Hockenheim hosts the ADAC GT Masters finale this weekend. At the historic race track near Mannheim Land Motorsport will take on Callaway Competition for the title. Christopher Mies and Connor De Phillippi are on the top of the points table but with only two points seperating them from Jules Gounon and Daniel Keilwitz it’ll be a hard fight for the championship. At a rainy Zandvoort the Land Audi team managed to turn the tide back around in their favour in the most daunting race of the season.
It’s summer in the Netherlands. Here sunny days often make way for dreary days of rain. On ADAC GT’s race day at Zandvoort it’s one of those stormy days, where a strong wind is from the sea is bringing clouds of rain with it. Although the heaviest of showers has hit Zandvoort this morning, hours later on the grid the sun is shining and the dark clouds seemingly retreating.
At the front of the grid Land Motorsport has parked its two cars. The team from Niederdreisbach is in the hunt for the title and have hired top guns Christopher Haase and Fred Vervisch to support Christopher Mies and Connor De Phillippi in the second Land Audi. The duo has proven their worth already in the first race of the weekend where they finished fifth and stole valuable points from title competitors and Callaway Competition Corvette C7 GT3 drivers Jules Gounon and Daniel Keilwitz. Lining up second on the grid on Sunday is another testimony of the German-Belgium tandem’s power.
Taking the green from pole position is Kévin Estre in the Team75 Bernhard Porsche 991 GT3R. The Porsche works driver takes hold of the lead at the start, followed into Tarzan by local hero Jaap van Lagen in the HB Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 who has just demoted the Land Motorsport Audi R8 LMS GT3 of Haase to third place.
“The green came quite early,” Haase describes the dash for turn one, “and my start was not perfect which is why I lost a position to Jaap van Lagen. He pushed quite hard, but it was fair.
“In the first two laps everyone was struggling a bit because there were still some wet spots on the exit of corners. You get much oversteer when you hit that, and that happened to me as well. Then when everyone settled into their rhythm we managed the same pace as the first five cars.”
Ten minutes into the one-hour race the racing is interrupted by the safety car. Nikolai Sylvest has gone off at the Gerlachbocht and with a car that has damage on all sides he is unable to continue. It’s during this caution that the rain starts to come down. No one is sure what to do: Stay out on slicks and hope the rain won’t last, or come in for rain tyres outside of the mandatory pit stop window and hope the advantage will negate the extra time of the second pit stop?
“At first it was only raining here in pit lane and the corners around there,” Jaap van Lagen says. “At the back of the track it was still dry, but then it started to rain heavily at the back as well when the safety car came out. That’s when you’re driving calmly so that’s no risk. But you are thinking, ‘I might just go for rain tyres’, because you’re driving behind the safety car so won’t lose a lot of time. And that was a tough decision. One half of the field came in for rain tyres, the other half stayed out on slicks.”
The Dutchman looks at the sky to see it’s only a shower and decides to play it safe and stay out on slicks.
“The thing is,” Van Lagen explains the decision, “we never really practice pit stops because we never change tyres. The risk of not having a good pit stop was too big and in the end I think that we made the right choice.
“Many of these teams race in the long-distance Blancpain GT races and they always have to change tyres, they’re well-trained at this. They can do it much quicker. Not everyone can do that, so that’s something we need to practice so that when we get into these situations we can do that too.”
Mies, like many other top contenders including race leader Estre, also stays out on slicks. Six minutes to the opening of the pit window remain when the safety car returns to the pits. It’s all the time they need to survive before they can come in for the mandatory driver change and possible tyre change.
“It was after the safety car when it really started to rain and it got a bit tricky during the first laps,” Haase says. “I was surprised by how much grip the Zandvoort track has in these conditions.
“I was driving with a knife between my teeth, it really was like that. You have to be so precise, but at the same time you have to push hard to keep up the temperature [in the tyres]. When you go just a little bit over the edge you lose the car quickly, it snaps.”
That’s what happens to Estre. The Frenchman is leading in the rain but as is the character of the works driver, he doesn’t slow down for anything. Behind him Van Lagen tries to weather the storm, driving carefully, as he watches the Porsche snap and then plough through the gravel at Scheivlak.
