members at some point will have at least one day of involvement with myTeam where they can enjoy a new experience, a normal job or a normal life - something where they feel they are part of a world effort.
Have you thought about having your name and race car competing against Audi, Toyota and Porsche coming off from Tetre Rouge, racing through Mulsanne straight in the small hours of Le Mans?
all images are of Creative Commons licence and from perrinn.com