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Interview

How an in-form GT star defied numerous full stops to reach stardom

Jules Gounon is currently the reigning winner of the Daytona 24 Hours, Bathurst 12 Hour and Spa 24 Hours. But he had to clear numerous hurdles that threatened to end his racing dreams to get there

Winner #75 Sun Energy 1 Mercedes-AMG GT3: Kenny Habul, Jules Gounon, Luca Stolz

So hectic was Mercedes factory driver Jules Gounon’s racing schedule in February that he only spent one day at home.

Following his GTD Pro class victory in the Daytona 24 Hours, he headed directly Down Under for the Bathurst 12 Hour the following week and secured a remarkable outright win for his pro-am entry, his third in succession in the event making him the only three-time winner in its history. Next he headed to Dubai for the opening round of the Asian Le Mans Series, before trekking to Abu Dhabi for the conclusion of that brief championship.

There followed a single day at home “because I really need to clean some stuff” before hitting the road again for his fifth race weekend on the trot, the 9 Hours of Kyalami, which yielded a class win and third overall. The result puts him into the lead of the Intercontinental GT Challenge ahead of July’s Spa 24 Hours, an event he won for a second time last year.

That Gounon is now one of Mercedes’ most prolific GT3 racers is perhaps only fitting and makes up for a late start as the second-generation racer only started karting as a teenager. The son of former Formula 1 racer Jean-Marc, himself also a late starter, the young Gounon didn’t have it easy convincing his father to give him a chance as the 1989 French Formula 3 champion was resigned “that without big money in this world it would be impossible for me to make a career”.

“I said it’s not necessary to start in the low categories, then you come to the higher one, you have no money,” recalls Gounon Sr, who famously wore gardening gloves for his first karting race, not to mention a borrowed motorcycle helmet and overalls from one of his father’s workshop employees and kick-boxing shoes.

When Gounon Jr did get his chance in karting, it was with a caveat – the funding would stop if success didn’t follow. This became a regular theme of a career in which he has so far represented Audi and Bentley as a factory driver, and driven Ferrari and Acura machinery. The 28-year-old believes it has had a profound impact on the way he approaches racing.

“Since the beginning we started, he always put on me a lot of pressure regarding the fact that I could not continue,” says Gounon, whose passion was lit watching his dad race an ORECA-run Audi R8 with Stephane Ortelli and Franck Montagny at Le Mans in 2005.

The pressure of losing funding for his racing career should he not succeed helped Gounon deal with high-stress races like Daytona and Bathurst

The pressure of losing funding for his racing career should he not succeed helped Gounon deal with high-stress races like Daytona and Bathurst

Photo by: Edge Photographics

“This today helps a lot when I am in a position to fight for a big race like Spa or Bathurst or Daytona or whatever. That’s why also I like to finish the race when there is a lot of stress and a lot of pressure. That’s where I feel I perform the most, because I have been used to get that feeling when I was younger.

“I’m really thankful to my dad to bring me in that mode because it’s still something that keeps the fire in me and that really helps me to go and hunt big races. I have a hungriness, my feet are always against the ground to just go and give the best all the time.”

Gounon Sr played an active role in his son’s learning curve during those early years, and fired in him a frustration “that helped me throughout my career and still helps me now” as he watched other better-funded racers get extra test mileage.

“My grandad paid me the entry fee of the scholarship for my birthday and Christmas. He told me, ‘that’s the last chance’ because my dad was already saying it was done” Jules Gounon

“When you have no money, you are not doing any tests, the aim is to be the more efficient you can be as soon as you are in the car,” explains Gounon Sr. “And that is the first thing I learned to Jules. I said to him, ‘As soon as you are sitting in a car, you are doing three kilometres in the car, one lap, you have to come back with information’. It means grip, it means how to get temperature in the tyres.

“I said to him, ‘you get out of the pits, you have two laps, do the best you can without grip’. That was my feeling; you have a lot more to win when you are on cold tyres, when you are in tricky situation, than in a normal situation when you are playing [with] about one tenth a lap. On the rain, it was the same.”

The advice worked a treat. Gounon won in his second season in the French Rotax Cup in 2011, and claimed the IAME X30 karting title the following year.

“That was again one of the objectives from my dad,” says Gounon. “He said ‘either you win this championship or we go home, because we will never find enough sponsors to make the step to single seaters’.”

Gounon's single-seater step started well by finishing runner-up in the 2013 French F4 championship, but budget constraints soon derailed him

Gounon's single-seater step started well by finishing runner-up in the 2013 French F4 championship, but budget constraints soon derailed him

Photo by: Jean Michel Le Meur / DPPI

Sure enough, he found 25 sponsors for the step up to cars in 2013, many of them local companies from his Ardeche region which included the painter of his father’s car dealership. “I was the only one in the single-seater with so many sponsors!” he laughs.

