It was a sight of old and new in the 40. RCM DMV Grenzlandrennen, with Land Motorsport regular Connor De Phillippi and supersub Robin Frijns storming to Land’s first VLN victory in 2017. The 24 Hours of the Nürburgring champions came out of nowhere to take the lead and from there on controlled the race to the finish returning the familiar white and green Audi back to the top spot on the podium.
When the call came from Audi to race the Nordschleife with Land Motorsport, Robin Frijns knew right away what he had gotten himself into. These are the reigning 24 Hours of the Nürburgring champions, the team that in a last-ditch effort successfully took away what should’ve been his crown. No longer racing against them, but joining forces in Land’s quest to bring the Grenzlandrennen trophy to Niederdreisbach.
His co-driver: Connor De Phillippi. The young American, ADAC GT Masters and 24 Hours of the Nürburgring champion together with teammate Christopher Mies, will have to do without his brother in arms this time.
When the fog in the Eifel has lifted and 90 minutes of qualifying are in the books, it’s the number 911 Manthey Racing Porsche 991 GT3R on top of the timing screens. Patrick Pilet and Romain Dumas are back at it, looking for ‘grello’s’ fourth win of the season and to extend the team’s lead in the VLN Speed Trophäe championship.
Three rows behind pole position De Phillippi parks his Audi on the grid. He starts from eighth, his view obscured by rear wings of equally fast GTs. The team suffered a setback in the final laps of qualifying when a Code 60 ruined their attempt to improve on their qualifying time. So far today, it’s Wolfgang Land’s crew on the outside looking in. The astute veteran of sportscar racing has a game plan, however, and doesn’t intent to play a supporting role in today’s race.
A little scuffle at the start and the Walkenhorst Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 of Michele Di Martino rolls backwards into the gravel, stranded as the others shoot by. Razor-sharp when the lights turn green, Pilet is already gone and away when the pushing and pulling starts.
Frank Stippler, quick as ever in the white and blue Phoenix Racing Audi R8 LMS GT3, defends second place around the Grand Prix course, using all his might to keep the Falken Motorsports Porsche 991 GT3 at an arm’s length.
It’s promising to be a good day for Audi. Having kept the Falken Porsche off his back, Stippler races to hook onto the back of the neon-coloured Porsche and complete the all-classic pass in the slipstream on Döttinger Höhe to take the lead.
Behind the frontrunners, De Phillippi has worked his way up in the opening lap to start the second lap in sixth position.
A slight drizzle on the northside of the track picks up as the early laps progress. De Phillippi—last year at times the victim of his own eagerness in the rain—decides to dial down his rapid pace. Back with Michelin, the brand that brought the Land squad so much success in the past but has been the underdog to Dunlop’s superb slicks since the outlawing of confidential tyres, De Phillippi bides his time. He won’t fall into any traps this early in the 4-hour race. Staying within sight of the lead group is it for now.
In front of the field the tension rises. Running nose-to-tail, the Phoenix Audi and Manthey Porsche disappear into the shadows of the Nordschleife only to reappear in the sunshine at Döttinger Höhe with position switch between them several times throughout the first two stints. Frank Stippler and co-pilot Nicolaj Møller Madsen hold the lead for much of the first two hours, but are unable to run away as they struggle on the damp and wet parts of the Eifel course. Despite the conditions slowly moving from damp to properly wet, the tyres of choice are still the slicks, and it’s not helping Stippler and Møller Madsen maintain the speed achieved in the dry.
Sporting a new set of different compound tyres after his first pitstop, De Phillippi has found his confidence in the second hour and hastes to catch up to Manthey and Phoenix. Unfazed by the slippery surface, he pushes forward until the time has come for Frijns to tame the beast.
Nothing is left on the table by the Dutchman. With every minute that ticks away, Frijns closes in on Møller Madsen and Pilet. Not long after the half-way mark has passed he overtakes both the Dane and the Frenchman and takes the lead. The Falken Motorsports Porsche 991 GT3R has followed the Audi to join in with the men out front as the quartet continues to race in formation over the 24 kilometre Nordschleife.
Frijns isn’t given a chance to shake off his chasers. The group of frontrunners remains compact through the third hour, costing Land the lead when out on the Nordschleife the Audi gets stuck behind a slower car and Pilet makes an opportunistic move for the top position. Frijns, however, rebounds as the Porsche and Audi sweep onto Döttinger Höhe. Dragged along in the massive wake of the 911, the R8 reclaims first.
Momentarily losing the lead is Frijns’ cue to produce a series of quick lap times and fashion himself a gap on the now drying race track.
Pilet, on the other hand, is unable to hold the line. A tyre vibration forces the Porsche into the pits with one hour to go. Going out-of-sync could play into Manthey’s hands–but not today.
Romain Dumas has taken charge of the Manthey Porsche for the finale and is on a roll. He’s ready for fight to come, closing in on Phoenix and Falken when all of a sudden he finds himself stuck in a seemingly endless Code 60 zone. Confused drivers in front of him don’t dare to risk a penalty, unsure whether the Code 60 zone has been replaced by mere yellow flags or is still in place, and maintain 60 kilometres an hour. Yellow flags are waved everywhere. Dumas can’t overtake and is forced to cruise along with the pack, knowing the top cars have passed this sector under full power shortly before.
The end is drawing near. Untouchable, Frijns counts down the laps. In his rear view mirror a stalking Sven Müller has been trying to show the world his true pace, shadowing Frijns throughout the past few laps despite running a lap down. Fed up with the Krauth Manthey Racing Porsche 991 GT3R’s nearby presence and fearing it might cost him the win, Frijns puts his foot down once more. On his final push to the chequered flag he flirts with the 8-minute barrier, coming close to breaking it as he sets the fastest lap of the race on the penultimate lap.
Frijns crosses the line in victory 16 seconds free of Stippler in second place. Waved home by a celebrating Wolfgang Land, Frijns finds De Phillippi waiting for him underneath the podium.
The first to follow Frijns into parc fermé is Frank Stippler. The German signs up for the final stint in the Phoenix Audi for a last attempt at dethroning Land. Even though the drying track is much more to his liking and he pushes like hell, Stippler soon realises there’s nothing he can do against the unleashed Frijns.
Falken Motorsports returns to the podium with the Porsche 991 GT3. Klaus Bachler and Martin Ragginger have been there all the way towards the end to keep the two Audis sharp, lurking in the background waiting for the right moment to attack. That moment never comes and it ends up being the familiar sight of the Falken Porsche finishing seconds away from the golden trophy.