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Catching Up With.... Richard Westbrook
On GTs and DPs

The opening round of the British GT Championship at Oulton Park over the Easter weekend afforded DSC’s UK Editor the opportunity to grab 20 minutes with Richard Westbrook to talk about his 2013 racing programme and also his recent win at the Sebring 12 Hours. Remarkably, this would be his first interview for this website; an oversight we are glad to have finally addressed.

Will this be another crazy year for Richard Westbrook?

Yes, similar to last year – a full DP season with Corvette Racing in the Spirit of Daytona Racing car; the enduros in ‘the yellow car’, as I call it – Corvette Racing proper, teamed up with Olly Gavin and Tommy Milner, which is fantastic – a bit of British GT and a bit of Haribo stuff, when it fits in. The Haribo guys have been loyal to me – it’s nice to have a bit of loyalty in racing – and I’m really happy to keep my hand-in in Europe.

Is that VLN and Blancpain?

Yes, but only a couple of Blancpain rounds; I can’t do them all because there are too many clashes. Unfortunately, I can’t do Spa as it clashes with Indianapolis, which is a shame as, for me, the Spa 24 Hours is the GT enduro event.

You’d place the Spa 24 above the Nürburgring 24?

Yes. The ‘Ring 24 is more of a one-off – a crazy race around the Green Hell that everyone wants to win. Spa is obviously more for the GT3 cars and is, to me, the Blue Riband event. I came second with Manu Collard and Marc Lieb in 2008 when I was a Porsche factory driver, so there’s a bit of unfinished business there.

I’ve come second in too many 24 hour races and not first enough.

Over in the States, then, you’re with Spirit of Daytona (SDR) because you are a factory driver?

Yes, originally Garcia was there as he was a factory driver and complemented that with his enduro programme. He then got promoted to fulltime in the yellow car and then they put me and Garcia together last year.

But unfortunately there were too many clashes for him; so this year they said ‘Richard’s got to have a fulltime driver with him’, so they plucked someone else out of the GM roster and that was Ricky Taylor. SDR is a private team, but it’s the same model as other factories with the placing of drivers with teams. There are no fully-works teams in Grand-Am; I’m not sure it’s permitted.

I love the DP racing – I thought GT1 was tough and the Supercup was tough, and this is definitely up there with them. You’ve got a lot of really good drivers there and to win is very, very difficult; you’re up against teams that have been there for so long, and it’s difficult to find them on a bad day – Wayne Taylor Racing, Ganassi, Bob Stallings, Michael Shank, Action Express; they’re all very, very good teams. I know the numbers are down on what they were, say, five years ago, but the level of competition certainly isn’t any less than it was back then – the top cars are still there, we’ve just got fewer backmarkers.

This year, the level seems to have gone up another notch. The racing is probably somewhere between a prototype and a GT – it’s like a lighter GT1 with a bit more aero. They’ve made big gains with the new generation car. Okay, at Daytona, when you take all the aero off it feels awful, but when you go somewhere like Barber and put it back on again it feels decent.

I wish we could have a better tyre – I know Continental are working hard to improve it, and that’s definitely needed – and DPs are always going to have their sceptics, but from a driving point of view it’s brilliant; I like the concept and it’s good racing.

Take the Austin race – it was brilliant! I hope we can change peoples’ perceptions of DPs because mine has certainly changed through doing this. Before SDR I’d only done Daytona with Level 5 and, like I say, the car felt awful there; I remember thinking “Who’d want to do a full season of this?” But when you put the wings on and turn the aero up the cars are decent and I thoroughly enjoy the racing.

You always want to be racing in a competitive championship and I haven’t raced in one as competitive as this. I’m really proud that we got three wins last year and I’m looking forward to a good year this year; we didn’t get off to the greatest start, but we’ll be alright.

What did you do with the guitars you won?

They’re in the loft, I’m afraid. Every time my daughter Amelia sees me looking at a guitar she starts crying, so they had to go.

So that’s one ultra-competitive championship; there’s another one in the same country that you’re involved in.

Yep. It’s so nice racing for a team like Corvette Racing in the ALMS – they’re at the top of their game; they have a big budget; they’re flying the flag for Corvette and GM and it’s a real honour to be a part of that.

How did you become a factory driver with Corvette?

I got a call in January 2010 to say that they were considering me and then literally a year later they called to say ‘Can you get to Sebring tomorrow?’ I said ‘Absolutely no problem!’ – got to Sebring, did a test, and had a contract in my hand at the end of the day! It was really quick; I fitted straight in and they seemed to like me and it was the perfect day.

I’d just signed with Nissan for GT1 and luckily there were no clashes, and they respected that, as an enduro driver, I needed to have another programme – they didn’t want me just doing that – so they were more than happy for me to drive to Nissan. And James Rumsey at JRM was happy for me to do the Corvette thing, so it was great; but it all happened really quickly – literally in the space of three days in January 2011.

According to Gary Pratt, they’d first taken a look at me when I raced the T-Mobile Vici Racing Porsche at Laguna Seca in 2009 and managed to hold up the [GT1] Corvettes for six or seven laps; it wasn’t the best car I was in and it caught their eye. At the time I thought ‘That’s not going to do me any favours!’ but it seems like it helped me, so that was probably a lesson learnt.

You’re doing the enduros at the moment, but is there the prospect of full seasons in the yellow car?

Yes, of course – it’s happened before with Olly, Jan and Tommy, but I see no doors opening on that front at the moment; they’ve got six top-line drivers. But I’m really happy to be doing the big races in the yellow car and driving the DP where I can fight at the front; there’s a nice balance there. I’m trying not to think about next year as obviously I can’t do both!

Do we have any indication yet as to how many races there will be in the USCR?

