We try and survive a race car driver boot camp
Athletes have the Australian Institute of Sport. Actors have NIDA. But where do the stars of tomorrow find the guidance they need to make it to the top tier – Supercars – and beyond, in Australia? It’s a sure thing that there are natural-born champions out there that never quite made it because of a seemingly insignificant change of course in their lives; perhaps it was an introduction missed, a sponsor not approached, or even not knowing how to put it all together.
Now, there’s a Boot Camp being run by the reigning Toyota 86 champions, Sydney’s Sieders Racing Team, to not only find the faces of the future, but expose the realities of motorsport as more than what you do behind the steering wheel. And, in a one-make series, the biggest difference is the driver.
“The race is won or lost before the driver has even turned up,” says Reaction Performance’s Leigh Stamation, an ex-Holden engineer who has moved into the coaching and what he calls ‘human performance’ area of motor sport. Leigh trains top drivers including Tony D’Alberto, who partnered Fabian Coulthard to fourth at Bathurst 2020. “So much focus needs to be put into your preparation and performance before you even get into the car, and that can start weeks out. It’s about removing the human error,” says Stamation.
The single day camp, the first of its kind held here, covers the approach to a race weekend including mental preparation, driving fundamentals through to data analysis but, just as importantly, driver habits between races in terms of nutrition, training and overall approach. The goal is to peak at the right time – when you’re on the grid – the same way Olympic athletes hone their body and mind to peak every four years.
There’s something else at stake today: two seats in the 2021 86 series. With the group all being cordial and friendly while secretly eyeing each other off as potential bitter rivals, at age 39, as a balding, bespectacled journo, I sign up alongside contestants who are half my age, have twice as much determination and are serious about a future in racing. One of them is only 15! Perhaps my mental approach to age really needs addressing before we go any further…
Held at Sydney Motorsport Park, after a quick meet and greet, we take a track walk to not only preview the layout we’ll drive later, but to learn what to look for. Surface changes, cracks, how the car will transfer weight, corner apexes – how to know whether you’ve negotiated the corner correctly – the fact that there’s not a lot of rubber in certain areas, and that this venue sits on a swamp, changing the size and shape of cracks throughout the day. We’re using the 1.8-kilometre ‘Amaroo’ circuit, twisting and undulating around Corporate Hill, with a fantastic uphill hairpin that opens as you climb it.
Then it’s onto the pre-race prep with Stamation. “With motorsport performance, so many elements manifest to come together, whether it’s nutrition or your mindset, cardiovascular fitness, strength – it’s just trying to give the guys a broader understanding of what it’s going to take to become a motorsport athlete. You have to focus on a number of different areas to get the best out of yourself.”
Proof in the pudding for Stamation is his work with Sieders Racing, most recently with Aaron Borg in the 2019 Toyota 86 championship. It’s not just that Borg won the title, but it was how he took that next step to achieve it. “We got to Townsville and we were, I think, fourth in the championship,” Borg says. “So it’s not like we were down the back or anything, but we were sort of just missing that last little bit.”
Stamation explains: “The first couple of rounds just weren’t going his way – just a few errors and preparation. We had a long break before the next race – Bathurst – so we sat down and said, ‘what do we need to work on?’ This event today actually stems from that. We started working with James [Stewart] here at Driving Solutions, and then incorporating the mental preparation, getting activation drills specifically for him.
“Aaron’s is an example where we really dialled into some specifics and we highlighted some areas that he could work on … There is no point saying, this is what you need to do before you get into a car, because everyone responds differently.”
“Since then, he’s been very consistent with his routines, we’ve developed visualisation techniques and ways that work through that … then at the last race at Newcastle it was his to lose.” Borg took the title and attributes the focus post-Townsville for the climb to the top.
Mental and physical go hand in hand, and it’s one of Stamation’s key areas that include cardio, mindset, strength and skills. It’s about matching the stress levels and performance to their optimal, and also training for what you’re driving: head-strong neck muscles for an S5000 open-wheeler, for instance, are pretty much dead weight in a Supercar. Think of David Reynolds, leading Bathurst 2018 while suffering cramps – with the team asking him to make the decision on whether to come in or not. The stress and pressure he was under wouldn’t have had him at peak decision-making capability, with physical and mental obstacles costing him and co-driver Luke Youlden the race.
