Words by Melissa J Knight
Until Audi’s Truth in 24 took us behind the scenes of Le Mans, race engineers worked in the shadows of the drivers. The spotlight got turned on after a last minute decision by Audi Sport Team Joest management to allow Howden “H” Haynes to wear a mic, and we witnessed him convince the then 7-time Le Mans Winner, Kristensen, that the tires on his car were perfect for the weather ahead.
Anyone who has seen the film now understands the influence engineers can have on the outcome of a race. (Those of you who haven’t seen Truthin24, download it immediately after this read and follow with Truthin24 II.) Since the film’s release, media have given more face time to these mechanical minds and it’s not uncommon to see F1 engineers profiled along with the drivers. But “H” is more than an engineer for the stars: he’s somewhat of a secret weapon. His company Progressive Motorsport hires and trains engineers and assistant engineers contracted by Audi Sport Team Joest.
Progressive, which in addition to the being an adjective associated with the Audi brand, is an amalgam of professional and aggressive—words that describe the characters of Howden and his partner Dave Ward. The company developed organically in 2009. “When I started at Audi Sport Team Joest, most of the engineers were freelance and it was not a coherent environment,” Howden says. “As rivals, we didn’t work together as much as we should. It was difficult to find engineers and train them so when an opening became available, I said to Ralf Juettner I would bring someone in.”
After looking for someone who stood out from the crowd and fit in with the existing crew, he hired the now-famous Leena Gade. Rising star Kyle Wilson-Clarke was recruited next along with assistant engineers Justin Taylor, David Brown, and Stuart Barlow. “As a single working environment we are a syncronized group of engineers and that makes working in partnership with Audi Sport Team Joest more harmonious.”
(This year the engineering team for the fourth Le Mans car is in-house at Audi Sport.)
It also gives Audi Sport a distinct advantage in the dynamics of motorsport teams. Most teams have one engineer in-house and the rest are freelance, while even smaller teams are all freelance. The fact that a German auto manufacturer has an English engineering group is interesting, but more extraordinary is the responsibility that Howden took on: He hires and trains people with whom he then competes.
“Progressive is a core part of Audi Sport Team Joest and I have to ensure the success of our engineers because in the end it’s on me. Although engineers generally keep everything close to the chest, I have to be an open book. On the flip side, I’m happy that Leena had the success she did and to see that she learned from me makes me very proud.”
As to how he landed in this unique position, it’s accurate to say Howden was carried into the world of motorsports when he was just a wee tot. Eager to spring forth into the world, on July 1, 1978 in the small town of Barnstaple, England he was born prematurely at only 26 weeks. It was not a favorable start and it wasn’t until six months passed that he was released from the hospital. The very same day Howden’s parents bundled him up and took him straight to a racing event. Crazy? Not if you consider that his dad was actually racing that day and his mother was also a racing drivers. As if to ensure Howden would take off on the same track they named him after F1 driver Howden Ganley.
Automotive blood flows through the previous Haynes generation as well. Howden’s paternal granddad owned a BMW and Fiat dealership and during the summers when Howden was a tween, he and his cousin (who is now a professional racing driver) would build cars and engines, and Granddad would teach the boys to drive them, and do everything their fathers didn’t want them to do.
Growing up completely surrounded by a motorsport environment did not lead to a normal childhood for Howden and his younger brother Russell. As kids, they were involved in motorcross and karting, and with both parents driving auto cross, trials, sprinting and hill climbing, the brothers were often pulled out of school to accompany them racing around the country.
That was until his mom started to beat his dad. Jana Haynes was the Female Sprint & Hill Climbing Champion in the UK.
His father Mark Haynes stopped driving and started Forge Motorsports so the family could build and run their own racing car. Howden and another mechanic (who now works for Mercedes F1) designed and built the cars and ran the team. With professional drivers behind the wheel, the car won both of the races it ran at the end of a championship year and garnered much publicity. Although his father had to close the team down, Howden was primed to launch into the world of professional motorsports.
Bright and brimming with ambition, Howden and the other mechanic took their ideas for a new car and went to Zeus Motorsport Engineering where the two of them produced the Zeus Challenger sports car. Howden did all of the CAD and design work and, along with the others physically built the car, and if that’s not impressive enough, it was “H” who actually drove it for its initial testing and shake-down. He was only 17-years-old and still in school.
