2006 proved to be a fine season for Scuderia Ecosse driver Chris Niarchos, as he won the British GT Championship and also enjoyed success on the international stage.

By the end of the year, the popular Greek/Canadian driver had picked up his maiden win in the FIA GT Championship and had also stood on the podium at Le Mans after the team finished third in the GT2 class in the famous 24 Hours.

Crash.net spoke to Chris to look back over a hectic last twelve months and also to look forward to the year ahead...

Q:
For you Chris, the main focus was on British GT alongside Tim Mullen but there was also success on the international stage. All-in-all, it was a pretty good year...

Chris Niarchos:
Yeah, lets be honest, for a motor-racing season it was one where people were saying to me 'I hope you don't think that's normal' as it could be a big fall from grace. I think we had a great season, to clinch one championship, finish as runner-up in FIA and get on the podium at Le Mans is a motor racing dream. Tim did a great job all season, the team was fantastic and this year we want to focus on the international campaign. We had three years in Britain and eventually clinched the title, although for the team it was two years back-to-back, and now the international stage is where our focus lies and hopefully we can better what we achieved in 2006.

Q:
The British GT championship first up. Going into the season people commented on the lack of depth in the GT2 field but despite that lack of depth it was a tough title battle with LNT and the Panoz.

Chris Niarchos:
At the beginning of the year there were four genuine contenders, there really was. There were the two Moslers, which were both strong, there was the Panoz and there was ourselves. As the season wore on, the Eclipse Mosler pulled out for their own reasons but any championship is difficult and when you are trying to do what you are doing each weekend and have a serious competitor to fight with, and with the numbers shrinking the points changed so we could only gain one point a weekend, I would argue that it was harder in some ways as there was no room for error. If we made a mistake, we fell back eight or tens points in a weekend which was very difficult to recover from.

Mondello Park set us back ten points and it took us the rest of the season to claw them back. It was one of those seasons where we had to be aggressive and go out and try and win races but we also knew that no-one on the team could afford to make a mistake and that was very relevant to how hard we all tried.

Q:
With the half point situation that came into play when there were less than six GT2 cars running, how hard did it make it to come back from the problem at Mondello when you failed to score and LNT took a double win?

Chris Niarchos:
It was soul destroying. We had gone into that round with something like three race wins, two poles out of three so we were on a high. We had come from Le Mans where we finished third but it was a hard weekend psychologically for us. We watched the whole weekend go on without us and as a driver that is the worst thing that can happen. If you go out and get beaten on the track fair and square then you accept that the better man won, but to get beaten in pitlane is awful.

The sad part of it was that it was no-ones fault, it was a 25 pence part that failed and had a knock-on effect that led to a blown head gasket. No-one could have prevented that so when we sat down after the race we had two choices, to give up and call it season over or to see if we could claw it back race-by-race. We went to Snetterton after that and we dominant and then at Rockingham I think you'd call it a 50-50 split between us and the Panoz. Then at Brands we were very dominant again. Overall we were pleased with the way the season panned out.

Q:
The British GT title was the aim at the start of the year, but you were out in FIA GT as well and it must have been satisfying to get your maiden win in the international arena.

Chris Niarchos:
It's a bit surreal, I must admit. A few years ago I looked at FIA and thought I could never do it as it was all top professional guys and ex-F1 racers and it where the big boys would hang out. FIA has given us a big boost in confidence. With Tim, I knew his class from a few years ago and that is why I picked him up as a co-driver but as far as myself goes, I wanted to go into FIA and just learn in much the same way as I looked at the British series three years ago, just make sure I didn't get in anyone's way and don't do anything stupid like fire the car off and become a better team-mate. I think the added seat time and the amount of miles we were doing in FIA had a huge impact on my driving in Britain, no question about it.

Q:
When you mention how you used to view your driving, that all seemed to change in 2006 and the gap between you and the more professional drivers has really come down. How do you feel you have improved as a driver over the last twelve months?

Chris Niarchos:
For those who don't know, it's probably a net gain of a couple of seconds a lap, which is like taking 15 strokes of your game in the course of a year if you are playing golf. I feel I made huge progress and winning in Britain, when I got the first win and was able to be competitive with the top guys, changed the way I looked at myself. Over the winter I had worked on my fitness and racecraft and spent a lot of time looking at data and videos but come March I had to get in the car and turn all that information into pace. It just worked and I'm convinced that the continuity I felt so much in the early years of my career of the same team-mate and same car with the same team helped.

Some would argue that is a bad thing as they say 'Well you've only won in a Ferrari, can you win in a Porsche or drive a Lotus' but I don't believe that to be true. Continuity to me has been absolutely critical as a huge part of what you are learning is the team and the environment, which includes things like your engineers and other drivers. I think the comfort of knowing those guys for four years and knowing their strengths and weaknesses and vice versa, was better than turning up for a new season with a different team and different car as a lot of people do. I now feel that I could go and get in another car and be on the pace reasonably quickly whereas two years ago I wouldn't have believed I could do that, so it's made a huge difference.

Q:
In the grand scheme of things, you don't have a lot of experience of GT racing and have only been doing it for a couple of years, but come the summer of 2006, there you were at La Sarthe in the Ferrari in the Le Mans 24 Hours. It's a dream for any driver, how did it feel being there at the biggest sportscar race of them all?

Chris Niarchos:
I think the fact that the whole thing came together about a week and half before the event helped me as otherwise I would have panicked if I'd had months to think about all the issues involved with Le Mans! I got a call on the Tuesday before pre-testing when Nathan [Kinch] had to pull out and I'd said to myself that I'd do the Spa 24 Hours to get some night time experience before doing Le Mans in 2007. It worked out as being the dream from heaven.

