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.”
The circumstances – as you were – are an obvious and perhaps glaring lack of results. APR is the only full-season entrant to have not yet scored a top-10 finish in class – its best is 11th at round two in Barber – and at that rate, it's down to a myriad of factors. Certainly no one expected miracles with a top-10 at Daytona with more than 40 cars entered, but with anywhere from 15-23 in the rest, it takes a perfect combination of excellent pace, strategy and patience to earn a strong result.
“The roast of the top cars run two pros,” says Hooks. “The Ferrari runs a pro and a gentleman, which speaks more to the strength of the package, but that's also what Grand-Am wants – where a gentleman and pro can have success. It's still very competitive up top.”
And, as von Moltke says, the pace has been a gradual improvement throughout the course of the year.
“We had to spend the first five or six races to find a baseline setup on the car, and that makes a huge learning curve every weekend,” he says. “Let's put Detroit out there – personally I made a mistake in the race that cost us. But qualifying fourth on our first ever street circuit was a very positive thing. Road America, over our first stint, tire wear was a bit better.
“I think the best race for us was at Mid-Ohio, where we got caught out by yellows. No one got to see it, but our race pace for the first time was a top-seven car. We ran consistently with everyone but the BMWs. It felt quick over an entire stint. We can always qualify well, but the race pace needs to improve. Road America we had a blown tire; we had a mechanical at Watkins Glen. But they're not excuses.”
The upside for APR, as it's turned out, is that it's been the only Audi team with the resources and the long-term investment to run the R8 the full season. Oryx Racing (RIGHT, leading the Ferrari) planned a full-season effort but withdrew after two races, citing driver and team principal Humaid Al Masaood's business commitments (and also sidelining the generally accepted fastest Audi driver in Steven Kane), while Limitless Racing ran a single start at New Jersey with Elivan Goulart and Jason Lee and hasn't been seen since.
APR, then, has had unparalleled access to Audi Sport Customer Racing support with operations and involvement from Brad Kettler, longtime engineer for Audi's Le Mans prototype program, among others. Audi's support to APR is a two-way street, and has paid dividends in the form of upgrades and more factory involvement at the six-hour race at Watkins Glen, as Scott explains. The biggest change was a rear wing adjustment, moved higher up and further back.
“We have always had Kettler's group there in the background,” Scott says. “We were trying to get more rear wing. We started to make a fair amount more progress after the two wet races. We worked with the car dramatically to find more grip. It had a decent amount at a much softer setup.
“By the time we got to Watkins Glen, we ran much softer than we ever had with the car. When Audi came over, with the 52 car and their technicians, and drivers with many miles (Frank Stippler and Marc Basseng), that brought another huge amount of info about the idiosyncrasies of the car that are in common with running in Europe. There were bits here we could never fix.
“They helped us find a lot of these things to choose. There was a great spirit of openness between the groups. It was a gain on many fronts. It was less them walking in and saying, ‘Hey, here's the setup;' it was more, ‘Here's how the car does work better.' We identified the Grand-Am idiosyncrasies, and the things we can work with Grand-Am. With their help, we were better able to define the problems and can more directly address them.”
Generally a qualifier between fifth and tenth – Stippler has the car's best qualifying of second at the Glen – the Audi has at least shown promising pace the day before the race, if it hasn't yet delivered a result. This being the first year of the customer project, Hooks is determined and poised for growth in 2013.
“It's a first-year deal but long-term, with a system where people can run these cars and have the support from them,” Hooks says. “We always have the support truck and a liaison from Audi Sport Customer Racing (Germany) every race. Guys at the Glen came in from Germany and worked as APR guys. The support has been excellent.
“Our plan at this point is two cars full-time next year. Right now it's the only place the car can run. That's exactly what we're shooting for and what our partners at Audi are working for.”
In the greater scope, with anywhere from four to six cars running in Continental alongside, the R8 is just one of many platforms for APR's motorsport division.
“It's one part of the parent company, and the integration of the two is very important,” Hooks says. “The R8 is being used as the proper launch of a GT car in the U.S. We enjoy carrying the banner, waving the flag, and never giving up against the odds.”