10 Questions with Stef Chistel

Stephane "Stef" Chistel is on his second stint with Don Panoz, having worked on the Panoz race teams from 1998 and with Élan Motorsports, managing race car assembly, from 2002 to 2009. Returning to become crew chief for DeltaWing Racing Cars in 2013, Chistel oversees race team operations alongside team manager Tim Keene.

 

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Paris, France on November 16, 1972, but really grew up in Tours which is about 50 miles south of Le Mans.

What got you interested in racing?

My dad was a baker and loved racing, so he worked really hard to save some money and got his first racing car, a Renault 12 Gordini. He started racing so I was kind of raised in it.

Take us through your racing career to date.

This could take a while really but here we go…

In 1989, I started working for the Graff Racing team in France, which was running Formula Ford, and did my first Le Mans running a Spice. In 1990 I was the lead mechanic for Emanuel Collard running a Formula Renault and at the end of the year, Emanuel’s dad organized a track day to thank all the sponsors who helped that year.  I had the privilege to do 10 laps in the car I worked on all year and Emanuel’s dad told my dad that I should be racing. In 1991, we went on to Formula 3.

I had to do our obligatory 12 month French military service in 1992, then finally in 1993, my dream of racing came true. I drove in the French Formula Renault championship, finishing as rookie of the year.  Then in 1994 I raced again in the French and European Formula Renault championships, finishing fourth in the European championship and fifth in the French Championship. I was supposed to move to Formula 3 but could not come up with the budget needed so I became the Tatuus test driver that winter.

This was pretty much the end of my racing career as a driver. For the next two years, I was the race engineer for Ren Car Competition and was chosen by Renault sports to become a driving instructor for the driving on ice school in Chamonix. In 1998 I got the call to come to the US to help the Panoz team for Sebring, then at the end of the race weekend I was given a full time job offer.   It was then that I moved here and became the number two mechanic for David Brabham and Eric Bernard.  Still working for Panoz, I became the lead mechanic for Johnny O’Connell and Hiroki Katoh and later for David Brabham and Jan Magnussen.

Then I moved to Élan Motorsports and became the race car assembly manager, building cars for IndyCar, Star Mazda, GTLM, IMSA lights and Champ Car. I worked for Élan from 2002 until 2009.

I went back racing as the crew chief for Robertson Racing in 2009, finishing third at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2011, in the GTAM class with the Ford GT 40. I moved to Krohn Racing as crew chief for the 2012 World Endurance Championship, finishing third at Le Mans in the GTAM class. Then Don called, saying he was starting his own team again and wanted to see if I wanted to be part of it.  Since early 2013, I’ve been here at DeltaWing Racing as the crew chief.

What assumptions did you make about the DW before you took the job?

I saw the car when I was the crew chief for Krohn at Sebring, when they were doing demo laps. I have to be honest, when I saw it go by, I kind of laughed at it, really - until I watched the Le Mans race and I got into it a bit more, because it’s different, like Don’s project always are.

What are some of the unique challenges in working on the DeltaWing coupe?

When Don started the team, it was challenging because we were left with a car that no one had worked on, with no engine. So yes, it was challenging because of the way that everything on it is so small compared to the other cars I have worked on, but you adapt quickly.

What exactly does the job of DeltaWing crew chief entail?

It depends really. My duty is to organize work load for the guys, creating job lists, and a lifing program which I don’t think fans know much about.

Basically, each part has a number engraved on it and every single mile is counted for each part. Some parts have more life than others, some just become obsolete and some need to be rebuilt after a certain mileage. It’s a very important part of the job and it is time consuming but at least we are providing the safest car to our drivers and also trying to be as reliable as we can be.

If I didn't work in racing, I'd be… a soccer player.

What is your favorite racetrack and what is your best memory about that track?

For me personally, since I used to drive, it would be Spa Francorpchamp. I raced there once in the European Formula Renault championship, qualified on pole but finished fourth. I learned a lot about drafting that day - believe me, don’t lead the race starting the last lap.

Over here in the states, it has to be Road America. A beautiful track and area, and it suits our car pretty well.

Do you have a “hidden” talent?

I’m not sure I have one, but I can get creative with woodworking.

What do you do to chill out?

I enjoy a lot of things really, cooking, cycling, and trying new wines.