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STEPPING UP WITH THE JONESES

The 2017 season is shaping up as a major challenge for Nick Percat – stepping into a race-winning team, with new teammates, after a couple of challenging seasons

By Phil Branagan

AA: You have to be pretty happy with what happened in 2016.
NP: Considering. Yep, I am.
Getting your first win is always massive. But for me, locking away driving with BJR from 2017 was the biggest thing. That is something that I have wanted to do for some time now, and he felt the same. To get that locked away was amazing.
To get two really good results for LDM was also a huge positive, not just for me but for the whole crew that was there. So, not a bad year, all things considered.

AA: Under normal circumstances, asking a driver to compare a win with a podium finish is not a smart question. But in some ways was a Bathurst podium finish even better than the win in Adelaide?
NP: Yes and no.
The Adelaide thing was good. We obviously didn’t qualify that well, but we had a pretty strong car in the rain – and obviously I knew where we were at with strategy.
At Bathurst, our car was really fast. We were close enough to be able to easily see that crash with Scotty [McLaughlin], Garth [Tander] and Jamie [Whincup], and you are obviously right in the race if you can see the top three.
That was a very rewarding day for me and the team. We drove the wheels off it all day to be in the fight with those guys, and Cameron McConville did an awesome job. To be able to pass a few cars and end up on the podium at the end of the race was amazing.

AA: Was third beyond your expectations?
NP: No. Only because I always thought that we had a car for the top five.
Our qualifying was pretty average. We knew that we would struggle to get the car to hook up in qualifying; that has been the case for 12 months. We knew that would not be a strong point – but the car I had at Bathurst in 2015 was an absolute rocket and I thought that Oliver Gavin and I could have been pushing for a podium in that year.
So we thought we were in for a shot. I said before the race, I think we can be in the top six – and if those three didn’t crash, my prediction would have been bang-on.

AA: You qualified 22nd, right behind Craig Lowndes and 0.7s out of the top 10.
NP: Exactly! It is so close! Our car did not like the new-tyre runs that we did, but we were very competitive right through on used tyres. So I wasn’t massively fussed; I knew it was a long day.

AA: Can you compare that with winning at Bathurst?
NP: I don’t think that anything really compares with winning Bathurst. I wasn’t really driving the car in those last two stints, Garth was. I have never been so nervous in my life! I think that the footage shows that I was white, pale!
I was shocked to be in the position we were in, even though we were in the top three all day, with Whincup and Lowndes. We had a good battle with them for five-odd hours.
It is hard to compare the emotions that were there that day. The ‘in-the-car’ stuff, definitely. You need that, but it is weird watching it happen.

AA: And since that win you have had two thirds and a fourth at Bathurst. You are becoming a strong ‘closer’ in that race.
NP: For some reason… I have had a good run up there in any category.
In Aussie Racing Cars, I won there, in my first time there. Qualifying records, pole and wins in the Porsche, wins in DVS, and in the Main Series, obviously, I have had a very good run.
It’s a track I click with. Fortunately it has been kind to me over the last few years. I love the last hour of that race; I have only got to experience it a few times, but the cars are extremely hot inside, everyone is a little bit fatigued…
Mentally, that is why I absolutely love it. Learning from someone like Garth, how he approaches the race and how good he is at the end of a race, in any situation… Bathurst probably allows that to show a bit more. If you are not in the same position, even in the Sprint Race format, we seem to come home pretty strong. That comes down to mental strength – and fitness comes into that as well.

AA: Is that something that you try to analyse? To play to your particular strengths?
NP: Not really. Deep down, I know that when it comes to that part of the event, it is going to naturally come out. It is something I have always had in there but, over the last two seasons, there has been little opportunity to show what you can do.
It was well documented that LDM was tight on budget. The team didn’t have the latest and greatest engines, or uprights. We had a good car but it is hard to compete in the top 10, especially last year, when everyone seemed to take a step up. In 2014, once I settled into the Main Series, from mid-year I was matching my teammates, JC [James Courtney] and Garth. I think that year I got to show it a bit more. I am looking forward to doing that at Brad’s; the last 20 laps of the Sprint races, and the last hour of the long ones, I love it.

AA: How does that play out for a driver?
NP: It was a mixed year. There was a lack of branding on the cars, some people didn’t want to be around. It was difficult for Andre and me, a couple of the staff were not happy with the situation – and Lucas was not happy about what was going on, around that Townsville-QR time.
As a driver, you can’t let that distract you – but as a driver, it shows. I think that I qualified last, or somewhere terribly, and we had poor results. That definitely comes back to how everyone is feeling inside the garage. But, credit to the team, they could have easily packed up their bats and balls and gone off to other jobs, but they all stuck to it, to keep pushing on to try to turn it around. And they did.
AA: When things are not going 100 percent in a team, do you deliberately focus on putting that out of your mind, or is it ‘business as usual’?
NP: I like to see that the team is as happy as they can. Like at the Gold Coast, when Cam was in the fence, I helped to start dismantling the car. I like to show that I am a part of the team. That is something that is pretty handy – I know that the last two seasons, the guys have enjoyed working with me. If they are doing all-nighters at the workshop, I might rock up at 11 with 25 McFlurrys – or something random. If the driver is not around, you could think, ‘He doesn’t care’. It is not a distraction, but it is part of making sure you get the best out of the crew. Then it’s back to the track and back to the race face.

