It was 12 months ago this weekend that Manor sporting director Graeme Lowdon made his first visit to the FIA World Endurance paddock on his way to the team’s farewell Formula 1 race in Abu Dhabi.
Lowdon was greatly encouraged by what he saw in Bahrain and before long, had formed a plan with team principal John Booth to launch the Manor WEC team in 2016, with two Oreca 05 Nissans competing in the LMP2 class.
Booth is the first to admit that it hasn’t been the easiest of transitions for Manor, with repeated brake failures overshadowing much of their season and forcing the British team to revert to a single car for the championship’s North American leg.
“We didn’t come into it expecting to win straight away because it’s a bloody good championship, so we knew that we would have to work hard to get ourselves to get in a competitive position,” Booth told Sportscar365.
“We were expecting it to be hard, but when it’s something you’ve got no control over then it’s more frustrating than hard.”
Unlike in Formula One, where the team had free reign to chop and change parts as they saw fit, the cost-capped LMP2 class has several homologated components that they were powerless to change, which became a source of deep frustration.
“It was a homologated part so it was totally out of our control,” Booth said.
“We were questioning whether it was something we were doing incorrectly, but every time we went back and checked the procedures and temperatures, everything was within operating range.
“It was a few months before we knew that other teams were having the same problems as well; it was a lack of communication.”
Although the team showed promise, taking a debut podium at Spa and leading at Le Mans after an inspired tire call, this was tempered by the reoccurring problems with the brakes.
They were masked by teething troubles at Silverstone, but reared up at Spa on the No. 44 car, at Le Mans, the Nürburgring and Mexico, which was according to Lowdon, “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“As soon as Rusinov had one, that was it,” agrees Booth. “He didn’t hold back, did he?
“Funnily enough, then the Baxi car came out of the woodwork and said their issue at Le Mans was caused by a brake failure, that had been kept under close wraps right up until Rusinov made his statement.”
However, after all ORECA teams were permitted to change brake suppliers for the sixth round of the season at COTA, Manor’s fortunes begun to turn, with Alex Lynn and Matt Rao taking Manor’s first pole position in Shanghai.
Lynn, Rao and Richard Bradley will start second for today’s season-ending Six Hours of Bahrain, with ex-Manor F1 driver Roberto Merhi returning to the fold.
“[COTA] almost felt like our first race again, because we were so focused on that particular problem that it really dominated our first season in sports cars,” said Lowdon.
“As with anything, it has a massive knock-on effect. We don’t want to blame everything on the brakes, but the financial cost was huge and if you’re having to spend money in one area that’s unplanned and you can’t recoup from anywhere, then it’s going to damage your competitiveness. There’s just no two-ways about it.”
Manor has yet to confirm its program for next year, but with LMP2 set to adopt a new set of regulations that will level the playing field again, Lowdon is confident that they’ll be a competitive force.
“The speed has always been there,” he said. “You look at China, where we were on pole and took fastest lap. We know we’ve got the ability to get maximum amount from the car.
“If we put [the brake issues] aside and look at all the positive things, the racing is excellent, it’s a growing championship that is very well run, with great teams, very good drivers and all the rest of it.
“There’s nothing in there that would put us off continuing to race in this championship.
“I think in terms of preparation, we will be in pretty good shape hopefully going into a championship where all the cars are new to everybody as opposed to the where others already know these cars pretty well. There’s a huge appeal there.”
Despite the ups and downs, Booth said Manor has relished their change of scenery and will likely be here to stay.
“We enjoyed it all along, from the atmosphere at the Prologue which feels like a lifetime ago now,” he said.
“To have 70,000 people in the paddock there was just fantastic – the atmosphere from then on has been absolutely brilliant and we’ve really enjoyed it.”