Rahal Letterman and BMW: A work in progress
Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the saying goes; nor does success fall into the laps of most new race programs. It’s the very nature of things for start-up race programs to face a steep learning curve, one made all the more challenging by the fact that there are usually some very worthy competitors who have already learned plenty…and who aren’t about to stop learning to enable the new kids on the block to catch up.
Case in point, the GT2 class of the American Le Mans Series, circa 2009. The competition features a couple of manufacturers, teams and at least one tire manufacturer who have become quite accustomed to winning in recent years. Do the names Flying Lizard, Risi Competizione, Porsche, Ferrari and Michelin ring any bells?
They certainly do in Munich, Germany and Hilliard, Ohio – homes of BMW and Rahal Letterman Racing, respectively. Together, they are seeking to upset the order that has held in GT2 during the recent years. But theirs is not the work of a moment. And they know it.
“When you go racing you know where you want to go and what you want to achieve,” says Martin Birkmann, Motorsports Manager of BMW North America. “It’s never a straight line, and you are always balancing what you want to achieve against what you can reasonably expect.”
“Overall we’re pleased with our progress,” says Scott Roembke, Chief Operating Officer at Rahal Letterman Racing. “No doubt about it, we want to win, but at Sebring and even St. Petersburg we were still getting to know the cars. We had some reliability issues at Sebring but those were rectified pretty quickly and I think we had a good comeback after Sebring.”
Indeed, the BMWs’ race debut at the 57th Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring presented by Fresh from Florida showcased the newness of the program, as the Bill Auberlen/Joey Hand entry was delayed at the start and neither car made it to sunset, let alone the finish. While disappointing, it was hardly a shocking development.
“We had two brand-new cars, a new partner (team), a new platform, all fresh out of the box,” Birkmann observes. “There was some talk predicting we would dominate, but that was just not realistic. Our expectation was that we would make it to the checkered flag, but that didn’t happen. It was disappointing but testing is testing, not racing. And Sebring is a grueling race.”
As Roembke noted, BMW and Rahal Letterman rebounded in strong style, finishing second at St. Petersburg and third at Long Beach. Then came Miller Motorsports Park with its endless pit straightaway where the BMWs were expected to struggle. Instead they were surprisingly strong in qualifying, with Dirk Müller/Tommy Milner 1.2 seconds off the pole and Auberlen/Hand a further 0.3sec back. But a first lap fracas effectively put paid to any hopes of a strong finish.
“We’ve had podiums at St. Petersburg and Long Beach,” says Birkmann. “But there is still a performance and lap-time gap. Our car is not as quick as the opposition in a straight line and we knew that going in; competing with a car designed to seat four people we know we can’t have the top speed of the others. It’s our braking and mid-corner performance that will enable us to keep up with the leaders. We’re also doing aero work, although the rules restrict what we can do, we’ve made some progress in that regard.”
Of course, there’s more to a building a successful race program than the hardware. The “software” – i.e. the human element – is critical. The fastest cars in the world won’t win races if the people building, developing, maintaining, tuning and driving them aren’t collectively on at least the same chapter if not the same page. There’s obviously the potential for a clash of cultures when an organization best known for its success in open-wheel racing from Indianapolis to Watkins Glen and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca partners with a manufacturer intent on augmenting its legendary sports/touring car success.
While not discounting the potential pitfalls, Roembke says, in effect, that top-flight racing organizations are top-flight racing organizations, regardless of their heritage.
“I like to think we’re taking something of an open-wheel approach to the preparation and pit stops,” he says. “Our four drivers have a lot of experience in sport cars, with BMW in particular, and they’re working very well together. They all want to win, of course, but they also recognize the benefit from testing different things on each car; that both cars can progress faster that way. With BMW’s experience, veteran drivers and our team’s racing history, I think it’s fair to say we haven’t suffered from our lack of sports car experience.
“In some ways the (American Le Mans Series) schedule is relaxing for our group; there’s been a lot more preparatory time between races so far but, you know, when the green flag falls racing is racing.”
Birkmann too sees the BMW/Rahal Letterman partnership building on the strengths of each partner, rather than the differences.
“It’s a natural fit,” he says. “Their hunger for excellence, their striving to overcome disappointments match those of BMW. It’s a smaller organization than BMW of course, but there are many similarities.
“You know, egos are always a feature of racing; they’re one of the things that make racing so fascinating. The challenge is to focus them in a productive manner, whether it’s the talent behind the wheel, atop the pit box, in the garage or at the computer keyboard. The challenge is to align them - to enable everyone to realize when it’s time to take a small step back, personally, in order to make it better overall. I think we’ve been successful in that regard.”
And when might the Rahal Letterman BMWs be expected to be successful in the regard that counts the most - on the race track. The “Le Mans break” has enabled BMW and Rahal Letterman to take stock of the first third of the season, tweak things that need improvements and come out strong when the racing resumes. A two-day test started Tuesday at Mid-Ohio, and the start of the “second season” at Lime Rock on July 17-18 looms as an important event for a variety of reasons.
“There will be a lot of pressure at Lime Rock,” observes Birkmann. “BMW is a corporate sponsor at Lime Rock Park and the track is close to our US headquarters. Plus it’s a track that should favor our cars. Lots of elevation changes, the straightaway is not particularly long; in some ways the big challenge will be to control our emotions there. As always, we have to balance our aspirations with what is possible.
“But it will be a good gauge of where we stand for the rest of the season,” he added. “I think we’ve closed the gap to our top two rivals but moving from second to first is always the hardest step. Sooner or later we will be on the middle step of the podium, and to win at Lime Rock would be a huge boost to everyone in the program.”
Will BMW Rahal Letterman Racing Team continue to turn the corner at Lime Rock? Stay tuned...