Stamation’s next task is a series of exercises – kettle bells, skipping ropes and reaction tests – which where I’m glad I had porridge for breakfast, but rueing pizza for dinner the previous few nights. I ache for days afterwards, literally dripping with sweat as snapper Wielecki laughs as he takes embarrassing candids of me at my worst. I feel sick and consume bottle after bottle of water in an attempt to come back to a state of consciousness.
There are two more components of the morning sessions: data analysis and media training. Reading the squiggly lines is crucial: think that the top 16 Supercars at Bathurst 2020 in qualifying were separated by 0.9486sec. In the 86 series, less than a second covered the top nine qualifiers at Mount Panorama when they last visited in 2019. Head to Formula 1, and seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton’s 2020 season average qualifying advantage over teammate Valtteri Bottas was 0.052sec per sector. That’s the difference between being a superstar and having your drive in the team questioned…
“The biggest thing is the transition from brake to throttle,” says Borg, looking at the squiggly lines on the laptop in front of us. Borg has kindly offered up two of his laps aboard the Toyota 86 at Bathurst 2019; a fast one, and the following lap where he carries too much speed into Hell Corner, understeers and abandons the run… only a few hundred metres into a 6.213-kilometre lap.
What’s more, focusing on single lap times isn’t what makes you a great racer: instructor James Stewart points to the European endurance racing focus on consistent, 10-lap blocks of time. “It’s the ability to maintain a competitive lap time when you’re in traffic, getting passed or making passes,” he says. “That consistency also means that when the team goes to makes a change you notice it straight away, so you can evaluate its effectiveness and deliver better feedback, faster.”
With the theory covered somewhat, the skidpan was next: again, it’s all about the fundamentals. As Stewart explains, the basics here will apply on the circuit later on in the day and it’s about getting your vision right and a feel for the car. Now behind the wheel of Toyota 86 racers, we have three runs of a witch’s hat layout, but even better is that the ABS and stability is all disconnected. It’s all down to the driver.
As I roll out, the first few laps are learning the course, with James telling me where to go; where to lift when I plough understeer (sadly true), remove lock, and then a few times, a huge aquaplane in the puddle leading up to the hairpin. Funnily enough, my instincts occasionally take over, ignoring Stewart’s directions – and my instincts are very wrong.
“It’s all about the fundamentals,” Stewart says. “A lot of people don’t get the basics right, and they can bluff their way on natural ability. Yet if they worked on the fundamentals, they’d be able to use that talent to get to an even higher level.”
The final bout is the track time around the Amaroo layout that we walked in the morning. It’s cooler, the track lights will come on shortly, and it’s all to play for. Interestingly, it’s a chance to test some of the ideas of the day: am I hydrated, what have I eaten (I’ve avoided the delicious looking muffins) and have I been listening? For me personally, there is little pressure. For starters, I’m not vying for a race seat today – my priority is understanding the event and writing about it, not winning a seat. Yet there’s the pressure of simply not crashing the car – not only the indignation, but journalists who crash cars are rarely welcomed back…
I head out with Stewart in the 86, which is a quick car, but not punishingly so. I learn the lines, staying mostly in third gear. There’s an uphill complex of right-left-right handers with sausage kerbs. I avoid the sausage portion, but as I grab the outer kerbs, my line is all over the place. I just can’t figure it out. On the cooldown lap, I say to Stewart, “I messed that section up, but I don’t actually know why – what do you reckon?”
“It’s nothing to lose sleep over,” says Stewart. “There are just a couple of spots with your vision that you let yourself down, then you’ve run wide and you’ve chased it. It was just that set up: get that vision right to start with, try to keep your mind up with the speed you’re doing. As you go faster you’ve got to look further ahead so you can keep up with that speed.
“The big thing is progression – you were quicker and quicker each lap, and that’s the biggest thing.”
There’s data to analyse, too, to see where I can cut tenths (or maybe even seconds), but I know I can gain time almost everywhere – again, applying what’s on screen is an invaluable skill as a driver.
