Whether it’s racing a prototype or returning to a GT2 car, things always seem to happen when Johnny Mowlem is involved. March 17 saw him joining Jaime Melo and Mika Salo in the #62 Risi Competizione Ferrari at Sebring, and although this car might have been regarded as the favourite to win the class, it was bound to be a tough old scrap. No one knew how tough until the last minute of the last hour – or a little beyond in fact.
DSC never got a chance to catch up properly with him at Sebring, but at the official LMS test at Paul Ricard Johnny was happy to relate his inside version of the events that led to that famous Sebring victory.
“I got in a handful of laps at the end of testing on the first day, (Monday), just to get a feel of the car. I didn’t drive at all on Tuesday, but then drove again for the entire 55 minute morning session on Wednesday. I didn’t realise until the end of the session that we were P1, which was a nice bonus, but more importantly Rick Mayer, our engineer, worked through some set-up evaluations, and we got the car feeling really good. So everyone was happy, especially when Jaime then drove a great long run in the afternoon and declared himself really happy with the handling.”
So happy that their third driver didn’t drive again until the race day warm up?
“That’s completely normal when you’re the 3rd driver. My role is to support the team and the other two drivers wherever possible, but ultimately you are there to adapt to whatever set-up the two principal drivers are happy with. Fortunately for me all 3 of us had a very similar feel for the car, and wanted the same thing from it to be fast, which given that both Mika and Jaime are big left foot brakers, was a pleasant surprise. I can only put it down to the fact that I tend to brake into the apexes a lot, and so I do pin the front down by using the brakes on turn-in, which is effectively what left foot braking often results in. I can tell you though, that I’ve had a few team mates over the years, whose driving style would have resulted in them finding the U/S we ended up with almost insufferable!
“I’ve worked with Rick before, and we work well together, and he took good care of me throughout the week, so come race day I definitely felt ready to go. I think all 3 of us, in fact the whole team, were really fired up!”
The Risi Competizione plan for the race was to prove very different to every other GT2 team out there. They were to be the only team to double stint their Michelins throughout pretty much the entire race.
“The sequence was to be Jaime, Mika then myself. Having flat spotted his tyres during qualifying, Jaime had to start at the back, but despite this we were leading after an hour, although this maybe didn’t quite show the true picture for 2 reasons.
Firstly, a couple of our main rivals had already taken themselves out of the race for the win on the first lap with varying levels of contact/damage. And secondly, we were running on a pretty lean fuel map for the first half of the race, and were gaining a few laps fuel mileage, which put us slightly out of sync with our competitors, sometimes making it look like we had a bigger lead than we really did.”
Having said that not everything ran smoothly for the Risi Ferrari, which ultimately lead to a closer race at the end than there might have been.
“ The biggest single problem that ended up losing us the best part of a lap throughout the entire 12 hours, was a re-starting issue at the pit stops. Unfortunately for me, this problem first appeared in the race at the start of my first stint. You can imagine my horror when they drop the car and I’m turning the engine over but it won’t fire!
Here I was, the third driver, and the first thing that goes through your mind is that you’re doing something wrong. I scanned all the switches first, fuel pumps, lambda, etc.,then I turned my attention to the ignition.
I could hear people shouting at me to “cycle the ignition”, but I’d already tried that a couple of times– in other words, turning the ignition off and then on again. Then I remembered Ralf (Kelleners) having this sort of problem at Daytona, in the Risi 360, and there he’d eventually turned the main master switch on and off, so I tried that and at the same time tried using a bit of throttle, (which is not something you normally do as it can have an effect on the throttle calibration), but either by coincidence or as a result of this, it finally fired up and I was gone!”
“The engine felt a little bit rough and wasn’t pulling correctly, so I tried the richest mixture setting for a lap or two and it seemed to fix it, so I leaned it off again and it was still fine.
After this initial panic, I settled in and found my rhythm and really started to enjoy myself. Despite losing nearly a minute, we still had a 30 second lead, and we managed to extend it by a good few seconds. I think I was up against van Overbeek in the Lizards car and Long in the Tafel Porsche, but all I really cared about was that the gap grew rather than shrank!
