Team Jota – Doing It Differently
Jota played a significant role in the last two years of the FIA
SCC, with their SR2 Pilbeam, but the team really arrived in 2004,
after purchasing the second of the two, new Zytek 04S chassis. We’ve
covered the exploits of the team in the LMES this year, so the off-season
was a chance to catch up with “the boss” Sam Hignett
(right), to find out how Team Jota operates. They’re different…..
The team’s base
is a converted barn on a farm in East Sussex, as Sam Hignett explains.
the Pilbeam out of a unit at Paddock Wood… but then I inherited
this farm, and applied for planning permission to convert a hay
barn into our workshop. Amazingly, permission was approved, and
when not racing this year the team has spent time finishing off
quite finished some of the details yet, such as painting doors,
but it's still a very impressive unit, inside and out, and the scene
just beyond the workshop, looking across the valley, is an unusual
one for a race team – it is idyllic.
With other interests
outside racing, Sam Hignett is plainly ‘doing’ Team
Jota because he loves going racing. And with the team’s set-up
as it is, he can do that as boss, race car driver, truck driver,
plumber etc. etc. The number of full-time Jota employees actually
numbers just three, so although the team has been running the most
modern and high-tech of LMP1 cars, you wouldn’t actually suggest
that they’re awash with money – which makes their story
all the more interesting.
“When we set off
for the first race in 2003, at Estoril, with the Pilbeam, we got
as far as the Peripherique in Paris… and then the oil pressure
on the truck fell away to nothing. It was our first race, we had
to get there, but if we’d waited for the recovery truck, we’d
never have made it. So Bob and Jacob got their tools out, and had
a look at the problem. The first idea was to take the sump off and
check the big ends, but what were we going to do with 40 odd litres
of oil? It had its funny side – the mechanics with their dainty
race tools, but the smallest bolt on the truck was larger than their
“After some debate
among ourselves, we decided to chance it: we ripped the oil pressure
sensor off, and tried it. It fired up, it didn’t sound as
though there was a problem, and I spent the next two days with my
foot hovering over the clutch. None of us knew what would happen
if the engine seized – but we knew it would have been fairly
dramatic! I wasn’t in the best of condition when we arrived,
but put the car on pole, and we finished second.”
The two full-timers have
now become three, because….
joined us this year: she’s a recent university graduate in
automotive engineering, and has had a year at Lola, but here she
has to pitch in and do almost anything. She designs parts for the
car, but also answers the phone – she’s has the whole
range of skills!”
Looking after the car
are Bob Friend and Jacob Jones – “and they’re
pretty obsessive about caring for the car. It rarely leaves their
sight – they even travel with me in the truck, to be close
to it, then by choice stay in the motorhome at the track.”
So it’s a small
operation, but others are brought in for race meetings of course.
“We feel as though
we served our apprenticeship this year, in top flight sportscar
racing,” reveals Sam Hignett. “We’re now ready
to compete at the front, and we’re anticipating that 2005
will be rather different for us.”
So that’s the interesting
situation this team finds itself in now, but where have they come
running in Formula Vauxhall Junior, with John Village, and was fortunate
to have some FINA sponsorship, but when the ownership of that company
changed, the sponsorship dried up. I was talking to Barwell Motorsport,
and they were building a Honda Integra for John Stack: Mark Lemmer
suggested that I tried endurance racing, so John and I got together.
We did the Spa 24 Hours and the ‘Ring 24 Hours in 2000 - the
only time I’ve ever wondered why I do this was lapping the
Nordschleife, at night, in the rain – but John said he wanted
to do Le Mans, I definitely wanted to go sportscar racing, so we
got together and formed Team Jota, in 2001.
“John funded that
first year, and I ran it – while still at university. We were
racing the V6 Clios, and the first race at Monza was a real eye
opener. There were 70 plus cars and we finished 70th and 56th –
but it was a nightmare just getting onto the track. Everything came
together late, we had to change our fuel cells, we didn’t
get much practice in… it was a very difficult start.
