EXCLUSIVE: We Catch Up with Lotus Motorsport's Johnny Mowlem and James Rossiter - PT1


By Sam Tickell

Lotus have set themselves a massive motorsport task - and we were able to catch up with Lotus Jetalliance drivers, Johnny Mowlem and James Rossiter

Recently we were able to catch up with Lotus' Johnny Mowlem and James Rossiter. We were able to discuss their first race with the Lotus Evora GTE with Jetalliance Racing and their previous careers.

This is part one of our interview where James and Johnny discuss the race, the ambitions of Lotus, including the efforts that took the car from the factory to the track and what the Lotus Evora GTE to reach the team's goal - winning.

We also talk to James about his past, including the exciting class win at Sebring in 2007 and the Corsa Hybrid Zytek.

Thank you both for joining me – you both debuted the Lotus Evora GTE at Spa in the 1000km of Spa Francorchamps – how was its first outing in anger?

Johnny: I’ll let James answer that first since he was the one that broke it!

Well to be perfectly honest – as far as race debuts go and considering the car completed its final design in December, it is quite amazing that we made it to Spa. I though the performance was pretty good considering. We certainly learnt a lot from the weekend, from the debut of the car and certainly through the hard work of Johnny and me, we are making a lot of progress and we certainly hope to make more before Le Mans.

(pictured )Being honest – when we got to the test day at Le Mans, I was absolutely astonished – thought it was absolutely miraculous. One – that we got there with two cars and two, the car that I was in ran faultlessly for the entire day at Le Mans, and Le Mans is a pretty tough circuit. I think in a way that raised expectations beyond what was realistic at Spa. When we got to Spa, the entire team was kind of thinking that we could go out there and take it to the others. I think that wasn’t the case. At Spa, we were reminded of the cold reality that we are at the first stage of development with the program. In actual fact we haven’t done a single day’s testing on anything other than reliability. We really need to crack on, get the reliability issues sorted out and then move onto the performance of the car.

There is no doubt in my mind that the car has enormous potential. Apart from a number of miles around the Hethel Test Track we haven’t done enough mileage on proper racetracks to unlock that potential as yet. It is also at this point that it needs to be pointed out, to my knowledge anyway, that we are the only GTE car out there that is running with absolutely no waivers from the ACO. BMW for example, who are very successful at the moment, have about 32 different waivers on their cars. These range from – the height of the rear wing to the length of the front splitter to the size of the air restrictor to the weight of the car. So there are so many things that we have to do but there are also areas. The ACO, as we speak are probably examining the performance of our cars to then hopefully make some offers for performance gains. So we are right at the start. It is very positive in terms of reliability. I know that sounds crazy after what happened at Spa but we know what happened and why it happened so we can fix it. I am reasonably happy but obviously you are never totally happy until you deliver what you promised. That being winning races and beating the other major car manufacturers.

It is an ambitious motorsport project in general for Lotus, can you give an insight to how much effort it took the team to get the car on the track to race in the ILMC this year?

Johnny: Bear in mind that the decision to do this car was taken last September and I think that answers your question. At the end of the day, the work that Lotus have done, the work that Wycombe has done, what Cosworth has done, has been nothing short of – I don’t use the word miraculous lightly, it is a miracle. A lot of people out there have been very cynical about what Lotus are doing. Not just on the motorsport side but on every side. Coming out and announcing all the new models of cars etc. The one thing that Lotus has done has been that every time the have promised to do something, they have delivered on it.

I must admit that when I was told I was – how are we going to do that in less than six months, it’s not physically possible. Yet they did it. The fact that the car is out there going around, let along going around pretty competitively in terms of where we started. We were only 4-5 seconds off at Spa, we were only 9 seconds off at Le Mans. Both of those tracks are long tracks – 7km and 13km long tracks. When we get to a normal track – somewhere like Imola, the race after Le Mans, I think you will find we will be within 2 or 3 seconds. That would be incredible in itself, let alone that the car is in existence. I think the team have done an incredible job.

For me, I was very hands on with the birth of the car. I did the first laps in the car, tested it at Hethel. From the stage, it has been amazing. The amount of effort that has gone in – the number of all nighters the mechanics have put in was phenomenal. The whole team, the whole car crew really were quite astonishing with their efforts to get the car ready for the Le Mans test day. There was a lot of stress at times but it has all been worth it. Like Johnny said, the guys in the team have done literally a miraculous job. It has been amazing to be a part of it. I think I find it hard to believe at times how fast the car was made and how competitive we are considering.

Other than time and everything that comes with it, are there any areas that you think need improving to match the pace of the front running GTE cars?

James: We know where we are lacking and we are working on all those areas. As Johnny said, we might needs some assistance from the ACO, that is only natural to try to get the car to exactly where we need to be – especially considering the road engine starts at under 300hp where the Ferrari engine starts at considerably more. There are areas like that where we are slightly behind but that is where the rules are with using your road car as the basis for your racecar.

I’d like to ask you some questions about your individual careers. Johnny I’d like to start with you. You have had a long and successful career in sportscars, what are some of your personal career highlights?

Johnny: I suppose one that sits in my mind, as I am constantly reminded of it – it does sit on my bedside locker – the watch – so winning Daytona. I raced the Porsche there in 2004 and it was wet race for the majority of the race. I ended up driving just shy of 12 hours of the race. Not all in a row obviously but I did a lot of driving in that race. I ended up in the last hour and a half in a straight fight with Mike Rockenfeller – who at the time was just a young and up-and-coming driver. Since then he has shown that he is a class driver. At the time thought it was me and him going at it hammer-and-tongs. It started raining again towards the end of the race. I was on slicks and I managed to at the end of 24 hours to hold him off and beat him by six seconds. I thought that was a pretty exciting finish to the race. Not only did we win GT but we finished second overall – which was one of the biggest giant killings that ever happened at Daytona. To be part of that and also win a really nice Rolex Daytona was obviously a highlight from a driving standpoint.