Moments later, standing in the garage we hear a shriek of tyres, look up and see a spinning 86. Stewart’s on board, and a spin from one of the contestants has him back in the pits, asking how he will ‘mentally come back’ from that. It’s a fascinating scenario where he has to test his resilience, using what was taught earlier that day from Stamation.
In a more scientific, competitive world, every advantage is necessary to succeed. The Sieders’ approach may seem novel, however, it’s more and more becoming a must-do for every young driver who’s looking to make any sort of progress in an unforgiving climate as ferocious as professional motorsport.
Every competitor was closely watched, their performance evaluated throughout the day, from driving to attitude and approach. For some, today has made them; for others, it’s a critical evaluation to build upon.
Many drivers can put a hot lap together, but the out-of-car self-evaluation is how Nico Rosberg overcame Lewis Hamilton to take the 2016 F1 crown. It’s how Scott McLaughlin dealt with the heartbreak of losing the 2017 Supercars title at the final race on the last day to bounce back and win three-on-the trot and a spot in IndyCar. It’s how Borg reeled in his rivals from fourth place to win the 2019 Toyota 86 Series. It’s how these drivers pushed themselves to the next level.
“The driver is the most tuneable part of the car,” says Stamation. “If everything’s right and your team’s doing the best they can with the car, then you have to do the right thing as a driver too, get yourself in prime condition to say, ‘I’m here to race and I’m ready to go.’”
The next generation
From age, to fitness and even a global pandemic, four of the young stars in attendance open up about their life and future goals in the tough world of motorsport. Each are here to learn the ropes and improve as a driver.
Hayden Little, 15
It’s coincidence that the youngest driver here – 15-year-old Hayden – has the surname Little. He’s travelled here (from Mildura in Northern New South Wales) thanks to Mum, Tracy.
“With what we’re doing today, I get more experience; pick up more things that James [Stewart] is going to tell us about that I can work on. I just want to be able to drive better and race better. Little comes from a family of racers and has modest expectations on a racing career.
“I just want to try my hardest and see where I can go. I’d like to try to do the V8s or something higher, but you can’t just hop in the car and win. You have to have your body ready, your mind ready.”
Harry Gray, 19
At only 19 years old, the energetic and hugely positive Harry Gray has been through the pain of losing a title by the barest of margins. In 2019, he was leading the NSW Production Touring Car Championship before a mistake in the final round saw him miss out by a single point. After impressing at the Erebus Academy, where he won the day, Gray was set for 2020 in the 86 series, but of course COVID meant he managed only a single race.
“I’m here today to get match fit for 2021,” he says, with drive for both Erebus Academy and Sieders Racing Team and a long-term goal of a Super2 or Super3 drive. “Physically it takes a big hit on your body and you lose kilos over a race weekend.”
Jarrod Crick, 25
Jarrod Crick – yes, son of Greg Crick and brother of Cameron Crick – has dabbled in karts but isn’t looking to win Bathurst 2021. “I was at a ride day with my brothers sponsors [Cameron Crick] and today was mentioned. Coming from a chippie background, which is my bread-and-butter, I thought I’d come down, seize the opportunity and go from there,” he says. “Doing this sort of stuff, you’re learning a bit, and it’s a bit of fun. Hanging around the team, learning about the car, it’s all a step forward. The skid pan is a bit harder than it looks sitting watching; you work a lot harder with the brake and throttle than you’d think.”
Stewart Floresta, 27
Supercars admirer Stewart Floresta was especially impressive on fitness, but he says that in actual fact, he’s not in his best shape. “This year  I’ve been a bit off the wagon, I guess you could say – work related,” the 27-year-old property developer says. “I wanted to network and see what skills I could work on, and what I can learn.”
After many track days, Floresta made it into the Top 30 in the 2018 Australian Drive Search competition, and since he’s done MX-5 Cup and enduros among many track days in his home state of NSW.
Stepping stones to success
Winning championships at any level isn’t easy. The 2019 and reigning Toyota 86 Series champion Aaron Borg is a graduate of the Sieders’ approach and served as the inspiration for the Boot Camp process following his ‘reset’ during the battle for the 2019 86 crown.
