It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: David Brabham on the Panoz LMP07

Images copyright Pat Michl
Text copyright Pat Michl

Pat Michl has been a silent contributor for years now quietly providing images and documentation.  When he proposed the idea to interview David Brabham regarding his thoughts all these years later of the Panoz LMP07 I couldn't say no.  Pat caught up with David at the 2005 Petit Le Mans:

I was at the Texas Motor Speedway in March, 2001, for the North American debut of the radical new Panoz LMP07.  The car represented a leap forward in the Panoz organizations’ quest  to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a front-engine Prototype.  On the surface, things seemed to go well that day, with the car finishing third in its’ first “real” race (it hardly seems fair to hold the rushed appearance in Adelaide, December 2000, against it).  This , however, proved to be the first and only bright spot in the LMP07's short, troubled career.  David Brabham was kind enough to take a few minutes away from his Aston Martin duties at the 2005 Petit Le Mans to tell the tale of the LMP07 from a driver’s perspective. 

Pat Michl: There we were, March 2001, at the Texas Motor Speedway, awaiting the North American debut of the all-new Panoz LMP07.  I was there for that race, and with about 15 minutes to go, you and Jan were in the lead.  I saw you in the paddock, and asked if you were going to be able to hang on for the win. You said, “No, we’re going to have to stop for a splash of fuel”.  Sure enough, you did, and finished third.  Things were looking pretty good for Panoz that day.  What went right that day?

David Brabham: That’s a very good question. Actually, when we first tested the car here at Road Atlanta, the feel of the car felt really nice.  Part of the reason was that so much of the weight was much lower than the car we currently had been using.  And so, when we were driving around, it gave the impression that, ”Wow, this thing is just nice to drive, and reactive”, and it felt fast, but the lap time just wasn’t there. Which was concerning us slightly, because what it felt like in the car and what reality was were two different things, which doesn’t often happen.  Then we went to Texas, and we just, we had some issues with the car as far as handling, but there were places we could really make up some ground, and that was under brakes.  The thing was dynamite under brakes, and in the chicanes, but we lost a ton of time on the straights as well. And it’s just the way the race went.  We were actually really surprised at how well we went there.  Unfortunately, it was just probably the race where it did any good !

PM: It turned out that way …

DB: Yeah it did.  Maybe the track just suited it better than others, but we could see that we had a real problem on the straights.

PM: So there was still no real confidence in the car even after that podium?

DB: Well, no, we felt like if we had found more power or more aero on the straights that we could actually, you know, it gave us a positive feeling.

PM: So then came Sebring …

DB: But don’t forget, the debut was actually in Australia.

PM: Right, yes, I was going to mention that.  And you were still in an LMP-1 for that race.

DB: Yes.  By choice.  Well, it was my home race, Adelaide, and the car had done very little mileage before, and Don Panoz was quite adamant that he wanted that car down there.  And I made a bit of a fuss, because I felt like I wanted something that I knew was reliable to finish that race, because I wanted to do a good job in front of my countrymen.  And I managed to, well, we worked it out, it was fine and there was no big problem.  They said “ O.K., we understand”, and that’s fine, so Jan ended up driving, I think with Klaus Graf, and they had a difficult time.

PM: It didn’t last long …

DB: Didn’t last long, no, which I knew it wouldn’t.

PM: And so you were right …

DB: Yeah, and in the end we finished third in Adelaide, and it was a pretty good result for us.

PM: And so after Texas, you went to Sebring, and the problems continued.

DB: Yeah, a lot of our problems with the car, one, we didn’t have enough downforce  with the car, it was quite draggy, and mechanically the torsional rigidity was weak.  The Z-frames in the front, between the oil tank and the front assembly where the suspension bolts on to the engine, has frames going back to the chassis and the frames kept breaking all the time.  And so that caused us quite a lot of problems, and they were still breaking when we gave up on the car and went back to the old one. 

PM: From a driver’s point of view, what kind of improvements over the LMP-1 did you see?

DB: Well, definitely the lower center of gravity was a big plus for the car, and it was actually easier to drive, though it was slower.  The paddle shift system was very similar so there was no real difference there.  You know, at the end of the day it simply wasn’t fast enough to do the job.

PM: I’ve heard a lot of blame placed on the engine, undersized, crankshaft configuration, etc., how do you feel about the engine ?

