David Pittard was the talk of the town for days after his VLN Nürburgring Endurance Series victory. The British driver had laid the groundwork for Walkenhorst Motorsport’s race win with a daring pass at Schwedenkreuz around the outside of Matthieu Vaxivière on his march to victory.
As video only tells you so much, we asked the BMW M6 GT3 pilot to describe the move in close detail.
“Leading up to the maneuver itself, the track was a little bit damp, there was a little bit rain coming down,” Pittard explains. “I found that the formation lap was very slow, so it was difficult to get heat into the tyres with the slightly cooler track surface. That made us all very cautious, on the first lap in particular.
“Normally I feel quite comfortable in those slightly uncertain conditions, but, the Nordschleife is like no other track that I’ve driven in the wet or in the damp. Normally, if you drive at any other circuit, there is kind of a relation between how much grip there is in the wet versus the dry and you can sort of feel a little bit confident, whereas I find that the Nordschleife in the wet or the damp is just a completely different animal to what it is in the dry. You really have to switch your mindset.
“It was typical Nordschleife, really: the first half of the lap there was some spits of rain on the screen but then the second half of the lap was dry and we could start to push and built a bit of tyre temperature.
“After lap two I was just feeling racey! I had the tyre temp, I had the confidence, and I could see that I was catching the guys ahead. I was on a mission to try and get past them as soon as I could.
“I was able to grab third place off of Marciello on the way onto the Nordschleife and set about a gap to catch the next car. I knew the M6 is always very competitive through Flugplatz and normally we can go through there with maybe a 25-percent lift but in these conditions I was having a full lift and going, whereas I saw that the other GetSpeed Mercedes were having a full-on brake. So, I carried a huge amount of extra speed through Flugplatz and caught up to Vaxivière – I don’t think he’s the most experienced driver on the Nordschleife but still a very quick driver – and used the slipstream.
“As Vaxivière defended, the only thing I could do was go to the right-hand side and stay in the draft as well. At the bump before Schwedenkreuz I was barely fully alongside and I thought: Well OK, I’ll just show my nose and see what happens. But then with the slipstream that we were getting at that speed, by the time we actually got to this turning point I had just about had my nose ahead, and I was like, OK, we’re in here.
“From my experience of doing it at VLN4 last year, I fully expected Vaxivière to actually back out and at least give me sort of half a car length to put my nose ahead. But fair play: he didn’t! At that point there I was like, Oh right, well, I’m fully committed now and just got to go for it. I dropped a gear, put my foot back down again and the car gripped around the outside!
“Fair play to Vaxivière for giving me racing room and driving fairly and safely because it’s probably one of the most dangerous parts of the circuit. He gave me racing room and that gave me the inside going into Aremberg.
“There was a moment when you get to the crest of Schwedenkreuz where it’s blind. A thought came across my mind: Do I really know where the track goes on the exit here? Because there is very little room to play with here.
“As you go over the crest you’re normally never over on that side of the circuit so you never quite know how much room you’ve really got to play with so I was just trying to focus on making sure I had enough room to run out to. Even though these cars have got so much aero on them, as you go over the bump they do just jump very slightly to the right-hand side as they lose a little bit of grip as you go over the crest. That was what I was most worried about, but the M6’s aerodynamics is probably one of its strengths and the Yokohama tyre was awesome so I had full confidence in these key features and that then gave me the confidence to keep my foot in and commit to the outside – I knew the track would then be in my favour at the next time.
“But there was a split-second when Vaxivière didn’t back out, I thought, oh here we go! I never thought this was going to be a bad idea, but I did think this was going to be tight. There was sort of a heart-stopping moment for a second there, but I got the job done.
“Once I was over the crest, I was quite comfortable. I knew where my positioning was and then I could just get straight back onto the throttle again and hold the car on the optimum line for Aremberg and got the move done.
“Because I had done two cars in basically a quarter of a lap I was super pumped up, super fired up. There was no elation, no whoop of joy, it was like, Assenheimer, I’m coming for you, and then fully focused on closing the gap to the leader.”
Although Matthieu Vaxivière isn’t a race after race competitor at the Nordschleife, Pittard felt he could trust the experienced and talented Frenchman to go side by side into Schwedenkreuz with.
“Vaxivière really stood his ground – in a very fair way.
“I’ve done something similar twice now and I think you really have to put yourself in a position of taking the corner yourself, almost dominating the corner on the way in. The first time I done it I was clearly half car a head, I clearly kind of had the ‘right’ to turn in, whereas this time it really was side by side and I expected Vaxivière to brake a bit earlier and back out of it. It was 50-50 through the corner, initially.
