LEADING BY EXAMPLE – Lawrence Tomlinson interview
19th April 2016
You could forgive a highly successful businessman and owner of one of Britain’s most admired sports and racing car brands for resting on his laurels, but nothing could be further from the truth for Lawrence Tomlinson, the Chairman of Ginetta, who is as determined as ever to create opportunities and drive improvements across motorsport.
A mechanical engineer by trade, Tomlinson made his name as the founding chairman of LNT Group, the parent company of five diverse businesses – with interests ranging from care homes to construction – but it takes just seconds of conversation to realise that motorsport is his true passion.
Having started out importing classic cars into the UK, Tomlinson has since overseen the creation of some of the most popular cars in British motorsport today. He has been on the British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC) board of directors, had a stint as joint acting chief executive of Silverstone Circuits Limited, and even found time to win the GT2 class of the 24 Hours of Le Mans back in 2006. More recently, he has been driving the Team LNT Ginetta Nissan LMP3 in the VdeV Championship, along with running his business empire, which employs 2,000 people.
The combination of talent and determination that has served Tomlinson so well quickly becomes apparent when MSD presses him on the difficulties of fitting four-hour endurance races into such a hectic schedule. Let’s say he approaches his racing just as he does any of his business ventures.
“I go into the weekend with a plan,” he says. “You don’t win by accident, so we put in the time prior to the season and develop the car mechanically, so it’s reliable. Turning up at the race weekend is the easy part of it. You think ‘how am I going to be up on the top spot on Sunday’ and you motivate all the team around you to think about how you get the win, and then work backwards from that.
“It’s not that dissimilar to what you need to do in business in terms of getting a team around you. When I’m actually in the car I think about the mechanics of the car and not the balance sheet.”
The balance sheet must have been on Tomlinson’s mind, though, when just over a decade ago he completed a deal for Ginetta, a company that was making a “small profit” at the time. “The history of the brand was intriguing,” he says. “I tried to buy TVR but a Russian guy (Nikolai Smolensky) bought it. So Ginetta was an ideal platform for us to develop our cars, because of the history of the brand and what they did, which was providing lightweight sports cars. British sports cars tied in exactly with what I wanted.”
Doing things differently
In the decade or so since, Ginetta has become embedded as a truly iconic, global motorsport brand. Road cars such as the G40R and G60 have caught the public’s imagination, while on track Ginetta now boasts three single marque championships – the Ginetta Junior Championship, the Ginetta Challenge and the Ginetta GT Supercup – plus the Ginetta Racing Drivers Club (GRDC), which was designed specifically for the first time racing driver. Under Tomlinson’s guidance, each of these has become established as a highly respected stepping-stone to the big time.
Having acknowledged that “Caterham did a great job with the Academy, and still do”, Tomlinson says one of his motivations was for Ginetta to make motorsport even more accessible. “With the superlights, for example, when drivers explained to me what they were doing I found it confusing – some look the same but some are quicker than others,” he says. “Whereas with Ginetta, we have put people in the car and, especially with the GRDC, they come along and drive the cars to the limit and then move into a completely different car with a different challenge. With our cars you are moving into different racing and you’re not stuck in a specific area. That’s what we do differently.
“We have a very clear career path and progression for drivers of all ability. And we are also extremely good value! The GRDC package is £30,000 and you get eight races, including Brands GP, Silverstone GP, Rockingham and Donington. It’s fabulous value and that includes the car!”
With most young drivers harbouring ambitions of one day making it into Formula 1, Tomlinson’s pride about the fact that Ginetta can help youngsters get their careers off the ground is palpable. “We see now that Ginetta Juniors is the obvious step to familiarise your potential F1 drivers or single-seater drivers with procedures at a proper race event. It’s the most prestigious event of its kind in the world and I have never come across anything anywhere near it in terms of what your driver learns,” he explains.
Using the multi-disciplined Ginetta G40, drivers aged from 14 to 17 compete in support races to the British Touring Car Championship, receiving exposure rivalled by no other junior championship. “Being part of the touring car package you have 30,000 fans, live TV, you’re interviewed by the likes of Louise Goodman and Steve Ryder, and the drivers learn so much,” Tomlinson explains. “So when people come out of the Ginetta Juniors and move on, it gives them a really good advantage.”
