Seven years have passed since Land Motorsport left VLN. Once highly accomplished competitors on the Nürburgring, the vacuum they left was quickly filled by world-class teams, new faces and old heroes. Continuing on winning many more prizes in Porsche one-make championships in the years after, Land never slowed down. The Nordschleife, however, was where they belonged, the team was always missed. Last winter the team from Niederdreisbach made the long-awaited announced of their return. Returning meant coming back to win, so nothing was left to chance: A heavy-hearted switch from long-time partner Porsche to the new Audi R8 LMS GT3 brought the team into a new era. A dual ADAC GT and VLN program was strengthened with Audi powerhouse Christopher Mies and rising star Connor De Phillippi. All that was still missing was that first win for the reinvigorated team. That win finally came in the pouring rain of the 47. Adenauer ADAC Deutsche Payment-Trophy, the fourth VLN race of the season.
Underwhelmed and disappointed Land left the 24 Hours of the Nürburgring. Audi was never a factor in the season highlight and an error early in the morning by a fellow Audi competitor left the Land Audi irreparably damaged. This was not how anyone imagined Land’s return to the Nordschleife to go.
Looking for redemption, the crew of Wolfgang Land went back to the Ring for VLN4, teaming De Phillippi up with Mies for the ADAC GT championship leaders’ first race together on the Nürburgring.
Come Saturday morning, the track is wet and the surface slippery. It’s been raining all night and it’s not letting up when training gets underway. Several drivers return to the pits after a couple of laps out in the rain and fog, reporting to their teams that circumstances are extremely dangerous. Aware but unfazed, Connor De Phillippi goes out early for a fast lap to make the most out of the worsening conditions, setting the fastest lap of the session and claiming pole position.
The charge for the first corner is won by De Phillippi. It’s his first-ever start on the Nürburgring in a GT3 and even in the pouring rain no one’s a match for the young American. The first two laps are all his, but braking for the first turn of the third lap, he overshoots his braking point and loses the lead to Sebastian Asch in the Zakspeed Mercedes-AMG GT3.
“There was a lot of water,” the former Porsche Junior protégé explains his mistake. “I broke too late into the first corner and the Mercedes could overtake me.”
It won’t be his only mistake in these tough conditions today.
“The beginning, the first two laps, was good, but then the conditions got very tricky with a lot of water,” he continues. “Then I made a mistake in Metzgesfeld where we slightly touched the barrier, but I was able to continue.”
In the following laps the Frikadelli Porsche of Patrick Huisman appears right behind him, trying his hardest to overtake the Audi. Seeing an opportunity at the entrance to Brünnchen, the Dutchman tries to put his car next to De Phillippi’s.
“Then the Frikadelli Porsche hit me and I had contact with the barrier. But the car, again, was OK, Audi has built a very strong car.”
While the Land Audi continues its way without any more than cosmetic damage, Huisman loses costly time as he tries to point his car back into the right direction. Like many others today, the squad from Barweiler is hampered by spins and trackside excursions.
The first stint has come to an end. If Land is going to win today, they need to do better than this. Applying the lessons learned in the first stint, De Phillippi goes back out to hunt down the leaders through the rain and fog of the Eifel course.
“We didn’t do the best job in the first stint,” says De Phillippi, who is assigned to do the first two of three stints. “I made too many mistakes, and we could have done a little bit better with the car. We learned from this and made some changes for the second stint. That’s where we were very strong. My pace in the second stint was normally five seconds or more quicker than the leading Mercedes and I was able to [reduce] the gap to Asch [by] about twenty seconds.”
The water thrown up by cars up ahead causes De Phillippi to be racing in the blind, only guided by the lights of cars in front and the white lines at the edge of the track in the corner of his focussed eyes. Although the conditions are as bad as they’ve been all day, there are no more mistakes and Asch is slowly but surely being reeled back in.
Zakspeed, unlike Land, went home after the 24 Hours of the Nürburgring filled with pride. The team from nearby Niederzissen finished the twice around the clock in sixth place, the best of the privateers. With many of the usual VLN frontrunners in France for the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup, the usual drop in GT3 teams after the 24 Hours, and the competitive Pro-Am duo of Manuel Metzger and Gerwin Schuring absent after their Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG GT3 was retired in qualifying with a broken gearbox, today could be Sebastian Asch and Kenneth Heyer’s day to shine.
