LE MANS
Pre Le Mans
-
14/06/2001
 
Guy Smith
On Bentley, Brundle And Stefan Johansson
 
with Kerry Morse


One of the reasons that teams like to come to Laguna Seca is that Monterey is one of the great places to eat and drink. One of those establishments is Tutto Buono, an Italian bistro of some notoriety. The owners are the Spadaro family ( yes, his name is Vito ! ) and have owned several places in the area over the years. Race teams, drivers, fans, all have made Tutto a popular place, witness the original FIA GT stickers that have graced the glass doors since 1997. After last year's race, John Brooks and I retired to our usual table by the window. We were joined by Michael Cotton and Firebaugh's most famous rancher, Terry Burkhart. As Brooksie was ordering another bottle of wine, Terry looked over to see Stefan Johansson and Guy Smith peering in at us and making faces through the glass. A wave of her hand and they both joined us for a glass or two. Based on the stories going around the table that night you would never know that Guy Smith is a relative newcomer in all of this. From karting to Formula 3, a test at Williams, Indy Lights under the watchful eye of Stefan Johansson, rookie of the year honors at Le Mans last year, now a ride in the Gulf livery Audi R8 for the ELMS and the big role as a shoe in the new Bentley for this year's 24 Heures du Mans. Guy has impressed the right people in a quiet,understated way. He does his talking on the track. I mean, check this out. Johansson cuts him loose from a race that Stefan could very well win so Guy has a chance with a factory team. And with Martin Brundle no less.

This piece was done a few days after Guy returned from the practice day at La Sarthe. He had a brilliant run in the Audi a few weeks earlier where he should have finished second, then grabbed pole and was in front at Monza for most of the race until mechanical problems set in. When we spoke, he was in preparation for the ELMS round in Spain. Is Guy Smith ready to step up to the level set by Allan McNish ? Many serious observers of the sport think he is well on the way.

As is the practice of totalmotorsport, this piece is presented in the unedited form as it was recorded. So there. Enjoy !

Kerry Morse



KM: When were you approached by Bentley for the drive?

GS: Well, we started speaking at the end of last year when John Wickham was my team manager. We had a good relationship at the end of last of year and he moved to Bentley and was able to put my name forward at least. We then went over there for the winter and again, as you can imagine, lots of ideas going by. Different drivers, this, that, all the politics and eventually I heard I was on the short list.


KM: To be partnered with two Le Mans winners in a car that will basically be carrying the flag for Britain has to be a pretty big honor even with the success you have had to date. I mean, this is a huge career move regardless of how the car performs.


GS: Sure, I mean obviously the last two years have been difficult and I've been trying to get with one manufacturer this year. When Bentley announced they were coming back, it was the perfect opportunity for me because it was a British team and I knew that the car was going to be a real challenger from the start. Not just to be a faster team but to be Bentley, which is the ultimate British car if you like. It couldn't be better, and when you become aware of Bentley and their history at Le Mans, with the success it's had, makes it all the more special.

KM: You've been teamed with Stefan Johansson and basically put on a pretty good show last year in a car that would have to be considered the best drive out of the non-Audis. You and Stefan were right there with David Brabham and Mags. How did that prepare you for this season driving in the Audi R8 with Johansson and then eventually, the Bentley?

GS: Well, obviously last year was good. It wasn't the best or the most competitive car but it had 600 plus horsepower. I'm not used to driving a car with a lot of horsepower and downforce, which is very important. Also, driving with someone like Stefan you can't help but learn. So throughout the course of the year, whether it be my debriefing, my qualifying, my race track tapes or whatever, else, I was constantly learning. Although it didn't always transpire into race results, I never stopped learning and improving. And I think I was able to do it and move away from the limelight and away from any sort of media attention. In some respects that's been quite good for me because that means when you do get the spotlight on you, you've got some background to draw from and hopefully that's coming out in my racing this year.


KM: People that watched your career have said that you really came into your own last year running with the top guys in GT and the ALMS. Obviously you've impressed Richard Lloyd and those at Bentley enough to team you with Brundle and Ortelli who have loads of experience. So it appears to be that you're no longer the "young gun" but "one of us" now. That's kind of a unique situation because if you look at a lot of the driver pairings, certainly in the other classes, they tend to be the same age and experience. You've been able to carry yourself as a seasoned veteran. To what do you attribute that?

GS: I've got a good balance. I mean Martin's got a wealth of experience, probably the most at Le Mans. I think with all his experience, he's made me better. He's been very helpful. He talked me through Le Mans since I'd only been there once before. I can learn a hell of a lot from him. I think I've got the speed even though I lack the experience at Le Mans and I think that what I lack in experience, Martin more than makes up for. So I think that we make a strong team. I think that Stephane is where I want to be in a couple of years. He's already won Le Mans and he's got a wealth of experience. He's very much at the top of the game right now. I think the team believes that speed is important and to win Le Mans you need that. I think I have that, even though I'm lacking experience. You know with all the testing we have done and with all the testing that's coming up this weekend, I believe I've come on even more in these last few months and hopefully by the time Le Mans comes around, I hope to reach the next level. I know I'm fast and my experience is building all the time. And again, it looks like I'll be driving around with Stefan so I'll be driving the Audi again...

