Success continues to follow Walkenhorst Motorsport wherever it goes. Last weekend at Zolder yet another highlight was achieved when the increasingly successful team from Germany won its first DTM race in just its sixth try.
Following big wins in the Spa 24 Hours, at the Nürburgring and in the Intercontinental GT Challenge in recent years, the team is now on the right path for more success in the revamped DTM championship as well.
Teammanager Niclas Königbauer sees the victory as a reward for the team as it contests a busy season with top class entries in three highly competitive championships.
“It’s always great to achieve success,” Niclas Königbauer says after celebrating the Zolder win.
“DTM is a completely new series for us, a completely new format: a sprint race with one driver – we’ve never done this before. And it’s always a lot of fun to try to work around the given question marks.
“Every one of us did a very good job so far and this is just a super nice feeling, to see that you can be successful. When you start, you have no clue if something is right or wrong and you always question yourself, is that the right way, should we do it like this? But we have found our way and so far, it’s turned out quite well so it gives a lot of positive momentum not just for myself but for the whole team as well. Those guys had to change the engine yesterday and were working until early this morning. They train the pitstops and so on. I can always have a look and say, hey, we have to take care about this, try that. But in the end, they are doing it.
“And also with Marco [Wittmann], he is such a strong driver, getting everything out of the car. He’s pushing us as a team, giving a lot of feedback, a lot of input, so we grow in this area quite fast with very positive momentum.”
One of the team’s strengths is its core of employees that has remained largely unchanged since Walkenhorst Motorsport first stepped into the world of GT3 racing in 2013.
“I don’t want to say that we are all ‘best friends’, but we are really working strongly as a team and I think this is what makes the success for us.
“Everyone [who was with us years ago is still with us]! The whole team grew, so we have got some additional people, but from 2017-2018, I can’t remember if people have left the team – normally it’s people coming into the team. Of course, sometimes when life is changing [they leave], but I don’t remember anyone leaving because they didn’t like to work with us.
“It’s a lot of work, a lot of hours, but we all live for motorsports and that’s our life, so everyone is happy when it turns out like today.”
After the demise of DTM’s Class One, the series turned to the established Group GT3 rule book for its new machinery, opening the door to customer racing and GT3 experts – both drivers and teams – to have a go at the popular former touring car championship.
Having put everything in place, Königbauer knew they were up for a challenge.
“For us, it’s always interesting to see new areas,” the former Formula BMW driver continues.
“We always want to expand, see what we can do, what we are capable of. We have been quite good at endurance racing at the Nordschleife, so we wanted to see how well we can perform in a sprint format. There is the ADAC GT Masters, but now the DTM is the highest class you can imagine.
“When they changed from Class One to GT3, we thought this would help us a lot as we know the GT3 car quite well and this might be one way to go.
“It’s not easy as you want to be super competitive and for that you need the best drivers. To get all of that worked out wasn’t very easy. Do we have this driver, find that sponsor, and so on. We worked quite hard in the background, and it took quite a lot of time. It was in the middle or end of February when we had the package together and said, OK, we’ll do it.
“The biggest question mark always is how can you find the budget for the season. All other questions are placed around this. If you want to find sponsors, they want to know who is driving. At one point everything comes together, and you try to find ways to make everyone happy, which sometimes takes a lot of time, it’s very intensive.
“At one point it all just came together, we had the package, and we tried and pushed and in the end it was possible to do it.”
One of the first coups for Walkenhorst was the signing of two-time DTM championship Marco Wittmann. An expert in DTM and GT3 racing, the BMW works driver joins Walkenhorst not just for the national championship but for the GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup as well.
“Marco was one of the few drivers we have never worked with in the past, so it was nice to know he would also do the GT World Challenge with us. We got in touch and obviously he is one of BMW’s most successful drivers in DTM, so all thoughts and ideas aligned and together with our partners Schaeffler and Shell it worked out quite well because Marco also has a strong relationship to Schaeffler.
“It was the perfect package, and today proved that everything was a good decision.”
Introducing GT3 into the DTM has changed the game completely. Does Marco Wittmann still bring anything to the table from the Class One era?
“Oh, a lot! He brings so much information about the Class One times, about how they approached things and especially a lot of detail work.
“When you have three drivers, you always find a compromise, now we have just one driver and he has specific needs for the car to fit 100-percent to him and his driving style. The surroundings as well: which information he wants to have, like where it’s good for him to have the tv screen with the times. A lot of little things, and he always says, this is what I’ve experienced in the past which worked well and if you have a chance to set it up like this that’s great, but if not for whatever reason I’m totally fine with it – I’m just trying to give as much input as possible to strengthen the whole package, and he’s doing a superb job at this. He’s not annoyed when something doesn’t work out 100-percent because in the past it was factory motorsports, now it’s customer racing – of course there are a lot of differences, both positive and negative.
“As a team, including him, we’re working very well together, and this helps us to become even more successful.”
