Rollcentre At Sebring
What A Sense Of Achievement

dailysportscar.comHaving been ‘in’ on Martin Short’s decision to consider the purchase of a pair of Dallaras from Oreca, it was with considerable interest that we followed the progress of this project – from a shakedown at Silverstone, to a test at Estoril, to flying both cars out to Sebring (the second car was on hand for spares, which were never required).

It really was an amazing story of achievement – of a team with a new car, together making their first appearance at one of the toughest races of all.

“We didn’t have one single problem with the car, either at Silverstone or at Estoril,” outlines Martin Short. “That was slightly worrying in a way – we all wondered what might be over the horizon.”

“When we shook it down at Silverstone, we found we had a car that was very stiff in its suspension set-up – just what you’d expect for a car that last raced at Le Mans, where it needs to keep the car’s platform stable for the high-speed aerodynamics to work.

“The cars actually arrived with two different makes of damper available for it. However, we knew that the Audis used Ohlins, and as they seemed to ‘float’ on the track and, as my engineers have had a good relationship with Ohlins, we went that route. We did a back to back test at Estoril, and were more than happy to use Ohlins, who have been consistently very supportive.”

Once the team arrived at Sebring, the challenge was to make the Dallara work over the bumps.

“Joao (Barbosa - below) set a very fast time in the first session on the Monday of race week at Sebring,” says Shorty, “a 1:51.8, but the car was leaping from bump to bump. It required a great deal of bravery to set a lap like that, but it was putting far too much stress on the car – so throughout the week, we concentrated on getting the springs and dampers right.”

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With John Judd working closely with the team, the engine man was ideally placed to observe the team’s progression through the week. “I was very impressed with the way Martin worked away at the car. He actually reminded me of Kevin Doran (also an entrant of a Dallara of course), the way he worried away at it until he had a car that was as perfect as he could make it. He didn’t want to have the drivers driving around problems, he wanted to solve them.”

dailysportscar.com“We improved the car day by day,” added Joao Barbosa (left), “although sometimes we had to take a step back, and try a slightly different route. It was better on Friday than it was for qualifying, it was better in the warm up than on Friday – and it was better still in the race, once we changed tyres for the race ones, taking off the ones I’d qualified on. We had gone the wrong way with the qualifying tyres and the race Dunlops were brilliant.”

“We had a lot of help from Motorsport Spares International (of Indianapolis), who had a dyno-equipped truck in the paddock - and Dan, their Ohlins technician,” explains Short. “Over three to four days of race week, we had three sets of damper re-valves, plus spring changes. When we changed the springs for Thursday’s night practice, we found we had a very nice car indeed. They deserve a lot of credit, they burned some hours for us, thanks Dan.”

“I actually tried a little too hard on my fast lap in qualifying,” comments Barbosa, “so maybe we should have set a quicker time, but we proved in the race how good the car was as Rob and I lapped faster than I’d qualified.”

dailysportscar.comSo how was Rob Barff (very thoughtful, left) getting on, as he prepared for his second Sebring 12 Hours? “I think I actually shot myself in the foot by going fast (“1:53s” explains Short) in the car at the start of the week. I didn’t get a great deal of time in it after that ("as it was obvious that he knew the track and was dialled into the car" - Short again). But Martin was doing what he does best, working at the springs and damping to give us a good car, and Joao was down to qualify, and Martin had to learn the track.”

“Not an easy one to learn either: it’s so flat, there’s so little perspective to help you,” confirms Short. “I knew I was the weakest link on the driving strength, but maybe I made up for that with setting the car up. I really didn’t like the way it was bouncing through blind corners at 130 mph on Monday - and doing 'skateboard on steps' impressions in the slow stuff - and we had to sort that out as quickly as we could.”

“Joao and I are less technical than Martin, and more likely to get in and drive around a problem,” states Barff. “But that’s his strength.”

As the week slipped by, the team was still having “no problems, none” with the Dallara: it continued to behave perfectly, helping them enormously as they sought that perfect set-up.