The first time I got there I was as nervous as hell. The first lap I did in the dark was at Le Mans, the first lap I did in the dark when it was raining was at Le Mans and it's a pretty intimidating place to try and work out what you are doing with all the other cars that are there. The irony for me is that I'd never even been as a spectator and people were always telling me I had to see it and it was ten times bigger than I thought it would be, both in terms of driving and even just being there seeing what people were doing. It was an amazing, amazing experience.

Q:
You said it was good not to know you were doing Le Mans so you didn't panic, but in a way did it make it more difficult to suddenly have to prepare for such a big race in such a short space of time?

Chris Niarchos:
No, I'm convinced it was the opposite. I'm one of these people who, if I think about something for too long, the harder I make it. You think of all the things that could do right and all the things that could go wrong and Andrew [Kirkaldy] and Tim were both great and said 'this is just a big race at a big circuit. It's still corners, you still have to use the brakes so just do what you normally do and the other cars will make themselves seen'. I have a good awareness in a race car anyway and that isn't something that I ever felt was a weakness, so that part was probably the most intimidating, seeing the speed differential between the cars.

Braking into the first chicane in a GT2 car, I think our terminal speed is about 185mph and the prototypes are doing 225-230. We brake at 175 metres lets say, conservatively, and they are nailing the brakes at 100 metres and when you consider that our speed has already halved, the difference in speed when the hit the brakes is about 150mph and we are both there at the same time. That is the hardest thing to get your head round, the braking and having things that you see in your mirrors that are miles away as you enter a corner, suddenly appear alongside you half way through it. That is the hardest part of Le Mans, making sure that you don't do anything daft and don't get in peoples way.

You have to learn to use the prototypes properly because they can help you and there are peculiarities between them. At slow corners like Mulsanne and Arnage, we take those corners faster than the prototypes because they are so reliant on aerodynamic grip so you go barrelling along in the fast stuff and they just rifle past you at some speed, but then you get into the slow corners and have to make sure that you don't drive into their back-sides because they brake earlier for the slow stuff and their apex speed is lower. The experience was great and now we have an entry for this year, like everything, there will be some familiarity in knowing the circuit and knowing what the car will do and knowing some tricks of what you should and shouldn't do in certain places. I think that will be really helpful.

Q:
You may not have won the race but you must have been delighted with the result, a result that could have been better had it not been for another little problem in the shape of a stuck wheel nut...

Chris Niarchos:
Every time I think about it I get depressed, because again it was just a small part, a wheel stud, that snapped off and it spun the wheel on the hub and put us in the garage for 18 laps - which is about an hour and a half at Le Mans - and then we only finished something like three laps off the lead. We just have to be pragmatic about it and we know we had a great result at Le Mans. Ferrari was ecstatic, they'd never had a car at Le Mans in GT2 that had finished at that kind of level, the team had only started its international career a year earlier and turned up at Le Mans to get on the podium at the second attempt - and my first.

I ran into Tommy Erdos in the podium area after the race and we were laughing and I asked him how it was going and he wished me congratulations and I replied that 'yeah it was ok, we got third'. He turned to me and said 'Listen, I've been here 13 times and this is the first time I'm stood here - you should be very, very, VERY, pleased with what you have got. There are others who have been here for decades and haven't been in your shoes' and that was a real wake-up call to me to have a better appreciation of it all. I think if you do something for the first time and do well at it, then you sometimes just think 'Well this is the way it is'. He reminded me that half of the cars aren't even there at 6am and I was there at the finish and on the podium and should count myself lucky. And he was right.

Q:
Into 2007, what is the programme in place?

Chris Niarchos:
Well it's going to be the FIA GT championship and also Le Mans again. Both Tim and I would like to do other driving, Tim is a professional driver and is involved with other contracts but I think he would like to do a bit of LMS and get back in a prototype which he really enjoyed. But our focus is FIA. The new format within the championship with two hour races will be interesting and will change the dynamics of the races a lot. We have a restricted gearbox package for this season where they are unchangeable, so where as before we could go to a circuit and change the gears and alter them to suit a circuit, we can't any longer. I think the experienced drivers will show their cards very early and be quick, but for me, with the shorter format, I'll probably end up with the middle stint - so Tim will do an hour or 45mins, then I'll do 45mins in the middle and Tim will sprint to the finish - which is the way it should be.

Obviously, I'd like to do more and start the odd race in FIA just to gain the experience. What I found is I tend to come on in the middle of the race as, particularly when I've had less experience and maybe on circuits I'm not familiar with, I can follow someone and then it clicks and I can peel time off my lap-times. Tim and I are very buoyant about the year ahead although the team, in terms of its overall line-up for all of the races, hasn't been decided yet - we are working out some variables in terms of who is coming on board and drivers but the nucleus of the team has been together for four years and I don't see that changing.

Q:
With a years of experience of many of the circuits in FIA and with experience of Le Mans, how confident are you of a successful season?

Chris Niarchos:
Pre-season it's very easy to be confident and say we went here and did well and went there and did well, but we have a proven package and I can't see Tim in particular ever being out of the top three and I'm surprised when he is as he's blindingly fast. For this year there are new challenges. AF Corse are back and we believe with four new drivers, there is the new 997 Porsche which will be very competitive and I understand will have some factory drivers in those seats, so it will be tough. At Le Mans there are 15 entries in GT2 and nobody turns up to Le Mans who doesn't know what they are doing. There are probably 40+ quality drivers in those 15 entries.

Zhuhai in China where we start in March will tell a few tales but I think you can expect Scuderia Ecosse and the two cars to be very quick off the bat.

 

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