Most of the GT class headlines in Grand-Am's Rolex Series this year have revolved around the success of one of its two new cars. While the Ferrari 458 has managed to overcome the adjustments needed to homologate a full FIA GT3-spec car to Grand-Am specs, with several wins for the points leading AIM Autosport Team FXDD entry, APR Motorsport's Audi R8 Grand-Am has been far less successful.
However, to dismiss the season as a failure would be a mischaracterization of the effort put forth by APR, which is still a first-year team from a Rolex Series standpoint after several years building the program in the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge.
In a nutshell, APR's season has been about working to claw back the performance aspects on its car, and integrating the R8 into the upper echelon of GT class contenders. With all of Ferrari, GM (Camaro), Porsche, BMW and Mazda entrenched in the lead pack, it's been made all the more difficult for APR to break through with its Audi.
“With the way the rules were made and the car was brought in, I think people would admit in hindsight, it was too restricted,” says APR team principal Stephen Hooks. “I think Grand-Am was petrified of Audi based on the car's success globally. It should have been done differently and entered in a more competitive state – I'll say it that way. But we're working with our partners at Audi and have become this car's developmental program. And we're working with Grand-Am, in getting them to look at things differently.”
Case in point – a technical shakeup this month within Grand-Am's staff has seen former vice president of competition Dave Spitzer move on to other opportunities while Gabriel Cadringher, who was added as a consultant in December 2011, was named managing director of technical regulations and development. Cadringher is the former director of the technical department of the FIA, former technical delegate for Formula 1 and former president of the FIA Manufacturers' Commission.
APR's lead engineer Mark Scott expands on what exactly was taken out at the start, having joined the program after the Roar Before the 24 preseason test in January.
“It's shown a bit of speed throughout, but basically, the difference between the GT3 (RIGHT) and Grand-Am spec is enormous,” Scott explains. “Grand-Am reduced the downforce on the car by something like 60 percent. Things like traction control, stability control, ABS, all those things got taken away.
“When I first became involved with the car, it was suffering terribly from lack of rear traction, and instability at the rear as far as driver feel. It was loose everywhere with no traction.
“We had to establish what was there, if it's not working, see what the shortcomings were. Because it was so far out, initially, we were making fairly bold swipes at it. The setup originally from Europe was more suited to smoother, high-speed tracks they run on there. We were just finding out where all the aspects were. There were an awful lot of unknowns.”
Lead driver Dion von Moltke, who despite his youthful 22 years of age (as of July 27) has already amassed a swath of experience in both prototypes and other GT cars, described the differences between a standard Porsche GT3 Cup car – something tried and true in Rolex's GT ranks – and the R8.
“I'm still shocked by it, because it's a complete night and day difference,” von Moltke says. “I try to relate it… think of the Porsche as a fun-loving girl, and you can tell it what it wants. The Audi is a prestigious lady, and she tells you what she wants. It's required a completely different driving style with so much smoother and delicate input. Porsches are famous for being manhandled. The Audi, you can dive in and brake late, but it has to be smooth.”
Von Moltke and Dr. Jim Norman, a parathyroid surgeon by trade who's taken up racing in the past few years, are cast in the same mold of pro-am driver pairing that has made up an increasing percentage of the sports car landscape over the years. Roughly half the GT class – including the AIM Ferrari with Jeff Segal (pro) and Emil Assentato (am) – utilizes this option.
That's thrust von Moltke into the situation of being one of Rolex GT's youngest lead drivers, and additionally, the role of lead developer on the car. It's a challenge he relishes, and something that hasn't gone unnoticed within the team.
“It's cool because it's the same as when I got my professional start with APR in Continental four years ago, in the same situation of a first-year team and first-year car,” he says. “That year I was a first year driver and I personally had to learn and develop. Now having had four years, everything with the team has developed, and so has the program and the team. You learn what makes the car goes fast and how to create a balance for you and your co-driver. Jim too has grown as a driver while we're developing the car, and working with Audi, Stephen and Mark is a great team building exercise.”
“I think he's handled it exceptionally well – it's something he's wanted,” Hooks adds. “He's been making a definite impact with our German colleagues and engineers. His feedback has been excellent, and he has not shied away from the difficulties.”
“It's extremely difficult for anyone to jump into a car, one they haven't driven, and do it with it being a new specification,” Scott agrees. “There's not been one iota where he hasn't been professional. The thing is he's not that old! I'm very impressed with what he's done considering the circumstances.”