Head in the Clouds

I remember tossing a shitty quip out the window, something to the effects of  “So this is what Bill Paxton’s character in Twister felt like” as we laid down elevenses towards Post Road. Hook up the phones, one running Waze, one with FlightRadar24, tracking Flight LH430, a Lufthansa Boeing 747-800, registration D-AVYQ, nicknamed “Shleswig-Holstein” as it passed below 35,000 feet somewhere in the middle of Wisconsin, far away from it’s original route to Chicago.

Storms around O’Hare had already driven three heavies (including a Nippon Cargo 747-8F freighter) to the friendly confines of MSP, and I had arrived at the Spotters’ Park to watch the remaining two take off from the advantageous position alongside Runway 30L. Now we were on the move, tracking the diverted Lufthansa flight towards one of the only spots to watch arrivals from, the Super America on Post Road.

Ever since the merger between Northwest and Delta, the sightings of 747s have become almost as rare as an Antonov visiting our fair shores. And becoming rarer, as Delta retires their remaining fleet of 747-400s from their Asian routes in favor of their recently purchased Airbus A350-900s. The last one we got was N666US, a former Northwest bird that came in for service at Delta TechOps here at MSP. The most I had ever seen of a 74 was through a window of either a Sun Country 737-800 or the window of the Orlando airport’s concourse.

Since my interest in photography took a more serious turn, I had wanted to capture any kind of 747 in flight, as the 40+ year old design is sadly being phased out of commercial service in favor of more efficient and modern aircraft.

But I digress. The convoy rolled on, allegedly pushing the 30 miles-per-hour speed limit imposed on Cargo Road, hit Highway 5, and booked it. I constantly cursed the fact that my BaoFeng radio, while perfect for a corner worker, could not scan the air band to listen in on the tower’s communications. We roll four or five deep, we didn’t even know of each other’s existence before about 30 minutes ago, but we’re fast friends at this point, united by our love of aviation, photography and the desire to witness history.

Shit, shit shit shit shit shit. Super America is aware of their prime location, and has limited their parking spaces to 15 minutes or less. This ain’t gonna fly. Jump out of the van. I’ll catch up with the family later (yes, somehow I dragged my mother and middle sister along with me). Now is the time for decisive action! Forgot my stepstool in the car. Got no time to worry about that, got no fences to get over. I’ll be fine for now. Post up. What do we got? A sweet 777-200ER (Extended Range) on the Haneda-MSP route.

Come on, come on, come on, come on. The 747 just crossed the Mississippi, it’s getting closer and closer, lining up for a landing on 30L. Next up, an Airbus A319 (yawn) arrives from Austin, Texas. A very nice 757-200 lands from San Francisco afterwards. Sun Country’sLake Virginia” comes in hot on the heels of N514US.

I remember shouting “It just passed Inver Grove. Where the hell is it?!”.

Then I glanced up. Jesus effing Christ. It descended from on high like, I don’t know, a giant aluminum manta ray or something . This fucking ENORMOUS shape sank across the Mississippi River valley towards the runway. I could hardly pick my jaw up off the floor long enough to set my camera.

This sucker was MASSIVE. Over 500 tons of metal filled the viewfinder on my camera almost immediately, even at the shortest length. Shit, gotta run. Gotta get back as far as I can. Can’t lose this chance. Ran across the SA’s access road. Wheeled around and fired. Boom. There it is.

IMG_7615aAll kneel for the Queen of the Skies. Oh man, this is perfect.

She roars past, soon disappearing behind the sound deflectors. Alighting upon the tarmac with a screech of tires and a blast of acrid white smoke.

Sadly there is no time to rest on our laurels. As one 748 parks itself at the 30L hardstand, another one has pulled into the departure queue for that same runway! Easily dwarfing the various Mad Dogs, 737s, and assorted regional jets surrounding it, the Nippon Cargo aircraft that was parked over by the Humphrey Terminal is now minutes from leaving.

Load up, peel out, Canonball the seven minutes between the SA and the park. Get back, set up, double check that the lens cap is off. ALWAYS DOUBLE CHECK

And not a moment too soon, because out of the haze comes four engines and a big hump, hauling ass. HAULING ASS.


Wheels up, and off again, once more into the blue.

Soon she is only a distant dot in the sky, leaving behind only the memories in the minds of those fortunate enough to see her on her all-too brief stay. They say “never meet your heroes”… well, I guess it isn’t always true.







An Incident at Six


You can’t make this shit up. Seriously.