“Vaxivière was very fair, very safe, he gave me room and stuck to his side of the circuit. I knew there’s a lot of drivers I would not feel comfortable going side by side through there and you can generally tell what their attitude is like on how they’re driving beforehand. I don’t think I’ve ever raced Vaxivière door by door before, so I’m not experienced on how aggressive he is but generally you get a feeling for how aggressive they are on the lead up to the corner. He didn’t do anything stupid like force me off the road or squeeze me off the road on the way into the corner. He just stuck to his line on the inside which gave me the confidence that he wasn’t going to do anything stupid. When he then followed me in at the same speed I thought, woah, here we go, I really gotta commit now!
“Looking back on it now I think it was also pretty comfortable. I don’t believe that I did anything stupid or took an excessive amount of risk to make the place. I had full faith in the guy next to me, I had full faith in my ability and my car. I’m very happy with it and how it came out.
“I think one of my strengths is my calculation of risk and that’s why I’ve kind of excelled at the Nordschleife. You are judging situations risk versus reward. Not only when racing other cars in your class but also when you’re passing slower cars. I think that’s one of my strengths and that’s why I’m as good as I am at the Nordschleife.
“Actually, there was a moment two laps later with a backmarker at Schwedenkreuz again, I think that was actually riskier than the outside overtake.”
While Walkenhorst Motorsport started 2019 with victory in the Nürburgring 24 Hours Qualifying Race, especially the later part of the VLN season saw the team shine as it began stringing podium finishes together.
“There’s not been a huge amount of differences [from last year]. I think it’s just basically execution. We’ve not done anything much differently from last year because at VLN7, 8 and 9 we were on the podium, so this is actually our fourth podium in a row so I don’t think a huge amount has changed really, we were just able to execute a slightly more perfect race. And when you’re dealing with races that are decided by a couple of seconds – ten seconds – over a four-hour race that has almost 15.000 seconds in it, everything has got to go right.
“In this instance the traffic went our way, the team nailed all the pit stops, Mikkel nailed his stint, I nailed mine, and everything came together even down to where I think we really made a lot of time: we pitted one lap later on the first stint compared to where Marciello and the #2 GetSpeed car pitted so they should’ve had a shorter pitstop from the VLN regulations. However, by the end of the second stint Mikkel was right behind them. I think a little bit of traffic played to our favour in the second stint that we could make up the time deficit that they suffered on lap one. I wouldn’t say we did anything differently apart from just refine what we were already doing.”
Next race weekend Christian Krognes rejoins the team after having to sit this one out due to Norway’s mandatory ten-day quarantine. Despite not having the VLN1 win to his name, Pittard did acknowledge his teammate’s contribution.
“Mikkel is a super-fast driver and it’s great to see how quick he is with his relatively limited amount of Nordschleife experience whereas Christian is the opposite: he’s the man around there, he knows anything and everything around there and also with the team and the car.
“I learned a huge amount from Christian last year. I always felt like I was the lead driver in my team when I’ve shared cars and been endurance racing, whereas last year I actually had to take a step back and learn from him and I think that’s given me a much better understanding of really optimising the car. The GT3 cars, even if you’re a small percentage out of the optimum window in terms of setup, it costs you so much speed and time. Whereas before I could use my driving ability to drive around these issues, when you’re driving against some of the best drivers in the world you need the car to be on your side. I learned from Christian to really find those extra final percentages of setting the car up.
“What Christian is really good at is defining where time can be gained from maybe a tyre change. He has worked a lot with Dunlop and Yokohama in the past and that’s where I think his strengths really lay and then optimising the setup. He knows the difference between when it’s a tyre issue and we can make the tyre better, or when it’s a setup issue. With my experience where I’ve always driven control tyres before, if there’s an issue you have to make the handling work around the tyre whereas in this very cool and very unique situation with VLN where it’s an open tyre, Yokohama can build us a tyre to give us more performance.
“And that’s where I wanted to credit Christian for our result this time out because that’s where he made the big difference last year and made the Yokohama from a qualifying tyre in 2018 into a proper endurance competitive tyre in 2019 and we’re carrying that on in 2020.”
Does Walkenhorst’s recent performance mean the team from the town of Melle is ready to add Nürburgring 24 Hours glory to its remarkable and surprising 2018 Spa 24 Hours victory?
“I think so, absolutely. It’s the goal of the team. This year we really have got the backing from Yokohama and BMW as well.
“What’s great about Walkenhorst is that we’re not a full factory-backed team, it’s still a customer racing team with factory support which means that we can do things slightly differently; we can do things a little bit more on the fly rather than everything planned out meticulously. We don’t have the pressure of being a factory team and having to put in a result here, we’re just doing it for ourselves, we’re doing it for Walkenhorst Motorsport.
“Ever since Spa 2018 we’ve shown that Walkenhorst needs to be taken seriously as one of if not the top customer racing teams in the world and that we can run a Pro car – not just Pro-Am – in VLN, the Intercontinental GT Challenge, the Spa 24 Hours obviously, and at the Nürburgring 24 Hours last year as well when we led for only a very short amount of time: we were the top BMW car when it came into the qualifying and into the race as well and I think we will carry on that momentum into this year.”