Towards the end of 2014, in my feature called “The Tide is Turning“, I looked at the issues facing many talented young single-seater racing drivers trying to make their way to Formula 1. Many of these drivers were feeling pretty despondent about the ridiculous levels of finance that would be required along the way. I also highlighted the fact that it wasn’t just money that was the problem and touched on the growing nepotism in the sport.
The feature then considered other possible options for those determined to pursue a professional racing career. I suggested sports car racing probably offered the best chance of a high-profile, lucrative career. Mark Webber’s successful defection from Formula 1 to Porsche undoubtedly generated a huge amount of interest in the World Endurance Championship. His subsequent results in the Porsche 919 Hybrid have added to this hype. With Nico Hulkenberg then winning at Le Mans, the tide was definitely turning! Young drivers suddenly started looking for ways to start a sports car career.
The series which I believed offered the best platform for these frustrated young Formula 1 hopefuls to develop a professional career was Porsche Carrera Cup. Looking back a year on, I guess it was quite a brave forecast at the time! In 2014 Porsche Carrera Cup GB was definitely not at its best. Grids were as small as ten or eleven cars at times and the series had a reputation as being ideal for “Gentleman racers”. Nothing wrong with that in itself, except that it was hardly going to tempt the young single-seater hotshots, was it?
With the end of 2015 Carrera Cup GB season, I think I can honestly say that I got it right. Who could have possibly imagined that in April, at the first Round of the Championship at Brands Hatch, 30 Porsches would line up on the grid; or that towards the end of the season when team budgets traditionally run low, grid levels never fell below the mid-twenties?
Here’s the big question – what turned an 11-car grid in 2014 into a 30-car grid in 2015?
What was particularly exciting was the standard of new drivers being attracted into Porsche Carrera Cup. In 2014, at just 22 years of age, Dino Zamparelli had secured 5 podium places in the extremely competitive GP3 Series, driving for the prestigious ART Team. With a major sponsor Bristol Sport behind him, one could be forgiven for thinking that GP2 beckoned. However, as many sponsors have discovered, the prospect of shelling out around £3 million for the almost mandatory two seasons of GP2 was not an attractive one! Bristol Sport also realised that GP2 didn’t reach their target market.
I can claim a little of the credit for proposing to Bristol Sport that Porsche Carrera Cup would fit the bill commercially for 2015 and might also provide a realistic route to a professional sports car career for Dino. He’d be the first to admit that it wasn’t a proposal he jumped at, but to see his face after winning both Porsche Carrera Cup races at Silverstone in September, in front of a huge turnout of Bristol Sport guests and staff, was definitely worth waiting for. Dino is now planning to emulate the 2015 Porsche Carrera Cup Championship winner Dan Cammish and to hopefully secure the title in 2016. In his case, the switch from single-seaters to sports cars looks to have made a lot of sense. He won’t be the last, that’s for sure.
The 2014 British Formula Ford Champion, South African Jayde Kruger, was another refugee from single-seaters, who further enhanced his reputation by progressively moving up the grid with a brand new Carrera Cup team, Brookspeed, culminating in two excellent fourth places in the last two races of the season. A World Champion in karting, Charlie Eastwood is yet another talented youngster attracted to sports car racing. Awarded the lucrative Porsche Carrera Cup Scholarship, he will be competing in the series next season.
So was this sudden turnaround of Porsche Carrera Cup in 2015 simply lucky, down to good timing, or was there more to it than that? There was only one way to find out. A year on from my Tide is Turning feature, I paid a visit to the Porsche GB Headquarters in Reading to meet Ragnar Schulte, the man responsible for Porsche marketing within Great Britain.
Motorsport falls under his jurisdiction and I put it to him that his star must be shining bright at Porsche Global HQ in Stuttgart for having turned around the company’s flagship motors racing series in Britain. He modestly laughed and avoided answering by stressing the importance of the series within Porsche’s overall use of motorsport as a way of developing the technologies that ensure their impressive product range.
“With Porsche having made what was a huge decision to move into the very top echelons of motor racing, the World Endurance Championship, with the 919 Hybrid, we knew there’d be even more interest in Porsche on the track here in Britain. It was important to have a strong Carrera Cup programme”, Ragnar explained.