One more thing that is new for Walkenhorst are the Michelin tyres. Whereas the team uses confidential, high-performance Yokohama tyres at the Nürburgring and the global GT3 spec Pirellis in the GT World Challenge, DTM has gone with the French manufacturer.
“We have never had experience with Michelin tyres. At the beginning of the year we drove the Michelin tyres in the Asian Le Mans Series, which was the first time we got to work with the tyre.
“It’s a good tyre and working well. Of course, it’s ‘just’ a standard tyre compared to what we are used to from the Nordschleife with Yokohama – it’s a completely different world.
“It took us a little bit to understand the tyre. We have quite a lot of experience with the Pirelli and when you compare it to the Michelin it’s also two different worlds.
“We really had to learn the tyre: how much camber you can ride, how you manage the tyre, what are the right pressures, and so on. We are still collecting data, but I think we have a good base of knowledge to try to squeeze the best out of the tyre and the car.”
With victory in Zolder, a track clearly not suiting any car that primarily excels in mid- and high-speed turns, the Österreichring and Nürburgring should offer more opportunities to win.
“Now I hope we can win at any track!
“We have never been here at Zolder with the BMW and if you see the layout, you would assume it is going to be tough. Before the race we put in a lot of effort to change the car to what we think would suit the track better. I think we took the right steps and found a way to make this possible.
“The BMW should normally be quite strong at the Red Bull Ring, we have never been to Assen before so I don’t know about this, and the Nürburgring we know quite well. On paper it should be possible to win each race, but everything has to come together and that’s tough. As we experienced in the last rounds, it’s difficult. We gained a lot of positions, and the race pace was very strong, but the qualifying performance wasn’t there. But now we took a very good step in the right direction to know how to change to car, get it up to speed and squeeze everything out for a qualifying lap.”
A busy 2021 schedule – Walkenhorst Motorsport also competes in the VLN Nürburgring Endurance Series, GT World Challenge and DTM Trophy – prevents the team from adding any more programs, while making plans for next year is complicated by the new BMW M4 GT3.
“This year we are completely packed,” Königbauer explains.
“The guys are doing a great job and there is not much time left for them so this year we will not start anything else and instead concentrate on the different rounds in the series.
“For next year it’s unfortunately a little bit early to talk about it because we don’t know when we might get the new cars, what we can plan, and so on.
“The format for the Asian Le Mans Series will be quite similar to this year, I have heard, so this can be quite interesting for us and the drivers as it’s a very good prep for the season. We might set-up an amateur car again that is a bit more competitive with younger drivers.
“For sure we will stay at the Nordschleife, this is our base, and the plan is to run up to three GT3 cars again.
“But what else, it is difficult to say. We did the Intercontinental GT Challenge and it’s a great series and would love to do it, and we would love to do DTM of course. We do not start a program just for one year, we are always hoping and thinking we can continue at least for three years, but the package has to fit it.
“The GT World Challenge is great as well.
“So, we have a lot of options, but we have to make sure that we can handle everything. This year is pretty much the limit for everyone, from the point of logistics, the guys and the cars.
“Next year we will have to see with the calendars what really fits, and we’ll set up a plan. I hope we can have a plan properly made up by maybe November – that’s all I know so far about 2022.”
For now, a lot depends on the delivery of the new BMW M4 GT3 – not expected to take place in 2021.
“The biggest question at the moment is, when do we get the car, and how many cars we can have. And ‘get’ means, to buy them! These are the biggest question marks right now.
“My feeling tells me it will be quite difficult to get the number of cars we normally need. Currently we are running five M6 GT3s – this is what you need to have if you do the programs we are doing at the moment. If, for example, we just get two or three, then it changes everything and it gets difficult.
“Before we can talk about programs and what kind of programs we can do and with the support from BMW or a factory driver, first of all the question of when do we have the cars needs to be solved. This is the main limiting factor and when that is answered we can go into detail and see how we can work with BMW and whether we can do GT World Challenge or Intercontinental GT Challenge or DTM again or whatever.
“As I understood, DTM is a pure customer racing platform, so I don’t think BMW will support it as a factory racing program – of course they always support with engineers and so on.
“At the Nordschleife we will stick with our Yokohama tyres of course, and as BMW is connected to Michelin at the Nordschleife, we will not have any additional program with them there. This is also clear, and then will see what comes up.”
There’s no rest for the winners this summer. Next weekend it is already on to the Nürburgring for the fourth round of the DTM championship where Niclas Königbauer will once again try to lead Walkenhorst Motorsport to victory at the track that is their home.
“I’m thankful to the team and everyone, especially in the workshop, because I know they are working their butts off at the moment. They spend less time at home, so to see everyone keep the morale up and giving 110-percent is so great and I’m thankful and happy that we now get rewarded with a win. But I know it’s a tough time for a lot of guys and I hope we can continue to move forward this way for the next couple of weeks.”
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