Sam Li – Heading For A Stunning Second Place
(or The Big Push)

The Ed. was fortunate to have Team Veloqx owner Sam Li’s full attention on two occasions during the last week: Wednesday morning at Le Mans, a few hours before track action got underway, and Tuesday afternoon after Le Mans, for a reflective half hour on some of the dramas of five amazing days at Le Mans (all right, more like seven, or more, if you count the days before scrutineering).

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Wednesday Morning At Le Mans

dailysportscar.comWe initially asked Sam Li to put his previous projects in context, in particular last year’s FIA GT campaign with the Team Maranello Concessionaires Ferrari 360s, and the three races working with Care Racing and Prodrive, with the 550s (Sebring / Le Mans / Petit Le Mans). Why did he get involved with the two projects?

“Races organised under ACO rules are the greatest sportscar racing events in the world. We took the opportunity to become involved with Prodrive in the three big events last year. No sportscar driver or team would decline an opportunity to be part of a project like that. Sebring was important in its own right - and because you need to do that before you do Le Mans - while the 1000KM of Le Mans was a race marking the start of a great Sportscar series in its own right. Le Mans is the biggest race of all… and really, to be honest, I just couldn’t stop myself, I had to be involved with the 550s.”

So having raced in a full season of FIA GTs, what happened to bring that to a conclusion?

“The FIA GT schedule is very extensive, but for the coverage the team was getting, the cost of running in N-GT was, shall we say, economically worrying.

“It’s very hard to run N-GT cars in the long endurance races and to be competitive within a reasonable budget. I’ve explained this to Stephane, and I know others have too.

“Perhaps if better TV coverage will make a difference… we found that discouraging. Strong television coverage is very important to us.

dailysportscar.com“Having created the programme with the Prodrive cars, once we arrived at Sebring, I realised how different is the focus in North America. This was my first race there, and the strong marketing focus is very different from Europe. The series there makes the events so friendly for the fans, and the organisers work very hard to promote the events.

“Despite not winning at Sebring last year, we had the motivation to tackle Le Mans. And I have to say that I have been very impressed with the technical side of the ACO. We all know that they are very strict, but I find them very good to work with. They’re very straightforward, and there aren’t many grey areas.

“Last year in the FIA Championship, we saw cars at almost every race where the entrants were in dispute with the organisers. We had a problem at Magny-Cours, and then there were problems with other teams at almost every race. There is an appeal process, but it is very expensive. The ACO’s approach is very different, and whether it’s here or in the ALMS, I feel that we all know what the situation is from the start of each event, if not at all times. They recognise that the teams are all committing their resources… ”

dailysportscar.comSo Veloqx are here at Le Mans, working with Audi and Audi Sport UK: how did you arrive at a situation where you’re not involved with GT or GTS cars, but the full-blown prototypes?

“I’ve always had a very clear focus for the way the team would develop. We started out in national competition, with the British GT Championship, then we moved into international races, but this place (Le Mans) has always been the mecca of sportscar racing. I am a huge fan of GT racing, they’re fantastic machines, but what took me by surprise was that I thought I was riding along on a resurgence of GT racing, but it didn’t happen as quickly as I expected.

“At the end of last year, we reached a position where we had to be commercially sustainable, in the long term. Just as drivers need to graduate from one stage to another, so did we as a team.

“Veloqx wanted the best factory-connected project that was available – and that’s what we have here. But the GTS Class didn’t grow as quickly as I expected, and available factory support there is very limited. There were no opportunities in the GTS class open to us which come even close to the support we are getting from Audi for running these LMPs.

“But the way it worked out was brought about by one of life’s coincidences: just being in the right place at the right time. I have to thank Stephane for introducing us to Dr. Ullrich last year, at the Frankfurt Motor Show. The Murcielago was being unveiled, and the idea was to get us involved in running them. But our conversation developed very quickly, and I soon became aware that Dr. Ullrich is the best technical / corporate manager in motor sport.

“We came to understand that Audi’s commitment is to the LMPs…. At least for 2004 and the very near future…

“So I have to thank Stephane for the introduction, but I have to say ‘sorry’ too – although he is involved with the LMES, of course. I’m sure he understands that commercial reality comes first. When there are proper factory commitments in the GTS class, I’m sure we will be one of the first to assist.

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“So it was Dr. Ullrich who really got me involved with prototypes – and there we were at Sebring, and then at Monza, involved in the best race I’ve ever been a part of. But the Monza 1000 Kms wasn’t just an event to appeal to someone such as myself: I genuinely believe that that was a great event for the fans, for the drivers, for the media, for everyone. It was an absolutely superb motor race.”