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“In the race morning warm up, we were only 1.8 seconds off the Audis, and the car was really lovely to drive,” says the team owner. “It was superb over the bumps, and here we were just nicely ready to try and achieve our first goal – to finish the race.”

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Sponsor Chris East points out that “we were joking that maybe we could achieve a third place first time out, if one of the Audis had a problem, but really we were aiming for something like fifth in LMP1: perhaps not quite on the pace of the no. 16 Dyson Lola, perhaps dicing with their 20 car.”

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“Once we got into the race I could see that Joao and then Rob were doing a very good job on lap times,” adds Short. “We were in a good position, third after the Lehto Audi had a problem, and I restricted myself to one stint to Joao and Rob’s two as I was around two seconds off their pace, and we needed to push hard.”

dailysportscar.com“The car was giving us a lot of confidence,” says the Portuguese driver, “and it was very fast from the start of the race. Then it got better still once we changed the tyres.”

But at the first driver change pit stop, “the left rear wouldn’t go on,” says the watching Short. “Despite being ‘Loctited’ in, the drive pegs on that corner had been unscrewing themselves and machining their way into the wheel. We had to firstly figure out the problem, then fix it, so we lost some time there – and at every stop we’d check the left rear. It didn’t happen on any of the other three corners, so we’ll be looking into what caused that bit of bother. In the ninth or tenth hour, it happened again, and the delay cut our lead over the chasing Audi from five laps to two – but we were still looking good for third place at that point. The chasing Davies Audi was now creeping up, but we would have held them off…

“Until then, that was the only problem we’d had with the car all week – just amazing.”

“Looking at the lap charts, to be a tenth of a second off Joao’s best in the race was brilliant for me,” says Barff. “In my first double stint, I was keen to get a move on as we’d lost some time already. I was having a little bit of radio trouble, and I couldn’t hear what the team was saying to me, but on race tyres the car was absolutely flying. I’d caught and passed Jamie Davies in the Audi, and it was then that I came across the Corvette.

dailysportscar.com“The Audi does seem to have this ‘presence’ when it comes up to lap people, and we didn’t seem to have that – but it was our first race! I spotted Mags in the Corvette looking into his mirrors, and was sure that he’d seen me, and the split second decision was to go for the gap. With hindsight I should have been more patient, but I did have Davies right behind. I was embarrassed by the contact, because my judgement doesn’t usually let me down, and I don’t hit people. I can’t remember the last time I even made light contact with anyone.

“Losing the dive planes on the left front didn’t substantially affect the handling of the car, so we were still steaming along without them. But I pitted for fuel, I got caught for speeding in the pit lane! We’d actually run very low, and the car died in pit lane, so I took my finger off the speed limiter button – and then the car coughed and I shot forward, breaking the limit and incurring a stop and go.

“We copped another penalty as I got in for my second double: a bit of screen cleaning by one of the guys, before we’d finished taking on fuel.”

Before that double, Joao Barbosa had driven his second double stint of the race, and despite the loss of the dive planes “the car was really excellent. The scrubbed race tyres from Dunlop were superb.”

Short: “Rob was doing a great job, and we were all very excited…..but then we came back to reality with the bunch of problems that ensued. It just goes to prove that in this racing you have to find the balance between pace and ‘punt’! I think it was a 50 / 50 deal with the Vette, and if it had been an Audi Rob would have been through……but it’s up to the faster driver to find his way through. We all learned. Frankly though, Rob amazed me with his pace: I expected Joao to be the star, but now I have two!”

After the second incident with the drive pegs, “a few laps later the throttle cable broke,” says Martin Short. “It was a new component, and a special one we’d had made. We shouldn’t have had that problem, but like the drive pegs, it was all part of the learning experience for us.”

dailysportscar.com“Rollcentre went to Sebring to see how the car performed, to see how the team worked, to see if we could complete the event, and to try help our cause for a Le Mans entry,” says Chris East. “We were obviously thrilled to see the third position lights working on the side of the car (not visible in this image, unfortunately) – we’d wondered if we’d need them – and to see no. 22 in third place on the ‘totem pole’.”