I’ve been working corners for three years now, and I’ll be the first one to tell you that I’m not the greatest when it comes to working comms. I’m leagues better than I was when I walked on with a weekend membership at Brainerd two years ago, but I’m still not comfortable with the position.

This weekend was my second weekend at Blackhawk Farms and my second day at Turn 6, a tricky double right complex that can turn from famine to feast with one spin or one adventure over the massive Gator Teeth on the exit of the first right hand bend.


So when this  #3 White (a 1966 Yenko Stinger) pulled off on driver’s right past my station, I thought it would be just a normal, routine call. Turn 2 was calling in to report a spin or something at their position, and as we run on FM with a repeater, I didn’t want to step on their transmission and garble it all to high heaven, ruining both our times and annoying everyone on the net. It happens, so I held my tongue and waited for 2 to finish their report.

And while Turn 2 is making their call, the driver of #3 White has decided to get OUT of the car and start messing around in the engine compartment, which of course is in the REAR on a Corvair, meaning his back is to oncoming traffic, and starts to faff about inside. We sent a worker down to the incident to try and get us some info.

By this time Turn 2 had finished calling in their incident, and I hopped on the net, and the call went something like this.
“Control-Six, waving yellow.”

-“Go ahead 6.”

“Car #3 White has stopped off track driver’s right past our station, driver is currently out of the car and messing around in the engine compartment.”

-“Copy. Car #3 White is stopped off track driver’s right past your station. Driver is out and digging around in the engine bay. Will you be needing safety?”

Here I take a quick look at the worker we have down at the car, checking for any hand signals.

I saw none.


So they dispatch a safety truck from the back door at Turn 5.

As I’m making the call, the driver has closed the engine cover and climbed back into his car.

This is where things take another turn. The Stinger is racing in Group 6, which is for cars like GT-1 Corvettes and other crazy , machines that are much, MUCH louder than the little flat-six in our Corvair friend. So I have NO idea if he’s fired up again or not. I still haven’t seen any hand signals from the guy we sent down there to check out the situation, neither has the Captain, so I’m flying blind and deaf at this point.

Now the punch line for this whole story hits.

As soon as the safety truck starts pulling up to tow the stricken car, #3 White fires up, gets set into gear, and pulls away.

Well, shit. Shit shit shit shit shit.

Now there’s this MASSIVE Silverado loaded to the gills with safety equipment (and workers) stuck behind a rather slowly proceeding Yenko Stinger, being passed by cars with a speed differential of probably 20 or 25 miles per hour.

Bro, do you even white flag?

The incident over. I did a quick debrief with both the Corner Captain and the other worker we had down at the incident. There I learned what had actually happened to the car.

Anyone want to take a guess?



The correct answer is (drum roll please)…. the fan belt! Yep, a Corvair in a racing suit is still just a Corvair.



Breaking news!!

I have some fantastic news! I have been asked by http://nasportscar.com/ to be their WEC writer. A post that I have accepted as of 4/21/2014. So all of my WEC content from here on will be found there. But you will still find TUSC, Pirelli World Challenge and all of the various and sundry GT3 championships being discussed here.

I just want to take this moment and thank all of you who read this blog. Without you, this small thing that I started to just nerd-out on sports car racing out never have launched me to the heights that this Aerospace Engineering student never would’ve imagined he’d reach.

Here’s to the next year of fantastic racing action!

WEC Preview Part 4


Let’s get down to brass tacks.

There has been an interesting development in GTE-Am recently. The FIA has recently approved both the 2012 and 2013 spec Aston-Martins for the class, and because the team hasn’t made any modifications to the car over the winter means that the GTE-Am car will be racing in the same specification as the cars racing in GTE-Pro. This is significant because a car has to run in at least a one year old specification to be permitted to race in Am, and this is the first time this complication has ever come up in the four year history of the class since the cars have always been improved year on year. Aston-Martin Racing team Principal John Gaw has said that they will race the 2013 spec V8 Vantages, so we will have to wait and see how this plays out over the season.

Moving on to the teams. RAM Racing has entered a second Ferrari 458 GTE for Johnny Mowlem, Mark Patterson and Ben Collins (yes, THE Ben Collins). You can pretty much disregard Collins’ Silver ranking; The Artist Formerly Known as The Stig is a proper racing driver, Mowlem carries years of experience in all sorts of cars (as well as winning the ELMS GTE championship last year), and Patterson finished second in last year’s British GT championship with a win at Donington Park and a best finish of 4th overall at Daytona in 2011 with Michael Shank Racing. So we have two very good drivers and a gentlemen who’s a safe pair of hands, but no the fastest amateur out there. At first glance the lineup in the #53 appears to be very solid, and to a high degree it is, but their amateur driver just doesn’t have the speed when compared to the other drivers of his rank.

