Rebellion and the Curse of the Privateer

Rebellion Racing had a quiet 2013 in the WEC. A lack of competition in the privateer category meant they were often only racing amongst themselves, while mechanical failures dogged their assault on Le Mans and they ended the year on fire in the sands of Bahrain. But with the new year come new opportunities; we spoke to team manager Bart Hayden about 2014, new beginnings and mixing it up with the big guns.

Rebellion on track 2013 2

I’ve always imagined that being a Rebellion fan is a bit like supporting Everton. They loom in the shadow of the top dogs, sometimes pulling off extraordinary feats of giant beating but never in with a real chance of glory. Their budget is big enough to ensure that they’re the quickest of the non-factory teams by a decent margin, yet small enough that they would need some bizarre luck to win the overall prize outright.

So they’re stuck between a rock and a slower rock; always a crowd favourite due to their smart livery and non-factory status but rarely seen lighting up the timesheets. However the new year brings with it a crisp new rulebook, and Rebellion plan on kicking their challenge up a gear.

As team manager, Bart Hayden is the man in charge of taking the privateer fight to the factory fat cats. Our interview came as something of a chance encounter; crossing paths in the lobby of a Bahraini Hotel I almost mistook him for a Rebellion regular. Dressed in the brilliantly understated team uniform of shorts and black t-shirt, here was a man who doesn’t just run the team; he gets stuck in.

The next day saw me dropping into a sandy-coloured, Sci Fi-esque hospitality suite behind the team’s garage at the Sakhir Circuit, swapping the pleasant winter heat of Bahrain for dim lights and icy air conditioning. A few t-shirted men sat around a table staring intently at laptop screens, but Bart had soon whisked me around the corner and into what appeared to be the laundry room.

A couple of comfy leather chairs and a plastic IKEA table had been squeezed into one corner, relaxation clearly playing second fiddle to the logistics of packing crates and drivers’ dirty race wear. Space comes at a premium in these places; Rebellion have the dough to hire team buildings for flyaway races but the smaller teams often don’t. Audi, obviously, have a big, German complex.

Rebellion see a lot of Audi, often as those vertical tail lights hiss past but sometimes while looking up from the third step of the podium; it’s the curse of the privateer to labour in the background while the big names tussle amongst themselves, picking up the scraps when it all goes wrong for someone higher up the pecking order.

It was the day after the team’s lone old Lola-Toyota qualified a second quicker than it had the previous year, which in F1 terms corresponds to about a million pound’s worth of development. The problem was that with big money and proper competition Audi and Toyota had improved even more, spurring each other to greater heights through the desire to win. Hayden doesn’t blame them; they’re in the same race after all, but he speaks plainly about the chasm in the old rules:

Rebellion in pit 2013

‘I think that something should’ve been done about pegging (the gap) back a little bit in the regulations. I think the ACO recognise that there’s a need to give privateers like ourselves an opportunity to mix it with the factory guys, not necessarily to win but at least to be a part of the game.

If they don’t then they’re not sending the right signal to the privateers; they’re going to be saying “we’re not interested in you”, why would anyone else come and why would we stay? So I think that they recognise that.’

There’s clearly some bitterness amongst the team for what could be considered a bit of a non-season. Hayden changes tone, though, when we move onto 2014; he seems hopeful that Rebellion’s isolated WEC bubble could burst under the new regulations.

Talking animatedly he lists the reasons why he expects to be in a much better situation come the season start in April. Firstly it’s the move from air to fuel restriction; whereas before the balancing would have come from changing the size of the air intake, from this year they’ll be chopping and changing the amounts of fuel available. As Hayden points out, this means that giving any team a leg up is as easy as doling out an extra couple of gallons.

Reason number two is that everybody has had to start from a blank sheet, and he singles out some returning legends in particular: ‘I don’t know what (design) approach the three different factory teams are going to take but I envisage it might be somewhat different, so it’s hard to say really whether one of them may have an advantage over the others.

Maybe Porsche could be finding their feet initially, and even though they’ve got a massive organisation there might be a couple of opportunities early on for us to capitalise on.’

It’s reassuring to hear such positivity, especially when the object of his third reason is such an unknown. It comes in the shape of a brand new ORECA designed LMP1 car, made exclusively for the team and named the R-One. Due for shakedown in mid-March the Swiss team and French manufacturers will be pushed for time, but Hayden doesn’t seem too phased:

‘We’ve experienced car builds and upgrades over the years and they’re always to the wire. You never really get them with time to spare so we’re not really anticipating anything different next year. It’ll all be quite down to the wire, with late nights as we get close to the deadlines.’

