Single-seater drivers deciding to jump from the ladder in the modern era have a myriad array of options for alternative careers in motor racing.
Ryan Cullen made the first step in his transition from open-wheeled racing to tin-top competition two-years-ago, when he featured as part of G-Cat Racing’s Porsche Carrera Cup GB squad.
The Irishman’s time in Carrera Cup GB was curtailed after half-a-season, when he made the brave decision to step-right-up to, arguably, the most intensely competitive single-make GT championship in the world. The Porsche Mobil1 Supercup.
Cullen is pragmatic about the switch of disciplines, saying, “To be honest it wasn’t a massive problem for me. Any race car you drive you’re always trying to find the limit with the machine and yourself. It’s fair to say my GT racing career is going much better than my single-seater career now I have the experience in motorsport. My single seater career never showed what I was capable of due to the fact I was 10 years off with no experience.”
Said single-seater exploits were focussed initially on campaigns in Formula Renault BARC and Formula Ford GB, before a step up to GP3 with the Marussia Manor squad in 2013. Cullen continued with Manor the following year, but after two winless seasons he made the decision to refocus. This lead to the Carrera Cup switch.
Whilst his time spent in GB competition was short-lived, Cullen highlights the benefits of his time in a national Carrera Cup before moving up. Despite the predominantly sprint-race format favoured by the British Touring Car Championship support series, the opportunity to run in the Type 991 GT3 Cup would prove to be massively beneficial when he made the move to Supercup.
Describing his seemingly accelerated move to Supercup, Cullen explains, “I felt like it was the right time. Due to me being new it was good to be with people who it was new for too. I thought I learnt as much as I could in GB and Lechner gave me a great opportunity to learn my trade for the last quarter of the Supercup season.”
Supercup has a reputation for tough competition, and success in Formula 1 feeder categories has never automatically equalled success in GTs. So what has Cullen found to be the most challenging aspect of that transition?
“It’s everything. The level of drivers is really high and they all have experience so they are hard to beat.”
However, there are certain aspects which the former GP3 racer doesn’t feel limit the drivers as much as would normally be expected. “The limited track time doesn’t bother me and learning the tracks is just the tricks of the trade. Simulators are a big thing now and any good driver only needs fifteen laps maximum to get used to the track. So that’s the level of Supercup. You can’t go flat out testing before each race so the best drivers come through.”
In his first full-season of Supercup last year, the Brit was a regular in the top half of the almost thirty car order and made two top ten appearances. Across the nine races he completed his average finishing position was a highly credible thirteenth. Appraising his own season, Cullen has a sense of quiet confidence. “I think I held my own. I had top ten finishes, top rookie awards. I really should of finished second or third best rookie in the championship and well inside the top eight in my first year.”
This plan was unfortunately derailed by a spectacular airborne accident at Monza, after contact with Dylan Pereira. “My flip at Monza was not ideal and it carried itself into Austin. We had a few problems but that was always going to happen when everything got built new on the car. Lechner Racing did a great job to fix the car but with so little running time it’s hard to get it right.”
Despite this unfortunate end to a season of progress, Cullen has kept his momentum going into a successful off-season Carrera Cup Middle East campaign. Carrera Cup GB stars Tom Oliphant and Charlie Eastwood, as well as other national Cup regulars Denis Olsen and Charlie Frijns, have featured in the category this season. He references finishing as champion in the Middle East [he currently leads the series] as the key springboard to a dual Supercup and Carrera Cup Deutschland campaign in 2017. His targets for which are understandably high.
“After having a half decent first year in Supercup, I am aiming to be top five and pushing for podiums and wins this season. Reason being Walter Lechner [team-boss] has the faith in me to do it. I think all things are heading in the right direction, the pace in the Middle East Championship shows that. The German Carrera Cup should be the same and both championships having the new [Generation Two] Cup car makes it even better for me.”
Graded silver under the FIA Driver Rankings for GT competition, Cullen has received offers to race in the World Endurance Championship and Blancpain GT Series but highlights his desire for a gold rating and full-professional status as his reasoning for sticking with Porsche competition in 2017.
So two-years-on and Cullen’s brave switch of disciplines is bringing deserved rewards. His 2017 campaign will likely attract the attention of other young-drivers, either struggling for budget or continued momentum on their own open-wheeled travails. It will also hold the attention of British motor sport fans, who will be keenly watching the progress of the nation’s latest GT superstar. The final word to a youngster who continues to strive forward in Porsche racing, on what drives him.
“It is the success, pushing your mind and your ability that motivates me. Concentration during a qualifying lap or stint in the race to see what you can do. Learning different ways to get better through fitness or techniques of driving. It is all part of what drives me forward.”