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Hot Laps at CotA

Lone Star Le Mans Weekend 2015

Once again Texas welcomed the faithful to the Circuit of the Americas with a mixture of warmth and humidity. Actually, warm is an understatement, although when compared to the oppressive heat we endured last year, it did actually seem “warm” in comparison!  At least this time we didn’t have to resort to the survival tactic of drinking that half-empty bottle of hot Gatorade that beckoned us like a mirage from the pit wall while trying to stay upright and hydrated in the heat-hazed pit lane, all the time wondering what the hell we were doing there in a three layer fire suit and helmet in the first place!  Just to photograph cars and equally tortured crew members and drivers? Utter madness.

For the second year the Tudor United Sports Car series supported the main event World Endurance Championship race in an exciting weekend double-header.  Logistically this poses a huge amount of work and elevated stress levels for all concerned as the two series have different rules and regulations which makes it hard to jump from one to the other for the spectators. Imagine the organizers who have to move an entire concrete wall the length of the pit lane right after the TUSC race? Then to add to the confusion, the pole sitting cars from each class have to stay untouched in Parc Ferme conditions in the pit lane while the WEC cars come out to play. Some of the TUSC cars are picked at random to be checked by the scrutineers for legality and these are also not allowed to be touched. That a melee doesnt ensue is a tribute to the marshals who have to make head and tail of all this!

I sat in on the marshal’s meeting on Friday morning in the media center just to see what they are up against and it was an eye opener to go through an hour listening to every rule, regulation and nuance of the rule book. The amount of detail that these volunteers have to absorb is mind boggling. I can see how having to apply the rules to people like David Richards and Dr Wolfgang Ullrich might appear a little intimidating for some. Especially when you consider the circumstances under which the rules are observed and then applied. ie Under highly stressful racing situations where even the smallest infraction made totally innocently can result in a penalty which will likely cause a team to lose a position or worse, a race.

As always it was the WEC prototypes that captured the imagination of the 50,000 plus strong crowd who were – in addition to the racing – able to enjoy the festivities with live music, food trucks, fireworks, and a Ferris wheel which was new for this year. It all helped to make for a Le Mans style atmosphere with a Texas twist. Being able to get close to the cars and the drivers at the only night race held at COTA, is what racing endurance racing is all about. The drivers are known personally to some of the faithful and almost as such with so many social media followers.  It all adds up to a very special energy that the drivers and mechanics alike seem to thrive on while here in America – the only stop here on the WEC calendar. Thankfully there is talk of adding another venue in North America as the market for the top teams here is a huge one. Only time will tell if this comes to fruition but in the meantime we can but hope and dream. 

The legendary Texas native, driver and engineer Jim Hall, whose iconic Chaparral cars were like race cars straight out of the Jetsons back in the day, was honored as the Grand Marshal. When his innovative and brilliant cars burst onto the ’60s racing scene, I’m certain that they had as much if not more impact than the current crop of space-age LMP1 cars. Though known as a man of few words back when he was racing (he didn’t want to divulge his secrets I imagine) he graciously and gracefully mingled with the crowd all weekend.

We were fortunate again to be treated to the legendary hospitality provided by the Audi Motorsport Experience. As well as offering a respite from the heat, they offer gourmet meals, non stop refreshments, regular race updates provided by the team drivers themselves, flags, hats, posters and even laps around the track or garage and pit tours. Tom and I were able to get an early lap in with Audi TUSC driver Guy Cosmo. Although “only” in a road going S3, Guy’s skill in showing us the track while narrating the lap all the way around, made for a very special experience. 

Guy Cosmo with yours truly

Another exciting part of the weekend when coddled by a top team  is the surprise visits by legendary drivers such as Hans Stuck, Emanuele Pirro and Dindo Capello. They may not always get up and talk in front of the assembled audience, but you can feel the energy in the room amp up when they enter. For fans of endurance racing, just being next to these superstars is like being on the red carpet on Oscar night!

Tanja. The name of dubious origin

Talking of Dindo, I got very very lucky on Saturday morning as I was standing outside the media center and looking at the R8 LMS car as it was being readied for Dindo to do a few laps with visiting dignitaries and Audi’s corporate big-shots. When I was beckoned over to “Get  a fire suit and a helmet right now! You’re going out first!”, I  thought they were kidding as I hurled a non-family-friendly expletive to Mark Murray who was doing the asking. At the second and now urgent beckoning, I decided that it’s better not to look the gift horse in the mouth and jumped in. Moments later, multi-Le Mans winner Rinaldo “Dindo” Capello arrived (albeit with Oliver Jarvis’s helmet) and after being buckled in took me for a ride I will never forget.

The car needed a lap to warm the fluids, brakes and the tires. I half expected Dindo to do a seven-tenths lap in order to do just that, but when I saw the steely look in his eyes, I quickly realized that Dindo doesn’t do seven tenths laps. Once in the pit lane and given the “green light” to go, all hell broke loose as Tanja (the name given to this particular chassis – and as urban legend has it, the name of a lovely lady from a certain gentleman’s club) spun her rear tires all the way up the hill as the tach bounced off the limiter in the lower gears.

Once out of the pit lane and all the temps rising quickly, Dindo deftly applied opposite lock through all the corners as he had Tanja dancing this way and that from apex to apex. With his arms full of oppo and the engine in the angry zone the whole time, I quickly realized why Dindo has three 24 Heures du Mans wins and people like me who aspire to be fast drivers have only 24 second stop light-to-stop light titles.

