Team Jota – Doing It Differently

dailysportscar.comTeam 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.

“We ran 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 the conversion.”

They haven't 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.

For example….

“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 largest socket.

“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….

“Samantha Groombridge 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 from?

“I’d been 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.

“We learnt 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.

“We’d learnt 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 …….

“After 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.“We’ve 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.

“We’re 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!”

Then there’s 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.

dailysportscar.comAero. 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!”

The drivers? 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 in August.

Here are Collini and Stack, watching proceedings (Sam Hignett in the Zytek) at the Nurburgring.

Haruki Kurosawa 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?

“We’re a 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 you again?

“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?

“There’s 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 restrictors too….

“We definitely 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.

“It’s very 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?“It 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.

“We’ll be 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……”

dailysportscar.comOne last question for “the boss” – why is the team called Jota?

“Well, it’s a play on Stacky's name (Jo Sta) – but also a Spanish dance in triple time….”

We’ll 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?


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