Over the years there have been a number of good documentaries on the world of endurance racing. There’s just something fascinating about the motivation and perseverance needed to compete at the highest level in long distance classics like the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Back in the 1970s there was Le Mans, the Steve McQueen movie that, while it has a plot, is really closer to a documentary—after all, there’s not a word of dialogue for the first half-hour. In the late 2000s we got the wonderful Truth in 24, about Audi’s highly successful Le Mans program, then a sequel. More recently we’ve had Journey to Le Mans and Sir Chris Hoy: 200mph at Le Mans, and now Netflix has just added The Gentleman Driver.
As the name suggests, this latest documentary looks at the role of the amateur racers that compete at the highest level of the sport, in the World Endurance Championship (WEC). Of the four classes that race at Le Mans and in this series, two of them are for pro-am teams. As the documentary explains, OEMs come and go as corporate priorities change, but the wealthy amateur has always been the backbone of the sport, and some of them are actually quite good at it. As we both happened to be at Daytona at the end of January, I got a chance to chat with Paul Dalla Lana, one of the drivers featured in the documentary, to find out a bit more about why he bothers spending so much time and money on this sport.
“Good teammates and a good team always make the difference. The sport has a big tradition of gentleman drivers being involved, it’s something that drives the customer side of racing all around the world, and now more and more you’re seeing these opportunities to merge in with factory racing and the truly pro configurations. It’s a great part of the sport and it’s nice that so many of us gentlemen are having success out there and pushing ourselves to places you never thought you’d be, right? Because it’s one of the cool thing about this sport—you can really go up and compete at the highest level if you’re prepared to put in the time and energy. There’s not too many sports that afford you that opportunity.”
As it turns out, Dalla Lana’s story isn’t that of a kid who grew up racing then had to give it up, only to return to the sport once he became financially successful in other endeavors. So when exactly did he start racing?
“I know my wife could tell you the date exactly! Somewhere in 2007 I went to my first track day ever, at Mosport [outside Toronto]. I guess it was inside me, I just never knew; it wasn’t part of our family tradition growing up. I got it very late, so this is my 10th or 11th year of racing and I’ve always kept going to the deep end every time I had a chance to do something more challenging I did it. And I’d say I’m probably just feeling comfortable now, I know my way around, what I need to do, what I can do. It’s taken that long to figure it out, in fairness. There’s no substitute for seat time, as everyone says, and in my case its had to come in the heat of battle. I haven’t had a lot of training or a lot of courses, I just jumped right in and started doing it.”
In addition to being a pretty expensive sport to compete in, endurance racing also demands a lot of your time. [Juggling schedules and plenty of travel over the last few years has meant my last race was back in 2016, for instance.] So where does he find the time?
“It’s the hardest part. In the early part of my driving career I did do sim work, and I had a home set up, but then there were some places in Toronto that had pretty sophisticated setups that helped me learn tracks and get comfortable. But personally I find it not as transferable as I’d like. At least in terms of WEC now we know the circuits, we know the car, I think I’m doing enough racing to be current. And when we’re not, we reach out and do other things, which brings me to Daytona right now, which is really a chance to slot in a couple of great races in between that long break in our season.
“So I’m not as current as some of the pros who are racing every weekend—there’s no substitute for that but I think in terms of showing up I think I’ve gotten to a place now where in the first session of the weekend I’m back up to speed and doing what I need to do. I think that’s maybe the case of it being enough time and I’m comfortable doing it. There are places we’ll go—Bathurst [which is racing this very weekend] where you just never get enough track time and it’s such a unique and crazy place that by the end of the race you’re finally figuring it out, but everywhere else I’ve done it enough that I can get comfortable quickly.”
I also wanted to know why he even bothers; after all there are plenty of other series one could go race in where you’re not sharing the track with some of the world’s best professional racing drivers. WEC’s GTE-AM category is pretty hardcore; why this series?
“My feeling was I could contribute. At least in WEC, and more than ever in GTD [in IMSA] Your need to contribute now is quite apparent and there’s no hiding, there’s just the configuration of the races in WEC. There’s very few safety cars, ultimately it’s time—what you put in is what you get out. I like that, that I can do my part, or maybe even more than my part at times. When I started [in other racing series] I won championships, but to be fair about it, it was my [professional] teammate who did all the work, and I just brought the car back [in one piece] and if you did that you had a chance. Now you’ve really got to contribute and do your part, and that’s what drives me, for sure.
Finally, how hard is it to find that last few percent when it comes to getting the most out of himself and the car?
“As I’ve gotten enough experience to observe, there’s two things that stand out in terms of the really good drivers. One is consistency, especially in endurance racing. The most impressive thing is to see people over a long period of time bang it out and be within a very small margin of laptimes. That is really hard to teach; concentration and commitment, pushing and being right in that zone where you can do it. That I think is big.
“More recently what I’ve seen is the ability of a really good driver to adapt to changing conditions, whether that’s tires changing in a stint, or conditions—track temperatures or when it’s extremely wet—just that ability to realize things are going to change. Those are the two things that great drivers are doing all the time to get those last few tenths of a percent out of the car. That’s hard, and I’m not quite there actually; if I looked at myself, sure I could be more consistent, make no mistakes, and just bang it out at the same level the whole time—there’s still some room there. And while doing that to just experiment a tiny bit to find that slightly different line, or doing things through a stint to continue to optimize; I can improve there.
“But there’s always an exception—someone who’s just more committed or hasn’t ever had a crash. In endurance racing in particular [it’s] always about bringing it home, so you realize that last tenth is not what really makes the great endurance driver. It’s important but it’s not the only thing, its really being being consistent, being able to work with a team. You often don’t get the exact setup you want, you often have to look at us [all of the drivers of a car] as a group, nobody’s in a comfortable seat, everyone’s compromising a bit to make it work.Those are all the things about being in a teammate and fitting in. There’s still room for me to learn; we’ll see if life continues to give me the opportunity. It is a big time commitment even though I’m not training the same amount as other drivers, but the training commitment to be fit is huge, the travel commitment in WEC to travel to all the races around the world is massive, particularly with a young family and a very busy business.”