Nick Leventis is a racing driver competing in the prestigious FIA World Endurance Championship with the team he created, Strakka Racing. Based at Silverstone in the UK, he masterminded Strakka’s growth from a successful race team to one of Britain’s leading motorsports businesses.
He is also the founder of Strakka Performance, a bespoke driver development programme that has helped drivers in every category of professional motorsport to improve on and off track performance. We caught up with him to find out more.
LM: You started your racing career as a successful downhill skier. What made you swap the slopes for the track?
NL: It was a combination of two things really. First, my father was doing more historic motorsport at that time; he had a growing collection of important race cars such as an ex-Stirling Moss Aston DBR1 and Ferrari P3 330. He was having a lot of fun and getting to do some great events such as the Le Mans Classic. I could see that, as well as deriving pleasure from the racing aspect, there was also the technical side of driving. Through the coaching he was receiving, there was a way to ‘engineer’ the driver as well as the car to perform. That performance side intrigued me, and when I’d hurt my back one too many times in skiing, I talked to my father about becoming more involved in the racing side.
LM: When did you establish Strakka Racing, and what are your key differentiators from other teams?
NL: I started doing track days and test days but we soon moved up to racing a BMW M3 and some of the historic cars, notably the DBR1 and 246 Ferrari that I’m still privileged to drive today. We got to race at some of the best tracks such as Le Mans and Silverstone and had some real success. Therefore, we decided to create a structured team that would allow us to compete in international motorsport, and so in 2007, Strakka Racing was born. The name incidentally comes from the family farm in Greece and you can still get Strakka olive oil if you want to add a dash of motorsports to your cooking!
From the start, Strakka has always done things differently; yes we are a small team compared to many teams, but we have a real focus on driver performance and that has helped us to punch above our weight and win races.
As I didn’t have the same experience of racing in the junior categories, we turned to technology to accelerate my learning. We gradually brought in simple but effective teaching tools to have real-time video and audio links that allows you to coach a driver live as they are driving, not ten minutes later when they might have forgotten where they were or what gear they used on a particular lap.
We also developed a simulator for us to use at the Strakka workshops. We can use it to learn tracks in different weather conditions, at day or night and even to set up the car before we get to the track. It’s that accurate and powerful. These tools have been so popular that we created Strakka Performance to enable young drivers to benefit from what we had put in place. We now hire out the sim and it’s usually busy three days a week with drivers coming in to use it and be coached by our engineers. It’s perhaps surprising, but drivers don’t do the repetitive training like you get in tennis or football. Simulators have enabled us to coach drivers and get them to drive one corner a hundred times to get the line and speeds right.
Other Strakka differentiators are that we have kept a strong British identity that goes down well with the tens of thousands of Brits that cheer us on at Le Mans. Sports car racing isn’t like F1. There is great access for families and I’m always up for doing what we can for the fans; whether it’s an open day at the factory or giving them a bit of behind the scenes insight on social media. We have a bit of fun at Strakka too; stuff like having a glitter ball at Le Mans. Don’t ask me why that started but it’s part of having a good time with Strakka!
LM: You wish to build on the pioneering use of additive manufacturing for your race cars. Can you explain what this is please, and what the advantages of this technology are?
NL: You might have heard of 3D printing? That’s a form of additive manufacturing and gives us the ability to make and test new parts in a very short space of time and for less cost using a printer that’s not much bigger than a domestic oven. The benefits that this technology delivered were only too apparent when we built our own car in 2014 and were forced to make a few late design changes. Fortunately, we had recently met a company called Stratasys, a leader in 3D printing machines. It showed us that we could print parts, in the pit garage or workshop, which could be strong and durable enough to use in an endurance race. It was a revelation to us all if I’m honest, we didn’t believe they would work until Stratasys showed us how good the technology was. Strakka is a real pioneer in this area and we have already stated that for our next project, we’ll use additive manufacturing right from the start to make the most of the savings it can offer.
LM: As well as access to your in-house simulator, what else do you offer in terms of driver training?
NL: Today’s drivers truly are elite athletes, and like other sports people, they need to be exceptional in all areas, on and off the track. The simulator is a great training tool but you have to use it properly as it’s easy to cheat. Discipline is key and we only use our race engineers to run the sim sessions to make each one as relevant as possible.
Alongside the simulator we have our Strakka Performance cars. These are Formula Renault single seaters. It’s these cars that have real time video and telemetry that has proven so successful for the drivers we work with and myself. In addition to the on track side, we also have in-house support for physical training and nutrition. Our director of human performance is always extolling the virtues of coconut water. For the past few years he has set up a bowser for the whole team to drink from. It’s really good at rehydrating and is totally natural. Fitness is really important to all drivers and I’ve worked really hard these last couple of years to be as sharp as I can as well as helping with the media and commercial side that is so relevant today. We are a one-stop shop for drivers.
LM: Which drivers have you coached and mentored, and what are the critical factors that determine a good performance on the track?