KM: Very cool, congratulations.

GS: Thank you. I'm really pleased about that. It's important Kerry, because it's OK doing the work, but then when you drop out of the limelight, it's important to keep your name up there and it's good to be driving the Audi again. And hopefully we get a good result.

KM: Aw, you just want to pass Pirro again and bury him.

GS: (Laughs) I want to do it again but this time I want to do it for the lead.

KM: And this time you'll make it stick. Hopefully Stefan will bring someone a little quicker on the fuel hose.

GS: You saw that on TV, didn't you. (Laughs)

KM: Yep.

GS: Exactly! Well, we talked about that and it looks like they want to be more prepared this time so hopefully that will be a distant story.

KM: So here you have Johansson, ex Ferrari F-1 jockey, Le Mans winner, dated gorgeous women, and then there is Martin Brundle, ex-McLaren, another Le Mans vet, team leader whether you like it or not and then you. A punk, and yet you've been able to basically go down to the pub and have a beer with these guys and there's none of that superstar stuff that usually rubs off. That's completely the opposite of their public profile. Were you a little blown away, not knowing what to expect, where it could have been "I'm gonna tell you how it is kid because I'm the superstar." But there's been none of that, has there?

GS: Actually they're really great guys. They may seem that they have this world between them and the public because they are superstars and role models. There are pop stars and movie stars too, and you expect them to be seven feet tall with gleaming white teeth and the full lot. Then you find that they're human beings. You know, Stefan was one of my heroes, and you feel inferior when you're talking to him because you think, God, he's done it all. And he gets talking and you start to build up a friendship and a relationship and now Stefan is one of my mates. I can ring him up and talk to him about the latest joke, about what I've been doing, and this and that, my girlfriend and whatever it may be. And same with Martin. When I first met Martin, I didn't know how to take him. Obviously I know what he's doing, I've watched him on TV and get a bit of a hero vibe. Within time, you get to know him and understand him and then you get to the part where you're just mates. And you're also working for the same guy. During the testing, I think I've had to earn their respect because, hey, I'm driving with them and they have to be sure that I can do the job. So I've had to earn their respect and I think I've got that now. Certainly Stefan. I remember Indy Lights, he wanted to go with me to testing to watch me and to make sure I could change gears properly, I could brake properly, and basically that I could drive OK. Now we're teammates in the Audi and we're working together. So it's taken time, but hopefully I've got their respect as a race driver and they treat me like an equal. And that's what's happening with Martin right now. At first we didn't know where each other were, but now we've got a strong relationship. Obviously he's had my respect to start with because of what he's done, and I'd like to think that I've earned his respect on a professional level.

KM: That must transfer into a real confidence in the cockpit of the car then because you can concentrate fully on your driving because they accept you and your capability to perform at a certain level which should make your job a lot easier opposed to being worried about " Oh God what if I miss a shift or what if I stuff it?" Were you able to concentrate more fully on your driving?

GS: I think you're absolutely right. That's the thing, being comfortable as a team. I mean, at the end of the day we're all treated as equals and all of us do a job and I think Martin realizes that we're all in there for each other, we're all here to help each other. We're not there to point the finger. If someone makes a mistake we're not going to sit there waving our fingers and saying that you messed up. It doesn't work like that. We're in this type of racing and there are going to be times when you're going to make a mistake and that's just the way it is. We all make mistakes, but this is a team effort. We all want the same result and you can't put that kind of pressure on people. Martin is experienced enough to know that that kind of pressure doesn't always work. You know, he's been a second father to me, very supportive. He's explained a lot to me about cars, about fuel loads, about getting the best out of qualifying tires, and other types of things which could benefit me. He's never once put me in a position where I felt, "shit, what happens if I make a mistake, or do this or that or whatever?" That's because he's a professional and he knows that's not the way to do it. He's never once said "You twit, you crash this car and you're out." He's never once put me in that position.

KM: Let's talk about the Bentley some. After your initial fitting for seating and such, where did you get your first taste of driving it?



GS: The only time that I had driven it prior to Le Mans was for an hour at Most. We were testing there and the weather was pretty shitty. Cold and miserable. And the way it worked out, I only got an hour in the car. I was supposed to test in Germany, but that got canceled after Alboreto's crash. So the run at Le Mans was really my second run in the car after only being in it for an hour. So it felt pretty new to me at Le Mans.



KM: Can you take us for an initial lap around Le Mans in the Bentley, exiting pit row, the differences between being in an open car and a LMP coupe ?

GS: Well, last year in the rain with a lazy high revving engine in the car, when I ran at the Mulsanne and the thing went screaming away, you couldn't hear anything, just the engine screaming away. In comparison,this year with the Bentley, the turbo engine, was obviously much quieter. And being in this sort of closed-cockpit car, it makes the engine sound much quieter. It's almost eerie, because as you enter out into the straight at over 100 miles an hour, it's very, very quiet and you can hear every little creek and rattle that goes on in a car. And I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not really.



