The 2021 Britcar Endurance Championship features an all-new category specifically for the increasingly popular Praga R1. With a new model being introduced for 2021, interest is at an all-time high and with plenty of high-profile names involved, it was time to speak to the men behind this. Mark Harrison, Managing Director of Praga Cars UK, and Vincent Randall, the owner of VR Motorsport, took the time to talk to us about the upcoming season.
The new championship, in particular, shows huge progress from Praga in recent years. Mark Harrison has big goals for this season and looking into the future too.
“Strangely enough, the goals for this season are more about the goals for next season,” Harrison says. “Vincent has done an amazing job getting to the current position. If you look at the end of last season he had three cars on the grid and we won the Britcar Endurance title.
“My role from when I joined Praga last year was to really take the brand and to build on engineering the legacy. The company is 114 years old but has never really done any sales or marketing, certainly across the racing car division. It’s really being driven by the engineering of the car which means we’ve got a fantastic racing car in the R1 from an engineering perspective but not many people know about it. Which I think is the right way to go about it, you can start with good marketing and a not very good race car and not get anywhere.
“But as long as we’ve got a really good racing car that’s been developed over the years then we’ve got something really strong to work with. We’ve seen in the success of last year and the little bit of profile-raising we’ve been doing this year that there’s already huge interest from really good potential dealers from around the world and new customers around the world, so it’s really going places.
“But this year is really about a stepping stone to next year where we’re cautiously optimistic of a one-make series. We’ve got three conversations going with three different parties about what that might look like so this year is really about moving from three cars to twenty cars in a really positive way and that’s both from the perspective of if we can get 8,9,10 cars on the grid in the Britcar category it will look fantastic.
“We saw yesterday when the cars were all here, we’ve got 6 cars here and to see 6 cars all going out together is brilliant but to have 10 or 11 cars on the grid will look amazing. And that will be the trigger that really persuades people that a one-make race series with 20 cars will look sensational both on-screen and for paying customers so that’s what this year is all about.
“It’s now about next year which is why we’ve got a strong line up from both paying customers from Vincent’s perspective as the dealer and also from these high profile guest drivers that we’ve got in place. This is pushing the brand in places which its never been before and its a really nice combination which is really starting to get results.”
The R1 has served very well so far as a purpose-built race car. For 2021, a new iteration of the R1-T has been introduced for even more speed and performance. Powered by a 365bhp four-cylinder turbocharged Renault engine and weighing just 643kg with 3G of cornering force, this is a serious bit of kit. Praga completed their exclusive pre-season test at the Anglesey circuit and Mark has been speaking with the drivers about their feedback on the new machine.
“Actually fantastic, and I’m not just saying that. It’s the same car but its completely different if that makes sense so it was going to be really interesting to see how both the novice drivers took to the car because the aero now is super honed but also how the drivers who are used to last years car have taken to it.
“I think one car that’s a great example of it today, in particular, is the car that’s being run by Jimmy Broadbent and Jem Hepworth. I was just chatting to them a few minutes ago and Jimmy has done two sessions and he’s gone really fast and looked after the car really well plus he’s got a big smile over his face so it surprised him actually how quickly he’s taken to the car and engaged the aero. So just really proving just how accessible the car is.
“But then Jem is also skipping around, she’s getting out of the car and saying it’s such a big step up from last year so someone who’s been there and done it is also saying the car has moved on so we’re seeing that across the board and I think that’s a really good example of how well this programme will work for us because you can imagine Jimmy was a little bit of an unknown sort of quantity for us. He can race really well on screen so he knows what he’s doing but then coming down to reality seems to be working so yeah really good.”
The new championship has given the opportunity to run more cars and this means more drivers. Ranging from the obvious choice in fully-fledged professional drivers to well-known personalities such as YouTubers; Jimmy Broadbent and James Walker. Mark explains the reasoning behind this.
“Interestingly, we talked about how you build the brand and the logic was you build the brand with a one-make race series but how do populate that initially. You know as well as me that it’s easy to sell the 17th, 18th and 19th car on a 20-car grid and the first and second car maybe, but the ones in between are the ones where everyone is waiting to see if it’s going to work at all.
“Really it was the idea of the owner of Praga. It probably wasn’t an idea that I would have suggested but he came up with a way and said: Look if you want to come away with a one-make race series, which I totally buy into, and if it means we sell a lot more R1s, then why don’t we provide you with five factory-backed cars which you can populate with different drivers who will raise the profile in different areas?
“It wouldn’t make much sense to just put in experienced racing drivers because you’re talking to the converted then so that’s why its a mix of different people. From experienced race drivers with profiles outside of motorsport like Charlie Martin or people like James Walker who I knew would be up for the challenge. The great thing was that every call I made, everybody got it because with all due respect with people like Caterham or Ginetta its one hell of a challenge to jump into an aero car and they all understand that.
“And because they’ve all got high profiles, they’re gonna look a bit daft if they screw it up so everyone has skin in the game in this, they have to take it seriously to show they’re serious about it and we have to commit to giving them that opportunity. There will be some ups and downs throughout the season but there would be if it was a grid full of professional racing drivers. So it’s a bit of a risk but we think it’s a risk worth taking because as I say, they’re committed to it and it’s in their interest to take it seriously which they all are, it’s really great to see actually.”
Vincent Randall is the man behind the team, VR Racing, that has run the Pragas over the years in the UK and on mainland Europe in the Supercar Challenge. Coming up from running one car in Britcar in 2019 to three in 2020, there are expected to be six to ten cars racing in Britcar for 2021. Vince explained how this expansion is possible.
“So VR will be running the five works Praga cars and actually the cars that VR own are going to be run by another team which is a friend of mine who as this builds into a one-make series wants to take an independent team and add on to that number, so its a challenge going from one car to three cars to now actually seven cars but five under my direct control.
