Lee Mowle believes he is better equipped to challenge for results in the Michelin Le Mans Cup this season than he was for his last foray into European competition in 2015.
The 51-year-old endured a tough baptism to the Blancpain Endurance Series Pro-Am class with a best finish of 10th at Silverstone and found the championship’s Pro-oriented format not to his liking.
But despite his venerable BMW Z4 struggling to keep pace with newer competition, Mowle stepped up his game in British GT last year and now feels ready to make his mark in the ELMS-supporting Le Mans Cup, where a greater priority is afforded to the Am driver.
Mowle will share an AMD Tuning-run Mercedes-AMG GT3 with regular British GT rival Phil Keen.
“I got into motorsport to race on some of the circuits that you watched on TV when you were a kid and I haven’t really done that,” he told Racing.GT. “I had a Blancpain season that if I’m honest was probably a bit too soon for me in terms of the quality of the drivers and the quantity of Pros on-track.
“You’ve probably got 45 Pros at any one time on the circuit, so when you’re one of around 15 Ams you do feel like you’re in a bit of a tumble-drier, or I did at that particular time. Now I feel that I could probably cope with that a hell of a lot better as a driver – I’ve only scratched the surface with some of the European circuits.
“For me it’s important that it is a Pro-Am and a capital ‘Am’ championship. [In Blancpain] the mindset was wrong. The whole objective with Pro-Am should be that it’s the Am, the person that’s paying the bills, that gets the reasonable amount of time in the car and is the one you work on to make quicker, but you pay a huge amount of money and what the team wants is for you to be out of the car as quickly as possible. That’s not why I went racing.
“I went that entire year without a new set of tyres, so then coming to British and having to qualify on a Pirelli [which replaced Avon as the BGT tyre supplier in 2016] was interesting because it was the first time I’d had a new set of tyres and yet I’d paid 50 grand the previous season towards the tyre budget!”
Last year was another season of frustration for Mowle and Joe Osborne, as the pair managed only two podiums and missed out on a maiden victory at Snetterton to a post-race penalty, ironically after contact with new team-mate Keen.
“I’ve done four years in British and probably last year was a season too far with the BMW,” he said.
“I was undecided on which was the next car to go with and I did genuinely think that we had one more year in it, but what we saw was we had a car six tenths off the pace, certainly from Joe’s perspective year on year against his peers, like [Alexander] Sims or Jonny Adam. It was great fun to drive, a really confidence-giving car, but the engine was just too small and it lacked grunt, so for us it was bloody hard work to overtake.
“Probably 2015 was the year where had I driven as I drove last year, I think Joe and I could have had our best chance at winning the British championship. I improved in 2016, but the car had just lost the performance against the new cars, so we finished the season a bit deflated, although the AMD boys had done a phenomenal job.”
However, continuing with the ageing Z4 for an additional year did have the upside of giving Mowle an opportunity to take stock of the marketplace and make an informed decision of which GT3 car to move forward with.
After weighing up the available options, he is satisfied that the Mercedes will be up to the task in the Le Mans Cup.
“Having watched and observed the new generation cars that have come through, I’m pleased because whilst it was a difficult year for Joe and I, actually it was a year where you could look at the performance of the cars,” he continued.
“I thought the BOP did a pretty reasonable job in terms of balancing things, but when the Merc finished second in its first race at Monza, that was pretty impressive for a car that’s got a lot of aero on it. Spa obviously was an interesting one for them, but again when you watched the actual race, phenomenal performance by the car.
“The engine position compared against the BMW is similar and with the technology and how that has moved on, I think I’m going to find it much easier to drive than I would do a mid-engined or rear-engined car if I was going to look at Audis, Lambos or Porsches.
“You then come back to all of the head-related things about running costs and support that you get from Mercedes and they do a proper job, so I think it will suit me really well. Just in terms of what I’ve learned so far in terms of driving the GT3, I don’t think I’m going to struggle to get up to speed.”
Although he is the only entry confirmed so far, Mowle is confident that he and Keen will face strong opposition in the Le Mans Cup, which is set for a huge growth in numbers with LMP3 cars sharing the bill at every round, not just in the Le Mans 24 Hour support race.
“Looking at the grid last year, I would hope that we’d have been in with a shout of the championship, but I’m sure there will be a hell of a lot more this year and it will be very competitive,” he said.
“I’m a little bit disappointed that there will be LMP3 cars now – it would have been nice to just have the whole track for the GT3 cars, but I can understand why they’ve done it and I’ve raced with GT4 cars before, so that’s just something we’ll just have to deal with.
“The circuits are phenomenal and I think they will suit the Mercedes. The fact that it’s the Am that qualifies the car as well means that Phil will hopefully make me a quicker driver and I’ll end the season as a better driver as a consequence. I’ve never really been a trophy-chaser, going into lower grade championships just to pick up a trophy is not what floats my boat.
“I like being pushed and bizarrely I would rather come 10th but with the quickest laptime that I’ve ever done, and all of that in a race with some properly quick drivers in it than I would picking up a trophy or two at a weekend that doesn’t mean too much. The cars are too expensive to do that!”
Mowle refused to close the door on a potential return to British GT, but expressed doubt over the future of the GT3 class after a disappointing 2016 season which saw grids drop as low as 11 cars at Donington.
However, there are signs of a revival for 2017, with seven entries already confirmed including a works-supported AF Corse Ferrari 488 for series returnees Duncan Cameron and Matt Griffin and a new Aston Martin effort from GT4 graduates MacMillan Motorsport.
“The whole thing for me has always been about ‘who you are competing against’ and ‘are you getting quicker and better?’” he said. “I know they’ve changed a few things now, so one hopes they will get half the grid GT3 and half the grid GT4, but I felt that they’re almost fighting a losing battle [with GT3].
“I can just see GT4 taking over, especially with Mercedes launching a new car, BMW launching a new car, and there’s Porsches, Astons as well. Ultimately from a driver’s perspective, all you want to do is race and see where you are in the food chain. Signing up now, you’re thinking ‘who are you going to race against, how big is that grid and what kind of quality is there going to be on there?’ That was a concern that I had.”