Single-seaters started out well for Gounon. He was runner-up to the late Anthoine Hubert in French Formula 4, but the move to Formula Renault 2.0 for 2014 was a struggle. Without the budget to test, “after a few races it was really clear that it was done”.

“I started to work in my dad’s dealership with him and washing cars, it was a very hard moment of my life,” he says. But a lifeline appeared in the form of a scholarship for the 2015 French Porsche Carrera Cup.

“My grandad paid me the entry fee of the scholarship for my birthday and Christmas,” recalls Gounon. “He told me, ‘that’s the last chance’ because my dad was already saying it was done. I went there with that motivation and angriness to destroy everyone and luckily I won the scholarship.”

Under slightly different circumstances, Gounon could have been racing a Porsche Hypercar in 2023. He lay second in the points after eight rounds, ahead of fellow rookie Mathieu Jaminet, but a crash in Navarra left him with two fractured vertebrae “and so they didn’t send me to the international scholarship” that was eventually won by Jaminet – now a fixture in the Penske-Porsche IMSA SportsCar Championship roster. That was a bitter pill for Gounon to swallow, and he once again felt “my chance is gone”.

“There was no way to make a second year because Carrera Cup was too expensive, so I was back to working with my dad,” he says. “And that time, it was really done.”

But a visit to the SRO’s Balance of Performance tests at Paul Ricard in early 2016 changed his life. In the mistaken belief that he was a truckie, Gounon struck up conversation with Callaway Competition team co-owner Ernst Wohr. After some time chewing the fat and admiring the new all-carbon Corvette C7 at Wohr’s side, his father arrived and set him to rights – but Wohr was compelled to invite Gounon to a try-out at Hockenheim. Given his limited budget, Gounon was under no illusion that a race seat was in the offing and was prepared to treat it as “maybe be the last time I drive a race car”.

The 2016 Sachsenring GT Masters win was a crucial moment in Gounon's career

The 2016 Sachsenring GT Masters win was a crucial moment in Gounon's career

Photo by: ADAC Motorsport

“I smashed into kerbs, I was over the limit everywhere,” he says of his drive. Unaware of the time he’d set, the first clue was the expression on his father’s face. “At the time he was always telling me I could do better and stuff, but that day he was smiling so I was ‘okay, maybe I did not so bad’.”

At dinner that evening, Wohr and his partner Giovanni Ciccone agreed to run him in the first two races of the ADAC GT Masters campaign alongside Daniel Keilwitz. It was the turning point in his career.

“I was nearly crying,” relates Gounon. “I said, ‘thank you, you will not regret it and I will give everything now. I prefer to spend my last sponsors on fighting against Laurens Vanthoor, against Christopher Mies, against all the GT3 elite at that time rather than just stopping after Carrera Cup saying I had potential and never made it’.”

“To be respected as yourself is something that I was very proud of. Since a few years back, I think since Spa [2017], people have changed really their mind” Jules Gounon

After a patchy opening to the season at Oschersleben, Gounon and Keilwitz delivered a fairytale victory on Ciccone’s 60th birthday at the Sachsenring – the race Gounon had expected to be his last. Instead, the team decided to pay for the rest of his season and he remained in with a chance of the title until a sickening final race crash at Hockenheim left him hospitalised. When the team came to visit, the news was better than he ever could have imagined.

“They said ‘first of all we’re going to pay the crash’ because since they arrived, I was begging that I couldn’t pay the crash, and they said ‘next year we’re going to go and win the title’. And we did!”

The 2017 campaign was lift-off for Gounon as he earned money for the first time. He also impressed Audi when he was invited for a free drive with ADAC GT rival squad Land Motorsport at Daytona and finished second – 0.29s shy of victory – that he was given “a very small contract” for the Spa 24 Hours.

“I was so proud to be for the first time paid for a manufacturer as a factory driver,” he says. “And cherry on the cake, we won!”

Spa 24 Hours victory in 2017 was ideal way to cap Gounon's first outing as a paid racing driver

Spa 24 Hours victory in 2017 was ideal way to cap Gounon's first outing as a paid racing driver

Photo by: Audi Communications Motorsport

That was despite the Sainteloc car he shared with Markus Winkelhock and Christopher Haase losing a lap when a wheel wasn’t fastened properly as Gounon exited the pits.

“I thought the race was over,” he says. “I went out of the pit and I nearly lost the car in Les Combes. Luckily the wheel stayed fixed until the pit and I was like ‘okay let’s not give up, maybe we can catch the lap by strategy’ which we did.”