“It’s a challenge but we’ve been thinking about this for many years now so most of the things we’ve got to plan for we’ve been planning for a long time, even though it didn’t actually exist. So we have a pretty good organization with the support of Praga, were reasonably well funded so I don’t actually see it being a massive step. Today is actually the first day we’ve run six cars on track at the same time and it’s challenging. It needs a lot of people, a lot of infrastructures but it’s working.
“My goal for this is not for VR to run hundreds and hundreds of cars, that’s not what I want to do. We’re hoping that good teams who are used to looking after their drivers pick up the baton of this and run two cars each or three cars or whatever it may be. It’s not aimed at being a VR show, we’re trying to avoid that.”
Like with Mark, Vincent also shares his hopes for the new category.
“From my personal view I want the cars to finish the vast majority of the races, you can never say you want all cars to finish all races, it just doesn’t work like that. But a good reliable season and all the drivers enjoy themselves and they appreciate the unique capabilities of the car. I think that’s being seen in the wider world now so as long as we’ve generated a positive story for UK motorsport, I am more than happy.”
Having been one of the only teams to specialize in running and working with Praga, it is no surprise that Vincent has been selected to run the factory programme. Having finished fourth in their Britcar series debut back in 2019, 2020 saw three cars running and also an overall championship victory with Jem Hepworth and Danny Harrison. This kind of success doesn’t happen overnight, so how did it happen?
Vincent Randall: “I think the easy answer to that on both sides is just hard work, it’s not any more than that. We both know what we want to achieve and we’re working very hard to make sure we get there, simple as that.”
Mark Harrison adds: “We’re working really hard to get a couple of the guys from the factory over to the first round and that’s still with the restrictions.”
VR: “When you put this against the backdrop of COVID and restrictions on track time, it’s an amazing achievement. It’s hard sometimes because you’re in the bubble here within the tornado of it and you don’t actually get to look at it from the outside. So what is going on is not just about the race team; there’s the new headquarters, the celeb drivers there are all sorts of things on top of running five or six cars in a championship. It’s very exciting times and if you look from the outside, that’s something I’d love to do, I’d love to be stood on the outside and look in.”
Having claimed their first racing title in 2020, all eyes are on Praga and VR to take the 2021 title too. However, there is tough competition for this season with Danny Harrison switching to the Nissan GT-R GT3, John Seale, and Jamie Stanley piloting their usual JMH Automotive Lamborghini Huracán GT3 Evo and Motus One entering a McLaren 650s GT3, not to mention series veteran, Jonny MacGregor in his Taranis. Can Praga claim the title this year?
“That’s a good question,” Randall responds. “We can, we obviously can — our cars are fast enough. The Britcar championship in the way it works is actually very fair to people in all sorts of machinery in the sense that a Class 4 car can win the championship just as easily as a Class 1 car can win the championship, outright for that matter.
“I think our biggest competition and biggest hurdle to winning the championship is being beaten by another Praga. Because to win the championship it really takes very consistent winning in any one of the categories and I actually think our drivers are going to be so close and the cars are going to be so close that actually, we will damage our own overall championship results by different Praga drivers winning races.”
“It’s the same as Vincent really,” Mark Harrison continues. “What’s interesting is that whether there are novices or experienced drivers in all of my factory cars, they think they can win the championship and I think that’s a good attitude. But I think the reality is that they will all take points off each other because they’re all showing they’re all competitive in each car. So who knows, we’ll see but from my perspective, it will be nice if one of the cars/teams wins the overall championship but the reality is if every one of the ten drivers in the five cars at the end of the season just says thank you, that was amazing, can I do it again next year, I would be more than happy with that.”
The new guest driver programme is one that has gotten a lot of interest so far and is set to be a huge boost to the Praga name and what they’re all about. Mark, in particular, is very excited about the new programme and touched on some further details before we parted ways.
“One really important point to make on the guest driver programme after you asked earlier how it came about and what did we do. The key to that really was to get a mix of people that show that a novice can race this car well which is why we got people like Jay Morton involved. Totally the right attitude, physically fit, mentally strong but no racing experience before this season so he’s working hard to get his license, he won’t make the first round so he’ll be starting at the second round.
“But he’s shown today that he’s super competent so it proves that the car is super accessible to novices but at the same time is also perhaps a stepping stone into LMP2. For example with someone like Charlie Martin who is an experienced racing driver, she is using this as a stepping stone to get much more serious, so the car works perfectly for different levels which actually means really nice pairings for us as well.
“Jem and Jimmy, for example, Jem probably knows that she probably won’t retain her championship this year but she’s going to get more out of this year from training Jimmy and working with him so it will develop her as a person and a more rounded racing driver for her future as well. It’s a really nice way of looking at individual drivers and looking at what they want to get out of racing in the R1.”
A further announcement from Praga, specifically aimed towards the younger generation looking to get involved within motorsport, is a partnership with Silverstone University Technical College. Mark shares the latest information about their exciting new venture.
“We’re forming a partnership with Silverstone University Technical College and that is to give students at the technical college hands-on experience of working in the race teams. Each of the cars this season will have a student from the technical college as a sort of junior mechanic, helper, tire fetcher, and all those sorts of things. They will get hands-on experience of a race weekend as a part of the team, they’ll be treated just like anyone else in the team.
“Also, we’ll work with the curriculum at the college so we’ll present to them about motorsport sponsorship, motorsport budgeting, events planning, and all these sorts of things. I think that’s probably an important part of how you expand from running three cars to ten cars. If we can get a pair of hands that also helps with what they’re trying to do with their dreams and visions then it works really well.”
The Britcar Endurance season kicks off Saturday 24 April at Silverstone with two one-hour races.
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