And of course we at dsc can’t disagree with that statement, acknowledging, as we have done before, that the Audi Sport UK Team Veloqx organisation’s willingness to have its drivers race so hard throughout the 1000 Kms at Monza was the most important single factor in making that race one that no one who saw it will ever forget. Little did we know what was about to happen on Saturday and Sunday at Le Mans….

So who decides how your cars and drivers will race – at Monza or here at Le Mans?

“The decisions are down to myself and Dr. Ullrich and David Ingram of Audi UK, but Dr. Ullrich has the most control. At Veloqx, we have come to understand the Audi way of going racing, that there is only one right way to do it.

“The drivers of course understood (at Monza) that coming second to their team-mates was better than not finishing, even though it may not always have seemed like it!

“If it’s like that at the end of the 24 Hours, we may need to have a discussion about our tactics….”

And those few words should really have been extracted from this interview, and posted before the race….

dailysportscar.com“We mustn’t forget,” adds Sam Li, “that the situation at the end of the Monza race came about because of the skills of the whole team here, not just the engineers and all four drivers. We were changing the strategy of each of the cars in Italy, so that one car could maybe get out of the pits ahead of the other. All the time we were learning how to take risks, how to ‘play’ with the weather, and how to try to take advantage of any situation that arose. The drivers were driving at 100%, but the decisions made by the team also played a part in keeping them so close. But if you want me to state the obvious, yes, there was no compromise on pace."

Audi's Jon Zammett is pictured with Sam Li, with the spoils of that amazing race.

“It’s very demanding for the drivers working in an environment like this. Personally, I love the attention to detail that everyone puts into our racing, and just as Allan or Jamie or any of the drivers will give us 100%, so it becomes our job to do 100% to do the job for them: we’re raising the game together.

“Johnny for example is such a laid back character, but at Monza and here at Le Mans, Johnny shows us what Johnny Herbert wants, and we provide it for him.”

The above remarks really do explain why this LMES / Le Mans season has begun with such intensive action throughout 29 hours of racing, don’t they?

So what are the team’s plans for the balance of this year?

“Right now, we have nothing confirmed after the four LMES races. Looking at the budget and the pressure, this should be a long enough season for us. At the moment, there is little prospect of us going to race in the ALMS at the end of the season, although John Newman, our Commercial Manager, is working with a potential title sponsor for the US. But at the moment that doesn’t look likely. Anyway, it’s not at the top of the agenda for Audi UK to race against Audi North America in the US.”

So looking long term, how do you see the prototype arena developing for 2005? Will these Audi R8s be racing next year?

“I have been given strong assurances that Le Mans prototypes are the ACO’s top priority. We’re waiting to see how the ACO works out the best way to keep a strong grid of prototypes. If they slow down the current cars, everyone will need new cars… and we do need newcomers with new cars…. It’s a balancing act. But look what we have this year: there are very few new cars, but we have a very strong grid of prototypes.

“I am sure the ACO will take a little more time to make its decisions, so we’ll have to be patient.”

Budgets are obviously a very significant factor in running these cars, so dare we ask about the cost of this year’s programme?

dailysportscar.com“An LMP budget is huge, and it’s not something that one party can take on. Everyone is relying on the right project coming along, and that’s what we have here, this year. But I’m in a tricky position, because our agreement is for one year only. After Le Mans, we will discuss going forward, but it’s not an easy market.

“Veloqx has a tight focus: more and more we have to be a professionally contracted team, and we can’t let that method go backwards. But I would love to work with these people again: Dr. Ullrich and David Ingram are fantastic people to work with.

“I will say this about our budget: the total commitment from all parties is well over £5m, and although I don’t have permission to release all the figures, we at Veloqx are not the major contributors to that sum.”

What is your view on the way the regulations should evolve for ‘2003’ cars such as the Audi Sport UK Team Veloqx R8s?

“I am sure that they don’t need to change the regulations for these cars to make it exciting. Look at the racing we have now, look at the Zytek, look at what the racing will be like at the Nurburgring. We need consistency with the rules, and I believe we should keep the current format (675/900/LMP1). People don’t need to keep investing in changes to these cars. The time will be right for newer cars to take over, but not just yet. There aren’t any anyway!”

So there we have Sam Li’s views on a whole range of subjects, with a teaser or two to suggest what could have happened in the 72nd running of the Le Mans 24 Hours. Sam Li knew how hard the two silver R8s would be driven, but even he couldn’t know what dramas were in store – for all four of the Audi R8s.

Tuesday After Le Mans

“There you are! The competition should be left alone, so we can race like that again.”

That’s a difficult one to argue against, isn’t it?

So did you stay up throughout the 24 Hours, and what was going through your mind when the two Audis went off at the Porsche Curves?