From just being involved in an exciting moment, probably winning the 12 Hours of Sebring in 2007 where I wasn’t in the car at the end – Jamie Melo was. We literally won the race on the last corner of the last lap or a 12 hour race with the Ferrari. I was standing on the pitwall with the other driver, Mika Salo and I don’t think either of us could actually believe what actually happened. I don’t know if you have witnessed that race, but if you haven’t you should You Tube it.

We have and for you, here it is below…

It is probably the most incredible last lap of any race. To be a part of that, despite not being in the car at the end was very exciting. Those probably would be the two things that spring to mind.

There have been loads of ups and downs – that is motorsport. James will tell you, there are more downs than ups but the ups that come along can be quite high. They remind you and rekindle your passion and enthusiasm for doing what we do.

I did see the end and I think it was one of the most exciting, nail biting finishes that I have seen.

Johnny: Bearing in mind that we were there because we were having trouble restarting the engine after each pit stop. We were losing 30 seconds each time so we had to make a decision not to change brake pads. By the end Jamie was literally running on his brake pads – metal to metal. To be able to do what he did, going into turn 17 at Sebring and retake the lead. I mean Porsche had it won. They left the door open and he went down the inside, bashed door to door and got through. To do that with basically no front brakes was quite an incredible performance.

Mowlem was a vital part of the Corsa hybrid program, somthing that could have had a grand future

You also raced for Corsa for GT and LMP – notably for reintroducing electric hybrid technology to ACO racing. The program seemed to end before its time, how much potential do you think that car had?

Johnny: It has a massive amount more potential than we saw. That was one of the highlights that I was thinking when you asked me. In terms of the history books, I was part of the team that got the first podium for a hybrid sportscar in any major international sportscar series. It maybe one of the things that in 20 years from now, I’ll look back on with a lot of pride. It was an incredible project to be a part of.

The biggest problem that it faced was that we were hamstrug by the ACO and IMSA, in that we weren’t allowed to run OEM parts. So we were running a Mercedes-SLR battery. Not your normal 12V battery granted – it was a lithium ion battery but we were really hamstrung by the fact we couldn’t generate enough power to make up for the additional weight and all the basic difficulties with having the inverter.

For example, on the left sidpod – we didn’t have enough room to put the converter there and we couldn’t put it in the cockpit as it would fail the crash test. So it was a 9-10 kilo chuck that we couldn’t fit in the sidepod, so we had to run a bigger cycle on the left. So we had different aero on the left side of the car to the right side of the car. We tried to get round that as much as possible but it didn’t help. Then you have the electric motor itself that was about 8 or 9 kilos. That was by Zytek – they also developed the McLaren KERS system so they know what they were doing but they had that 8 or 9 kilos to contend with too. Then there was the battery that we did actually have in the cockpit. That was another 12 or 13 kilos. So we had an extra 25-30kilos of weight to carry round too.

Then the regeneration was difficult too. It was difficult to get the parts to talk to each other as they were not built together. You would have situations under heavy braking where the regeneration would stop. You would have a massive brake bias shift to the front – you are already breaking pretty late and pretty heavily in one of those things. There were a lot of things we had to contend with which made it a difficult technology to contend with at the time.

Since then, Zytek have moved away from that and you will the future of hybrids going forward. I think all the major manufacturers in fact, even the current Audi R18 engine has been designed to incorporate hybrid technology into it. So in the next year or two, I think you will see them all coming out with hybrids. I think we will see the way of the future. The ACO has taken the part – the part where it had to be road car part away and the Zytek system that we ran, at its peak, we could only use 40% of the battery capacity that was maybe about 20hp. Now they have a system that generates three or four times that. If we were able to run that now, it was a shame that the program ceased at the end of 2009, start of 2010. We were on the verge – and as we saw at Laguna Seca, I was legitimately able to beat David Brabham in the Acura Highcroft. We were running ahead of him and the only person I couldn’t get past was Simon Pagenaud in the De Ferran Acura. If you think back to what a great car that was, it shows you that I think we finally unlocked the potential of that car.

It was just a huge shame that the program didn’t continue. We were out there on our own and we were ahead of our time at that time. The ACO at the time weren’t encouraging hybrids. Quite the reverse actually. They said that if we came to Le Mans and we were fortunate enough to even finish on the podium, we won’t even allow you to be up on the podium. You won’t be eligible to recognised in the results, for any prize money. I think they were terrified that the hybrid would come and do what the diesel had done. It was a great program to be a part of.

Shame it ended when it did, but I guess that is part of motorsport.

Johnny: A crying shame. It was a golden opportunity. In 2010, we really could have gone out and done some giant killing. That Zytek chassis to be honest too – going right back to 2005 and when I raced it as a non-hybrid in 2006 and won pole at Laguna Seca ahead of the Audi. Apart from the penalty that Stefan Johansson received for entering the pit when it was closed, we would have gotten the victory in that race. It just shows you that, that chassis despite it lacking development since unfortunately, that chassis has always been a great chassis. I feel that the Zytek has always missed out – if a good team with a proper budget came along with that car, it could have been a great sportscar.

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Check back for the remainder of this interview where we catch up with some of James' views on the Lotus and his career!