Danny Watts is one of sportscar racing’s most recognisable personalities, having competed at Le Mans six times with LMP2 outfit Strakka Racing. What may surprise some is that the 2010 LMP2 class winner actually started his journey at the world’s biggest endurance race in a GT car, specifically a Panoz in 2007. Here he shares some of his memories from that first outing.
It was Lawrence [Tomlinson] and Richard Dean of Team LNT who gave me my first foray from single seaters into sportscars in 2007.
We did the Le Mans Series that year and I was brought in to drive the Panoz Esperante with Tom Kimber-Smith while Lawrence and Richard shared the other car. We competed in the first round at Monza and did really well to finish fourth in the GT2 class – I remember it being boiling hot, and we weren’t helped by the fact we had a front-engined car!
For the rest of the series we struggled with an engine problem, which basically meant it would always fail. But despite that, what I learnt in the LMS was extremely beneficial, and it set me up well for the rest of my career because I joined Strakka Racing the following season.
The Panoz was completely different to anything I had driven before. It wasn’t the easiest thing to drive. Tom always used to right-foot brake and at the time I did as well. But because his feet were so much bigger than mine I struggled to execute the heel and toe braking (we had a stick-shift as opposed to paddle gear changes). The only thing I could do was to switch there and then to left-foot braking, and I’ve driven that way ever since.
There was a lot of good banter within the garage between Tom, Tommy [Milner] and I. Most of the LMP boys were northern English and I think myself and Tom were the only southerners out there, so we gelled over that and had a great time.
At Le Mans we got to around half eight at night and Tom was in the car. I remember him coming on the radio saying “we’ve dropped power” and pretty much immediately after that it all ground to a halt. The engine wasn’t particularly reliable and Le Mans was always going to be a challenge. It wasn’t the greatest first experience at Le Mans for me personally, but the amount I learnt from it was absolutely massive.
The biggest thing I remember was having to learn so much in the transition from single seaters to a big, heavy GT car. It was a different world, moving from 30 minute sprint races to double stints lasting around an hour and a half. The traffic management was also a huge factor – I think I spent half the time looking in my mirror at all the LMP1s and LMP2s coming past!
At Le Mans, the atmosphere is just incredible. On the Friday night, there was an amazing amount of people coming out to watch the parade. We had the autographed cards ready to throw out and walked up to the top of the hill for the last bit. Right at the end of the walk there were people with pictures of me from years back – think Formula First, Formula Palmer Audi and Formula Renault when I was team-mates with Kimi [Raikkonen] – asking me to sign them. It was just….. incredible. The passion and knowledge of the fans is great and the memories I have from that first time will always stick with me.
Le Mans as a whole is simply immense. The week was so busy and different to anything I had experienced before. We turned up on the Saturday before the race and to be honest the first half went fairly slowly because we had no track action. But when Wednesday came around and practice started, the time seemed to fly by.
Nowadays I share a motorhome on the Bugatti circuit with [Strakka Racing team-mate] Jonny [Kane], while Nick [Leventis] is next door. Once the race starts we don’t actually see much of each other, because I’ll do my stint, jump out and let the other guy in and it keeps going round like that. For me the most mentally draining part is doing the night shift at two o’clock in the morning for a triple or a quadruple stint. Everyone else back at base is getting some rest and it’s pitch black. You lose all your braking points and lose your reference of the track so it’s just like starting afresh every year.
One year I’m going to drive down and do it all as a fan! I’d love to head down with my camping gear and see the other side of the fence. As drivers, we are all totally engrossed in our jobs so we don’t actually get to experience the other things that make Le Mans so special.
I remember at the start of the week when I had a few spare hours I would head up to the old main entrance where the museum is. That was great fun, looking around at all the historic cars, especially the old Silk Cut-liveried Tom Walkinshaw Racing Jaguars from ‘88.
My dad used to be the pit wall man for Jaguar when they won it that year [with Jan Lammers, Andy Wallace and Johnny Dumfries], and that’s how I got into racing because he absolutely loved heading to Le Mans with them. He supported me in go-karts and when I finally made my debut at the 24 Hours it was all a bit surreal for him to see me out there after working as a signaller himself. My godfather also worked for Tom Walkinshaw, and together they were my mechanics in the British Karting Championship. I wasn’t really able to go to Le Mans when I was a kid because they were busy working, but they used to head down there every year. I got into racing as a bit of a hobby, a bit of a giggle. I like to say nothing’s really changed because I still have great fun doing it!
There were a few races I always wanted to tick off in my motorsport career. There was the Monaco Grand Prix, which I sort of did in the Porsche Supercup, then the Indianapolis 500 which I haven’t been able to do, and then Le Mans of course. I’ve achieved two out of those three and I can’t wait to return this year to do it all again.
The 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans takes place on June 18-19.
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