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ORECA - The Passion of Hugues de Chaunac

Paul Truswell talks to the ORECA boss about a lifetime in motorsport - still going strong!

It is Aston Martin’s centenary this year, and ninety years since the first 24 hour race at Le Mans, but I was recently reminded of another anniversary – lesser in years, but equally significant for those involved, as 2013 sees the fortieth anniversary of the foundation of ORECA.

ORECA, an acronym for ORganisation Exploitation Compétition Automobile, is synonymous with the name of Hugues de Chaunac, who started the company after a brief career in racing. “I raced for three years – one year in Touring Cars and then for two years in Formule Renault,” he remembers, when I spoke to him just before the Daytona 24 hour race. “I have always been passionate about motor sport,” he continues, “I went on a rally with a friend when I was about eighteen years old, and it was then that I discovered the world of racing, and every year after that I have become more passionate for the sport.”

His exploits in racing did not bring much success, however. “I was a good driver, but not a top driver,” he says, frankly. “So I decided that I might be better able to help drivers to become champions.” It was a perspicacious decision. Over the years, Hugues has been involved with the careers of Jacques Laffite, René Arnoux, Alain Prost and Jean Alesi to name but four.

He has run cars in Formula 3, Formula 1, Rallying, Touring Cars as well as sportscars in endurance racing. With such a wide range of interests in the sport, I wondered where his heart really lay. “At the moment,” he says, without hesitation, “it is endurance – I like it lot; because of the strategy, you have to take a different approach.”

One of Hugues greatest successes came in 1991, when ORECA ran the Le Mans-winning Mazda of Johnny Herbert, Volker Weidler and Bertrand Gachot. (pic below from Laurent Chaveu)

After wins on ice in the Trophée Andros and the French Touring Car Championship, Hugues returned to sportcars in 1996, entering Chrysler Vipers in the GT class. It began one of the most successful periods for the company, which climaxed with an outright win at the Daytona 24 hours in 2000.

From here it seemed a logical step to move into the prototype category, which was achieved first with Reynard and then with Dallara chassis. De Chaunac’s passion is driven by winning, so for 2005 he acquired an Audi R8, and achieved the final win in Europe (in contemporary racing) for the R8, when Allan McNish and Stéphane Ortelli took victory in the Silverstone 1000kms that year.

In 2007, ORECA purchased Courage Compétition, and was for the first time in a position to become a manufacturer in its own right. “The idea was to become a racing car manufacturer, and we decided that this was a good way to do this.  Racing car manufacture is not an easy business, it is a difficult one, but it is important to have ORECA cars running everywhere in the world.”

And in that sense, it has been a most successful venture, with ORECA cars now appearing in LMP2 and providing the LMPC chassis. The ‘Arrive and Drive’ initiative of 2013 is also proving highly popular.

Ever eager to get back into a position where he can fight for overall victory, de Chaunac was alert to Toyota’s plans to move into Endurance racing during 2011. “The relationship started from both sides really,” explains Hugues. “We are always in contact with the manufacturers. I was aware that Toyota was thinking about and working on a long distance programme. We had informal discussions, and at that time they were not aware of what they were going to do. We arranged with them exactly what we could offer them and announced a deal in October 2011.”

ORECA’s role in Toyota’s prototype programme is pivotal. “All the engine work is done in Japan, the car and the chassis development is done in Cologne – what we do is the support of the car, running the car in the tests and races.” De Chaunac continues: “We bring Toyota all our long distance experience as a racing team, you know? At the track, our Technical Director is in charge, with the Technical Director at TMG (Pascal Vasselon). We provide the mechanics and the engineers at the track – about fifteen people altogether. We do the operations – support, this is the job of ORECA. We are in charge of the strategy in the races; the decisions about the way to run the car.”

Today, there are about two hundred people employed at ORECA; this includes the many diverse strands of the business: manufacturing, commercial, sales, operations, etc. There are about fifty people in the Racing Division.

