Matt Griffin has chalked up an incredible 400-plus races at the wheel of a Ferrari GT car. Now in his 10th year as a Ferrari works driver, we met him at Goodwood SpeedWeek presented by Mastercard to look over his career and talk all-things Ferrari.
The Ferrari champion you've never heard of
Like many pro drivers, Griffin started racing at a young age. He was just ten years old when he persuaded his father, who had no interest in motor racing, to buy him a go-kart. He quickly displayed a natural talent, winning a number of races in his native Ireland before progressing to the British Championship. By the time his contemporaries were concentrating on their GCSEs, Griffin was racing in the European and World Championships.
He lasted just two months in further education before moving to England to follow his motorsport dream. He soon found a schooling that would suit his career path in Formula Renault. “If you look at the grid for the junior formula back then it was absolutely stacked with talent”, he says. “The depth of talent we had back then between Formula Renault and Formula Ford in the mid-2000s meant not that you had to be 100 per cent on every lap, but you had to be 100 per cent on every corner and every braking area.” To give you an idea of the calibre of drivers, in 2002 Griffin’s team-mate was Lewis Hamilton.
The precision he honed in single-seaters stood him in good stead when he switched to GT racing. “It’s something I’ve followed through in my racing career and when I moved to GT cars that gave me a big advantage compared to the established guys that were doing it at the time because maybe they weren’t driving quite as hard on every corner. GT and sports car racing has turned much more like formula cars where you’ve got to be absolutely on it all the time.
“This year was my ninth consecutive Le Mans with Ferrari. The first Le Mans I did, if you finished without a problem more than likely you were going to have a result on the podium or just off the podium. Now if you finish without a problem but you’re not particularly quick you’ll be seventh. You’ve got to be finished without a problem and be absolutely pinned on every corner of every lap for 24 hours to be there or thereabouts come the end of the race.”
Griffin’s first outing at Le Mans was in 2013, and it’s a weekend that has left an indelible memory. “It was very, very difficult weather wise, I was relatively inexperienced and it was just a really, really hard race. You’re standing in the pitlane at three o’clock in the morning, it’s hammering down with rain and you’re thinking ‘do I really want to get into this car right at this moment?’ But you’ve got to. And not only have you got to get in it, you’ve got to go from being asleep twenty minutes before to 300km/h. We had a good result and finished on the podium but that was almost like a battle with the race itself.”
From this driver’s point of view, racing at Le Mans brings about mixed emotions. “If someone said you could only do one event it would be Le Mans but for pure enjoyment it would be something else. Le Mans is a huge event, and with a huge event comes huge pressure. I love the 24 Hours of Spa, the Daytona 24 Hours is also a really fun event. Although they are great events, they come with a little bit less pressure. My favourite event is probably the 24 Hours of Spa. But if someone said to me you can race only one race it would be Le Mans. It’s like climbing Everest – it’s not fun when you’re doing it but afterwards you think ‘oh my god, look at what I’ve just done’. When you can get a good result, I’ve been lucky enough to be on the podium there, it’s fantastic.”
There are other races that feel like yesterday to Griffin. “Another one that stands out is Fuji in 2018 in the WEC fellow Ferrari driver Giancarlo Fisichella. We had an amazing battle for the last few laps of the race. When you’re racing with some of Giancarlo’s calibre, you race each other to within an inch of what’s acceptable because the respect is there. For the last five laps, we banged doors a little bit but never anything that went beyond what’s acceptable. He ended up crossing the line half a car length in front of me. The first thing we did when we got out was shake each other’s hands and say ‘that was amazing’. That’s what racing’s about.”
Away from direct competition, Griffin was heavily involved in developing the 458 GT3 racer. “For me to be asked directly by them to be involved was a milestone in my career because Ferrari to me is not just another brand, it is something very special,” says Griffin. “It was built to a set of regulations and a balance of performance, so there was a lot of detailed, analytical testing trying to make the car as competitive as possible. Because a lot of amateur drivers were going to end up driving the car, you had to keep that in the back of your mind. For a pro’s perspective, you make the car as quick as you can but then maybe it’s difficult to drive for an amateur – which isn’t good for GT3. We did a huge amount of laps around Fiorano.”
These days, Griffin is also involved with the Ferrari Challenge UK, which is now in its second year and follows a format that has been established elsewhere around the world. It’s the first rung of a motorsport ladder that can take someone with no prior racing experience all the way up to – potentially – Le Mans. “Part of my involvement with the UK Challenge is helping the drivers who have never raced,” says Griffin. “We will coach them, we will school them, we’ll do their licence application, make sure they get the requisite licence by doing a certain number of races. You can go from Ferrari [road car] customer to Ferrari racing driver very easily.”
The latest 488 Challenge Evo was put through its paces throughout SpeedWeek, and we were able to take a closer look at it in one of the paddock shelters that’s more usually home to historic racing cars. Griffin shows us around: “The Ferrari Challenge car is a full-blown racing car so it’s completely adjustable and every circuit requires something different and also from what the driver feels and what he wants from the car. For a very heavy braking circuit you might want the car to be a little bit softer on the springs so that it’ll dive more on the braking. If it’s a circuit that’s really high speed you’ll reduce the rear wing because you’ll want the extra top speed. If it rains you’ll increase the downforce and raise the car so the adjustability on the car is infinite. The good thing about the Challenge car is that all the cars are centrally run and each car has a very experienced engineer who knows the car inside out, and together we make sure the driver gets the set-up he likes. Circuit to circuit the set-ups change, but they also change driver to driver depending on what he wants out of the car.
“That’s another thing these drivers have to learn. As you go further up the ranks of motorsport, particularly as an amateur, there’s an awful lot to learn and that’s why our guys are on hand to help.”
After all these years with Ferrari, Griffin still has to pinch himself. “I’m the most successful driver in the history of the European Le Mans Series in the GT class. Every single one of those wins has been in a Ferrari. I’ve had opportunities to do other things with different manufacturers but for me there is only one manufacturer – Ferrari.”
Photography by James Lynch, Nick Dungan and Nigel Harniman, Le Mans images courtesy of Motorsport Images.
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