DB: I would not agree with that.  I don’t want to put blame on anything because, you know, there’s a lot of very good race teams out there, including Formula 1 teams, who build a car for the next year and it doesn’t work.  So, you know, Panoz can build good cars, fast cars, but they built one that wasn’t.  And there was a lot of lessons learned from that exercise, so it was not a disaster in any shape or form.  It was something that the organization had to go through to work out more of a direction in where they needed to be.

PM: It’s understandable that every now and then you’re not going to get it right.

DB: When you’re pushing the envelope like that, you know, it was a bold new idea, and it was probably worth a go.  For sure, the engine could have been, you know, we could have had more power, but the deficiencies in the car itself were enough to say, no, you can’t put the blame totally on the engine.

PM: I seem to remember at Sebring, you got a fuel bath …

DB: Yeah, that’s right, I remember

PM: It was an incident where they pulled the nozzle out …

DB: Yeah, they pulled the nozzle out, I think it was more of a nozzle problem, that’s not necessarily a car problem.

PM: Did you feel like that was a safety issue, it had to be very uncomfortable …

DB: I do remember getting splashed… 

PM: I don’t think I’ve ever seen you get out of a car so fast !

DB: Well, I wasn’t sure I wanted to catch a light at that point, and you know, it burns your skin as well, even without fire, just the nature of the fuel.

PM:  So the next step was Le Mans, and still the problems continued.

DB: One of the problems we had, one was time, to get it right, and we knew , after Le Mans, that if we hadn’t got that car sorted by Le mans that we weren’t going to get it sorted after that, because we were traveling from one race to another to another, and were never going to get back to base.  That’s when the decision was made that we had to go back to the other one.

PM: Was that a final decision at that point ?

DB: After Le Mans, we felt like, let’s go back to the old one, we know it’s O.K., and it wasn’t long before we won a race.  Le Mans was a difficult one, except for in the wet, we were quickest in the wet. The car was very good in the wet.  It might be because the torsional rigidity was not so good, that it just allowed the car to work better in the rain, I don’t know, but the car did work very well in the wet.  That was a tough one, mentally it was very tough because you knew you weren’t fast, but at the same time we had a few mechanical issues that were at the back of your mind.

PM: Was there ever any hope of bringing the car back after Le Mans, with further development ? 

DB: I think it was talked about, but I think we realized that there were some pretty fundamental things that we needed to do to make that happen.  And again, when you get into the last half of the season after Le Mans, you just don’t  have the time to work on that.  You know, we were just, we kind of had to drop it and just run with the old one.  We won not long after that, and we had the momentum again, and everyone was pumped up…That victory felt sweet because we had gone through such a hard time with this thing, that it made it a little bit nicer when we did win.

PM: Do you miss driving the Prototypes ?

DB: Yeah, sure, I’ve always enjoyed the Prototypes, but I enjoy fast race cars, and the Aston Martin is a very nice, fast race car.  If I have the opportunity to go into a Prototype, I’d jump at it, because they are great fun, and they are fast; you get a lot out of them when you do push them.

PM: As a driver in ALMS, how do you have to do things differently , or think differently, when you go from a Prototype to a GT car ?

DB: Well, the biggest thing really, is probably when you are dealing with traffic.  When we were in the Prototypes, we were just passing everyone.  When you are in GT1, you are passing slower cars, and the faster cars are passing you.  When you are in the GT2s, they are just looking in the mirror all the time, they’re not really passing people unless they are for  position.  We’ve got to look forward and back very carefully, particularly looking back, this year more than any other year, because the way the regulations are, they’ve tried to slow the cars down, the Prototypes, so they’re not as fast on the straight, which means whenever they need to get past us, they need to do it under brakes, and so that’s when the risk value goes up.  So we have to be more careful than we would normally be.

PM: Were the opportunity to arise to run the Panoz LMP-1 again, would it be competitive today ? 

DB: No, things have moved on.  It would run O.K., but I doubt, up against a thing like the Zytek, you know the Zytek is in such a different league than the Panoz ever was.  And funny enough, it’s a very similar engine to what’s in the (LMP07), its just an upgraded engine with a bit more power, but it’s very similar to that engine.

PM: Well David, I know you have things to do so I won’t keep you any longer. I want to thank you very much for your time, and I wish you lots of luck with the Aston Martin. Have a good, safe race.

DB: Will do, thanks .

ęCopyright 2005, Michael J. Fuller