He smiles when I ask whether this just makes it all the more exciting: ‘There’s certainly not a lot of time to relax and there’s not a lot you can do by way of contingency either. We’re in the race business and it’s all very last minute, trying to eke out the last amount all the time.’ As he points out, the final race of the season starts at 3pm but the team were at the track by 9 o’clock; every second is precious in motorsport.

There’s even less thumb twiddling when it comes to the collaboration on such a big project. While the basic design of the R-One is entirely down to Oreca it’s important that Rebellion have their input; Hayden and operations manager Ian Smith visit the factory every few weeks to check on progress, decide on tech specs (brakes, dampers, clutch etc.) and make sure that the finished product will be a good fit for the drivers; the whole cockpit was pretty much designed around regular driver Nico Prost.

Rebellion ROne

Hayden admits that sometimes there can be differences, but they rarely cause an issue: ‘They (Oreca) might have had one preference and we might’ve had the other but we weren’t necessarily going to fight our corner overly strongly. We’re trying to let them do their job as much as we can; we don’t want to crowd them and risk delaying the project. But at the same time we want to be involved so that we haven’t got surprises, we can plan for what’s coming.’

Of course the machinery is only one part of a much bigger team equation. While the R-One will hog most of the media spotlight there’ll be a lot going on behind the garage shutters, pit wall shelters and steering wheels. Prost is still the only confirmed driver of the two car WEC entry, but regulars such as Matthias Beche and Andrea Belicchi are almost certain to return for 2014.

One man who won’t be returning is rising star Neel Jani who has been snapped up by Porsche for this year’s championship. But Hayden isn’t worried about filling seats, admitting that being the only P1 team with free slots puts them in a rather nice position; his team are in conversation with a number of drivers and he hints that they’re spoilt for choice.

However, it’s difficult to deny that no matter how good the new car and crop of driving talent are, it’ll all be somewhat wasted if Rebellion are just racing themselves in 2014. With Strakka Racing dropping down to LMP2 after a couple of lukewarm years at the top and not much interest from teams elsewhere, this year’s non-factory competition might have already been won. I asked Bart whether the privateer trophy was a bit of an ‘also ran’ challenge:

‘In 2012 when we won the trophy we were up against JRM, we were up against Strakka and we won it on absolute merit. This year when Strakka decided to withdraw from the championship we were leading, and we can’t help the fact that we haven’t got anybody now to particularly compete against... in the history books people will look back and see that we’ve won two world championships, and (he adds, as if to reassure himself) we have.’

I ask why they don’t follow Strakka’s example and move to P2, where ‘absolute merit’ is a relatively bigger factor: He muses for a second before saying: ‘The tantalising prospect, however small it might be, that we could get an outright victory is one that appeals to and intrigues us. P2 is really competitive and I think it’s a great class; maybe one day we might look to see if that’s somewhere where we’d like to play. But at the moment we’re very focused on P1, that’s where we feel our home is.’

Rebellion Mechanic

‘We’re competing here with a fraction of the budget that’s available to the factories, and we very much see ourselves as David in the David vs. Goliath battle. We don’t expect to be victorious every time we go out; but we’d like to think we’ve got the chance to do it.’

The Middle Eastern sun is starting to drop behind the grandstand and Bart is a busy man, so I squeeze in one last question before I leave him to his bleak laptop screens and chilly pit building. 2014 is going to be a big year for the WEC; is it going to be a big one for Rebellion too?

‘We would love to be able to go to each race genuinely thinking that if we do a good job we’ve got a chance of being on the podium. But without having even seen the car in the flesh, without having put it on the track and without having seen the competition it’s very difficult to make a prediction.

I’d love to get a win, of course I would, and the ultimate goal is to win Le Mans. You go racing to get results, you go racing to improve what you’re doing and to get the most out of what you have. We have to go into each race with that goal or we are just going to be making up the numbers, and that’s not why we come racing.’

Maybe I was wrong to call it the ‘curse of the privateer’ then. For all of the factory teams’ excellence in pushing the boundaries of technology and pace, they’re largely motivated by the need to sell us their road cars. Teams like Hayden’s sit at the apex of a completely different kind of racing; the kind where you’re in it for the thrill of the chase and the chance of ending up as that rare creature, the victorious underdog.

It just so happens that Rebellion are in a good enough position to take a challenge to the massive operations ahead of them, and we thank them for that. If they carry on with the aims of getting results, improving what they’re doing and getting the most of what they have, they’re going to be a huge thorn in the side of Audi, Toyota and Porsche in the coming months.

And if they do cause a couple of big upsets, well… you’d have to be a little boring not to celebrate. Bring on the WEC in 2014.

Jamie Snelling is a freelance journalist, and at the tender age of 24 is already a 7-time Speed Chills veteran. Follow his random motorsport-based outbursts on Twitter (@speedchillsview)