Before that, there’s one more obstacle to overcome, and it’s a tough one. Its name: Christopher Mies. Having watched his teammate pick himself back up and get back into contention, the final hour is for Mies. It’s now up to the reigning Australian GT champion to bring the fight to Zakspeed and take the win. Three laps later Asch comes into the pits to hand over the AMG to Heyer. From there on out, Mies is unstoppable. Lapping half a minute faster than Heyer, Mies gets to the back of his fellow German four laps before the end. Heyer has nothing on Mies. Racing on the wet Nordschleife is a situation he has no experience with. He knew Mies would go by sooner or later. Going into Adenauer Forst, Mies makes a clean pass for the lead.
It’s not over yet, however. Uncertain if a final splash-and-dash is needed, Mies keeps pushing to extent the gap and insure that if the call comes, it won’t lose him the lead. But it doesn’t come. With enough fuel left and an advantage of over two minutes, Land returns to the highest step on the VLN podium.
“For us, this is big, what we did today,” Christian Land, the team’s technical director and son of founder Wolfgang Land, says while celebrating the win. “It’s the first year of our return in VLN, with the new Audi, new drivers, and it’s absolutely amazing what the guys did today.”
Losing long-time partner Porsche in favour of what is arguably the best GT3 manufacturer in the world, wasn’t an easy decision to make.
Christian Land explains: “Last winter we sad together with our sponsor [to look at 2016]. For us it was a big step to cancel the deal with Porsche and come to Audi. I must say, it was all great what we had [for the 24 Hours of the Nürburgring], with all the Audi guys. Thanks to the whole Audi customer sports team, it was amazing to work together with these guys.
“It’s one of the best GT3 cars in the world and that’s why we made the step.”
“I’m over the moon,” Connor De Phillippi adds. “It’s a really special feeling to have a first win on the Nordschleife. I think I am the third American ever to win an overall race here, so that is also quite cool, to put my name along the likes of Patrick Long for example. To be a single piece of the puzzle of Wolfgang [Land] and the team’s twentieth victory here makes for a very special day.”
Coming in behind Zakspeed is the Falken Motorsports Porsche 991 GT3R of Wolf Henzler and Martin Ragginger. The German-Austrian duo stays out of trouble and spends the afternoon somewhat anonymously driving behind the fight for the lead and in front of the rest of the field, picking up third place after a late-race spin by Frikadelli Racing.
Frikadelli is back at the front after disastrous races earlier in the season. Blaming the Balance of Performance for their lack of pace, team owner Klaus Abbelen even decided to sit out the third VLN race. Not everything goes perfectly today either, though. After working his way up into second place in the opening laps, Patrick Huisman spins the Porsche around before he resumes his way, several places down. Meeting a fiercely defending De Phillippi at Brünnchen, the two collide sending Huisman towards the barrier. Anything is still possible in these treacherous conditions, Huisman knows, so he starts pushing to make up lost ground before Norbert Siedler gets in for his stint. Before the race reaches the halfway mark, Frikadelli is already back in third place. The final stint is for Sabine Schmitz. Third place looks settled, until she loses control at Eiskurve and slides off track. More time is lost when the GT3R initially refuses to reverse away from the guardrail, leaving Frikadelli with fourth place at the finish.
While the battle for the outright win is exciting, the smaller cars fighting for the honours of best non-GT3 is one to remember as well. For a long time the old Raceunion Teichmann Racing Porsche 911 GT3 Cup, entered in the H4 class for historic cars, challenges the GT3s on aggregate time. Nordschleife specialist Christian Menzel takes the start from pole position in the second starting group, finding conditions on track in which the German is at the top of his game. In the rain, Menzel sets faster lap times than anyone else at that point in the race, faster even than the starters in the first group can manage, as he works his way up into the top of the timing charts.
In the end, however, two familiar names move the RTR Porsche down into seventh place. It’s Tim Scheerbarth and Alex Toril, doing what they do best: Mingle with the big GT3s and win the SP7 class in their Black Falcon Porsche 991 GT3 Cup BF.
Talk after the race is all about Land Motorsport’s twentieth VLN victory. It’s been a long time coming. If it’s up to Christian Land, number twenty-one won’t take another seven years.
“After every race we work and we’ll have a bit more speed from race to race. We’re working hard on that every week and we will win more races this year.”