The Grand Prix Masters - featuring some legendary single-seater drivers in equal cars - was a racing series that was destined for massive success but then ultimately went down the drain as most of the start-up initiatives in the motor racing community. Here’s the story of it all from those involved.
In motor racing, you usually have a set of - unanimously considered - pinnacle series all drivers yearn to compete in. On the top of four-wheel racing, you have all the world championships, most notably Formula 1. Then you have a bunch of feeder series as talent pools, where future stars are born. On the other end of the scale, you have competitions where the old gunslingers move to once they are past their competitive edge at the highest level.
And then you had Grand Prix Masters coming up ten years ago, in 2005.
Grand Prix Masters was designed to feature retired Formula One racing drivers over a certain age to create a band of brothers to tour around the world, reminding people what the ultimate pinnacle of motorsports was like ‘back in the day’ (as we all know, it was always better ‘back in the day’). As opposed to historic racing - where you have drivers of varying demography racing old cars - GP Masters was made to run brand new, very much competitive, equal racing cars, driven by - with all due respect - a collective of old guys with highly credible racing backgrounds.
The intercontinental circus of GP Masters thus featured world champion drivers, such as Nigel Mansell and Emerson Fittipaldi, Indianapolis 500 winner Eddie Cheever, Jr., Le Mans 24 hours winner Stefan Johansson and other, multiple race-winners and near champions, such as René Arnoux, Patrick Tambay, Riccardo Patrese, Jacques Lafitte and the list could be extended to all the drivers involved.
The three races GP Masters managed to survive - South Africa in 2005, Qatar and the UK in 2006 - were not without ups and downs, and there were lessons to be learned from the outcome. As the short-lived series ‘celebrates’ its 10th anniversary of its introduction, I contacted Delta Motorsport Operations Director Simon Dowson - who was responsible for designing the cars and followed the series around the three continents on the technical side of it - and one of the drivers who raced in the series, Stefan Johansson.
“It doesn’t seem like ten years since the first one.” starts Simon the journey down memory lane. “The guy who started it all is called Scott Poulter. He wasn’t coming from a motorsport background and he saw the success [of similar concepts] in other sports. When people went ‘That’s not going to work in motorsport’, he just kept pushing and tried to raise the money to make it work.”
One can only imagine what the response from the drivers were when faced with the idea - with much drama one way or another - but Stefan Johansson gives a very uneventful account on his part, as if it was just another day at the office. “They contacted me at some stage. They told me about the series and everything - as I’m quite sure they did with the other drivers. One thing lead to another and that was it.”
As a matter of fact, it was just that for a shedload of drivers, just the same way - some being still very much active, others not so much. But to go racing, they needed a car. Delta Motorsport was up for the challenge.
“The stuff around the cars was very straightforward because when we designed them, it was already about being robust.” Simon continues. “The series was all about the drivers, making the cars safe and reliable mechanically as much as possible. We weren’t expecting the guys to write them off, so that was a little bit less of a concern. Obviously, all of the drivers wanted to beat one another as it was their first opportunity to drive the same cars as competitors and see how they matched up rather than back in the day when - obviously - there were differences between the teams with the cars they had. We had three guys plus an engineer on each car. All the data was accessible by everybody, so you could see where the other guys were quicker.”
The GP Masters car they came up with was not some gentle, old people’s Sunday ride to the lake side. The V8 Cosworth XB-based Nicholson McLaren engine in the back churned out a reported 650bhp at barely over 10k revs, and 320 lb ft of torque in the mid-7000s. It was equipped with steel brakes, a paddle-shift gearbox - to much of the positive surprise of some drivers - and a chassis that was not completely unlike a late model CART/Champ Car shell.
“Myself and my business partner used to work at Reynard,” says Simon “but when it finished, I carried on with the work on the Champ Car with Derek Walker in the US and I basically ended up using the tooling that allowed us to make that chassis. However, it wasn’t me owning the design rights. So, although the GP Masters car was very much designed around the Reynard one, we had to change it so we weren’t infringing design rights. Obviously, you can’t get around the similarities of it and because of our knowledge on the existing Reynard Champ Car. We used the same, composite lay-ups - that we knew was very strong and crash-worthy - for this car.”