Rob Barff had already been “backing off a little” before the throttle cable broke, because “we’d been losing some water pressure, which was giving us some cause for concern.”

Martin Short’s rather ruthless summary though was that “we shot ourselves in the foot with a bunch of problems, but we have to remind ourselves that we were there to find these problems, to learn, and to prove we could run at this level.

“We were camped out at Avon Park, our next door neighbours were Messrs Herbert and McNish (very properly washing his smalls on Sunday morning….). I jokingly berated Johnny for beating us. He correctly pointed out that we lost it…..

“I thought we could be best of the non-Audis – fully expecting the Dyson Lolas to have the legs on us, and then expecting them to have problems of their own, which they duly did (but I have to say, Dyson did a fantastic job). Our team rose to the occasion brilliantly. Our pitstops were very good, all the drivers were very competent, the crew was outstanding, the car was essentially reliable, and the bits that failed were mostly out of our hands. Considering that we only received the car(s) six weeks before Sebring….

“After we fixed the throttle cable, if there had been any chance of gaining or losing a place, Joao or Rob would have been in the car. It’s always tough to find the balance between pushing really hard and not risking the car. I regret to a degree not giving myself more time in the car during the race, but I’m sure we made the right decisions at the time we had to make them.

“Running up at the front with McNish, Lehto, Herbert and Weaver was really a ‘Wow, look what we’re doing here’ kind of moment. We obviously came away disappointed because we could have been third, but everyone said what a fantastic job we’d done. Watching the podium celebrations was tough, but we came away delighted, and then we had the news that we have got the Le Mans entry.

“We are only a little team, but to compete at this level, and to see a running sheet on the screen that read McNish – Lehto – Barff – Herbert …..we hoped for it but didn’t really believe it. It shows that if the Audis do drop the ball, then we can be there to pounce. Funnily enough, that’s exactly what the ACO had said to me back in January when we went to visit them! We did a good job, and I am very, very proud of my boys, and girls. Now we need to do it again, and better. And be aware that fairy tale beginnings don’t always carry on!”

Martin Short’s final conclusions regarding this prototype that he’s suddenly got his hands on read as follows:

- “Braking into T2 and T17 we weren’t quite as good as the Audis, but everywhere else we were pretty much spot on. Once we’d found the set up, the traction out of the slow corners and the high speed stuff were pretty comparable. We need to concentrate on getting more out of the brakes, and also of getting ourselves more visible to cars we are passing.
- The Judd performed beautifully, and although we did have to add a little water, it was more than a match for the Audis on the straights.
- We need to eke out a bit more downforce for a circuit like Sebring, although with Dallara’s help we added high downforce louvres and the dive planes
- Our aerodynamicist Ben Wood played a pivotal role in getting the best out of the car
- As a team, made up of team players, we all bring something to the project: my mechanics and crew that came out there need special mention. They worked flat out, and one night was, all bar a couple of hours off, an all nighter. Everybody was very tired, but always we had a good spirit.”

Last word, Chris East? “There were the inevitable ‘what ifs’, but the re-assuring facts are that the car is solid, reliable and quick - we’ll be close to the Audis at Le Mans. As a sponsor, obviously its reasonably important to have maximum exposure, so being there at the end is a good feeling. I’m looking forward to bringing our name back home to Europe, in the LMES and at Le Mans. As a human being, I’m just delighted for everyone at Rollcentre, especially the people who don’t normally receive the adulation. The “drivers” do the glamour, Colin, Cushty, Pete Chief, Steve, Dan & Ray ensured these guys didn’t literally crash and burn. Looking further ahead, experience to date of the ALMS has been all positive; Petit Le Mans is something we’d like to do, but I think Laguna Seca coincides with Martin’s honeymoon. I’m not sure what Michelle would make of that!”

It’s Le Mans next then, and the Dallara’s ‘home track’. What has this team got in store for us there?

 

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