AF Corse didn’t have anything of a dream 2013 in the GTE-Am category, having not won a single race and finishing second to last in the championship. To settle their unfinished business they have again entered two cars into the class with the #61 featuring the driving talents of former WRC driver Luis Perez-Companc (stepping down from the LMP2 car he raced last year), Marco Cioci and Mirko Venturi, and in the #81 we have Stephen Wyatt, Michele Rugolo, and Sam Bird. Perez-Companc is another driver who is graded below his level of talent. As a former works-blessed Ford WRC driver, he possesses no small level of talent, I remember him at Spa in 2012; coming from a lap down to take the LMP2 victory in only the team’s second race with their Oreca 03, and in first year that Michelin ever made tires for LMP2. The #81 has the flashy name with Mr. Bird, but the talent really isn’t as deep as it is on the sister car.

Vicente (Enzo) Potolicchio has won a championship in every year of the World Endurance Championship so far; in 2012 he won the LMP2 title (as well as a Le Mans and Sebring class wins) with Starworks Motorsport, then capturing the GTE-Am teams’ championship with his own 8Star team a year later. Last year he seemed to have a revolving door of third drivers, only Enzo and Rui Águas drove the whole season. Águas is gone for 2014, and Enzo is joined by Gianluca Roda and his usual driving partner Paolo Ruberti. Enzo is another “Sportsman” driver in the mold of DHH and Nick Leventis of Strakka. But what really interests me is that he went for another bronze driver (Gianluca Roda) while most of the competition features a bronze and a silver along with their professional. As we know from last year, the 2013 Ferrari 458 is a very potent machine, but like last year, it may be down on overall pace to the Vantage.  The Belgian Prospeed Competition squad is a real unknown this year. They’re the only team that has entered a 997 model Porsche 911 GT3 RSR for 2014 with François Perrodo, Emmanuel Collard and Matthieu Vaxivière driving the #75. The most recent 997 RSR (2012 and 2013) is a very hard car to setup, but when its setup well it’s very fast, but it’s quite frankly an awful car to drive when it’s not. That kind of hot and cold performance will play havoc with a team of professional drivers, so imagine what it will be like with two amateurs and one pro. The widebody means that the GT3 is draggy and slower on the straights, but it also makes the car more aggressive in the corners. And as a whole, the driving lineup is above average, but nothing special.

Proton Competition are special in that they are the only team in the world to receive a 2013-spec Porsche 991 RSR for any GTE championship. To that end they have called upon Christian Ried, Klaus Bachler and Khaled Al Qubaisi to drive the #88 entry. This is an incredibly interesting team, we have never seen this car in private hands before, and it didn’t prove to be the most robust of racing cars while it was under the factory’s wings. The car doesn’t have the highest top speed which was shown at the Prologue when it set the second slowest GTE top speed of the test at 268.7kph. Porsche won Le Mans last year through a combination of the insanity of the race itself, and the fact that they had been given a rather favorable BoP break. With a year under this car’s belt, a team as professional as Proton and what has to be said is a quite delicious driver lineup, they very well could be in the championship hunt at the end of the season.

After coming up four points short in the GTE-Am team’s championship but winning the drivers’ with Stuart Hall and Jamie Campbell-Walter, Aston Martin Racing hopes to go one better than last year and capture both. For their hunt this year AMR has enlisted Kristian Poulsen, David Heinemeir Hansson (formerly of Conquest Endurance in 2012 and OAK Racing in 2013), and Nicki Thiim in the all Danish #95, and Paul Dalla-Lana (rightly leaving IMSA and coming to play with the big boys), Pedro Lamy and Christoffer Nygaard in the #98. As explained earlier, the team is racing the same specification of car in both GTE-Pro and GTE-Am, which means that there is a mountain of data gathered last year as well as new data that’s been collected this year as well. The #95 set the slowest GTE top speed of the Prologue at 268.0kph, and had a fastest lap of 1:59.475; only good enough for second to last in the GTE-Am field… which was only fast enough for second to last on Friday afternoon. In fact, the car didn’t run on Friday night or Saturday afternoon. Again demonstrating the problems that the V8 Vantage seemed to suffer that weekend, but I expect them to be back on the pace by this weekend. As for the drivers, the #95 is the stronger of the two, Thiim (the 2013 Porsche Supercup champion) joined the team last year after the tragic death of this countryman Allan Simonsen, and made a great first impression when the team won the Am class at the final round in Bahrain. The newcomer to the Danish car, DHH is another one of those “Sportsman” drivers- he may be a gentlemen and bringing money, but he’s blooming quick, and Poulsen is a safe pair of hands that has some pace there as well. The #98 carries a very good driver in Lamy, but while Dalla-Lana is a solid driver- he isn’t as good as the other bronze and silver drivers on the team, additionally this is his first full year in a GTE car, as well as being his first year in a car that isn’t a Turner BMW Grand-Am GT car in a very long time.