The result also had the added significance of changing perceptions of him as Jean-Marc’s son to a name in his own right.

“To be respected as yourself is something that I was very proud of,” he says. “Since a few years back, I think since Spa [2017], people have changed really their mind.”

Combined with his successful GT Masters title tilt and some impressive Blancpain GT Sprint Cup outings in ASP-run Mercedes fielded by an old rival of his father’s, Jerome Policand, it’s not surprising he had three factory offers for 2018. Bentley paid the best, Gounon admits, but it also had the added appeal of a new car in the second iteration of the Continental GT3 and two experienced team-mates in Guy Smith and Steven Kane who he could learn from.

Unfortunately the “beautiful and it was well-made” car’s long wheelbase meant it struggled on twisty tracks and saved its best showings for faster venues. Victory in the Paul Ricard 1000km in 2019 was his only GT World Challenge Europe victory in three years running the cars, but the unquestionable high point was at Bathurst in 2020 where Gounon survived a late puncture to begin his run of wins at Mount Panorama. “That that year everything went our way,” he reflects.

He returned to Policand’s ASP squad as a factory Mercedes driver in 2021 and by midseason had found his groove with the AMG GT3. Two second places and a victory in Barcelona meant he and Raffaele Marciello finished runner-up in the standings, left to rue a broken damper while leading at Spa. But that was set to rights in a 2022 that featured a “crazy” run of success.

Starting with the Bathurst (back after a one year pandemic-induced hiatus) and Kyalami IGTC rounds, he claimed four GT Masters wins too. And in GTWCE Endurance Gounon and Marciello combined with Dani Juncadella to give ASP a long-awaited first Spa win – after it had been pipped at the post in 2017 – and secured the title. Without an electrical failure at Hockenheim, their advantage would have been much more comfortable.

Gounon helped deliver ASP's long-awaited first Spa win to clinch the GTWCE title in 2022

Gounon helped deliver ASP's long-awaited first Spa win to clinch the GTWCE title in 2022

Photo by: Mercedes AMG

“The Merc is such a good all-round car,” says Gounon, who believes he’s a “a more accomplished, all-around driver” than in his first stint with ASP in 2017 with “more confidence on your driving and you get to trust yourself a bit more”.

“It’s good in the dry, it’s good in the wet, it’s good when it’s cold, it’s good when it’s hot and I think that’s what makes the car so successful because with the Merc you have always a shot at a victory.”

While he holds in high esteem the second Spa victory which put him on a par with compatriots Christophe Bouchut and Romain Dumas, and this year’s long-awaited Daytona triumph on co-driver Cooper MacNeil’s swansong, it’s his Bathurst hat-trick winner that Gounon picks out as “maybe one of the best of my career”. Not least given it came alongside gentleman driver and Bathurst local Kenny Habul, after being spun in contact with fellow Mercedes man Maro Engel – fortunately without picking up a puncture.

“It was such a nerve-wracking last double stint for me,” he reflects. “The first stint I pushed with quali lap after quali lap, and then we decided to undercut everyone and go with a second stint tyres against guys on new tyres. You feel like you are hunted by a lion and you are a very small squirrel running in front and you have the big boys there behind you that have all the condition to perform better.

Gounon believes he’s a “a more accomplished, all-around driver” than in his first stint with ASP in 2017 with “more confidence on your driving and you get to trust yourself a bit more”

“You’re just like ‘I’m not going to give up and if you want to pass me you’re going to have to push me out’ and that’s what happened! Luckily we won it; for me this was such a crazy two weeks to win Daytona the week before and my third success in Bathurst.”

Gounon doesn’t shy away from the fact that his “biggest dream” is to win the Le Mans 24 Hours outright one day, something Mercedes is currently unable to offer him. But having already made two GTE Pro class outings with Risi Competizione in 2019 and 2020, Gounon has time on his side and has signed a three-year contract extension that takes him through to the end of 2025.

“I am so happy to be in AMG,” he says, his next adventure set to begin when he tackles the British GT opener at Oulton Park this weekend. “Everything is going right.”

Reflecting back on his 2005 Le Mans daydream and considering where he was a few short years ago, Gounon recognises that he is today “exactly where I dreamed to be at”.

“All those years of hard-trying, heart-breaking and at that time I just didn’t want to give up until someone says it’s done, you cannot do anything, it’s over,” he says. “My dad was somebody that never gave up when he was in a race car and I think that’s something we really have in common. Today when I look back at this, I’m so glad that I never gave up.”

Gounon is

Gounon is "glad that I never gave up" in a career of twists and turns

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

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