It's a cold, damp day at Silverstone and I am worried that I have become something a bad omen for Matech Competition as I loiter beside one of the trucks waiting for the news that drivers Romain Grosjean and Thomas Mutsch can fit a few questions in their race day schedule.
The squad that swept so comprehensively to victory in the inaugural FIA GT1 World Championship race in Abu Dhabi have spent the second round of the series trying to find a set-up with the car carrying 40kg of success ballast, and the changeable conditions – the team have just completed a wet warm-up session after a dry Qualifying Race – undoubtedly aren't helping.
Still operating a lone Ford GT after the Icelandic ash cloud delayed the beginning of rebuilding the car crashed by Natacha Gachnang at Yas Marina the team has been fighting to show any sign of repeating the success that puts them in the championship lead.
Grosjean and Mutsch are due to start the Championship Race from 21st in a 23 car field after losing two laps after a spin in the Qualifying Race, a race they only qualified for in 15th failing to graduate from the second part of qualifying.
Naturally, the search for pace is high on the list of priorities for the two drivers. After qualifying Mutsch put much of the problems down to a lack of straight line speed, but seems at a loss to explain why, quickly correcting me when I mention the word “problem”, insisting they “have no problem”.
“The weight effects more the corner speed,” he explains, referring to the 40kg. “The straight line speed is simply the power. Of course they changed something in the balance of performance but this explains not the lack of speed on the straights compared to Abu Dhabi.”
Those 'changes' have seen every car except the Ford have its performance balancing weight or engine restrictors changed – the Aston Martin 50kg lighter, the Nissan GT-R's minimum weight 20kg less and the Lamborghini 10kg lighter and fitted with larger engine restrictors.
In contrast to his teammate Grosjean seems to suggest these are the root of the team's weekend problems. “we can see that the balance of performance changed completely from Abu Dhabi, it has cost us alot,” he says. “The three Ford GTs are [starting] 18[th], 19[th] and 21[st] and we're lacking a lot of performance.”
“I think they went too far in one way when we see the top speed in the straights. When we see the on board camera from Thomas yesterday the Lamborghini was just, no chance to do anything, we are lacking 14k an hour on the straights,” he adds with a hint of frustration in his voice, describing the deficit as “massive.”
It all must make Abu Dhabi seem far longer ago than two weeks, not least the because the iconic Yas Marina facility has been replaced by the distinctly half-finished feel of Silverstone, under a grey sky.
“Abu Dhabi is a very different track from everywhere else.” Grosjean says in the Matech motorhome – the warmest place I am let into all weekend. “The car was working perfectly there but here [at Silverstone] we have been surprised at the pace that we have,” he adds, quickly turning the question around as I ask him if their pace at Abu Dhabi was a surprise.
The former F1 driver was one the few, if not the only, driver in the GT1 field to have driven the Abu Dhabi track in anger before that first round of the season. However, it is an advantage he places minimal importance on when looking back at the weekend. “We had one day of testing on Wednesday and everyone could do as many laps as they wanted,” he says. “At the end of the story the drivers are professional drivers in GT1 and after 10 laps they know the track.”
It is that F1 past that makes Grosjean, and Matech Competition an important part of what the FIA GT1 World Championship is about.
The Swiss based team began running cars in the FIA GT3 series – another SRO backed championship – only this year stepping out to concentrate on the World Championship. An independent 'tuner' Martin Bartek's outfit are exactly what Stephane Ratel had in mind when he began the groundwork for the series, first approaching Bartek with the idea in 2007 – Matech's first year of racing.
Last year the team moved into the FIA GT series with a car in “test spec” according to Mutsch in preparation for this season. “Last year we had a good car for that spec, test spec, but then we learned, we saw different things we could change,” he explains. “On one side performance wise, on the other of course, our reliability wise.”
“We learn a lot last year, put everything together and decided to change, let's say nearly the whole car.”
The team now builds and runs their own cars – something Mutsch says is an advantage, putting the drivers as close as possible to the engineers – as well as cars for the Belgian Marc VDS team who are occupying the pit garages next to Matech's, though without the attendant branded hospitality unit. In their driving line-up Matech have the best the series can hope for, a recognisable name in Grosjean alongside Mutsch (who is also the team's Operations Manager) a man who has moved up with the team from GT3.
“It's very important that there are big drivers with some big names which are coming from Formula One and other cars,” says Mutsch. Mutsch was originally meant to share a car with Enrique Bernoldi before the Brazilian left for Vitaphone Racing with Grosjean coming in at the last moment.
“We signed the contract one week before Abu Dhabi,” Grosjean begins to recount how he came to Matech. “It was an opportunity that came with common friend with the team manager Martin Bartek,” he says, describing how when Bernoldi left the team the mutual friend encouraged Bartek and Grosjean to contact each other. “That was end of March – no steering wheel – and it was quite a good opportunity FIA world Championship, good car and a new experience for me.”
“It was not a question of forgetting single seaters, just let's say a year in between,” he says, once more making no secret that he is aiming to return to F1 as soon as next year, telling me “the situation is different than what it was two years ago and if there is a good opportunity for me to be into Formula One I will take it for sure.”
Part of the new experience is the race format – a three part qualifying session, hour long Qualifying Race and an hour long Championship race. “The qualifying format works pretty well,” says Mutsch. “You also have to have a little bit of strategy of which driver you put first, which session and then of course you have some overtaking. Because sometimes, it depends a little bit on where you finish in Q2 and Q1 and there is another driver in the car, compared to the one who set the time so this makes the race quite interesting.”
“It's quite interesting, every time we have to be push the races are short, a sprint, so we have to push every single lap,” adds Grosjean. “I quite like the system of Q1, Q2 and Q3 and the qualifying race where you have to do a good race and trying to be as much at the front as you can to defend your position in the Championship Race.”
One experience the Frenchman, who continues to work in Zurich bank as well as race, is less complimentary of is the new Silverstone circuit. “I don't like the new Silverstone much to be honest,” he admits. “I think Silverstone was a historical track and we should have kept it, there is nothing really very interesting in the new part unfortunately.”
“We've lost it [Bridge Corner] and we didn't gain anything,” he concludes, describing the fast right hander as “beautiful” and “fantastic”.
As Romain stands up at the end of the interview I am very conscious to thank him, and wish him good luck for the Championship Race. Unfortunately my curse continues to that race, Grosjean spinning out at the very first corner, retiring with suspension failure. However, he and Mutsch still lead the drivers' championship.
This weekend Matech Competition switch series, beginning their on-track preparations for their debut at the Le Mans 24 Hours, with a planned two car entry in the 1000km of Spa-Francorchamps.
The next round of the FIA GT1 World Championship takes place on May 21-23 at the Czech circuit of Brno, where neither I, or the 40kg of success ballast will be there, hopefully helping the team add to their early success.