A live test of the cars followed suit by some of the future drivers and the results were something that could be described as an act of over-achievement for some.
“They were a really good show on the track, maybe a little bit too much in overall.” reports Stefan Johansson “Although I was still racing sportscars at the time, a lot of the drivers have been out of the car for a while.” he adds, not without a gap for speculation. “It was a great car, very high performance level, but it was perhaps a little bit too much to hop in and go.” Simon Dowson dismisses the call. “These guys had driven cars that were probably faster than this one. Discounting the huge aero, it was more back to what they were used to, so for them it seemed to be natural, to be honest. The power level, the downforce level were all what they were used to, the tyre was okay. Everything was very neutral and balanced with the car, so it was a drivers’ car, rather than anything else.”
Following some open tests in Wales and at Silverstone, GP Masters geared up and headed for their first race at the Kyalami circuit in South Africa in mid-November, 2005. The event saw a straight-out battle between Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell in the race on Sunday, and on the Saturday as well with the two chasing each other to see the lines they took around the corners for better qualifying times, deliberately screwing up their laps from the eyes of the other one. “It was great to hear Emerson on the radio who just dropped straight back to racer mode.” says Simon “Also, how he approached the whole race weekend, strategizing about when he was to go out on the track, who’s doing what.” Still, before the lights were off for the start of the first race, there were still plenty of doubts flying around concerning the age and fitness of the drivers.
“First, I think they were all skeptical about whether it would actually happen” says Simon “especially if you take somebody like Alan Jones who was very vocal saying ‘It’s never going to happen’. Then, when we made it happen, he gets in the car, does one lap and his neck hurts, so that was quite nice, it was satisfying.” he smiles. “A lot of the drivers who turned up for the first race weren’t particularly fit, so it was a bit more jolly. Emerson and Nigel were the guys who had been training. Other drivers were naturally still fixed, like Riccardo [Patrese] who was doing a lot of horse riding. He was still fit, but normally it’s the neck they started to struggle with. All sessions were quite short and the race was not that long either, because we didn’t really want to pull them out of the race car at the end of the day. It was quite warm, too, on the race day [in Kyalami], so they all did a really good job. When we got to the second race in Qatar [in 2006], though, suddenly they were all trimmed down, they all got themselves in shape by spending a lot of time training. They realized that this was actually quite serious, they wanted to do well.”
The race in the middle of the desert of Qatar - apart from the heat - suffered from long laps of yellow-flag sessions, and the greatest spectacle of the weekend was probably provided by René Arnoux during qualifying with a masterclass of drifting around the astroturf on the outer side of a corner. The race was won by Nigel Mansell again, but despite the initial success, problems for the series started to show. The race in Monza - scheduled a week after the Qatar race - was cancelled and the event in Silverstone suffered from problems, too, well before it started.
“There was a level of investors involved behind Scott that put in small amounts of money.” says Simon “Certainly, coming up with the first race - although it was a huge success - wasn’t financially stable and it did require additional money to be put in by investors. The difficulty with the sponsors was that Scott was trying to get circuits or promoters just to pay a reasonable percentage of the costs to go race there. That would then give him a TV schedule and with it he would have the opportunity to go and sell his sponsorship. This sequence, though, was difficult to put in place, because when you are coming to Europe, the circuits or the promoters don’t want to put the money in, so we have opportunities to race further away. It was taking longer, because it wasn’t a huge team of people - a very small team trying to get through a lot of work. We would have loved to take all this as a support series to the Formula 1 Grands Prix - because you got all the F1 fans there and the circuit is already taken care of, with lot of the guys there doing TV anyway - but we needed to mature a little bit first that we never really got the chance to do. So [in Silverstone], GP Masters was doing all the promotional activities, relying on the ticket sales to make it work. And then we had a typical bank holiday weekend in England when it just rained.”
It wasn’t just the rain, though. The series had much bigger problems than that as not just the literal, but the the proverbial clouds, too, started to gather over the track, as the August weekend in Silverstone kicked off with a bang - several of them as a matter of fact - with a lot of engines going up in smoke, resulting in a series of engine swaps.