When Howden thought about the world of motorsports, the world was very much in his sight. During two years of high school when he had to meet an academic requirement for two weeks of work experience, he chose to study at Reynard Racing Cars, a global motorsport manufacturer. Enthused by the idea of directly entering the workforce rather than going to college, Howden knew a degree in mechanical engineering would be helpful down the line so he willed himself to attend Cardiff University. But while the other kids were drinking beer and chasing skirts during evenings and weekends, “H” was designing and building the Zeus Challenger. Driven by Greg Caton, The Challenger won the 2001 National Supersports title in the UK.
Being a gear head in his leisure time paid off big time. After graduating he gained a scholarship with Reynard and spent a month in every department: wind tunnel, gear box, design office, etc. . . What he learned was invaluable. “Today when engineers graduate, they know all about the technology, computers and math but many people are missing the grassroots experience of figuring things out for themselves,” Howden says.
He moonlighted at Zeus before spending a year full-time at Reynard where he worked his way up from the scholarship scheme to indy car gearbox technician and then on to Research and Development engineer in their Special Vehicle Projects division (RSVP). Reynard was a large company and Howden, who had a career goal of becoming a technical director, didn’t want to be pigeon-holed in any one capacity so early in his career. So he sidestepped to Zeus where he was able to learn and do more varied work. In this relatively small pond he became a big fish while finishing the Challenger EVO 2 project. A successor to the original Challenger, the EVO2 featured a new design: The bodywork was made of carbon fibre and therefore noticeably lighter, and the new shape more aerodynamically efficient than its predecessor.
Bentley: The Link to Audi Sport
From Zeus, Howden jumped to Bentley and was the only race team engineer to be there for the whole three years of the Le Mans Program (2001-2003). During the final year, he met Ralf and the Joest team and that was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
It was after Bentley closed in 2004 that Howden glided over to Audi Sport UK Team Veloqx where he was assistant race engineer on the McNish, Kaffer & Biela R8 Le Mans car. He instantly felt at home with this family, which included his future business partner Dave Ward (whom he had known since childhood and worked with at Bentley) and several Audi engine guys from Bentley who were there as engine support. At the end of 2004 it was determined that Champion Racing (a US “customer” Audi team) would also run two Audi R8 sports-prototypes at Laguna Seca and Petit Le Mans. Since he had worked with both Johnny Herbert and Pierre Kaffer at Audi Sport UK, he was asked to do the data for their car in the U.S.
A Surprise Turning Point
It’s probably clear by now that Howden is usually one step ahead of the game, and he was this time too, he just didn’t know it. “It was quite a shock when Brad Kettler told me that I would actually engineer the car. I had only prepared myself to be assistant race engineer, but now I had to step up to the position of lead engineer. Not only that, I had to do it alone as there was no one to fill the assistant role. I was in a new team and a new position, and I had to fill both roles. It was a huge undertaking but it was a perfect example of being thrown in at the deep end. It was certainly a turning point in my career and I relished the challenge as a 26-year-old engineer.”
They came in second at Petit Le Mans to Brad Kettler’s winning car. “We would have beaten them if Johnny had not gone into the gravel near the end of the race, but Brad still denies it,” Howden says with a perceptible smile. At Laguna the winning order was reversed: Brad’s car came in second and Howden’s won.
That winter Dave Ward summoned Howden to Australia to do design work on the Ford Performance Racing V8 Supercar. “Dave had worked for Audi Sport UK in the 90’s with the Audi BTCC Super Touring car (1996-98) and Audi R8C (1999). We had talked about setting up our own company ever since we started working together at Bentley in 2001. ‘Wardie’ went from being a mechanic to team manager roles, and with me being an engineer it always seemed like a perfect match for a business partnership.” The pieces were starting to fall into place but it would take a while longer before the puzzle was complete.
While Down Under, Howden received two offers for the 2005 season: Champion asked him to engineer an Audi R8 for the ALMS season, and Ralf Juettner offered him a position as race engineer for Pierre Kaffer in the DTM championship. Anticipating the debut of Audi’s R10 TDI in a year’s time, he accepted Ralf’s offer and took the job with Joest Racing.