The author with Dindo. No it’s not Olly Jarvis

Once the tires and brakes had been sufficiently warmed, the car started to grip noticeably more. I’m sure that the tire warming antics that Dindo had just performed were maybe a little bit for my benefit. The second half of the lap saw the pilot laser focused while clipping the apexes and then diving on the brakes which made me understand in an instant why professional racers exercise their neck muscles so much! I think the brakes in a modern race car are the single most surprising element.

After what seemed like but a moment, we pulled back into the pits and my ear-to-ear grin was still plastered to my face even after I was yanked from the car the moment it came to a halt. I felt an arm under each of my armpits and a shout of, “I got you!” as I was unceremoniously unbuckled and pulled from the car. The next rider was plugged in, strapped tight and like a bullet, Dindo was off again! With that focus on what was just a warm up lap and a ride-and-drive, can you imagine his resolve while piloting an R18 at Le Mans? These guys truly are a different breed and the jump from road car to winged race car with slicks and carbon brakes was a quantum leap. I cannot imagine going from that to a full on prototype!

It has to be said, that a lap in an R8 race car with multi-championship winning works-driver Rinaldo Capello, has to be about the most exciting drive I have ever had the pleasure to experience. And I’ve had my share over the years including a lap of Silverstone with Stirling Moss albeit in a road going Aston.

I waited to thank Dindo after his driving session (also huge thanks to Mark M and Mark D at Audi Sport Customer Racing for making this surprise happen for me) and after my legs regained their strength, took plenty of time to find the best photo spots around the track. We made our way to the top of the CotA tower and the views offered from this bird’s eye vantage point are made even more spectacular as you stand on the glass platform hanging out over the track. I’m not sure that I would have jumped up and down on it as I saw one jolly chap doing though!

Prodrive Aston Martin Vantage GTE

Fan favouite team, Aston Martin Racing again this year has been fielding a large team of five cars in the WEC: three in GTE Pro and two in GTE Am.  Earlier in the season, the team was saddled with some serious BoP adjustments which have left the team wheezing in a vain attempt to keep up with the Ferraris and Porsches. David Richards was his usual jovial self however and was quick with a smile as we talked about the race. “We’re on our back foot here,” said Richards, “and quite a long way off the pace in reality, so everything has to work perfectly for us to be anywhere near. That’s why they’re practicing the pit stops and tire changes to make sure we get everything right.” With another race in Japan hot on the heels of Austin,  I asked if there were any performance changes in the pipeline. “I certainly hope so because we are not competitive at the moment. Even Ferrari came up and said it’s disappointing that we’re not in the fight with them and Porsche at the moment but sometimes these things work against you and I’m sure the organizers recognize that now.”

Team stalwart Darren Turner was there with his wife and new born son reinforcing the family feel of the event. Darren has had an up and down year so far and talks us through the season so far. “It’s not been the best season for number 97. We’ve had a few up and down events. Silverstone was going okay but then the race turned with a couple of full course yellows and we just got outfoxed in those pit stops. Spa we were leading the race in the first hour then got a puncture which scuppered that one. Le Mans we were battling for the lead and then we had a driver mistake which took us out of the race so yeah…first three races not great. Then we went to Nurburgring and there was a balance of performance change and all the Astons have suffered because of that.

“It’s a smaller engine restrictor which means we’ve lost about three and bit percent of engine power. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but with competition as fierce as it is, you lose one percent and you’re in trouble. If we can get one car anywhere near the podium this weekend I think everyone in the team will be very happy. Hopefully when we move on to Fuji things will change and we can be a bit closer to the competition on a level playing field. We got hit a bit harder than we should have but that’s part of this type of racing. The Aston engineers are always lobbying for more power but so are the Ferrari and Porsche engineers!”

When he’s not racing, DT has a full plate with more historic events, testing the new Aston Vulcan and even has his eye on a test of the new Bond DB10 but laments that he likely won’t be one of the ten lucky owners! I think I would trade mine for his day job though!

The Astons equitted themselves well in the race coming 4th, 5th and 6th in Pro and 5th and 6th in Am.  

Results Circuit of the Americas Lone Star Le Mans September 16-29 2015 TUDOR United SportsCar Championship

Prototype class

1 Ford EcoBoost Riley DP Joey Hand/Scott Pruett. Chip Ganassi Racing

2 Corvette DP Ricky Taylor / Jordan Taylor.  Konica Minolta Corvette DP

3 Corvette DP Richard Westbrook / Michael Valiante .

GTLM class

1 (12th overall) BMW Z4 GTE Bill Auberlen /Dirk Werner.  IHG Rewards Club

2 (13th overall) Ferrari F458 Italia  Pierre Kaffer /Giancarlo Fisichella. Risi Competizione

3 (15th overall) Porsche  911RSR Nick Tandy / Patrick Pilet. Porsche North America

GTD class

1 (22nd overall) Dodge Viper GT3R Ben Keating /Jeroen Bleekemolen. ViperExchange

2 (23rd overall) BMW Z4 Michael Marsal / Markus Palttala. Turner Motorsport.

3 (24th overall) Audi R8 LMS Christopher Haase /Dion von Moltke. Paul Miller Racing