“We went to Spa
next, and out of 54 cars I finished fifth, right with the top four
(Beltoise, Rangoni, people like that), and miles ahead of the rest
– so we were already showing that we could compete. I had
pole at Misano, but results were a different thing: the continental
drivers (that is, almost the whole field!) didn’t seem to
like us very much, and poor John spent much of his season walking
off to the Renault truck for more replacement bodywork, which he
was paying for, after someone else had attacked me.
the circuits, and how Europeans go racing – but we really
wanted to be in sportscar racing. Unfortunately, we didn’t
have the budget to buy an SR2, but you might remember that Michael
Mallock shunted a Pilbeam at Eau Rouge in 2001… well, the
insurance company had gone bust, and by scraping together just about
enough money, we bought the damaged MP84. It was the only way we
could do it – buy a damaged car and repair it ourselves, which
we did. We did it well enough to finish third in SR2 in 2002, then
in 2003 we either won or were on the podium at every race.
all we needed to know about that championship (which stopped anyway
then), and were ready to move up to – what?”
Finances reared their
ugly head of course, and the original Reynard / YGK / DBA was very
appealing, but “we could only afford to buy the car. Mike
Jankowski stepped in and bought the whole outfit from John Nielsen.
“Then Zytek approached
us, and we managed to find the funds to buy the car – so suddenly
there we were, from SR2 to a top car, perhaps the top car, in LMP1.
It was another big learning curve, but we had a very good year the
second season we ran the Pilbeam, so….”
Which brings us to the
first race with the QinetiQ-backed Zytek 04S, the first round of
the LMES, at Monza. There was trouble brewing in a pre-race test
at Vallelunga though…. with Gianni Collini at the wheel. We
told that story direct from Monza: there was Sam Hignett, walking
around the paddock covered in blue paint, because his latest role
was that of paint sprayer.
“When Gianni crashed
the car on the Monday afternoon, he put a wishbone through the tub,
so at six o’clock on the Monday evening, we started stripping
the car down to its components. Everything had to come off the tub
– even more than you see here today – and we’d
got it back to the monocoque at two a.m. We were so busy, we hadn’t
realised they’d locked us into the circuit. So at two a.m.,
there we were lifting the tub over the perimeter fence, and into
a hired van.”
John Stack was in charge
of transport this time, and he drove through the night, all the
way back to the UK – for the tub to be repaired at Bognor
Regis, on the south coast (where the Zytek tubs arey made). Repairs
in the autoclave gave John a chance to get some sleep, before heading
south to Monza, where the crew was waiting to reunite the tub with
all of its componentry – and Sam’s freshly sprayed bodywork.
Amazingly, the car was
on the track on Friday afternoon, and started the race on Sunday.
“Through the season,
the car has been unbelievably reliable: only twice has it failed
to return to the pits, and once was at Monza, when John couldn’t
get it out of reverse. The other time was Gianni’s big crash
at Vallelunga. The reliability has been a testament to our guys
here and to everyone at Zytek.
“Zytek has done
a fantastic job for us – and that began with building the
car, which took a lot of all-nighters from everyone, so that we
could make the Paul Ricard test.”
So how did Gianni Collini
come to be involved?
“At the end of
2003, he mentioned that he was keen to do something with us in the
new year – he was simply very keen to be involved. Gianni
raced against us, with Fabio Mancini, in 2003, and he was always
competitive. In truth, we needed him for 2004 – financially
if nothing else.”
But after the big Vallelunga
shunt, Gianni struggled a bit …….
the Vallelunga crash, he could easily have stopped then, but he
was as good as his word and carried on with us. He had some incidents
during the year, which gave us some delays in each of the other
three meetings, but in other respects, he was exactly the kind of
driver we needed.”