“For me it wasn’t like it was one massive thing; I was already doing fitness training and stuff before, but then having that guidance from Leigh to do more specific stuff and James at Driving Solutions on the skidpan stuff made the difference,” 30-year-old Borg says.
“It was putting all those one-percenters together which took it to the next level, and then we sort of went from being probably in that top five to just that little step above where everybody else was – and we didn’t really change anything in the car, so for me, that showed that all of those little one-percenters worked really well.”
“Sieders do a great job in setting cars up, and there’s a difference in terms of setup, but the thing I love about the Toyotas is that it all comes down to the driver really.”
Borg says that the clear head and approach also benefited elements such the feedback he could give the team, which in a one-make support category, can make a crucial difference.
“Doing all of this has opened up many doors. Winning the 86 championship put me in front of some major backers and some new opportunities.
Borg’s set on Supercars, where he admires Whincup and McLaughlin’s out-of-car approach in winning in the car. “I love seeing people succeed, and I look up Jamie Whincup a lot, and in more recent times McLaughlin. I’ve just loved seeing the process that they go through … and understanding the hard work … they’re the guys that are obviously doing things right; they’re not there by chance.”
Fail to plan, plan to fail
Luke Sieders knows that the Boot Camp’s training works. How? “Because we’ve won championships,” he says. “The most recent series that we’ve won was the 2019 86 Series with Aaron Borg, but we’ve won V8 ute championships, Aussie Racing Cars – everything that we’ve raced in we’ve always been a race winner or thereabouts.”
What started out as a way to support brothers David and Colin’s racing careers has developed into the drills, training and mindset being offered at the Sieders’ Boot Camp.
Winning races, events – championships – is never easy, but Luke explains that there is a mindset to get there.
“It always comes back to that we’re always eyes open to what has to be done and achieved, and always we’ve put a lot of hard work in to making sure that we achieve the desired result,” Luke adds. “One of the things we do as a team is that all of the drivers involved with us are exposed to all the facets of what we can provide because without all of it, you don’t get the best for yourself or what you’re trying to achieve.
That’s what this Boot Camp is about. “We decided to do this day in conjunction with James from Driving Solutions and Leigh from Reaction Performance as something that we can expose people to what it takes to race at the highest level. We’ve put programs together for our own small network of drivers over the last few years, and I see through James’ days and other drivers that they miss the key fundamentals of development. Over the years, I’ve thought that a day like today is the best way to expose people to what is actually required and how detailed it is into covering all aspects. It’s not just having the best car, it’s all about the best environment, the best preparation for driver and team.”
“The interest generated; there’s definitely potential to do more of this, because for me, it’s giving back to the grass roots. A lot of these guys haven’t been exposed to national championships like the 86 series, so this can be a taster for them, and it’s an inexpensive taster – they can do this program, see how much work is involved, the level of dedication … and it better prepares them for the first day at school, their first event. It’s all about them getting the best experience they can out of motorsport.”
How to spot future stars
Can you pick the next Scott McLaughlin, Max Verstappen, Jamie Whincup or Peter Brock?
Red Bull’s Formula One school has been heavily criticised for its musical chairs in recent years; yet Ron Dennis signed a 10-year-old Lewis Hamilton with not a single world championship – or even a driver’s licence – in sight. So is there a defined way to pick talent, or does it have to emerge?
“There is a way to see future talent,” says Sieders. “Like anything, it takes an investment in the person to nurture that talent and guide it the right way. Obviously, some people shine or they falter.” The Red Bull program is designed to do just that. “It’s pretty much the toughest program there’s ever going to be. You’re trying to be the best of the best in the world, so to see some of the guys do it tough in that program is no surprise, it’s to be expected. It’s not to say that those guys aren’t as talented, it’s just that they haven’t handled the pressure as well as others.
“I’m looking for the next person that wants it as much as we do. You never know, but even when Scott McLaughlin was at SBR [Stone Brothers Racing] and before that the development series … the fact that he wanted it more than anyone else in the field, he got it. For me, it’s not about finding the most talented driver right now, it’s about finding the person who wants to make this work. If that person is in that situation and wants it bad enough, put them on a pedestal and hold them as high as you can and see how far we can take him or her!”
How are you finding our new site design? Tell us in the comments below or send us your thoughts at [email protected]