The car initially understeered quite a bit, as with all the rain over the previous days, I think the track was still a little green, but as the fuel loaded lightened, the car got better and better and the Michelins were holding up brilliantly. As the track rubbered in and the ambient temperature started to drop, the car became faster and faster. Each time each of us drove without exception we’d knock a tenth or so off the cars fastest lap. In fact I set my fastest lap only 2 laps before the end of my stint, which says volumes for how well the car and Michelin tyre combination was working.”
“The way things worked with yellows heading towards the end of the race, at Mika’s last stop we had2 and twenty minutes to go to the end, so Jamie got in then to finish out the race, which made sense as if need be he could go to the finish on the same set of tyres. As it turns out we didn’t need to, as we got a yellow, which allowed us to put a new set on him, but I think he still drove the last 95 minutes or so on one set!”
“We may have been consistently the quickest car in the class, over a stint say, but we weren’t necessarily the fastest car all the time: that understeer was costing us a little, but the car was very consistent, and the understeer meant that we didn’t have any nervousness at the rear, which was good. Having said that, as it cooled off and the track got quicker, the #45 Porsche seemed to really pick up extra speed, and especially a the beginning of their stint on new tyres they would do some blinding lap times, but that would soon drop off, and I don’t believe they were ever in a position to contemplate double stinting their tyres, which meant we maintained that advantage at every second pit stop.”
“Mika and I were watching intently throughout the last two hours and a half hours, but particularly in that last half hour. Jorg Bergmeister came in four to five laps before Jaime, and the Porsche took tyres. Jaime came in for a splash only, no tyres – and we should have had a 30 second lead with 30 minutes left.”
“We were worried that the car wouldn’t start – but it fired up… and didn’t move. An official had spotted a visor up on the guy cleaning the screen, and held us for 20 seconds.”
“We were just praying that Bergmeister hadn’t got ahead, but Jaime came past first, Bergmeister following about 11 seconds behind. It was going to be close – but then the front brakes reared their head. Jaime said he could see sparks coming from them in every braking zone at the end, because the pads were just about worn right out. Without that 20 second penalty, he would have been able to control the gap, but 11 seconds, with worn brakes…
“Of course it turned out to be the closest GT2 finish ever at Sebring, and that reminded me of the closest GT finish ever at the Daytona 24 hours, when we won in 2004.It was against Flying Lizards again, only that time with me in a fight with Rockenfeller for the last couple of hours. One thing I can tell you is that it’s far less nerve wracking when you’re in the car than it is standing on the pit wall watching it!!”
“When I saw the Lizards Porsche side by side on the back straight, I thought it was all over. Mika and I went to stand on the pit wall, expecting the worst. Then we heard the team’s ooohs and aaahs – and there was Jaime crossing the line first. We hadn’t seen the TV coverage – and Rick Mayer (race engineer for our car) didn’t know we had won until Jaime told him over the radio, because he couldn’t see the line.”
“There was a protest, but Marty Kaufmann said it was a racing incident, and I know that he is a fair and objective clerk of the course, so I knew that my feeling of it being hard but fair wasn’t just me being biased! I totally understand why Jorg was so upset, as I think he felt he’d done it, and maybe relaxed a little. I think he should have had that race from the moment he took the inside line on the back straight. But Jaime was so clever – the way he cut back inside at T17. He would have been right on the limit, and the car naturally drifts out wide there, which is exactly where Jorg’s car was.”
“I think on television afterwards I offered to buy Jaime anything he wanted after the way he drove, but he hasn’t taken me up on it – yet! After finishing second three times already at Sebring, I thought we were doomed to finish second again, but Jaime Melo certainly made the difference. GT2 is where it’s at in the ALMS and it is going to be so competitive from now onwards. Now I’ve had that taste of America again, I almost wish I could continue the fight for the rest of the year, but all my commitments now are to my LMS and International GT Open Ferrari campaigns. But I hope all the Risi boys keep on winning and I’ll be watching and itching to get back with them at the Le Mans 24 hours. At the moment my record with Risi is looking pretty good, so I’m hoping we can add the big one to that as well!”
Follow on Twitter @JohnnyMowlem
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Memory added on February 16, 2014
I remember watching that finish! I seem to remember it was voted the greatest moment in American Le Mans Series history.
– Gerry Clyde, May 4 2014 at 10:55