“I wasn’t taking any risks,” Van Lagen recalls the moment he watched the fastest driver on slicks go off. “After the safety car you could see that Estre was gone quickly. He took big risks and I saw him go very wide a couple of times, and the chance of going off then gets very big. And that’s what he did. He had a gap of like four seconds, and then he goes off all alone. That’s completely unnecessary He could’ve maintained the four-second gap until the pit stops and he would’ve won easily. But he stays on the limit and that’s how you go off.”
A radiator clogged up with gravel is slowing overheating Estre’s engine. When he comes into the pits to make the drivers change it’s game over: In a plume of white smoke the engine dies.
By now the rain tyre-shod GTs are leading. Rahel Frey and Philip Geipel have climbed up through the ranks in their YACO Audi R8 LMS GT3 and into the lead in the wet.
The rain doesn’t last long. At the opening of the pit window it has already stopped and the tarmac starts to dry. The question is how long it’ll stay dry. The next shower already looms over the track and is closing in rapidly.
Geipel takes over from Frey when the Audi returns to the pits for the second time. Jaap van Lagen makes his first pit stop to give the Lamborghini to Norbert Siedler. Behind the two leaders Sebastian Asch in the Zakspeed Mercedes-AMG GT3 has replaced Luca Ludwig and made his way to the tail of Siedler’s Lambo. Asch, however, is unable to force the experienced Siedler into a mistake.
Minutes before the end the second shower hits the track. Caught off-guard, Geipel almost strays too wide but barely keeps it out of the gravel trap. Vervisch isn’t as lucky, though. Coming up to Kumhobocht the leaders slow down as the raindrops are falling again. The Belgian misses the cue and goes off.
“It rained in only one corner,” De Phillippi who is running in fourth place with Vervisch right behind him, says. “We all arrived there and I saw the leading Audi almost go off. I saw this and slowed down a lot, but Frédéric did not see that the cars ahead almost went off the track. He went into the corner at the normal speed and flew off the track. Those were very difficult conditions.”
The second Land Audi loses two positions as Vervisch speeds through the gravel and, most importantly, gives fifth place to the Gounon-Keilwitz Corvette and with it two extra points.
Having had his wake-up call, Geipel remains flawless for the short remainder of the race. He’s never in any danger from Siedler, taking the win to become only the second Audi team this season to be victorious in the championship.
“For me, it was quite easy, actually,” Siedler says. “I was pushing really hard but I couldn’t catch the Audi.”
With fellow Austrian Siedler and the always fast Van Lagen, the HB Racing team has made the step from the Porsche Carrera Cup Deutschland to ADAC GT this year, coming close to a top result several times and now finally making it onto the podium. Much to Van Lagen’s delight, as the 2014 ADAC GT vice champion leaves no doubt about his feelings after the race.
“All in all, if we can finish the season like this then that’s great for the team. Everyone is enthusiastic, everyone works very hard, and then this is the result. And for me, to do this in my home race, it’s fantastic. I’ve invited about twenty people and they were all cheering in the pit box. The team did as well, they work so hard and have been waiting for a podium result, to have it all come together in the second-to-last race weekend… It would be great if we can repeat this in Hockenheim.”
Having come home in fourth, Mies and De Phillippi have gathered enough points to take over the championship lead from Keilwitz and Gounon. After a test at the Baden-Württemberg race track in early September, De Phillippi is upbeat about his prospects but realistic about the car’s weakness.
“We can absolutely win the title,” the American says when asked about the team’s chances in the finale. “I think that our qualifying pace will be in the same window as the Corvette, but in the race it will be very difficult because our raceability is not as strong as the Corvette. They have a little top-speed advantage. As long as we have a good qualifying performance and get our sister car ahead of the Corvettes, it’ll help a bit for the points championship.
“Winning the championship would be the biggest accomplishment of my career. It’s the dream of a lot of American race car drivers who come to Europe to win races here. The ADAC GT Masters has been very special for me and to win the championship… There are not many US drivers who can say they have done this. It would be a dream and life-changing for me.”