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The best athletes in the world are coached. So why not in motorsport? Why not racing drivers? Well, actually, driver coaches do exist, they just fly under the radar. They don’t receive multi-million-dollar contracts or get thrust into the public eye after their driver wins a race. The life of a driver coach is a behind-the-scenes role. Bathurst 1000 winner Morris says the data engineer of the car has become the driver coach in this part of the world.
“They get on the screen and they tell the people how to drive,” he says. “But unless you’ve driven a car, you are just talking about a number and you don’t really know the feeling. So I think you’ll see more of it for sure. In America it’s pretty popular. Every washed-up racing driver is a driver coach over there. That’s how they make their living.”
The Victorian-born Morris started his career in speedway, then racing Geminis and Formula Ford, before making his Bathurst debut in a Toyota Corolla in 1991.
Morris went on to race for Australian motorsport legend Frank Gardner in factory-backed BMWs from 1992. According to Morris, “I could go fast and I could drive, but I really didn’t know how or why until I met Frank Gardner.” And the work Gardner put in planted the seed for his current career path as a driver coach.
“Driving for Frank, I found it very beneficial,” he says. “He was obviously a world-class race driver and ran the team. When I came in there as a junior driver he did a lot for me and I really found it beneficial. That always stuck with me, so when I stopped driving full-time and I had guys driving for my team, that’s when I started to think about how driver coaching could help those drivers.
“Before he let me anywhere near the race car, we did a lot of work in road cars first. I had to drive the road car and do driver coaching with him a certain way. It just made sense in the long run. When I first started I thought, ‘What is this silly old guy talking about!’ But when I got in the race and the race evolved and what happened played out exactly how he said it would, it gave me a lot of confidence and belief in what he had to say.
“The number-one thing he taught me was to look where you are going and if you look where you are going, that’s where you’ll end up. That’s the number one thing in driving, it’s processing information. The next is to be relaxed and balanced in the car. And then basically being able to steer the car with the brake pedal. Once you can master that, no-one can touch you.”
Gardner, Tony Longhurst and Paul’s father Terry first opened what is known today as the Norwell Motorplex in 1990. It’s now the pre-eminent driver-training facility in the country.
“Tony Longhurst and Frank Gardner built the place and they had big support back then from BMW and Benson and Hedges,” explains Morris.
“We had financial support and cars to do a lot of different things. He [Gardner] was probably one of the best driver-trainer coaches in the world. And people used to come from all over the world to drive with him.
“I’ve been on the track with Sir Jackie Stewart, Sir John Whitmore and people would just travel to see him. And he never made a big deal out of it and he would always include me in on it.
“You can’t coach someone at high speed because you’re in survival mode. So if the grip levels are really high, by the time the car makes a mistake or you make a mistake, you can feel it. But you’re doing 220 kilometres an hour and you can’t compute. Everything that happens in a racer, if you transfer that back to a road car with low grip, it will happen. But it will happen [in a race car] at a more accelerated rate and at an earlier phase in the corner.”
It’s a learning to walk before you can run approach, which is how Gardner taught a young Morris and which Morris now uses to teach the next generation.
“If you can’t understand what’s going on in, say, a Toyota 86 or in a Holden Commodore SS on not-good tyres, I don’t know how you’re ever going to do it in a GT car or something with a lot of grip,” says Morris.
“So that’s the philosophy behind it and it works. It really does work. Some people get it and embrace it a lot more than other people.”
Some big names in Australian motorsport have spent time under the tutelage of Morris or as part of his expert team at Norwell Motorplex.
“I did it with Greg Murphy, I did it with Russell Ingall,” he says. “Steve Owen and I did a real lot of it when he drove for me. And, obviously having the Norwell Motorplex and the track and everything, it’s just kept building. It’s not something that I’ve really been promoting until the last couple of years. I give away the secrets now because I’m not really racing.”
Morris praised the team he works with, emphasising the expertise displayed by head instructor Steve Robinson.
“Steve Robinson, our head instructor there, no-one can beat him in a Toyota 86,” he says.
“If he turned up with a Toyota 86, he would wipe everyone’s arse. He is unbelievable in one and he has got all the little secrets. But the reason he is so good at it is because we’ve had so many drivers come through as the program evolves. It just keeps evolving because you’re always learning something off someone. Steve Owen had driven a Toyota 86 and we hadn’t. He came to Norwell and we looked what worked out and how he was making speed.”
Morris compares the process they go through at Norwell Motorplex to a race team gathering data on a race car and trying to make it go quicker.
“We’re trying to do the same with the driving technique,” he says. “When we first started, it was pretty basic, brush and bury, weight transfer, look after the tyres, all the basic things that everyone teaches. But because we’re so open and it’s an open book we just keep evolving.”
The Dunlop Super2 Series team owner says these days he regularly bounces ideas off Robinson and Owen.
“He’s pretty good and honest, he’s got no ego,” Morris says of Owen.
“He, me and Robbo can just sit down and talk about driving and trying something different in a car. A lot of times we’ll be at Norwell and there will be five or six of us there and it’s like, ‘Right-oh, let’s have a shootout, who’s got it.’ And we do that a lot and that’s how you find out [more information] by going racing.”
One fast youngster who’s been guided by Morris in recent seasons is Erebus Motorsport rising star Anton de Pasquale. De Pasquale was able to “come along [to Norwell Motorplex] and do things you didn’t think someone could even do” in a car, according to Morris. The 2013 Australian Formula Ford champion raced for Morris during his two-year Dunlop Super2 Series campaign in 2016 and 2017, and the pair continue to work together.
“Anton was someone who just got it straight away,” he says. “And you’d say, ‘Hey, what about this?’ and he’d go, ‘Yeah that makes sense.’ For him, the program really evolved. We’d critique all the driver mistakes that were made at the race meeting. We’d go back to the track when we had time and go through the little things we did wrong, polish it up and get everything right. And that’s what I think accelerated him through the Dunlop Series so quickly. It is something we still do now with Mirko [De Rosa], his engineer. He’s a young guy and he gets it as well.”
Morris goes further, describing de Pasquale as the best young driver he has seen.
“Definitely Anton,” Morris confirms. “He’s the first driver that I’ve come across who, when we show him something, he gets it straight away. He’s at a level that I’ve just never really seen. He understands what you are saying and can do it.”
He says part of de Pasquale’s ability to learn quickly is his rational approach.
“He’s not an emotional guy and everything with him is logic,” he says. “There is no emotion attached to anything that he does. You can say, ‘You’ve done that badly,’ and he goes, ‘Oh yeah, I have, I need to fix that’.”
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