I can’t see it being less than 12 or 13 – they’ve got have a Glen; they’ve got to have a Sebring; they’ve got to have Daytona; they’ll have the Petit Le Mans. Places like Barber, I’m not so sure about, but Baltimore, Long Beach and Austin, I’m sure they’ll keep. Indianapolis was a real success, so that’ll stay; so it’ll probably be about 13 races.

On the subject of Sebring, then – congratulations on your win.

It was a long time coming. This is my third year in the yellow car and we’ve had a bad run, I have to say; we’ve just had bad luck. We’ve been knocking on the door a number of times – most notably the last two Le Mans, where we’d been leading by more than a lap and things had then gone wrong – so we in the 4 car were really due a win in one of the three big races and it couldn’t have come soon enough; it might be my last year in the yellow car, depending on what’s going to happen next year, and if that’s the case I want to go out with a bang.

So it was a great race and we had a good car all weekend, and I always felt that it was ours to lose; but I didn’t think that we’d be that far back coming into the last four hours.

You were clearly very unhappy with the penalty for the incident with the AJR Ferrari.

I was really unhappy with it and was even more surprised when I watched the rerun and heard what the commentators were saying about it. We don’t want contact in racing, but the amateur drivers are told to just drive round on their racing line – if I just drove round on my racing line I’d have an accident every three corners; you have to open the doors to the faster cars. You have to have one eye on the mirror, and when you have a lack of communication going into a corner, which there was in my situation – I went on the inside; there were clear blue flags waved; and, for me, he had pointed me through, but then decided to turn in – that is a racing incident and you can’t put the blame on just one person.

It’s a shame because it was such a good Sebring, but for ten hours of the commentary they were talking about penalties. But it fired us all up even more and, even though we probably needed a Safety Car after that to win it, I think on balance we deserved it; it definitely wasn’t a hollow victory.

It was great to be part of it, it really was! I really enjoyed driving with Olly and Tommy, so to share the podium with them was special.

Moving back across the pond, you’re back in British GT. You’ve always been an advocate of the Pro-Am system and now we’ve got it, to all intents and purposes.

I was never a fan of Pro-Am in the GT1 World Championship or when Stephane Ratel proposed his GT2 European Championship – I mean, that’s pretty much what killed it – but for a national series doing GT3, I think it works.

I first did a race [in British GT] in 2010 and I loved it. I hadn’t raced in England for so long and it just reminded me that we have all these fantastic tracks on our doorstep – you can do a race and get back home before closing time! Places like Oulton Park are just gems of tracks – my old mate Marc Lieb loves his old school tracks and I’d love to bring him here in his RSR; it’s a real shame that people like him don’t get the chance to race here.

The whole sport has become obsessed with the world and international series and has sort of forgotten about the national series, so it’s great that the British GT has grown to where it is now. It was a shame that the grids were a lot smaller in 2009 and 2010, but I could see the potential back then which is why I was shouting from the rooftops about it. I’ll be doing five races this year, which is more than normal; but when the calendar first came out there were no clashes!

I really enjoy it and I’m lucky to be with a team like Trackspeed and have a teammate like Gregor [Fisken]. You need to have the best car and the best Am and I feel like I’ve got both of those.

How long have you been connected with Trackspeed?

Since 2010, when Keith [Cheetham] invited me along to do a couple of races with Philip Walker and David Ashburn.

You were Ashburn’s driver coach, weren’t you?

No, David doesn’t have a driver coach; he won’t listen to anyone! He teaches me! He’s one of a kind and I was gutted when he told me he was hanging up his helmet, which is why I ended up with Gregor this year. And now he’s back – he’s the most competitive man I know.

It’s going to be very tight this year and I’m glad I’m not Benjamin [Franassovici], trying to keep everyone happy. We have a balance of performance which – as much as we hate it – has made the category so strong, and for the fans it’s going to be exceptional. It’s going to be a huge battle between the Ferraris, the McLarens and the Porsches; that’s where I see the main strengths at the moment.

So you’re looking at 25 to 30 races in all this year?

Yeah, probably 25 races; I hate doing nothing, so having three weeks off just feels wrong. I get really grumpy at home, so the wife is more than happy for me to get out of the house and go race a car!

With so many races around the world, do you get much chance to test?

Yes, there’s a lot of testing. Obviously last year there was a new car with the DP, so that was a lot of trips to the States. I felt like I had a hold on it last year, but in 2011 I definitely got burnt out; doing too much with the Nissan, Corvette, Haribo and Trackspeed programmes. Things like doing a World Championship race in China, then going straight to a test at Road Atlanta; and then straight on to San Luis; and then back to Europe for a VLN race; and then straight off to Australia for a V8 race! You just don’t know where you are and, for the first time ever, it hurt me towards the end of the year. But I prepared myself better in 2012 for the travel, so it was fine.

What do you do to relax?

Golf is really good for relaxing. I took it up when I began racing with Garcia – he enjoys his golf – like when we raced at Laguna, where we’d have three or four hours between sessions, we’d pop off for a quick round. People thought we were mad, but we won that weekend so it was obviously the right thing to do; even though we got badly sunburned while doing it!

But I like being busy in motorsport. I enjoy the travel, which helps, and I know that when it eventually comes to an end, I’ll miss it; so I want to do as much as I can.

Having six years out of the sport means that I feel six years younger than I actually a – the money ran out when I was in single-seaters, and back then I didn’t have anyone who could say ‘You’re not going to Formula 1, so it’s time to look at something else’; and GT racing wasn’t as strong back then as it is now. Six years later I got the opportunity to do the Supercup and it went from there.

So I feel very fortunate and I think that having those six years out has given me so much more energy and a massive appreciation for what I’m doing. In a way, because of what happened before, I treat every race as though it could be my last; because I experienced it. So I will never, ever take racing for granted.

MH