Making your debut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans is a big deal for any driver, but a number of drivers will have the distinction of having their first Le Mans start in one of the most unusual editions of the French endurance classic’s rich history. Gulf Racing’s Andrew Watson is one such driver.
Watson, 25, will make his debut with GTE Am squad in the biggest endurance race in the world, partnering Mike Wainwright and Ben Barker aboard the #86 Porsche 911 RSR and sat down for an exclusive interview with Motorsportweek.com on Sunday.
Watson is no stranger to endurance racing, with podiums and wins in the GT World Challenge and a second place at this year’s Bathurst 12 Hours. But even with this experience, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is on a different level, he admits.
“Even today, the team sent a video of them on the road and I guess that the way it’s been postponed and everything, it almost feels more surreal now because I’ve been waiting even longer,” Watson said. “There definitely is a surreal feeling to it because I went to the race for the first time last year. It’s always been a dream, my dad and I used to watch it when I was tiny, so it’s always been a dream.
“I went to the race last year and it seemed like such a high level. I’d raced at a high level before that but it seems like a completely different animal. For me, there was a part of me just thinking ‘wow it’s incredible’.
“But now that I’ve seen it, if I don’t ever have the chance, it’s going to be kind of sad. So there is a part of me that is just massively proud and relieved to be able to get to do it and I just hope that it’s not going to be my last and I can experience the full show next year.”
Virtual Le Mans
While it is Watson’s first start in the real thing, he has experienced the challenges of the daunting Circuit de la Sarthe in a different way, as he was one of the many drivers taking part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual, back in June. He partnered with real-life team-mate Ben Barker in Gulf Racing’s Porsche 911 RSR, which was decked out in a rather unusual livery as a result of a partnership with Premier League squad Wolverhampton Wanderers.
While the Virtual race will likely not be able to match up to the real thing, the Belfast native reckons that the sim racing event was a valuable lesson heading into his maiden Le Mans start.
“Yeah, one hundred percent. I’m probably not going to know what I learned until it’s over, but for sure,” he said. “It’s incredible now, how realistic the simulators are. Probably the biggest thing: the changeable conditions, the different points on the track, a couple of danger zones.
“The stints are pretty long there, and you’ve got long straight so it can be quite easy to switch off at times. So I think that was a lesson for me, that there are some places where you really need to snap back into focus towards the end of the stint.”
“So there’s those places and then it’s managing the prototype traffic to lose as little time as possible because that is such an important part, over 24 hours you can lose minutes depending on how you manage the traffic, so that’s massive.
“And obviously, in the World Endurance Championship, there’s a lot of marbles that gather off track, so as soon as you start getting that it takes a lap to get your tyres back, so it’s probably the main focus area for me during the race next week.”
Watson broke into the WEC at the start of the 2019/20 campaign, when he linked up with Mike Wainwright and Ben Barker, replacing Thomas Preining in the third driver in the Gulf Racing outfit. It poses an interesting contradiction, because while Gulf Racing has never raced anything other than Porsche machinery since joining the WEC, Watson himself is linked to Aston Martin Racing.
“I have a relationship with Aston Martin Racing for GT3 series, the GT World Challenge Europe. We’re actually leading the Silver Cup championship now, we won at Nürburgring last weekend. I haven’t forgotten how to drive, going into next weekend, which is good”, he quipped.
In GTE Am, the Gulf Racing squad will compete against both Aston Martin’s factory GTE Am outfit and TF Sport. It places Watson in the unique situation of racing against the brand he is affliated with. While recognizing the situation, he credits Gulf Racing for giving him the chance to make his Le Mans debut, expressing his gratitude at the opportunity he has been presented with.
“Yeah, it’s amazing and it’s quite special to race against those guys but I have to say thanks to Gulf Racing because there wasn’t an Aston Martin seat available this year in both teams,” he explains. “I had the chance to go to a shootout last July in Barcelona with Gulf Racing and a couple of other drivers. They let me do that and they picked me.”
“It’s very hard to break into the World Endurance Championship and a lot of people never get that chance so the fact that Aston Martin and also Gulf Racing are willing to give me that opportunity is just incredible.
“My dad is a massive car and motorsport fan and for him it’s just so special because we used to watch this race when we were younger and just never never thought that I would be able to get here.
“I’m just happy that we’re on this journey together and it would just be amazing to pick up a trophy at the end of it.”
Watson’s team-mates, Wainwright and Barker, have both already taken part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans multiple times. This is something that he will be feeding off, he says.
“Absolutely, yeah. It’s been that way all year,” Watson admits. “You’ve got to balance the practice time between the three drivers at every race, and this one especially.
“Ben being the professional, he’s done Le Mans four or five times now, he sacrifices some time for me. It’s a collective effort, it doesn’t matter if one person is half a second quicker if the other guy is two seconds off.
“I think we work well in that regard. The guys have had some really strong potential there so I think everybody feels that now is the time to convert it.”
Aside from his team-mate, Watson has one other trick up his proverbial sleeve in the form of his manager Mark Blundell. Blundell, ex-F1 racer, has seven Le Mans start on his own record, which includes an overall victory with Peugeot in 1992.
“Nothing specific as yet, but he obviously helps me out with a lot of things so I think next week I’ll have to ask him the nitty-gritty details about what makes him so good round there,” Watson replies when asked if Blundell has given him any pointers.
“He always has things to add for me and he has been a massive help for me. Next week hopefully he’ll be able to call in for a sparring chat before the race.”
Behind closed doors
Despite the excitement, it’s hard to get away from the reality that is the 88th edition of Le Mans taking place behind closed doors. While many drivers have expressed their disappointment in the situation, Watson offers a different view.
“For sure, we’re going to miss out on some things, but I was there before so I know what it’s like and I think we’ve had probably more preparation now than we would have had with the virtual Le Mans race back in June and plenty of time to prepare,” Watson said.
“So in a way, I think it’s going to make it easier to focus on the job because I obviously have enough to be thinking about and focusing on myself, trying to do a good job and deliver for the team. So in a way, it’ll probably make it easier for me and a bit easier to concentrate on the driving.”
“My personal goal is to not make any mistakes, to learn the track quickly and do my bit,” he explains. “I think as a team, we are aiming for the podium, we’ve shown that we can do that already.
“We should have had a podium at the first very first race if it wasn’t for a fuel issue as well, and we finished fourth.
“We’ve been in the mix for the podium most of the time and the team has put loads of work into the prep on the car. So yeah as a team, a podium it’s a podium, which we know that we can do so we just got to deliver and for me it’s just not making any mistakes.
“It’s my first Le Mans so I can’t expect to be the quickest guy there so I just need to do a solid job and do the best I can.”