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Catching Up With.... Emanuele Pirro
On Sportscar Racing’s Potential

With five Le Mans 24 Hours wins and a brace of ALMS titles to his credit, Emanuele Pirro must surely be regarded as one of the most successful sportscar racers of all time. While his fulltime racing career has come to an end, the now Audi Ambassador still likes to keep his hand in and last week participated in the Autosport International Karting Challenge in Birmingham. Matt Salisbury caught up with him there for his thoughts on the current sportscar racing scene.

There are big changes coming up in the sportscar world, especially in America where you spent many years with Audi. What do you make of the move to merge the ALMS and Grand-Am from 2014?

I can say that I had a fantastic time in America in the ALMS; it was a fantastic championship that was growing year on year and was bringing in a lot of fans. I had the chance to compete on some beautiful race tracks, and it was a great experience from 2000 through to 2008.

To be honest, I can't comment so much on what is happening now, as I know very little about Grand-Am. I know they are very professional and they have good backing from NASCAR, so they know how to organise races and promote a series. All I want to see happen now is something that is good for motor racing.
What I hope, and wish for, is that everyone will gain from the change. Often in motor racing, changes are made for the sake of improving things. Other times they are made for different reasons, like the economy, and I hope this decision is taken for the right reasons and that everyone will be a winner from it.

For me, sportscar racing is a great form of racing. I don't want to say that it is simply an alternative to Formula One by any means, but there are many different forms of motor racing and sportscar is amongst them. You can see with the introduction of the WEC that it is growing and Le Mans itself needs no introduction, so I hope to see sportscars continue to grow as an option for teams and drivers.

It is a fact that very few people can make it to Formula One and I have come across drivers who could have been very good Formula One drivers but they didn’t make it. Instead they have gone on to be excellent drivers in sportscars – people like my Audi team-mates Frank Biela and Tom Kristensen. They could both have been really good in F1 but instead they went on to be successful in sportscars and it proved to be very good for them.

You could almost put Allan in the mix there as he only had his single season in F1…

Absolutely - I just didn’t mention him as he had the chance to race there. When I talk to younger drivers who hope to get to F1, I tell them about my own personal experience. I was lucky to drive in F1 for a few seasons, which I am proud of and I don't regret, but I can tell them that the best part of my career by far came outside F1, in terms of victories and also in terms of enjoyment and fun. That came in touring cars and sportscars where I was driving for teams where I could enjoy the racing, where I could both give and receive, and where I could trust everything that was going on.

In terms of results, there are tons of people who have done better than me in the history of motor racing, without any doubt, but I don’t know if there are many who had as much fun and got as much enjoyment from competing over 30 seasons of racing. I don’t think many people can match that.

In recent years we have seen the introduction of the World Endurance Championship, as you mentioned. How important do you feel it is that sportscar drivers now have a full-blown FIA World Championship to aim and fight for?

It is a really good thing and I am pleased that the FIA finally made this move, as to give a World Championship is a big reward for any series. I don’t think the series will be any more difficult than when it was called the Le Mans Series or when teams were competing in America previously, because you are fighting against the same people, but being world champion at the end of it must - and I say must as I never had the honour – be a fantastic feeling.

What I would like to see more now in motor racing is cars that are run by true sponsorship. Fortunately there are a lot of wealthy people in the world, despite all the problems, and they are an important asset to motor racing. Of course they are most welcome, but I would like motor racing to be more down to true sponsorship.

I’m not saying that I don’t want to see wealthy people involved, but I want to see motorsport, or at least sportscars, be able to generate enough value for sponsors that would then help people to get picked up by teams and to make a career of it; including those who are on their way up to F1.

You want it to be able to open doors for people that would otherwise be closed…

Exactly. Right now, you have manufacturers who put a lot of money into true professional racing, but besides that, there are not so many teams or cars that are funded by a complete package of sponsors and don’t need a driver who has to bring money from friends, family or wherever.

I would love to see a series that has enough coverage to attract sponsors and enough tradition, because tradition is important for me. If you win a new series, for me that isn’t the same as winning one that has a long and traditional history.

Sponsorship for teams would mean drivers could be chosen more for their ability and wouldn’t have to worry so much about finding money, which is a nightmare for everyone.

We are seeing a changing of the guard somewhat with younger drivers getting the chance to impress. You obviously see that as vital for sportscars moving forwards?

It is a very good thing for the sport. First of all is it a good challenge for the older guys on the grid. I drove until I was 47, and then at 49, I came back and drove with Drayson Racing for one season and I was very competitive – I felt good.

However, sportscar racing is becoming more and more like a sprint race, and it is good that the younger drivers are coming in. It gives good value to the older guys if they can hang on, as when you have younger drivers coming through, your own performance increases.

Sportscar racing is a category where you need experience and need to understand the racing a bit more. You need to know how to interact with your team-mates and in that respect, it needs a different driver mentality to single-seaters or Formula One. I think this is the reason why you need more maturity, but there is no reason why a younger driver shouldn’t do well, especially with the guidance of a more experienced team-mate.

You had your time in F1 with Benetton before going to sportscars. If you could do it all over again and had the chance of going to F1 or going to sportscars, which way would you have gone?

Formula One is the pinnacle of motor racing so if I could have had a successful career in F1, then of course I would have liked it. But again, team play and interacting with drivers is something I enjoyed a lot in my sportscar career – and also from my time in touring cars as well.

I drove for many years with Roberto Ravaglia in touring cars while we were with BMW and we got along well and had a perfect understanding, which was the best way to go racing; alongside someone who really thinks like you do. It is almost like driving alongside yourself.

Then in sportscars, my everlasting team-mate was Frank and again we had a fantastic understanding. Of course we won with Tom and with Marco Werner at Le Mans, but Frank was my everlasting team-mate and I was very lucky to have him as my partner.

When you drive with these drivers - and with professional teams like Schnitzer, Joest and Champion - it makes your life easy and makes long distance racing more rewarding and interesting.

If you go sportscar racing by buying a drive, and fall into a team where you don’t know your team-mate and don’t get that feeling, it will take a long time to find that kind of chemistry and get to the that level. If I hadn’t got to that level, then I think a lot of the fun that I had would have gone away.

Matt Salisbury