“With all these things it’s difficult to see [what the problem was].” continues Simon “You get both sides of it. You get the engine guys who updated the crankshaft in the engine, because we had one failure in Qatar. They decided to beef it up. Suddenly, in free practice one, we started having engine failures. They weren’t small failures, they were punching-a-hole-on-the-side-of-the-block failures, and they happened quite quickly. There was a lot of “Whose fault is it?” “Oh, it’s the drivers’ riding the clutch, it’s the yadda-yadda”. But at the end of the day we managed to handle to situation and there was a huge amount of effort from Nicholson McLaren to get engines back, deal with them, trying to make sure we didn’t have the problems again. It was a very challenging weekend, but even now, nobody’s ever able to put their finger on why the engine guys were defending their side and the chassis guys theirs. A bit like Red Bull and Renault now [in F1].” he laughs.
The wet race saw several drivers going off the track, bouncing off from each other in corners and one Nigel Mansell scoring an early DNF with the team failing to work out a driveable setup for the car. By the end of the race, there was a sour taste in most people’s mouth, but probably only a few of them expected that the taste would be permanent as the series just ran out of money completely, being unable the recover the finances spent on the races from the sponsors.
“The issue again was financial stability - because of the self-promotion and the amount of money the series spent on the events. It wasn’t recoverable from the ticket sales. It left what was already a very fragile situation into a bleak one. Although there was some further investment found, it wasn’t enough to stabilize things. You needed the circuits basically covering the full race costs to go racing, and most of them weren’t going to do that. But then there was no money in the bank to support that - to get the schedule, to get the sponsors to recover the costs. If you start with a deposit, you don’t really have anywhere to go.” puts Simon an end to what the series had to face for its ultimate demise.
Although Grand Prix Masters was a failure as a business, it left its mark - certainly among those who were directly involved on the competition side of it. “The atmoshpere was really good. There was a lot of banter between the drivers, it was a fun time for them. They were still competitive, still wanted to beat one another, but out of the car it was good fun. People like René Arnoux or Tambay were good fun. A lot of them are legends and they have had their moment in the spotlight.” adds Simon “They know they are very capable, so it was less of an issue. They wouldn’t have got where they did if that entered into their head. They would always believe ‘I could beat the best, I could beat whoever.’ It was more the series that needed to grow its reputation a little bit more. It was something that came and went. But if it had stayed more, I’m sure you’d see more guys coming in - people like Alain Prost, Damon Hill and others, but when it’s a little bit flaky, I can understand why they didn’t want to get involved.”
”I pretty much raced against all of them at some stage” says Stefan “I must have, because we raced against each other in IndyCar just prior to [GP Masters]. I have known some of them from Formula 3 days, Formula 2, Formula 1, you know. It wasn’t so much the admiration or that I wanted to measure myself [against them]. It was the great cars and it sounded like a very fun championship, so why not?”
“I think that anybody who was involved in that looks back with fond memories.” says Simon. “It was an incredible amount of work to get to that stage, but it was very fulfilling and enjoyable - same for the drivers. They might not have got out of it what they wanted, but I’m sure they enjoyed it again. It gave them a fix they hadn’t had for a while. I’d do it again, because I believe in the concept. Especially now, ten years on, we got a lot more drivers, who would be nice to see back again in cars competing against one another, but it’s still a difficult thing to pull off financially.”
“Had they had the funding required and the ability to sustain, I think it would have been huge, no question about it. We would have been able to do something that was quite entertaining and most importantly highly competitive.” concludes Stefan Johansson.
With only three races completed, the Grand Prix Masters folded in late 2006. The drivers went on with their lives, while Delta Motorsport is still very much active in a number of racing series - including LMP2 -, and with their increasing know-how on developing electric and hybrid solutions for road cars, they have an edge to step up to LMP1 or over to Formula E.
The reintroduction of a similar concept as a support series to Formula 1 has been widely disputed with the recent talks of revamping the race weekends. It yet has to be seen whether it comes to fruition.
Writer’s Note: I am also looking for a writing job