Now for the season predictions. For the driver’s championship: #95 Aston-Martin as the champion (#WinItForAllan), the #61 AF Corse Ferrari (Scandinavian Flick not required) in 2nd and the #53 RAM Racing Ferrari (Some say… that he’s required by the FIA to have a 50mm air restrictor) in 3rd. And for the team’s championship I’m going for Aston Martin Racing in 1st, AF Corse in 2nd, and then RAM Racing in 3rd.

So there you have it, my 2014 FIA World Endurance Championship preview. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to rest up for this weekend.

WEC Preview Part 3


The big three have returned for another year of GT racing madness! The manufacturers have again brought out their big guns to fight for honor, glory, bragging rights and trophies.

Last year’s teams, drivers, and manufacturers championships winner AF Corse returns to defend their crowns. World GT Drivers champion Gianmaria Bruni remains in the #51 car but this year is partnered for the full season by Toni Vilander instead of Giancarlo Fisichella as he was last in 2013. In the #71 car we find GTE and sports car newcomer James Calado-who finished third in GP2 last year with two wins and seven podiums driving with Davide Rigon who has been rewarded for his efforts with 8Star last year with a factory GTE-Pro drive.

The 2013 European Le Mans Series GTE champions RAM Racing have stepped up to the world arena with a two car WEC program (one GTE-Pro and one GTE-Am). The team has retained the services of Thrapston’s finest sports car driver Matt Griffin and have called upon Alvaro Parente to crew the #52 Ferrari 458 GTE. Although relative newcomers to the sport, RAM have proven themselves to be an extremely capable team as good as any, beating among others AF Corse in the ELMS last year.

As for the actual car, the 458 Italia has so far proven to be a very slippery thing indeed; winning last year at Spa and setting the fastest GTE trap speed of the Prologue at 272.7kph, 1.3kph faster than the next fastest marque (being Porsche). And the wins at Interlagos and Bahrain in 2013 show a car that is extremely adaptable as well, but was down on the time sheets in Sector 3 where the car requires downforce to make the most of the fast sweepers. The small high revving V8 not only provides auditory delight but will deliver its torque higher up in the rev range which will prove to be a benefit against the big V8 powered Aston-Martins and the flat-six Porsches.

The English Bulldogs enter the 2014 season with a bit of a sour taste in their mouth. After their TUSC GTLM effort was aborted due to a quite frankly draconian BoP levied on them by IMSA, Aston Martin Racing have returned to the WEC with a vengeance to erase the memories of Daytona, and to claim their first GT championship in years. To that end, the Banbury based marque has again brought two Gulf liveried beauties to the table, with the usual pairing of Darren Turner and Stefan Mücke in the #97. The #99 features an entirely new lineup for 2014, featuring the driving talents of Fernando Rees, Darryl O’Young (strangely not in a Porsche or a SEAT) and Alex MacDowall. It’s interesting to note that much like AF Corse and RAM, the #97 only has two named drivers for the full season, which means that with SRT’s withdrawal from Le Mans, Rob Bell is available to drive the car, and there wouldn’t be any problem because they aren’t competing against each other in the US.

The V8 Vantage GTE enters this year unchanged from 2013 where it recorded victories at Silverstone, Austin, Fuji and Shanghai. Examining its past form, it’s clear that the V8 Vantage excels at circuits that are predominantly made up of medium and high speed corners, which might explain the car’s performance at Paul Ricard. It was INCREDIBLY underwhelming at the test, setting the 5th fastest GTE trap speed at 271.4kph and setting the 9th fastest GTE time of the Prologue- a 1:59.076. Prodrive must have been having some serious problems with the cars because that is the only explanation I can think of as to why they were so off the pace. Do I think AMR will continue with this form? No, I think that they will be right back where they were last year in terms of speed by this weekend in Silverstone.

