After piloting Rinaldi Racing’s Ferrari 488 GT3 to his second Pro-Am victory in the Spa 24 Hour, SA’s David Perel must’ve felt on top of the world, but for the Capetonian entrepreneur-turned-racer, just getting on the starting grid was arguably the toughest race of his life. After selling everything he owned and moving to Europe in 2016 to make his dream come true racing in the Italian GT series, he was quickly snapped up by Blancpain GT outfit, Kessel Racing, and took his first Spa 24 Hour win in 2017. At the end of the year he lost his drive and was back to what felt like square one trying to secure a race seat with a top-flight team.
Then in June 2018, replacing Rinaldi’s number one driver, team boss Michele Rinaldi set Perel a seemingly insurmountable task to prove his worth and win a berth for the upcoming Spa 24 Hour. Qualify on the front row, lead the race, and outpace his Bronze-ranked teammate by 1.5 sec. Perel did all that and set the GT3 lap record in the process. Job done!
We sit down with Perel at Ferrari Cape Town and discuss racing, his ultimate highs and torrid lows, what it’s like to sacrifice everything to pursue a dream and what’s next in the David Perel story.
Motor: So you just woke up one day and decided, to hell with it, I’m going to be a racing driver?
DP: Yea, pretty much. My dad used to race Formula Fords in the UK when he was younger and he said, ‘You’re crazy, you’re 30 years old, you can’t abandon the business you’ve been building to do this.’ My brother on the other hand, is my number one fan, and he said, ‘You have to do this or you’ll never be happy!’
Motor: You’re a self-made racer. What sacrifices have you made?
DP: I’ve had to sacrifice literally everything: family relationships, especially with my younger brother who I used to race karts with and run a business with, as well as my girlfriend of many years. I can tell you the material things; people understand the material things easier. I sold everything I had; I sold my car, which paid for exactly one race. You probably need R5 million to go race in Europe, but I had R500 000 that was the sum total of my savings. At the end of 2015 at Mugello, racing in the Italian GT series, I had 100 Euro left to my name and my rental car got towed and impounded. I paid the release fine and that was it, I was penniless. That weekend really made me reassess what I thought was important in my life.
Motor: Transitioning from karting to GT racing, what’s that like?
DP: In 2014 I did a one-off race, with no experience just to see if I could do it, to tick that box. I came home and went on with my life. But screw gambling, drugs and alcohol. The need to race became an addiction. An obsession that’s stronger than all those things combined. Then it snowballed and I found the money to do a full season of Italian GT in 2015. I wondered if I could cut it, and I did.
Motor: What’s the most important attribute you need to be a racing driver?
DP: There’s a misconception that you need to be superfast to be a racing driver. But the reality is your speed is a given. At a professional level everyone is fast, and no one gives you a high five because you qualified in the top ten. That’s what’s expected of you, you’re a professional after all, and that’s why you’re there.
Motor: From fantasy to reality, how has becoming a race winner changed your racing?
DP: I used to obsess about being fast. Am I good enough? If I don’t win today, if I don’t take pole position, if I don’t set fastest lap, will I not make it as a professional racing driver? But nowadays I think about the whole package. I know the names of all my team members and mechanics. If the team wants feedback on the tyres or the setup, that’s what I give them. It’s not just about setting the fastest lap every time you’re on track.
Motor: How did you get your head around the cost of racing?
DP: When I started on this journey, no one told me how much it was going to cost. No one knew, or no one would tell me like it was some big secret. When I started it was 105 000 Euro for the first season, and I only had maybe 20 000! To make the difference I just had to wing it, hustle, hustle…
Motor: What technique do you use to drive a GT race car?
DP: To be fast you need to be consistent and you always need your reference points. Brake at 100m, turn in, hit that curb, hit that clipping point. Next lap, can I push to 95m? And again, next lap, how about 90m? The same process. That’s how you start to find speed and then everything starts to ‘slow down’. I even start to count colors on the rumble strips to refine the process. The challenge is going fast on a track where you’re not familiar with the reference points.
Motor: So the more you drive the easier it gets?
DP: Then it starts becoming a subconscious thing. Your neural pathways and muscle memory build with each lap. It’s like brushing your teeth; you don’t think forward-back, forward-back, it just happens. That’s when you’re in the zone: you aim for the apex but by the time you’re hitting it, you’re already focused on the next reference point. When you’re at one with the car, it just knows how to get there on its own.
Motor: Most memorable race and circuit?
DP: My Spa 24 Hour wins were the best races I’ve done, no doubt, but my most memorable circuit is Imola in Italy without a doubt. I’ve been lucky enough to race there three times and win once. The curbs, the flow, the braking, it’s just ridiculously awesome to drive.
Motor: Make your last Spa 24 Hour win live for us?
DP: The build-up started on Tuesday’s test session and it’s just like a torque wrench, the pressure builds. But then it was raining so there was no point going out trying to be a hero and risking the car. Wednesday was the parade day through the town, a very cool experience. First practice on Thursday was where we saw just how quick we really were. Thankfully the gentleman drivers in my team were really competent so where some were 12 seconds off the pace, my guys were only 5 – 6 seconds off, which really helped our pace. Friday was qualifying and we got pole position in class. The pro takes the start because the team doesn’t want to mess things up in the first hour but the pressure is immense, the first stint was so draining and intense I don’t remember much from it, except feeling shattered when I climbed out the car. I also did the final two-hour stint, which was maximum torque wrench, because you’ve come so far, you’re leading this thing and you’re just counting down the laps.
Motor: What are your shortcomings as a driver?
DP: I discovered one of my shortcomings qualifying at Spa this year. I’m aware of it now, which is a good step, but when the tension is high I can overthink my driving, take that analytical style too far. I fixated on ‘the moment’, instead of letting it flow, and at Spa in first qualifying I was one and a half seconds off my own pace. Thankfully we identified it and I got my flow back to eventually take pole.
Motor: So what’s next for David Perel?
DP: 24 Hours of Le Mans is why I’m here. That’s what this is all about. I was watching it from my couch one year thinking to myself, there are 60 cars, three drivers per car, which makes 180 drivers. Why am I not there? Sure, the entry fee for Le Mans is 50 000 Euro and it’s non-refundable. But are you telling me I can’t be one of 180 drivers? It’s going to take metric ton of cash, of course, but I’m working on it.
In a nutshell – Ferrari 488 GT3
Engine: 4497cc, V8 twin-turbo
Power: 441 kW / 700 Nm
Weight: 1245 kg
Performance: 0-100km/h 2.6 sec, top speed (gearing dependent)
Transmission: 6-speed sequential
Price: 750 000 Euros (R12.5 million in a direct currency conversion)