INTERVIEW: Stuart Leonard – “The championship was the big one”

Stuart Leonard came late to motor racing – 2018 marks his seventh year racing while others his age have spent twice as long in the sport. In that time though he has already achieved some notable successes in GT racing, making him a man to watch in the Blancpain Series. Brit Pack Drivers sat down with Stuart at the recent Endurance round at Silverstone to find out what makes him tick.

Age: 26
2018 season: Blancpain Sprint and Endurance Series for Belgian Audi Club Team WRT (1 Sprint Series win); winner Bathurst 12h
Other career highlights: 2017 Blancpain Sprint champion (including two wins and four podiums), 2016 Dubai 24h winner, 2015 Sepang 12h winner

Stuart Leonard is clearly at home in the Blancpain Series and with WRT. When we spoke to him, he exuded the confidence of a man who is comfortable in his surroundings yet displaying the measured assurance and determination that is synonymous with any title-winner in sport. As if to prove a point, he would start remarkably well in the Silverstone race, moving from 17th to 9th in just a few corners with some typically committed driving.

Consistency is key

While that particular homecoming weekend may not have gone as well as planned – Leonard and co-drivers Sheldon van der Linde and Marcel Fässler finished 12th and just out of the points on a circuit that never really suited the Audis – it highlighted the consistency Leonard sees as important in a series such as this. “It’s about keeping consistent in the points and if you’re not on the podium, then you just keep placing. If you get one win it brings you right back in it. It’s about keeping it consistent, keeping it clean and then the last couple of rounds you really go for everything.”

It highlights the whole team ethic needed for Blancpain success, something Leonard and the WRT set-up achieved last season in such dramatic fashion when they won the Blancpain Sprint Series title in the finale at the Nürburgring, where the likely destination of the title changed hands four times before a typically gutsy race-winning performance gave the crown to Leonard and Dutch partner Robin Frijns.

Late start reaps early dividends

It was the culmination of a meteoric rise to the top for Leonard, who never raced karts as a youngster and only began in cars in 2012 – aged 19. After a couple of seasons in Caterhams, the Londoner took the plunge into GT racing with a private Prodrive Aston Martin in selected Blancpain Endurance events, as well as a bow in the 2014 Nürburgring 24h.

The pivotal year was 2015. As well as continuing with his racing campaign (in which he took a Pro-Am win in the Silverstone BES round), Leonard was working full time – in the oil industry in Texas. “I was travelling a lot because of the racing and my work. At some point it came to a crunch time when I had to make a decision to go racing and give it everything or stop and continue working.”

Having managed to combine work with racing, it only seemed natural for Leonard to give his all to the weekend ‘job’, seeing how rapidly he was making progress in the sport. “The thing is I didn’t have the chance when I was younger to go racing, so I felt I was doing well quickly so I wanted the chance to give it a stab.”

The big one

Towards the end of 2015 – once he had made the big decision – he signed up for the crack WRT Audi squad, which led to immediate success in the 2015 Sepang 12 Hours. There were mixed results the following season in the Blancpain GT Series, but another endurance race was ticked off the list when, combined with Michael Meadows, Alain Ferté and Laurens Vanthoor, he won the Dubai 24 Hours.

Leonard was developing rapidly though and 2017 highlighted just how quickly as partner to Frijns in the Sprint Series. It ended in spectacular fashion with that finale at the Nürburgring, which even the official highlights video can never do justice to.

Going into the weekend fourth in the standings, there was only a small chance of success. Yet it took more than luck to present Leonard and co-driver Robin Frijns with the title. In the qualifying race, the Brit showed his true worth in the pairing, dragging his Audi up from 10th to 6th on this stint to claim some much needed points. Without these, the title would not have gone their way the next day when cool heads ensured race victory and the Sprint Series title, where others failed.

Understandably, this was a major moment in Leonard’s fledgling career. “The (Sprint Series) Championship was the big one. It was a great feeling to be able to work with someone like that, where we can support each other in our own ways. It was awesome.”

That man Frijns

Indeed, it is fair to say that his pairing with Frijns improved rapidly as the season went on, bringing us back to that confidence Leonard displays. You would expect a regular hot-shoe single-seater race winner (and a driver who really should have had a fair crack at Formula 1) to be quick but, as Leonard points out, “…personal performance-wise I was really happy because even though I wasn’t always on the best tyres, I did a solid job.”

Leonard clearly thrives in the environment, especially with Dutchman Frijns, who has been on the verge of Formula 1 drives with Sauber and Caterham in the past. “He’s been one of the easiest team mates I’ve had,” Leonard notes. “He’s been extremely adaptable to me in terms of driving style and things like that. He’s just been very helpful, easy-going.”

GT racing is a team game though and one driver has never won the title on their own. What was clear to see over the 2017 season was not just how quickly Leonard improved as the season went on, but also how well he was driving come the end of it.

“If you look at the start of the (last) season I was still leaning a bit on Robin to help me,” says Leonard, who clearly enjoys working with the Dutch talent. “From midway to the end of the season though there were a couple of times when Robin leaned on me to make the track positions and things like that.”

Where next?

Leonard is not stopping after such a high. A solid start to the 2018 Blancpain season was preceded by victory in the Liqui Moly Bathurst 12 Hour and has led to the next target on his list.

“I would like to win the Blancpain overall title,” he says. “That would be a nice target.”

He is under no illusions as to the task in front of him though.

“The thing with endurance racing is you need a bit more luck, just in terms of strategy and timing. There are things out of your control which, no matter how much you try and engineer a result, it never really works this way. You can only really focus on yourself and try and help those directly around you.”

We have no doubt at all that the speed and talent is there. You simply do not end up on a winning Sprint Cup pairing without it; nor do you win three high-quality endurance races without having a high degree of skill.

And that Leonard confidence also helps.

Our thanks to Stuart for giving up some time on a busy raceday to talk to us. Thanks too to Ian Tonkin for facilitating the interview.

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