Amateur drivers are the beating heart of endurance racing, and have been since the sport’s cavalier infancy.
Money has always been the golden ticket to participation, meaning gentleman drivers are often the difference between healthy and sparse grids. The GTE-Am class of the FIA World Endurance Championship seeks to champion that core belief, honouring the role of the amateur racer by offering competition at the highest level.
One driver who is a linchpin of the WEC’s amateur category is Paul Dalla Lana.
The 50 year old Canadian has spent his international racing career with Aston Martin Racing (and previously with Turner Motorsport in the United States). So far he has accrued seven class victories, five of which have been with current team-mates Pedro Lamy – a former F1 and Peugeot LMP1 driver – and Mathias Lauda, who has raced in everything from GP2 to NASCAR.
Unlike his co-drivers, Dalla Lana entered the sport after making his name in business, which means he’s competing against drivers who have had years, even decades, more experience behind the wheel. And, with endurance racing now a viable alternative to Formula One, more drivers than ever are being conditioned to race in the WEC and similar championships from an early age.
The Checkered Flag recently caught up with Aston Martin’s man of bronze to find out more about the amateur drivers’ part in a world championship driver lineup.
The Checkered Flag: So, Paul, What is the role of the Am driver in the WEC?
Paul Dalla Lana: “The Am driver in the WEC plays a huge part. There are very few opportunities to make time in this championship up so it’s crucial to have an Am driver who can do a smooth, consistent job. That’s why I prefer the WEC to other championships where you can make up time through elaborate safety car periods and what not. The role of the Am driver is accentuated here. Quite often the performance of the Am driver has a huge bearing on the team’s result.”
TCF: How close is GTE-Am this year?
PDL: “I think the balance is really close – we’ve seen that in the Am races so far. We’ve seen ourselves and Ferrari/Porsche battle it out at the front as you’d expect. So it’s great because the results are coming down to the drivers and not an imbalance of machinery and that’s exactly where we want it to be.”
“The benefit of GTE-Am is that it follows GTE-Pro by a year. I spent a lot of time last year with these cars so I think the balance of performance is a lot closer.”
TCF: How does the team decide when to put the amateur driver in the car? Is it dependent on outside variables like the weather?
PDL: “We have to do a certain amount of time – but that isn’t necessarily pre-planned. I think it’s more tactical for Le Mans than the six hour races because for those shorter events we each only have one turn in the car for a couple of hours, so it’s a bit easier to forecast. We tend to be pretty disciplined with our driver strategy in that we don’t change it often, simply because we don’t want to over-complicate things.”
Outside variables do have some sort of impact – but personally I’m fine to drive in anything. It’s quite a relative decision. In the wet weather, we’re faced with the question of would we double or triple stint people just because they’re familiar with the track conditions and are more physically tuned in to them. So we have to weigh that up a little bit, especially if the weather is really crappy and it looks like it’s going to change, you might just elect to keep a driver in a little longer or change it around in anticipation for the change in weather. Either way, we’ve got to make our minds up quickly!”
TCF: How does this work at Le Mans? Will you be pre-elected to run a specific stint, say, the early morning?
PDL: “At Le Mans the Am drivers have to do 6 hours and 20 minutes so we’d normally spread it out evenly. Again, we like to keep our strategy fairly consistent. If we need a boost, say during the night or at the end of the race when we have to duke it out in a dogfight, we’ll stick Pedro in for a little longer.”
We find that it’s better if the other teams are chopping and changing their strategies to keep up with us. It means we’re doing something right! Essentially when it gets to that point, we’re not overly concerned with our race position because we know that we have the edge over the 24 hours. We have some very good competitors and sometimes you start to think “oh, what are they thinking” but ultimately we know it’s important to run our race and our race only.”
TCF: You have developed a formidable partnership with Pedro and Mathias since you made your debut as a trio in 2015. What’s the secret behind this success?
PDL: “I was very lucky to meet Pedro when I first came to Aston. I struck up a good relationship with him and so we became both friends and team-mates. He’s an excellent all-round character and at the ripe old age of 42 he’s still one of the fastest guys on the grid!”
“Previously we ran with Christopher Nygaard who was also a very quick driver, but when he got regraded to the gold category that allowed Mat to step in. Mat’s fitted in really well, because he’s fast and has a really good character which fits well with the team. It’s always nice when you can be friends with your co-drivers.”
“I think from an Am driver perspective, a big part of racing is the experience. It’s not just a job like it is for Pedro and Mat. For me to have people who are that fast who you can just spend time with is a privilege, and that we have right now. But let’s not forget, we all have the same goals to win and we’re all very competitive.”
TCF: And how does your partnership shape up with the other crews in GTE-Am?
PDL: “My feeling right now is that we have the best driver lineup in class. Obviously I mean no disrespect to our competitors because they have great crews as well, but when I look across the board I’d say we’re a pretty solid group. It’s interesting, because there were a lot of new faces arriving in GTE-Am this year so there were a lot of unknowns. You never know what can happen on any given stint.”
TCF: If you could change one thing about GTE-Am, what would it be?
PDL: “I loved having a field as big as the one at Le Mans, with both the Pro and Am classes showing growth. I think it would be fantastic to have a crossover year with 30-odd Pro and Am cars all in the mix together on the same Balance of Performance. You’d have fantastic racing and I think the fans would appreciate it. So I can’t wait to pick up that Pro BoP in the next couple of years when our cars will be the same and race closer together!”
“It was nice to see 14 cars in our GTE-Am field at Le Mans; it was a great field and there was lots of room to battle. It made for some really fun driving and good racing.”
TCF: From a personal perspective, your crash at the Ford chicane whilst leading the dying minutes of the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans must have been a particularly difficult moment in your career. What was it like coming back to Le Mans a year later?
PDL: “My friends like to say we won the 23 and a half hours of Le Mans! But no, it was a really tough one and I accepted my responsibility. It was hard letting the team down, as it’s so hard to win these races – almost impossible to be in the position to actually do it. This year I arrived very focused on just getting the job done without worrying about the past.”
“Thankfully I don’t have a big rear view mirror, so it’s not in my mind anymore. Coming back to Le Mans, especially for the first test session in early June [his first time driving at Le Mans since the crash], I blasted through the corner without issues and was glad that none of the previous year’s troubles had affected me.”
“Sure, the race result this year didn’t go our way [Not Classified after 21 hours] but I hope in the future we can come back and hit the 23 hour mark with me in the lead and I’ve got to the do the job again. That’s why we do this stuff – we know we don’t always win but when we do, the champagne tastes extra sweet.”
Dalla Lana, Lamy and Lauda continue their quest for the 2016 GTE-Am drivers’ title at the Circuit of the Americas on September 17. Following a retirement in Mexico, the trio are currently third in the standings with four rounds remaining.