“As a child, I was always fascinated by the Group-C cars of the 80’s such as the Rothmans & Joest Porsches and Silk Cut Jaguars. My uncle was a big Le Mans fan and covered the walls of his house with photos of Le Mans cars from that period. My introduction to Le Mans with Bentley and Audi Sport UK Team Veloqx had ignited a passion for the 24-hour race. I knew that the R10 TDI project was going to be a big undertaking from Audi and I simply wanted to be a part of it.”
Howden actualized his goal of engineering the R10 TDI when Audi Sport sent him back to the USA for what he now considers the best years of his life. “His” car won ALMS three years in a row: with Allan and Dindo in 2006/2007 and with Marco Werner and Lucas Luhr in 2008. Reflecting back Howden notes 2008 as a particular highlight and says, “We didn’t think we were going to win, but we did everything right.”
The years of 2006-2008 were very busy with Audi racing programs on both sides of the world; Howden engineered Allan/Dindo in the LMS championship in Europe along with Tom Kristensen at Le Mans. At the beginning of 2006 “H” was actually with Werner/Biela/Pirro for Sebring and Le Mans. (They won Le Mans.) It was after Le Mans in 2006 that he took over engineering Allan/Dindo/Tom from Jo Hausner.
Circle of Life
The year 2007 was sweet for a more personal reason. Howden was in the U.S. for Sebring while his wife Laurie was pregnant at home watching the race, which had lots of problems. Despite the fact that the tension from the race induced early labor, Laurie stayed in front of the TV until Audi won the race and then went to the hospital! After the checkered flag dropped Howden tried to get a plane from Sebring, but no joy. Despite the best efforts from Audi and Champion trying to get him a plane, the next flight out was the day after the race. By the time he landed and went straight to the hospital, his daughter Eryn was already a day old.
Yes, the man who was born prematurely and went straight from the hospital to a race, years later went straight from a race to the hospital where his daughter was born early. You just can’t make this stuff up.
(Although Eryn is not named after a racing driver there’s still a connection to one: Pierre Kaffer is her Godfather/Legal Guardian.)
Howden’s son Dylan Johnny (middle name is after Johnny Herbert) was also born early. At the time Howden had been planning to fly to Los Angeles for the red carpet premiere of Truth in 24. “The premiere was a day or two after DJ’s birth,” Howden recalls. “With everything that was going on at home, at the last minute I cancelled my flight so I could stay with my family. Unfortunately, I missed my 15 minutes of Hollywood fame but I got to witness my second child being born after missing the first.”
Obsessed with Perfection
When pressed on the number of wins he has engineered, Howden begins counting. “Three ALMS Championships in a row. Four Sebring. Two Petit Le Mans. Three or Four Le Mans. [He pauses] I don’t remember the number of each victory. I should but I lost count.”
I confirm the number of Le Mans wins is three. Bentley in 2003. Audi in 2006 and 2008. The Bentley win is included since Howden worked on both cars in different roles. There was a win that got away in 2007 when, after leading the race at the 16-hour mark with over a 3-lap lead, a wheel came off after being on the car for 14 laps.
“It’s not necessarily winning that’s only important,” Howden adds. “It’s knowing that we did everything right considering the circumstances we faced. Even after winning a race there could’ve been problems during a race that I’m pissed off about afterward. On the flip side, there are times that we don’t win and we can still walk away feeling positive. It’s more about seeking perfection than winning trophies.”
Howden is obsessed with perfection and admittedly OCD with everything. “Although annoying when at home, it does have its benefits for engineering a car and wanting everything to be perfect,” he says with a chuckle. “The trouble is it is difficult to separate home from work and so everything has to be perfect, from the shoes all lined up in the hall way—and in size order—to the CD’s on the shelf having to be arranged alphabetically by artist, everything has to be perfectly tidy, in order and perfectly aligned. I can’t help it, everything just has to be perfect. But I run my car the same way.”
This is why Audi Sport Team Joest doesn’t just keep him in their company: They keep his company Progressive as part of their team.
Thoughts About Le Mans 2012
“We were disappointed and shocked that Peugeot dropped out,” Howden says. “We relished the competition and we’d love to see Porsche in there too. We were excited knowing there would be four cars and the world championship this year and we looked forward to a big fight. We want it to be down to seconds. That’s what the fans want. But you can’t discount Toyota—they’ve had a lot of F1 experience since the last time they participated in Le Mans. We hope they can push us hard this year for the fans. But one thing is for certain: You’ve got to assume the competitor is better than you are, otherwise you’re just kidding yourself.”