JOTA's Simon Dolan on Crashing, Danger and Eau Rouge

Simon Dolan and his JOTA team have had a mixed bag of results over the last few weeks. At the Silverstone round of the ELMS their race was cut short by a massive shunt into a concrete barrier with a quarter of the race to go, while a hard-fought second at the WEC 6 Hours of Spa two weeks later came despite a heart in mouth moment at the top of the famous Eau Rouge.

JOTA Spa Eau Rouge

“First off you think: ‘where's the wall?’” says Dolan now suited, booted and debriefed about an hour after the spin which could have ended in disaster, “When you know there's not a wall, you think about whether you can keep it in a straight line, your foot’s through the floor on the brake. Then you see all the cars coming up the hill, and you think 'Oh, this is going to be no good'”

“Then the marshals are all flapping about, obviously they’re just making sure you’re safe and they do a great job but they’ve been sitting around for hours and suddenly they’ve got to jump into action, it’s all pretty hectic.”

“You get it started, get back to the garage to check the wheels aren’t going to fall off, and then they put you straight back in the car with some new tyres.”

Then comes the hard part; he has to barrel through Eau Rouge and over the blind crest of Raidillon, foot flat to the floor, and this time do it right; “The corner went from being almost nothing to being '****, this really is scary again.

“Obviously the guys in the garage can see all the telemetry and I'm coming round turn one saying to myself 'I can't lift, I can't lift, I can't lift’ because I know they'll be looking. So I kept my foot down and I've never been so relieved to get to the top of it. They wouldn't actually have said anything but I would have known.”

It helps to have the balls to go straight out and do it again. His Twitter bio reads thus: ‘One of the UK's leading entrepreneurs, Le Mans race driver, best selling author and one time champion kickboxer’. When SCV is ushered into the JOTA team’s motorhome in the paddock at Spa, we make sure not to start either a fight or a bidding war.

We’re here because of an exchange on Twitter a few days earlier in which we and Dolan discussed just how safe it was to crash head first into a concrete barrier on Silverstone’s Hangar Straight. If you’ve not seen it yet, give it a quick YouTube. We’ll wait.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= dBaB39jKwdA

It looks distinctly catastrophic and, with the end result at least, not that dissimilar to Mike Rockenfeller’s spectacular shunt at Le Mans in 2011. Spearing across the track at high speed, hitting the barrier and exploding in a cloud of carbon fibre is something no driver really wants to do.

“I don't think he did it on purpose,” says Dolan, referring to the Ferrari driver who he says gave him no choice but to go onto the grass, “If I believed that someone would do that then I wouldn't go racing. So OK he didn’t see me, but I ended up in the wall and out of the race, so I’m not sure if ‘I didn’t see him’ is really a valid excuse.”

“If I'd been in a GT car and had that crash then I'd have had broken legs. The fact that we're in a prototype with its tough tub really helped, but it's still written the whole thing off and it's still 160 grand's worth of damage.”

So how to mitigate it? Safety is a word heavy with connotations; fun spoiling, hi-vis jackets, ‘just in case’, but it also has to be a priority. Last year was something of a tragic landmark for sports car fans, with accidents claiming the lives of Allan Simonsen, Sean Edwards and Andrea Mamé among others.

Simon Dolan

Dolan is quite aware of the danger; he brings it up before we do, and it’s clear that he’s given it some thought: “The GT cars are probably as safe as they can be but I’d never get in one again. The prototypes are built in such a way that you can take a bloody big hit and come out with nothing worse than a concussion and a few cuts and bruises.”

And that’s all that he got at Silverstone. He may have been extracted from the remains of the car but never lost consciousness and was discharged from the medical centre after a quick check up. The community’s collective sigh of relief when the news came through was a palpable one; after the dark times of 2013 we’re all a bit more sensitive to these kinds of things.

“I think that all three were freak accidents last year and it’s just a coincidence that they all happened in one go. You have to be a bit philosophical about it and realise that although racing’s a relatively safe thing to do, accidents happen.”

“You can have something happen to you if you're walking home or if you go horse riding or cycling. With Michael (Schumacher) for example, he races for all those years, has all those accidents, even has a car flying inches from his head in his last race. Then he goes skiing with his wife and kids and that happens.”

“It's all about mitigating the danger as best you can, against anything you can do something about.”

To the meat of his own experience then. Simon believes that there’s a clear way to ‘mitigate the danger’ in the case of his own accident at Silverstone, and it comes complete with some convincing numbers:

“At Paul Ricard (for the pre-season ELMS test) we were doing 274kph at the end of the straight and the Ferraris were up to 287kph. The problem is that although we're quicker around the lap, the only way of getting past is to do them through the corners. It's OK if you can trust the person in front, but if you have somebody who's not very experienced or not very good, or hasn't seen you, then they might turn in on you.”

JOTA Spa Rivage

“If I'd had enough grunt to get past him then I’d have just blasted through on the straight rather than having to come round the side out of the corner. I had to do it lots of times in the race, because if you hesitate in getting past every time then you're soon going to be twenty seconds back down the road.”

“Yes, you have to accept that there are going to be accidents, but to make you have to fight with a class that you've got nothing to do with seems ludicrous. The P1 cars go past us like we're not even there, so there must be a happy medium that's less than the top speed of the P1 cars but is enough get past the GTs on the straights.”

Balancing the performance of these very different kinds of cars is a fine art, but not a complete one. It will never be completely right, especially when ultra competitive teams spot an opportunity to get one over their rivals, but the organisers do a largely excellent job.

However no matter how even you make the racing, as Dolan says, there will still be accidents, and these can carry a high cost both financially and personally. Before we leave him to his qualifying preparation we ask him one last question: where do you draw the line?

“It happens to everybody; at test day last year I managed to leave a Zytek shaped hole in the side of Jaques Nicolet's Oak, so sometimes all you can you do is go and say 'I'm sorry, I really screwed up.'”

“You have to accept that it's part and parcel of racing. You don’t think about it when you’re in the car because you’re concentrating on keeping it in a straight line but the most important thing is the safety. You can be quick or slow but you can always be safe, and being safe means being aware of what's around you.”

Jamie Snelling is a freelance motorsports journalist and 9-time Speed Chills veteran.