Frightful eyes turned to the tv screen in the Audi Sport Team Land garage when with 91 minutes to the end the green-white #29 Audi R8 LMS GT3 (Sheldon van der Linde/Markus Winkelhock/Christopher Mies/Connor De Phillippi) was shown crawling along the race track. With the end was in sight it all seemed to come undone for the long-time leading #29 Audi: a software adjustment to the engine during the final driver change went awfully wrong, trapping the car in safety mode. Circling back around the Grand Prix track, Kelvin van der Linde stopped the car in the pits for a quick reset. Any chance to still win seemed lost: Van der Linde returned to the track in third place and minutes behind the #9 Audi Sport Team WRT Audi R8 LMS GT3 of René Rast with no real possibility of coming back from this.
“I was really upset, of course, I wasn’t happy,” Markus Winkelhock said after the race. “I couldn’t believe it, but I was also telling myself that this is racing. I felt so sad. To fight for 24 hours and in the last two hours you’re going to almost lose it.”
Any other day, that would’ve been the end of it, but that day the Nürburgring had one more challenge awaiting: Thrown back into third place, the heavens suddenly opened up just when the last pitstop window arrived with 20 minutes remaining. Despite the onset of rain at the back of the Nordschleife, races leader René Rast in the WRT Audi R8 LMS GT3 remained on slick tyres while the #98 Rowe Racing BMW M6 GT3 of Nick Catsburg was running in second place still on slicks, having made its final stop long before.
Land was planning on doing the same during the final splash-and-dash, already installing the Dunlop rubber underneath the car while waiting for the refuelling to complete. Too eager to get back into the fight, Van der Linde tried to drive off as soon as the car came down but was stopped. The short delay changed the outcome of the race.
Winkelhock looked on from the garage as his team went to work on the Audi: “We dropped the car and wanted to leave, but the crew was still filling up,” the former race winner described the crucial moment. “The car had to be pushed back and that cost quite a bit of time. In that moment, we were told that it’s going to rain heavily and we decided to swap to rain tyres, and that became part of the win.
“We knew then that we were back in the game. We didn’t know if it would be enough for the win as well, but as it turned out, this mistake brought us the win.”
On a new set of rain tyres and the fuel to make it to the end, Van der Linde rocketed out of the pits. As more and more corners turned into ice rinks for those still out on slicks, the South African sliced his way through traffic, squeezing through every possible and impossible gap, driving on any piece of tarmac and some grass. With 10 minutes to go Van der Linde made quick work of Catsburg who was struggling to keep his slicks-shod BMW on track. WRT knew it had to come in and take on wet-weather tyres to salvage whatever they could — going into the final lap still on slicks would be a certain catastrophe.
From there on the final 25 kilometres were Land’s, their tears of anguish turned to tears of joy as the Audi took the chequered flag.
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