For the first time in the better part of a decade Robin Liddell will not enter the Rolex 24 at Daytona with Stevenson Motorsport. However, the Scot will still be part of TUDOR United SportsCar Championship curtain raiser and still be part of the GM racing operation, swapping the Stevenson Camaro for the GT Le Mans entry of Corvette Racing as a third driver for Daytona and the rest of the North American Endurance Championship (NAEC) races.
With Corvette Racing’s ‘normal’ third drivers – Richard Westbrook and Jordan Taylor – competing for the marque’s teams in the Prototype class Liddell and Ryan Briscoe have joined the team to help give the C7.R it’s race debut, Liddell joining Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner in the #4 car.
It’s a move that, speaking to www.theCheckeredFlag.co.uk, Liddell admits took him a little by surprise.
“The Corvette program is very much the A deal within GM’s road racing and it’s something I’ve been trying to get involved [with Corvette Racing] for some time and actually I’d kind of given up on it to be honest. There were some windows of opportunity where I might have happened and it didn’t so I just took the view that it was never going to happen.”
However for the start of 2014 and the TUDOR Championship as Liddell puts it “the stars have aligned”, the merger taking away one opportunity before presenting another as Stevenson Motorsports opted to leave the GT class in favour of running a pair of brand new Camaros in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.
“With the merger it means that the environment isn’t really right for them to continue running the Camaro as a GT car anymore,” Liddell explains. “They could continue running it, it’s not like the car was completely obsolete but there would be quite a lot of additional expenditure and investment needed to make the car comply and then to make it reliable and fast. In the end it seemed like we were really flogging a dead horse and we should just move on and I think that everyone in the team felt like they needed a new challenge.”
“We did look at Daytona Prototypes but the challenges and the level of investment to get those cars to where they need to be now was huge step and it was a step that John Stevenson as team owner was unwilling to make at this point in time. Plus as a GM supported there are only a limited number of opportunities for another GM supported to be in there so really he would have essentially moved up but with less support from the manufacturer.”
Though Liddell will remain part of the Stevenson’s line-up for the Continental Tire series, it gave him the opportunity to find a drive elsewhere.
Liddell reveals how the Corvette Racing drive came together; “I made it very clear that I wanted to do something else. I started talking to GM about whether they could find me a third seat perhaps in a Daytona Prototype or something like but actually the scenario that cropped up that made sense was the Corvette for the long races in the US and I’m more than happy. To be honest there isn’t anything better they could have offered me. They obviously have full time drivers contracted and they see the Corvette Racing program as their lead so in many ways they’re offered me more than I asked for.”
The move has put him into a new team – though there are certain parts of the team that are familiar to him, with both of the teams’ lead engineers have been part of the Stevenson outfit before joining Corvette Racing. Likewise, in the past as one of the GM supported teams in the Rolex Series Stevenson Motorsport have been the recipient of additional assistance, in the form of drivers, from the Corvette program. In that respect Liddell’s 2014 task is something of a role reversal.
While the regular drivers have had the off-season task of preparing the C7.R for its first competition Liddell has had to go through the adjustment process from driving the old Grand-Am GT spec Camaro, to the latest LMGTE spec Corvette – a car running on different tyres (“much better” according to Liddell) and with far more downforce. “The straight line speeds are not dissimilar,” Liddell adds, “but how it gets to that is very different.”
He continues; “I did have the opportunity to drive the car before Christmas at Sebring but coming back to Daytona, which is a track that’s I’ve been around until I’m blue in the face, I felt like I slotted into much better, getting my second time in the car with a proper seat insert it felt so much more comfortable.”
As you may expect Liddell took a back seat in the honing of the car, though the similarities between his ideas and those of the regular drivers served as something of a reassurance as he gained more time behind the wheel of the C7.R.
“Inevitably you have your own ideas but you also bounce it off the regular guys because they’re the ones who have grown up with this car and the old car which they know inside out. What I was quite encouraged by when I first drive the car there were one or two things I was felling and I was commenting on, but I wasn’t really pushing them the same way as the regular guys. So I was listening to their feedback and I was thinking ‘that’s great’ because they’re saying exactly what was I was thinking.”
“It was little incidental things like the spring on the throttle pedal. I was thinking ‘is this what they’ve been driving with for ten years or is this just something that’s new and it’s not ideal’ and the answer was that it was new and not ideal.”
As someone whose winter has been so tied into the creation of the TUDOR Championship it is little surprise that Liddell has mixed emotions about the sports car merger.
“Fundamentally for example,” he says, “that’s what has precipitated this change in my personal circumstances. Stevenson would probably have continued, they’d been part of the Grand-Am GT competition for at least ten years and they probably would have continued beyond that.”
“My basic way of describing this is that I think that this merger will be very good for the sport and sports car racing. I don’t necessarily think it’s been hugely helpful, in the short term at least, for the industry because it’s made it difficult for team to get to a point where they have cars on the grid for the end of January. They’ve had to spend a lot of money, and while there are some new opportunities there’s also some that have gone away because some people just can’t see their way to making this step right now.”
Despite the slightly dour outlook on the new championship, it is something that – in the long term – Liddell is entirely positive about, suggesting that the series sits on the eve of creating a “golden era of North American sports car racing”.
However, he also recognises the work that remains for the organisers, highlighted in the problems of straight line speed differential between the GTLM and GTD entries at the Roar Before the 24, when the – slower round a whole lap – GTD cars were significantly faster than their GTLM counterparts on the Daytona track’s Speedway sections.
“There will be growing pains,” he warns, “but when we’ve got through that process I think we will have a single prototype class at the lead of the field and I think that will be a model that will work better in the longer term. I think sports car racing fans want to see LMP cars of some description with GT, production based cars. I think we now have a coherent series with all the best events around the US and it’s genuinely a very exciting time because everyone that’s involved in it – on the series side, on the manufacturers’ side and on the driver, team and mechanics’ side – we all need this to work.”
“A majority of us recognise that this is a process we’re going to have to go through to get to a better place and I think there’s a willingness to deal with that. I’ll be interested to see how the series make those changes in the next weeks and month, but let’s not forget that Daytona is an anomaly track.”
However, he sees the 12 Hours of Sebring – the next round of the TUDOR Championship following Daytona – as the likely cause of a different set of problems, suggesting that the LMP2 contingent in the top class will have the overwhelming advantage, in contrast to the form seen in the Roar Before the 24 test earlier this month.
By mid-season – just before the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen – the third event of the four race NAEC, and so Liddell’s third race with Corvette Racing this season – he believes the series should have visited a range of tracks wide enough for the sanctioning body to balance out differing strengths and weaknesses of the cars and classes in the new series.
The first sessions ahead of the Rolex 24 at Daytona take place today (January 23), offering teams, drivers and fans the first glimpse at how the latest round of performance balancing technical changes have taken affect.
www.theCheckeredFlag.co.uk will have full coverage of the Rolex 24, with reports on every practice session in the build-up to the race, before hour-by-hour updates during the race itself.