I asked Ragnar what his feelings were about the relatively low grid size in 2014. “On the one hand it’s important that we provide opportunities for those customers who want to race a Porsche. Not everyone wants to be a professional racer, so in 2014 that worked well for us in the two Pro-Am classes. We realised however that we weren’t attracting enough young drivers to the Professional Class, who had the potential to go right to the top levels with Porsche”.
He added that Britain is recognised as having the second biggest spend on motorsport globally and so it’s obviously very important that Porsche focuses on providing the best commercial opportunities to attract customers to their brand.
“You must remember that Porsche and motorsport have always gone together since the earliest days of the company. Motorsport is in our DNA” – clearly an emotive comment!
So how does Porsche measure success for the Carrera Cup in Britain? “To start with, it’s the grid size. We want to see large grids at each Round, twenty five to thirty cars. Being a part of the TOCA package, we get large crowds and fantastic live TV viewing figures. It’s also important that we see racing right down the grid and that is what we had in 2015 with three separate classes: Pro, Pro-Am 1 and Pro-Am 2. Three races in one, effectively”.
I asked Ragnar if success on the track in terms of a full Carrera Cup grid can be measured commercially in bookings at the Porsche Experience Centre at Silverstone. He told me that it didn’t really affect bookings, as they already had between 15,000 to 18,000 people going there every year, irrespective of the Carrera Cup programme.
He returned to my question about measurement of success: “Then there’s the relationship with our dealer network. We measure how much hospitality is booked by dealers, bringing their customers and guests to Carrera Cup rounds. Media coverage is important and we measure that carefully, including social media, TV and print media. Another important factor is the relationship between the teams and drivers who are our customers. We want to see them enjoy the Porsche brand experience when they are racing, so that they become our ambassadors away from the track”.
I was just about to move on to another point when Ragnar stopped me. His enthusiasm is contagious! “There is one other measure of success for us, an important one; the number of young British drivers and also British Carrera Cup teams who are able to compete in selected Porsche SuperCup races internationally, before progressing into a full international season and then, like Nick Tandy, right through the system to compete for Porsche and win at Le Mans in the LMP1 team”.
Here’s the big question. What turned an 11-car grid in 2014 into a 30-car grid in 2015? “Not just one thing, that’s for sure. We looked at everything, starting with a huge amount of research with the drivers, teams, sponsors and our customers. We also spoke to the external motor racing world to gain a perspective of how PCC was viewed. We sought the advice and expertise of our HQ in Stuttgart. We studied all of the feedback, both positive and negative.
Our first action was to reconstruct the race calendar. We knew that we needed to shorten the series from 10 to 8 rounds, each with two races, to reduce costs, and then include at least one overseas round which was close enough to keep within teams’ budgets. We chose Spa. Then we looked at other cost-cutting opportunities and imposed a strict limit on the amount of in-season testing that teams could carry out, as well reducing the number of sets of tyres that teams could use at each round. We then looked at the levels of prize money in Carrera Cup internationally and within other series and took the decision to bring ours in line, by doubling what we had previously been offering.
The overall desire was to bring the potential team budget for a full season of racing to just under the £200,000 level. It had previously been well above that. Another major initiative was to introduce the Rookie Class to try and attract young drivers into the series. We’d already introduced the Carrera Cup Scholarship, worth £80,000 to the winner, who was by definition under 24 years of age. To try to attract even more young drivers the new Rookie Class, for 17-24 year olds, would have a £50,000 first prize, £20,000 second prize and £10,000 for third place.”
And how much did the difficulties that were so apparent in single-seater series play a part in hiking the PCC grid sizes for 2015? “To see young single-seater talent like Dino Zamparelli being attracted to Porsche Carrera Cup in 2015 and then starting to win was a real bonus. This just added to the huge success of the series, but we mustn’t be complacent. This is just the beginning.”
So it really was a number of factors that combined to turn what had been a rather sparse grid in 2014 into one of the biggest talking points within British motorsport. Having talked to the man who drives the marketing for Porsche in this country and seen the passion that he and his motorsport team bring to this series, the future looks exciting. I’m convinced that what he has demonstrated so effectively is that in designing and running a motorsport series, the role of the marketing department is a key element. Too often we see a motorsport category effectively being run by engineers, administrators and legal personnel. There’s room for that, of course, but then we have also seen the incredible hike in costs that is ruining motorsport when technology is allowed free reign and engineers run the show. There has to be a balance and I think Porsche have found that balance.