Ludo Lacroix has a startling confession to make: the technical director of Triple Eight Race Engineering doesn’t like cars all that much – or some cars, at least. “Road cars for me are just tools,” says Lacroix in a French accent that hasn’t been dulled by 12 years living in Australia. “I like utes and wagons because they’re practical. You can’t drive fast on the road anymore, so why drive a Ferrari if you can’t drive it the way you’d like to? It’s like having a fancy girl on your arm, but never touching her.”
He may not appreciate road cars, but Lacroix has a soft spot for a well-designed sportscar. “A beautiful car goes fast and there’s a reason for it. It’s only beautiful and fast because the designer and the manufacturer paid attention to it and put time and resources into it. It doesn’t happen by accident.”
The same can be said of Triple Eight’s success. Winning six of the last seven drivers’ and teams’ championships (Red Bull has been the naming rights sponsor of the team since 2013) is a reflection of just how dominant they’ve been in V8 Supercars. Much of that success can be attributed to Lacroix, whose job is to make Triple Eight cars faster than any other cars on the grid.
Mark Dutton, the team manager, has been with Triple Eight from the beginning in 2003 and has worked with Lacroix for over a decade.
“Ludo was very scientific from the start and pushed you to understand everything that was influencing the car,” says Dutton. “He backs himself every time and usually he’s right. Occasionally, he’s wrong, and I’ve had some heated discussions with him where he’s knocked my notebook out of my hand because he’s so animated. He’s tough sometimes, but he’s a very good teacher. He’s the best technical director in the business because he’s the smartest. He knows more about cars than the rest.”
THE RED BULLETIN: Why did you get into motor racing?
LUDO LACROIX: The numbers. I’m a scientist doing motor racing. I work with data and try to be honest with myself, the team and the driver. In motorsport you have a team of people working together to please one person, the driver. If you make the driver smile, you know you have a fast car.
Do you always trust the numbers?
You can’t put everything into numbers. We don’t always have the answer. Sometimes you have to go with your gut or the driver’s gut. If the driver brings something to the party and you keep saying, ‘No, I’m right, I know what I’m doing,’ you lose them. So sometimes you do a car setup because it’s what the driver wants. Is it right or wrong? It doesn’t matter. Give them the chance to test it and if it doesn’t work, try something else.
So you need to be a psychologist as well as an engineer.
Exactly. You can engineer a great car, but when the driver opens the door they can do crazy things. They can be aggressive and unreliable because they’re under incredible stress to deliver a lap time even if the car isn’t good.
Did you race cars?
No, but before I started with Triple Eight I had a lot of race wins with teams in Europe, and I’ve had 134 wins with Triple Eight since we came to Australia. I’ve been on the door of a car for so many years that I’ve got a feel for what the driver is going through. I can see in their eyes if they’re happy or not. Sometimes you need to take the pressure off. If you’re having a bad weekend, don’t push for first place. Settle for fourth or fifth, go home and work out what went wrong.
How frustrating is it when you get everything right with the car and the driver gets it wrong?
It’s part of the deal. If you think you’re better, jump in the car.
How did you get into motor racing?
I studied aerodynamics and thermodynamics at university. I followed motor racing, but I was always interested in the technical side of it. Motor racing is a technical challenge where your performance is measured on the racetrack every weekend. I started as an engineer in France in 1988 with the worst team you could imagine.
I stayed for nine months and then worked for a number of different teams where I sucked up a lot of knowledge. I started with Triple Eight in the UK in 1999. They were a young team and they didn’t understand what it takes to get good. They didn’t look at the numbers. At that time, Roland Dane (the owner of Triple Eight) was looking for the magic thing in the car that made it fast. I explained to him there was no magic and no miracle. You need a system. In 2001 Triple Eight won its first championship in the UK and in 2003 we came to Australia.
What’s your role as technical director?
I’m responsible for 25 technical staff. You have to find the balance between managing people and managing the car. I let them do their job and try not to look over their shoulders all the time. If you give them too much direction, you take their balls away and you don’t get the best from them. Work with good people. Build a good car. Get good drivers. Analyse all the pieces and put it together on the track. It’s simple really.
How important is the analysis?
‘That will do’, doesn’t do it for us. After every race weekend we have a debrief where we discuss our strengths and weaknesses and what we need to work on. Racing is all about being honest. If you can’t accept the car hasn’t been fast enough and figure out why, you’re not going to get better. If you keep telling yourself, ‘I’m not ill’, when you’ve got cancer, you’re not going to cure yourself.
Do the debriefs get emotional?
Yes, of course. I’ve seen people cry. There’s a lot of ego in the room. I have a problem if people say they’ve done nothing wrong when there’s obvious evidence they have. It can be stressful, but hey, if you can’t take the heat, don’t go into the kitchen.
What motivates you after all the success you’ve had?
It’s a job, but it’s a very good job. We enjoy it and we want to keep doing it. I’m 51 years old and I want to do this for another 10 or 15 years. I’ve got a great life here in Australia. I get to see my wife and my kid all the time and do other things apart from motor racing.
What do you do outside of motor racing?
I was into show jumping when I lived in France. I used to compete in motocross until I broke my ankle, but I still love motorbikes. Now I cycle, run and do stand up paddle boarding. I sail a catamaran and fly remote- control planes. Last year I won the beginner category in the Australian Scale Aerobatics Association national championships.
Did that trophy mean more to you than those you’ve won with Triple Eight?
No, no. It’s nothing to do with competition. It’s about pushing myself. Some people are very careful; I’m not. Last year the propeller of my plane sliced off my index finger and part of my thumb on my right hand. I’ve had crashes on horses and on bikes. I’ve shattered my ankle and torn my ACL. But that’s what memories are made of. Don’t hold back too much, because when you come to the end you’ll say to yourself: ‘I could have done this, I could have done that.’ Give life a good go.