“Yes, I was awake throughout, except for taking a knap for perhaps an hour.

“When we saw the cars in the barrier, we initially thought that maybe they’d touched…. Sebring was so close between them: it would have been uncharacteristic of either of them to have got into a situation where they collided and went off – and of course that wasn’t the case.

“The most important thing was that Allan and JJ both seemed to be OK, but it became rather worrying because the accident had knocked out radio communication with our driver. We kept asking Allan to reply, over and over again, about ten times, and with no response we became a little concerned.”

So how is Allan now?

“Oh, he’s fine. He was checked out at the medical centre, and advised not to drive again during the 24 Hours. He actually came back with a medical slip that confirmed that he was to stay off work for four days! Yes, we are in France!”

What components had to be replaced, once Allan got the car to you, after that agonisingly slow, crab-like drive back to the pits?

“It was effectively everything except one corner of the car, the tub, the engine and the gearbox: so three corners, all the bodywork – and the fire extinguisher.”

Why did the car go out for one lap then come back to the pits?

“We planned it like that. That lap was the shakedown to check everything was working, but we needed Pierre to do one lap while the crew prepared the set-up equipment. He said that the steering was crooked and the car wasn’t handling well, but after four and a half minutes, we directed him straight onto the flat patch, and after that it was as good as new.”

The proof of that was a 3:35.490 from Frank Biela during the night, and the two Germans spent the rest of the race charging back through the field – to an eventual fifth place finish.

“It was as good as new, both drivers did very quick times.”

You must have been very pleased with all of the drivers?

“Yes, of course. We have a lot of confidence in Jamie, so we had him down to start the race, just like in Monza. He had a clear road to show what he could do, and he drove every lap of the race as if it was a qualifying lap, as instructed by the team – as did Guy and Johnny, as we were in a catching position.

dailysportscar.com“But the problem we had was that from 7 pm onwards, the car was understeering quite badly. Even with the understeer, the drivers were able to set comparable times with the other Audis, but the front tyres were graining. We first thought that maybe the set-up didn’t suit the cooler conditions of the evening and night. The problem we had was that the car was losing half a second or so per lap, on average, to the Goh car, and if we’d left it like that we would have been caught.

“So we had to bite the bullet and fix the problem. It was a pushrod on the rear suspension, and the quickest way to change it is to grind it off. The crew did a great job replacing it: if they hadn’t ground it off, they would have had to take off four or five components, and that would have taken much longer.

“With the car handling much better, Jamie set a 3:34.6 on his second lap after the repair, and the chase was on.”

The only other problem for the Davies / Herbert / Smith car was a loose battery pack from the onboard camera. In typically efficient style, a plan was worked out to save as much time as possible.

“At the first stop (once the battery pack came loose), a technician took photographs of the loose item down in the footwell. Jamie was OK with it, explaining that he could hold it away from the pedals. Meanwhile, the mechanics were drawing up a plan to deal with it. It took three stops in the end before we’d solved it, and each time a mechanic was directed to pull the one working on the problem away from the car two seconds before the car was due to go out again. Every second counts – as we found out at the end.

“Things happen in a 24 hour race, and we lost those seven minutes with the rear suspension pushrod – but even after the start of Johnny’s last stint of the race, we were still confident that we could win it.”

We have since discovered that Seiji Ara in the #5 Goh Audi was being urged on by his crew to lap faster and faster, because Johnny Herbert was homing in. The Japanese driver was under immense pressure, and in those circumstances, there was always the chance that a lapping manoeuvre could have gone wrong, or a mistake could have been made - thus presenting Johnny Herbert with the opportunity he and Jamie Davies and Guy Smith ’d been craving since the chase began in the sixteenth hour.

dailysportscar.com“I was absolutely gutted – to have come so far and to come so close. But it was our first try with an LMP car, and I was lucky to have experienced the top step of the podium a year ago – but not this time. But look what we achieved: fastest lap, 1-2 on the grid, we repaired the wrecked #8 car in an hour, we led the race for 15 hours, and we finished second by just half a minute. I’ve got plenty of time….

“Maybe I’ve got another 30 years of racing at this level. I’m obviously very keen to make this work for many years to come. It was heartbreaking to come so close, but we also created a distance record for this circuit, and the whole race saw the team giving it a big push all the way.”

Thank you, Sam Li, for this detailed insight into how the team operates. 2004 has seen Audi R8s being driven harder and faster, for longer, than ever before. The openness from those involved this year has allowed us to provide a more complete picture of how races are being won – and lost (just). May the remaining three LMES events be just as exciting as the 29 hours of European action (plus Sebring of course) we have already admired in 2004.

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