Next year though
“will be different”. The two significant areas where
change is needed are in funding and the driver line-up – and
Sam Hignett is working hard at both. Meanwhile, Samantha Groombridge,
Bob Friend and Jacob Jones have had the car to pieces and have looked
at every area where even the tiniest of changes might make the Zytek
easier to run.
highlighted 96 changes that we’ll make to the car,”
explains Sam. “None of them will necessarily make the car
faster – just more efficient to run. We’ll go from the
absolutely insignificant (such as making it easier when refuelling
and using the air guns) to things such as slight wiring loom changes,
and altering the cooling for the brakes. Another mod. will save
us five minutes when we carry out an engine change.
also relocating fuel filters to improve heat soak issues, fitting
new ‘fly wires’ to improve tail section rigidity and
strengthening the mirror shroud to reduce vibration – which
should keep drivers quiet!”
the weight that has to be added for 2005 – “we’ll
add it at floor level” – plus a reduction in restrictor
size, with Zytek themselves taking charge (of course) of the engine
development that will be required.
changes are planned too: “Using QinetiQ's latest CFD package
(Fluent) and working with Zytek, QinetiQ has found what appears
to be some areas where the car could be further optimised for Le
Mans and some of the shorter circuits. I can’t tell you what
these changes are but I can tell you that the numbers certainly
put a smile on our faces!”
Well, Sam Hignett and John Stack are definites, the former being
the quick man, who takes on qualifying duties, while John Stack
is “so easy on the car. He doesn’t wear out the brakes
or the tyres, but he’s not slow either. He’s amazing
the way he doesn’t wear out the equipment. Just the man to
have in long races.” This is Stack at the wheel, at Silverstone
Here are Collini
and Stack, watching proceedings (Sam Hignett in the Zytek) at the
tested the Jota Zytek, at Snetterton, recently – and we’ve
reported what an amazing job he did in the car. He not only brought
his times down lap after lap after lap, a tenth at a time, he moved
one of the marshals to report to the team afterwards that he’d
never seen anyone lap Snetterton so quickly – and he’s
seen the various Bentleys around the Norfolk track.
So what’s the race
programme for 2005, Sam?
long way down the road to putting the finance in place for the whole
of next year – and we’re budgeting to start at Sebring.
We’re putting everything in place so that we can run at Sebring,
in all of the LMES races and at Le Mans. The big one is the difficult
one of course: we have to build in the budget to do it, but we can’t
be sure we’ll secure an entry.”
Will QinetiQ be supporting
“Yes, they provide
funding, but also research and development facilities. They came
into the sport partly to seek teams and manufacturers who might
also be able to use their resources, and they’ve succeeded
with that aim. I can’t tell you what they actually do for
others because that’s confidential, but I know the partnership
with Jota has worked for them.
2005 is going to be a
rather unique chance for the Zyteks, isn’t it?
definitely a special opportunity next year. We don’t know
about the Audis yet, but there’s Creation, and who knows if
another Zytek might be on the grids? Le Mans will definitely have
an Audi presence, I would think, but they’re running smaller
need to maximise the opportunity that we have, but the last thing
we’ll be is complacent. We’re doing all we can this
winter to be as ready as we can. I’m sure it will be a good
year for us, as long as we’re on top of our game.
reassuring to know that we have Zytek right behind us, doing everything
they can to help.”
So what about the LMES
then, perhaps with one less competitor?
will be a great shame if the competition is less than this year:
we want to take on the best.”
And that brought
us to 2006 and beyond – because if 2005 is supposed to be
another transitional year, 2006 ought to see the prototypes with
a solid foundation for the future… ought to.
watching the likes of Courage and Lola very closely. Our interest
is in prototypes, but if we had to run a GTS car, we would. But
the staff here loves prototypes, and we wouldn’t want to lose
them. Doing what we’re doing, the satisfaction and sense of
achievement far outway any ‘aggro’, but if the balance
swung the other way……”
last question for “the boss” – why is the team
it’s a play on Stacky's name (Jo Sta)
– but also a Spanish dance in triple time….”
know more about the opposition in the LMES (and perhaps Le Mans)
on November 25 – perhaps it will be more formidable than Sam
Hignett or other participants are currently expecting? Whether it
is or it isn’t, look for the Jota Zytek to play a very significant
role in 2005 - in daylight and in darkness. Now, what scene does
that last image remind you of?