AA: You mentioned Cam at Surfers. At Adelaide, you missed the second race, and even though the numbers were not what you would have wanted, you kept finishing races.
NP: Clipsal, bonnet and battery problems, Townsville, double DNF with issues, but you are right. In any championship you have to keep finishing races. Sometimes it was not getting there in great condition, but I still had a goal – to be as close to the top 15 as I could be.
There are things that hindered that. In the last race at Homebush, I got tangled up with Will [Davison] a few corners from home. That cost a few places in the championship. The crew tried really hard to claw back as many points as we could.

AA: You finished P18 in the points. One spot ahead was Jason Bright. Has that occurred to you?
NP: It has! But to be honest, I am not looking at that – I am looking at where Sladey [Tim Slade] finished.
I have more of an idea of where Sladey is at, even though I have not been his teammate for a few seasons. I knew where he was in 2014 and there was some dialogue during the year. Brighty had a bit of a messy year; he could’ve had a better season, and the car was clearly capable of doing it. But it didn’t roll that way. That happens.

AA: Slade was eighth in the series. What is your target?
NP:I want to be, definitely, inside the top 10 at the end of the year. I want to be as close to Sladey as I can! With the new tyre, and some new things around, there could be some good results, and it should be good for BJR. They seem to always have a good handle on new rules and get on top of things quickly. I am excited to see what happens when we get to Clipsal.

AA: You will have had a look at the team from the inside now, without actually having raced the car. What are your impressions of BJR?
NP: Everyone who has ever driven there – Coulthard, Brighty, Slade, Blanchard – speak about the ‘family feel’ and how welcoming it is. That was the first thing I noticed; the moment I walked in there, it was extremely welcoming. No other team I have been with has felt like that since, to be honest, my Formula Ford days at Sonic!
It is a really good family team. Brad and Kim run a really good show – but everyone from the new apprentice in the team to Brad and Kim is treated the same. They manage the boys and girls well, and everyone is treated well.
I have been up there four or five times, and enjoyed it. I need to get to know everyone and see how it all happens, but from what I have seen of how they are preparing the cars for this year, it is quite impressive. I was obviously watching them late last year and I feel like I have made the right decision. They are keen to get good results and win races.
Brad and Kim are racers at heart and they just want to get on with it, and win races. Everyone is so hungry to go racing. It was December when I first went there and there was no grizzling, which you normally expect at the end of the season! It has been a long year but everyone is as keen as mustard to get going.

AA: You have won Bathurst. Brad and Kim never have. What would it mean to be able to deliver a Bathurst win to those guys?
NP: That would be huge.
I remember watching as a young bloke, watching the OzEmail car, it always seemed to be right up there at Bathurst, and always something would happen. Fabian has been so strong there for the last couple of seasons, Sladey last year, he was seriously fast to come back from where he was.
I am pumped. To be able to deliver a result for them from there would be special. The whole history of the team up there, running with number eight… it would be extremely fitting. It would be a special moment if their car crossed the line first.
It’s January, I know, but I have a massive smile on my face, just talking about it. It doesn’t seem to matter what car they take up there – even back in the Audi days, in a Ford, or Jason Richards and Brighty – it cannot be a coincidence that everyone has been fast at Bathurst in a BJR car. Super-excited to get there with them! They love it.

AA: How is Ollie’s [Oliver Gavin’s] calendar looking?
NP:I speak to him, mostly, weekly. I think we have another [date] clash, unfortunately. For him and me, it is something, we need him here for three events. There is a tie-in with the Pratt and Miller stuff, so it would be fitting, and I know that the moment I said, ‘Get on the plane’, he would be out here.
But he knows that, unless he can put his best foot forward, there is no point in doing a 90 percent job. He wants to do a 100 percent job. And at this stage I don’t think that he will be able to make it.
He comes out here and lives with me for the whole duration. We are out on the bike all the time and, besides teaching me a lot about motorsport and broadening the way that I think about it, he teaches me a lot out of the car. That is the big thing you miss when he is not with you – how much you gain from him, how he goes about things. That is what you miss.
Plus, he is a handy size, he fits right in!

AA: A big season coming up…
NP: I can’t wait to get into it. I am looking forward to going to a racetrack, and if you are not in the top six or seven, you get asked why you aren’t. I really miss that from 2014. I can’t wait to get some criticism, and some input from Kim and Brad and the team, to what we can do to go faster.