KM: Why is that?

GS: Well, because you start looking for things that aren't there. And if you sat there, you'd wonder "what was that, was that tire going to explode, or was it this or was it that?" Sometimes I thought it wasn't a good thing. It certainly was a different feeling. It's not strange driving with the roof up, but I found that when you sit in the cars with the doors closed, you feel really claustrophobic because you feel like you're on your own. But once you get into traffic and are actually driving the car, it feels no different. The feeling is exactly the same.

KM: It's been said in the past that Le Mans is an endurance race, but the cars have become so much more reliable and competitive that virtually it is a flat-out sprint race now.

GS: Yeah, well it is 24 hours and some cars are going to go on as far as they can go. And basically the cars are so reliable now that chances are they're going to go flat out and finish the race, either to win or finish in second. So if you want to win the race, you have to go out at full chat. In the old days, you know, ten years ago (laughs), you'd drive around and be a couple of seconds off the pace, and then speed up the pace in the middle of the night and try to surprise the competition. No more of that. But in the last couple of years, you'd basically have to go flat out from the start, and it was a 24 hour sprint race. I think that it's going to be the same this year. I think the Audi's will go flat out and I think that we'll go flat out to keep checking them and give them a run for their money.

KM: You know, that puts you in an interesting situation, having both the experience of driving the R8 with Stefan and being in the Bentley team where you'll hopefully be on pace with the Audis. You'll know the strengths and weaknesses of the R8, (which there seem to be very few weaknesses when you look at last year's development - KM), and now you're driving a new car. The loaded question is, if you had been given a choice of being put on the Audi team, or with the Bentley team, what would you have done, because in essence you almost are confronted with it?

GS: You really are to the point, aren't you ? Yes, it's a difficult question to answer. If they had asked me to drive for Audi, I would have jumped at the chance, but Bentley asked me. I've gotten into a situation where I've got great cars to choose from, which is something I'd never even dreamed of and I'm very fortunate to be in that position.

KM: That's a nice problem to have.

GS: Well honestly, the Audi is a more developed car and it is the favorite. But it's not bulletproof like the BMW LMR was. It does have problems such as gearbox linkage that isn't as strong. I know they've had some problems in the past that they got changed in the race, whereas the gearbox in the Bentley looks bulletproof. But it's a new car so there's probably some problems. So it's a difficult thing to say, you know, this year Audi, next year Bentley. If you're a betting man, this year Audi. For 2002, Bentley will probably move into a stronger position.

KM: Although, conversely it will be very hard for Audi to top what they did last year because they are expected to win this year. More of the news and interest are in the Bentley area, so in terms of exposure...(you're more likely to be on the cover of LM & Sportscar magazine, which could be the topic under discussion here, with Brabs and Stuart Codling).





GS: Yeah, along the weekend we got so much exposure because while Audi's not old news, people know what it's about. People know the products and the drivers and it's no big deal, whereas Bentley is completely new. Nobody's seen the car, no one knows about the team, no one really knows anything about it. So everyone's curious and intrigued by it. From that point of view, from the driver's point of view, that's great. For me in my current position, at this point in my career, it's perfect because I get to be in a great car and I get good figure attention which is something important for my stock portfolio, if you like. So personally I'd say Bentley right now is ideal, because it gives me the chance of winning the race, but it also takes some of the pressure off me because I'm not expected to win the race. But I sure am going to try to win it.

KM: And if you get a chance to pass your other employer, a certain Mr. Johansson?

GS: He would be very angry if I had a chance and didn't ! ( laughs )

KM: As a driver, as a racer, what are your long term goals now, Guy?

GS: I really love Sports Cars. At the end of 99, my thought was to get into Champ car and that was what I was focused on, but that didn't happen. I wasn't really in a position where I could do Champ car, but I did get very close. As my focus was on Champ car, I never really took an interest in sports car racing, but that is what I'm focused on now, and that's what I'm into. I realize that there is more than Champ car and Formula 1. I mean, the sports cars are fantastic cars. The racing is good and I'm really, really enjoying what I'm doing more than anything I've ever done. It would take a lot to get me off sportscars and go back to doing Champ cars. So I think long term, my goal is to win Le Mans, and you know, I'd like to do something like Jacky Ickx has done. You know, become one of the greats of sports car racing and try to win the likes of Daytona, Sebring, and I'd like to win Le Mans with the Bentley. And I would like to win at Monza. I know it's not quite the same as the old Monza 1000. The Monza race was such a good race in the past, it would have been nice to see and race in it.

KM: Well, there'll be more Monzas. I guess that's one way of looking at it.

GS: Yes, exactly, exactly. There will be more Monzas. I like what I do. I've been successful and I like to win races. I want to be in there and win races again and be on the podium. That's what I enjoy doing and that's what I want to get back to doing. I'm very fortunate that I drive the Audi and then the Bentley. And it's occurred to me now that I can prove what I can do. You know, it's up to me now to make the most of it.





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