Christian Krognes went on his first global racing season in 2019, competing with Walkenhorst Motorsport in the Intercontinental GT Challenge. The 2018 Spa 24 Hours champion takes you from Bathurst to Spa and everywhere in between as he looks back on his season racing the BMW M6 GT3.
The first time I heard that I would be given a shot in the Intercontinental GT Challenge back some time in 2018, I couldn’t really believe what I heard. The series has grown to be one of the leading GT3 championships in the last couple of years and just the prospect of travelling to different continents to race in a super-professional environment was of course a dream come true. It would also be another season with extended cooperation between BMW Motorsport and Walkenhorst Motorsport which, among many things, meant that I would get two super strong teammates in factory drivers Mikkel Jensen and Nicky Catsburg.
While being confident that we would do well, I knew that it would be a tough challenge. All entries that had committed full-time to the series were manufacturer teams, which in turn means a field full of the best GT drivers in the world. I am not a professional driver in the way that I don’t live from racing, and to be right in there and compete with these guys in the IGTC was going to be insane. Most of my career so far in GT3 cars was spent on the Nürburgring-Nordschleife, where the GT3s behave a little differently due to slightly more conservative regulations on aero and engine performance. Because of that, I thought pretty much from the beginning that I would have to learn a lot along the way, but I also felt very much up for the task. Moreover, the team atmosphere was extremely good going into the season, having had a very successful 2018 with the Spa 24 Hours victory as the big highlight of the year.
Traditionally, I have started my racing seasons in recent years in March while this year we were already running in full race trim at the end of January at Bathurst. Actually, it felt like the 2018 season never ended in a way! Bathurst is legendary due to its unique mountain section and close proximity to the walls, something that could be felt right from the start of practice. While you can allow yourself to deviate some centimeters on where you put your car on the curbs on normal tracks, these centimeters can be the difference between crashing out or not on Mount Panorama. Especially with the M6 being quite a large car! It was tough to adjust to this during the first free practice session, but the car felt hooked up right from the beginning and we expected a strong race on our part.
Unfortunately, the race didn’t go well for us, although our pace was promising in practice and qualifying, running as the best BMW into the race after a solid qualifying lap by Nicky. A simple bolt in the transmission that typically never fails failed, and we had to stop at sunrise almost before the race got going. Needless to say it was a huge blow to the whole team of course having set high goals for ourselves for this race in particular, but we left Australia confident that we could have been there to fight with the top end of the field had the car ran to the finish line.
Whilst the M6 was predicted to be strong in Bathurst due to its quick and sweeping nature, the second round at Laguna Seca was tipped to be the other way around. It’s a relatively slow track, and although the M6 GT3 is very nimble for its size, we were not amongst the favorites there. This would also turn out to be my most challenging race of the season, as I struggled a bit to get everything out of the car and find a good rhythm around the track.
We ended up in 8th position at the flag, but I can still remember being disappointed with myself when I left the area after the race. Mikkel and Nicky had both done very solid stints, and I just didn’t get into a good flow on mine. I knew I had a job to do before the remaining races of the championship, particularly to deal with certain rotative aspects of the car along with combined throttle and steering smoothness. I worked pretty extensively with that the next couple of months.
The Spa 24 Hours needs no introduction anymore I think, as it’s widely regarded as the 24-hour race of the season for the GT3 category. A record-breaking field of 72 cars meant that competition was stronger than ever, and to be honest, driving this race alone would almost make up for a whole season for me personally. From a driver’s point of view, it’s that good. Coming off the start of the season a little bit on the back foot mostly due to bad luck, we were all very keen to repeat the feat from 2018 and our victory run there. While very few knew about the Walkenhorst car prior to last years’ race, there was certainly more attention this year. Again, Spa is considered as quite a good match with the M6, and everyone in the team were extremely focused going into the weekend. Initially we struggled a bit to be on pace through practice and qualifying and adding to the challenge was the extreme amount of cars on the track. It was simply difficult to find free space while heading for a quick lap, and that hit us quite hard during qualifying. Something that would look like a promising lap traffic-wise the first half, would prove to be totally wasted as you hit another train of cars preparing for their lap at the end of the track. We qualified outside the top 20 for the race but were quietly confident anyway for the Saturday marathon race.
The race turned out to be one of the most challenging experiences I’ve had in a race car. The weather had been beautiful leading up to the race, while on race day – rain hammered down like there was no tomorrow. We made up positions from the very beginning, and as I got into the car the track had gone completely dry since the rain showers had halted for a while. Soon it started raining again though, but as it seemed as it would just be a minor shower we kept going on with slicks. Opposite to the radar predictions, the rain kept falling and I was running with slicks in the darkness with the track going ‘invisibly’ more wet. It’s very hard to judge how wet the track is in the dark when you’re on your own out there, as the car’s headlights only can do so much in terms of illuminating the track ahead. I had so many big moments of nearly losing the car I lost count. At this point Mikkel and Nicky had done great in bringing us closer to the front, but as the majority of the field had changed to wet tires – we soon lagged behind once again.
This was really the story of our race towards the end, as we had to gamble a bit on weather conditions to catch the front of the field. We very nearly succeeded in this, but after some bad luck towards the end including a hit from a competitor resulting in a touch with the barriers close to the end – all we could salvage was 11th position at the flag. A disappointing result having had last year’s dream race in mind of course, but we had fought as hard as we could and we again showed that we had strong pace. After all we had the speed to fight for the top five once again, and the whole team had good reasons to be proud of their performance that weekend.