NL: Confidentiality prevents me from naming some of those that I would like to tell you about but I can talk about factory driver Harry Tincknell and BTCC front runner Sam Tordoff as drivers that use the sim. I’m really passionate about the younger drivers and I’m keen to give opportunities where we can. We helped multiple karting champion Tom Joyner to test our Formula Renault and offered a 15-year-old racer, Courtney Witts, the chance to drive the Strakka sim. She hadn’t any idea how to make that step from short circuit racing to the long tracks. It is really hard for youngsters to get into racing. It’s not a sport that is easy to try or get involved in and we get great satisfaction from helping and guiding drivers like Courtney. We are helping more drivers in a formal way. In 2015 we started to manage the career of Tio Ellinas. He’s very quick but needed support with the commercial side and I think with the experienced people we have at Strakka, we can create the right environment to nurture talent.
LM: What advice can you offer anyone looking to start out in motor racing?
NL: I didn’t have the conventional route to the WEC and came to motorsport much later than many aspiring drivers. It’s really not easy for young drivers to come and try motorsport. It’s not like you can pick up a racket or ball and try it. You need a track and some equipment. The best route is still to go karting, but initiatives such as Nissan’s GT Academy have enabled gamers to get started in the sport. We have had involvement in karts the past few years and won a number of the FIA titles and this remains the best training for circuit racing. If you are keen to simply enjoy motorsport, then start with some track days and get a professional driver coach to help you improve. Top up your track time with simulator sessions as it is the most effective way to learn tracks, turning and braking points. You can then attend a race school to get your licence to be able to start racing. There are a couple of good series such as the Caterham Academy or Ginetta’s similar series that will guide you through those steps and you get a car as well!
LM: What are your main achievements to date, and which have been your favourite racing machines to drive?
NL: The two class wins at Le Mans were the most satisfying. You have worked hard as a team, everyone pulling together to win that race. You have been working for months and that last week, you are doing long days. People talk about a 24 Hour race but you’ve already been up eight hours before the race even starts!
In terms of the cars, the Aston Martin DBR1 that I raced at Le Mans is a real highlight. Driving the car that won in 1959 on the same tarmac is an experience that’s hard to beat. It’s also got such a heritage and you think about some of the iconic names such as Stirling Moss that drove it, it’s quite humbling to be in that seat.
On the road, I’ve been enjoying an S63 AMG coupe. It just eats up the miles, a proper cruiser!
LM: Do you have any preferred luxury destinations and hotels?
NL: I love getting out to LA and soaking up the West Coast vibe. I get a real buzz from training at Santa Monica beach, and if I can, I head over to the Soho House restaurant. To get a real sense of the humidity and high temps we experience at some of the events, we run some Strakka training camps in Thailand at the Thayanpura resort, which is a great base for open water swimming and running in the hills there. I still enjoy skiing and like to get out to the French Alps before the race season kicks in. When I’m at home in the UK, I do like the growing number of very good sushi restaurants that are in London. They include Sushi Samba on Liverpool Street as well as Roka on Charlotte Street.
LM: You have a luxury home that features a nightclub as well as hypoxia chamber for training. Can you tell us more, and how can people book it for the forthcoming Formula 1 Grand Prix at Silverstone (08 – 10 July, 2016)?
NL: Yes, I’m doing two championships this year, both the World Endurance Championship and RS01 Renault Sport Series so I’m not spending as much time there, so it will therefore, be available to rent. It’s a stone’s throw from the track and is the ideal base for a fun Grand Prix weekend for everyone. We have a comprehensive fitness centre where you can train at up to 5,750m. and if you need to boost your red blood cells, you can set the altitude to up to 3,000m in some of the bedrooms. For relaxing we have a cosy cinema, and if you want to let your hair down and not worry about getting home, there’s a Moroccan themed nightclub in the basement. It’s soundproofed so don’t worry about making some noise! Outside we’ve got a fire pit for chilling out, there is a kid’s playground, tennis courts and luxury shopping at Bicester Village is only 20 minutes away. I think it could work well for up to ten people with the five rooms available. If people would get more information, it’s available via First Avenue properties.
LM: In your spare time, you are a great fan of adrenaline-fuelled adventure sports. What have been your highlights?
NL: I’ve been really lucky to have some incredible experiences and crucially, we’ve been able to raise money for worthwhile causes. One such example was skydiving over Mount Everest. It was amazing, but more importantly, we raised £100,000. I’ve also done abseiling down The Shard. It’s really strange looking down on landmarks like The Gherkin, such a different perspective on a city that I know well. My ultimate thrill to date though has to be to have flown in a Buccaneer jet in South Africa. The forces are phenomenal and it’s got me thinking about some other projects that involve speed. I’d love to do a land speed record. I think that’s something that would be a great fit for Strakka.
Nick Leventis and Strakka Racing – Where and how
For more information on Nick Leventis and Strakka Racing, visit www.nickleventis.com and www.strakkaracing.com.
About Simon Wittenberg
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