On a very basic level, it feels fantastic to be back in a full-blown factory team. I loved what I was doing before, but working with SRT, aiming to take the Viper GTS-R to Victory Lane, is the kind of opportunity you dream of. I hadn't even been chasing the deal, but when something as significant as this is offered, you have to have a damn good reason not to grab it with both hands. And so I did.
The American Le Mans Series' GT field is well known as one of the toughest in the world, and it's been that way for many years. So it shows SRT's confidence in the Viper that it has been brave enough to put its head in the lion's jaws once more. The car has great potential, and the six drivers for Sebring – Jonathan Bomarito, Kuno Wittmer and myself in car No. 93, and Dominik Farnbacher, Marc Goossens and Ryan Dalziel in No. 91 – all feel a big sense of responsibility to hone it into a race winner.
I probably wouldn't want to count up all the racecars I've driven, but I think my accumulated experience is strong enough to know what is a good car. One of my strengths in my career has been an ability to pinpoint what areas of development can earn the most gains – “fix this and we'll go X amount quicker” kind of thing. It's quite easy to get stuck down a rabbit hole working on something that's not the biggest value in terms of trimming lap speeds. You might make a change to one aspect of the car and, even if you make it 80 percent better, it buys you a couple of hundredths; then you can improve a different aspect of the car by just 10 percent and you carve two tenths from your lap time. So I think that giving the engineers a sense of which direction to push in is something we all have to bring to the table as drivers. You're always limited by resources, be it money, people or time, so the team that makes the most of what they have will be successful.
I think there's definitely more to come from me, too. Actually what I'm doing with myself is very similar to what the team is doing with itself and the car; for different reasons, we're all coming up to speed. I'm about where I thought I'd be; some things have been harder to recapture, some things have been easier than I expected. And as I become more settled in, the better I will become at doing what I just mentioned – identifying the areas of the car that most need honing.
One of the trickier things I've found coming back into competition is the art of letting the prototypes through without losing time to the guy you're racing with in GTs. There's a real art to that, and it's actually changed since I was last in competition. Several years ago, you could be quite prudent, but now the battles are so tight, you can't afford to be too generous. You just have to get the timing right, judge the mindset of the guy behind the wheel of the faster car, and make sure neither of you are putting the other one at risk.
Something I didn't really consider until joining SRT Motorsports is working within a multi-driver framework. In a single-seater or sprint sports car, every lap the car does, every time it turns a wheel, you're in it. Every change that's made is (ideally) tailored to your taste. In endurance racing, it can't be that way, because every change has to suit both the drivers, or three drivers in the case of the longer races. And although on the one hand it's great to have multiple inputs, it can actually make it harder to make progress developing the car. Think about it: the way to conduct a scientific experiment is to change only one variable at a time, but in racing, you don't have the time to do that. So to have two or three drivers' feedback means you have to carefully inch forward.
I'm happy that I'm where I should be fitness-wise, and I'm happy with the car – the Sebring test went well for both man and machine! So going into the 12 Hours, our goal is clearly to go down there and win, but I can't say that winning is an expectation just yet. Come to think of it, if I ever say that, smack me in the head as that would be a bit arrogant, wouldn't it?! But we believe if we execute at a very high level in every aspect, we feel we do have a shot.
I think the way the driver lineups have been arranged is really good, with North America vs. Europe, and I've got to credit Bill Riley with that. He told us last year that he was going to see who worked best together driver-wise and engineering-wise, and the benefit of that partial schedule we did last season was that we didn't lock ourselves into a particular arrangement. The drivers didn't discover until the press release went out who'd be teamed with whom; it really was like a manager picking his lineup. But I like what Bill's done. And I think the teammate/rivalry balance is about right. Last year, there was no rivalry between the two sets of drivers, because what we had to do was so big. But I think now we're getting up to speed, the rivalry is healthy – we want to beat the 91 car, they want to beat us – and as long as we remember the common goal, making the Viper GTS-R a success, it will be a positive force.
I know some people treat the 12 Hours of Sebring as a giant test session for the Le Mans 24 Hours, but I think it's so much more than that. People in the U.S. sometimes don't appreciate just what a big deal Sebring is globally. It's huge, this is its 61st year, and it has traditionally been a melting pot for the cream of American and European talent in terms of both the cars and the drivers. So although it's going to be interesting to see 1) where we stack up in terms of speed and reliability, 2) what we can learn for the ALMS's shorter races as well as the Le Mans 24 Hours, and 3) how many points we can gather for the ALMS championship, let's not underplay how big this event is, in its own right.
So where are we in the competitive order? That's hard to judge right now, after all the SRT team's work in the offseason. We've made some pretty big gains, but we expect everyone else to have done the same, so now we're anxious to find out if we're closer than we were.
I think the Viper's engine is one of its strengths: it has really good power and torque curves which is helpful because it means gearing is not as critical as if it had a smaller, more peaky engine. We're also pleased at how good the Viper's brakes are, as well as its handling in high-speed corners – as we saw at Petit Le Mans last year, we were very good over a qualifying lap, where we lapped only less than half a second off class pole. Where we needed to make gains, at that stage, was in consistency of handling over a full stint, so we hope we've found big improvements over the winter. If we're fast but have a reliability issue, that's less of a concern than if we're at a speed disadvantage but reach the end of the race. To my mind, it's easier to make a car more reliable than it is to make it faster.
We'll have a lot more answers by the end of the week, and I'm quite confident the answers will be encouraging. Hope to see you at Sebring!
You can follow Tommy Kendall on Twitter at @TommyKendall11, team updates at @teamSRT, all SRT street and race news at @driveSRT and Dodge CEO Ralph Gilles at @RalphGilles.
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