Suzuka was the next race on the calendar. Once again a new track for me, despite having spent hours and hours on it in iRacing prior to the race weekend. It’s incredible how much a simulator can help in terms of learning the basics of a track, and I must say that much of the timing and rhythm I learnt through the sim could be directly transferred to the real-life version of it. The weather was incredibly humid and hot, which would add to the challenge around Suzuka. I also have to mention the fans and general atmosphere amongst the people in Japan, which is so friendly and welcoming. I really enjoyed the stay from beginning to end.
Right from the beginning all three of us had strong pace, which was cemented by Nicky qualifying second on the grid during the pole-shootout. We were all very confident for the race, and during the first stint of the race Nicky held second right behind the Team Schnitzer M6. I got into the car for the second stint, entering the track behind Augusto in the other BMW. For the first 30 minutes we went through some traffic, trying to contain our tires with the relatively high degradation that is at Suzuka. At one point we caught a bigger pack of backmarkers, where a Lamboghini hit and spun a lapped Nissan GTR right in front of Augusto and me. We both chose to try and pass the incident on the inside, and while Augusto just about managed to pass the incident, the out-of-control Nissan changed direction abruptly towards me and clipped my rear wing as I passed him. Race over. I’ve rarely been more disappointed in a race car as we’ve started so well. Entering the pits I couldn’t quite believe what had just happened. In a blink of a second things change around so quickly and having been fully focused on the racing alone for 30 minutes, it’s weird how the rest of the world sinks in again as you realize the race is over. It felt a bit like Bathurst, but here we looked even more like a possible podium finisher as things stood at the point of the accident.
Going on from Suzuka we only had one shot left at an IGTC podium in the team’s maiden championship season, and our only focus was to finish the season on a high at the Kyalami 9-hour race. This track was tipped to be a bit of a joker. It could potentially fit many cars, as it had both long, sweeping corners retained from the classic track, as well as new slower sections that followed with the recent modernization of the track site. As we came there, we also soon learnt that the track surface was very lenient on the tire, and that we often would see better lap times towards the end of a stint rather than early on. Prior to this race the typical scenario would be a two to three-second drop in lap times from beginning to end, so that was a big change from any other race we’d done this season.
I think we all found the track to be very cool early on. Lots of zones where you have to combine braking with steering input, which always makes for an extra challenge. Practice and qualifying ran pretty well until the last qualifying session, where we were very unfortunate to hit the track and set our time exactly as a rain shower flooded most of the track. Looking at a possible top 10 starting position it was somewhat disappointing to end up barely within the top 20, but we were certain that we would have a strong car for the race as things were. During a quick check on the onboard videos later that night I also saw that I had the tendency of being too rough on the throttle out of the slow corners – a little bit like I had done on Laguna Seca. Part of the work for me that night was to get rid of that for Saturday’s race.
Mikkel started the race for us and immediately showed that the car had pace. The team had done a beautiful job over the night to provide us with a good race setup, and Mikkel kept picking up positions and matching the times of the guys up ahead. Nicky then kept going strong, double-stinting his tires and bringing us further up and closer to the top five. As the track went yellow after a crash at turn 16, we pitted the car and I joined the field again in third position. I immediately noticed that the drinking system in the car had failed when I went out and closing in on the high 40s in temperature in the cockpit, I knew it would be a tough double-stint. Overall it was a good one though, and particularly the fights with Michael Christensen and Nick Tandy was great. The outright goal was to stay within the limit of the tire to make sure it would last two stints, but as the car had pace I was allowed to have some good fights with the two Porsches for the lead of the race. As temperatures in the cockpit closed up to 50 degrees in the South African heat and with no water to drink I seriously started to struggle in the last 30 minutes, and whilst starting the stint on a high, I lost quite some time towards the end. My head was simply not playing along with me anymore, and I was extremely happy to leave the car in Mikkel’s hands as I was getting properly dehydrated after a little over two hours in the car.
It was a super tough battle towards the end of the race for us, and Mikkel kept flying and picking positions after we’d done a full service stop with fuel and tires prior to his stint. At seven o’clock dark clouds gathered in above the track though and Nicky jumped into the car just as it started raining. Soon the officials had to implement a safety car due to the track being completely flooded by the torrential rain showers, and for a while we even thought they would have to red flag the race due to the conditions – though luckily they continued. We knew from qualifying that we were a little on the backfoot in rainy conditions to the competition, and so we didn’t really have the highest of hopes for the latter stages of the race. After the final round of pit stops during the safety car period we were fifth as the race went green for the final thirty minutes of the race. Nicky pulled something special out of the bag at this point and kept passing the guys ahead, finishing the race for us in in a somewhat miraculous second position at the flag. It was the team’s first podium in the IGTC and a perfect end to the season for us, and although finishing second most times would feel like being the ‘first loser’, we all felt very much like this was a victory. It was fantastic to see the team and BMW being rewarded with this after a long season. Personally, I was quite happy with the season as a whole from a performance point of view and I had learnt so much along the way! I think we all showed that both the team and car had pace, and Walkenhorst will certainly be back fighting for more silverware in this year’s championship. Thanks to my teammates Mikkel and Nicky for a great season together, as well as Walkenhorst and BMW Motorsport for allowing me to take part in the adventure that a season in the IGTC truly is!
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