“The relationship with Toyota in 2013 will be the same, but the result will be better,” de Chaunac declares enigmatically. Considering the success achieved by the singleton Toyota in half a season of racing in2012, the obvious target must be Le Mans 2013. “We will try to achieve it, absolutely! Le Mans is the main focus and the main objective. We are working for that (to win Le Mans) at the moment.”

In 2011, of course, ORECA ran a Peugeot, including at Le Mans, where it was a thinly-veiled works car. “Ah, but the relationship with Peugeot was different,” smiles Hugues. “We were contracted by Peugeot to run the car. We were given the car, but we were independent. Peugeot decided to have the fourth car and we were in charge for the whole thing.

“It is different because we are integrated with the Toyota team today, with Peugeot we were a private operation, separate from the factory team.”

It was while running the Peugeot in 2011 that Hugues enjoyed one of his greatest successes – victory in the Sebring 12 hours. “Normally it would be impossible to beat the car manufacturers,” he says. “It happens only one time in ten years, you know? I don’t know if it was the best moment, but it was the most emotional win – it was incredible from the emotional side.”

De Chaunac is quick to return to the present though: “If you want success in the Le Man 24 hours or other big races, you cannot beat the car manufacturers. I think we are in the spirit that Joest is with Audi: we are 100% integrated with the team, and they (Toyota) must accept this relationship. I do not like to be ‘best privateer’, I want to win and the only way to win is to be with a car manufacturer, to be integrated with them and that is why ORECA is with Toyota”.

De Chaunac is not worried that this might mean that the glory goes to Toyota and not to ORECA. ”For us it was good to be selected by Toyota, because that means that they recognise that ORECA is the best organisation to help them to build the success and it is also very good for the image of Toyota.”

Hugues de Chaunac experiences with ORECA has spanned three of the great sportscars of the 21st century already – he has entered an Audi R8, a Peugeot 908 and the Toyota TS030. But he won’t be drawn on his favourite: “You cannot really compare them,” he says, “because they are from different generations, born from different periods. Each car has many good things, but I keep more details for myself!”

Despite his early inspiration by the French Matra-Simca team – the first time he visited Le Mans was to watch the 24 hour race as a spectator in the early seventies – he does not find the Frenchness of the works Peugeot team appealing: “At ORECA we are a very international team, we have worked with Mazda, Dodge Viper, Audi and now Toyota, so we are not so much focussed on French car, French team… we are focussed on being a winning team not a French team.”

De Chaunac, in his role as president of the company, oversees all of the different strands of the business: “Yes, I control the whole operation of all the company: if I was controlling a racing team and only a racing team, then there probably would not be any more ORECA in the racing world. Part of the key to ORECA’s success is that we understand that to do racing is not a business: racing is a passion; it costs money, so you need beside this to have some good commercial activities. Racing is not a business activity: to do racing you need to win and to win you need to spend money, so it cannot be a business operation. Over the years I have built this business to help and support this racing activity.”

Hugues de Chaunac reveals himself as a very emotional, a very passionate man. But he is also fiercely competitive, he wants to be winning, and although he does not compare himself with Henri Pescarolo, there is something more hard-edged about his approach, where the romanticism of the sport is counter-balanced by the cold light of reality. He will do what needs to be done, and he gives the impression of being ready to react at any moment.

“At the moment our main focus is on endurance racing, on sports cars, but that does not mean that we are not looking for other things in the future. We are always thinking of the future – not F1, because I don’t think it is the way for a team like ORECA, but it could be in single-seaters, touring cars or rallying.”

In any event, ORECA’s president, now 66 years old, isn’t considering retirement just yet. “In our forty years there were some difficult moments, but we focus on the good times. I am proud that we have won so many races, and we have a good reputation in racing, I don’t think you will find many people worried by ORECA. It is a winning team but also a straight team. Retirement? I don’t think so, I have another thirty years to do yet!”

Paul Truswell