A man in demand
Away from Ginetta, Tomlinson has applied his expertise in other areas of the sport, including as a board member for the BRDC and then as joint acting chief executive of Silverstone Circuits from late 2014 until early 2015. At the time, the company was in desperate need of leadership after three senior executives had been suspended from their roles. During his six months in the role, Tomlinson’s business acumen was an important tool in starting to turn the tide at the home of the British Grand Prix.
“Silverstone is a great circuit and what I tried to do was unlock the potential of the great people that had been at the circuit and running it for many years,” he states. “I think I went a long way to doing that. Silverstone Circuit is a happier place for the staff since I had my time there. I think there have been some significant improvements and cost reductions that needed to be undertaken, which probably should have happened five or six years ago.” Tomlinson’s short-term goal was multi-faceted – he wanted to “unlock the talent and empower them”, significantly reduce costs in a manageable way, and to put the customer at the centre of all that the circuit does. “The management team have done a great job implementing this,” he says.
The time and energy invested into understanding the intricacies of business, how to successfully implement a plan and, importantly, how to build and maintain the support of those around him is among the many reasons why Tomlinson finds himself as a man in demand. He has even served as the government’s Entrepreneur in Residence in the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.
Making the effort to understand exactly what you’re working with is equally important on track and Tomlinson is in no doubt that all drivers can benefit from expanding their knowledge base, especially when it comes to mechanics and engineering.
“Anyone that comes from an engineering background and knows the intricacies of how a car works has an advantage over someone that doesn’t,” he explains. “The number of times I’ve got into a car of a gentleman driver and I’ve spotted something loose – whether it’s the diff loose, or the prop shaft loose, or a track rod – and they’ve been driving the car. Just knowing there is something wrong with the car is very important, but it’s not always easy for a driver to relay that back to an engineer. Being a driver, engineer, designer and owning the company is a real shortcut.”
The benefits of supporting your on-track ability with engineering know-how is also highlighted by one of Britain’s best-known racing drivers, Nigel Mansell, who lined up alongside Tomlinson in the 1000km of Silverstone in 2009 in the Ginetta-Zytek GZ09S. Remembering his experience of sharing the car with Mansell, Tomlinson says: “He’s an extremely determined guy in everything he does. He’s focused on whatever he is doing at that time and determined to be a success, whether it’s golf or motor racing.
“But what surprised me most about him was his ability to engineer the car. He’s a fantastic engineer and really helped us to develop that car. We worked together with Nigel and Greg Mansell (Nigel’s son) in the Team LNT car. He had a lot of thoughts, and put in the motorsport environment he’s a great engineer, but he also gave it 100% as a driver, even though at that point he was in his mid-fifties!”
Tomlinson’s own engineering nous is perhaps best highlighted by the Ginetta G50, which has emerged as one of the most popular cars in motorsport, was named Autosport’s Car of the Year in 2008 and, incredibly, was designed and built within six months. According to Tomlinson, the goal was to create a car that was fun to drive – “a bit lairy if anything” – with a plan in mind for it to replace the TVR Tuscan Challenge one-make series. Following feedback and refinement, including a focus on making it more aerodynamic, the Ginetta G50 as we know it was born. In Tomlinson’s own words, however, “the G55 is much more aerodynamic and a natural successor to the G50”.
It’s all about enjoyment
For Tomlinson the G50 project was “great fun” and it is exactly this – fun – that he hopes to instil in motorsport in the future. When MSD asks him about his plans for Ginetta over the next decade his outlook is refreshing – focusing first on ensuring that people get the most enjoyment as possible out of the sport. “We always welcome people to get involved and the next five to 10 years will pretty much be about doing much more of the same, which is to focus on our customers and motorsport in general, and develop cars that people like to have fun in.
“A lot of people in the sport have forgotten about the customer. Either it’s a lot of fun, or people stop doing it and go out of business. They take a lot of money off people, but they don’t like it if they don’t see the value in it. We want to engage with anyone in motorsport who wants to have fun.”
In a sport that has become somewhat renowned for its high entry costs and perceived low levels of accessibility, Tomlinson is playing a vital role in creating much-needed opportunities across the board. In his own words, he says Ginetta will do everything in its power to “bring in people from other areas and make motorsport as easy as possible” to get started in – an admirable goal that has MSD’s full support.
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