Porsche may have an LMP1 car, but that won’t stop them from taking on the world in GT as well, and if the new 991 RSR is as fast in the WEC as it has been in the US, then there’s really nothing anyone can do to stop the Stuttgart Juggernaut from steamrolling the competition. What you are looking at here is six of the best GT drivers in the world, in quite possibly the best GT car out there. As for the drivers; Patrick Pilet, Jörg Bergmeister and Nick Tandy are in the #91, and Marco Holzer, Frèdèric Makowiecki (who shall be known henceforth as Fred Mako) and Richard Leitz in the #92.

Curiously, the car is still called a “991 RSR” despite the GT3 road car being out for almost a year now, meaning that Porsche is still homologating their car off of the Carrera 4 body shape (same as the GT3). Regardless of confusing FIA homologation requirements, the car is a bullet, setting the fastest GTE time of the Prologue, that time being a 1:58.041. While not having the highest top speed on the Mistral Straight, the car made up the time in the corners- setting fastest Sector 3 times in the Friday morning, afternoon and Saturday morning sessions as well as the fastest Sector 1 times on Friday morning and afternoon. As if that wasn’t enough for Olaf Manthey, the team went out and recorded the fastest Sector 2 time on Saturday Morning as well. Unlike 2013, their car seems to be incredibly well sorted, the team isn’t sandbagging, and with a year under their belt Team Manthey is even more of a well-oiled machine than before.

My season predictions are: Porsche for the manufacturers’ championship, and in the drivers’ championship I’m going for Marco Holzer, Fred Mako and Richard Lietz as champions, Darren Turner and Stefan Mücke in 2nd, and Gianmaria Bruni and Toni Vilander in 3nd.

That’s it for Part 3, the fourth and final part will cover GTE-Am, which has recently seen some interesting developments.

WEC Preview Part 2


The FIA World Endurance Championship LMP2 preview is brought to you by the Nissan VK45DE engine.

This is the first year in a very long time that the number of LMP1 cars on the ILMC/WEC grid has exceeded the number of LMP2 cars, but that’s not to say that interest in LMP2 is dying. Oh no, not at all. This year we will see new cars from Dome and Oak (Ligier), and HPD has promised that the HPD ARX-04b will be running next year. The racing is always close, the competition is fantastic and never really lets up. There are no “bad” cars, drivers or teams in the class, and that’s what makes it so damn good. So in that spirit, let’s take a turbocharged look at LMP2!

After their brief sojourn in LMP1, Strakka Racing has stepped back to LMP2 with a brand new car from the Japanese constructor Dome. The new S103 is powered by the ubiquitous Nissan VK45DE V8 engine, is running on Michelin tires and will feature the driving talents of Danny Watts, Jonny Kane and Nick Leventis in the #21. The only things we know is that the Dome has been shaken down and tested in private, and that Strakka will be missing the first two races of the season at Silverstone and Spa to focus on private testing and rectifying the problems they found at a private test at Paul Ricard. The team has released side shots of the car, but nothing from the front, which leads me to believe that their front aerodynamic configuration is still being sorted out. This will definitively be a development year for the team and the car before they really contend for the championship in 2015.

Millennium Racing has entered two Nissan powered Oreca 03 chassis on Dunlop rubber for Fabien Giroix, Oliver Turvey and John Martin in the #22, and in the #23 we have Stefan Johansson, 2014 Long Beach Grand Prix winner Mike Conway and Japan’s Shinji Nakano. Although rather long in the tooth, the Orecas were exchanging best sector times and fastest laps with the Morgans at the Prologue, and eventually set the fastest LMP2 time of the test with Nakano laying down a time of 1:48.970. The 03 certainly isn’t in its first flush of youth, but that means the car is also extremely reliable and well developed; meaning that when and if Oak show up with their Ligier, Millennium might have the advantage while Oak sort out their new car in race conditions. Millennium Racing aka The Artist Formerly Known as Delta-ADR certainly has the expertise to bring home their cars in first, so there’s no problems there. Both cars are championship contenders without a doubt.

The Russians are coming!! G-Drive racing have switched from their usual Oreca 03 to a Morgan chassis for 2014. Packing a Nissan VK45DE and wearing Dunlop boots, the #26 driven by Roman Rusinov, Olivier Pla, and Julien Canal, this car is a rocket! It set the second fastest LMP2 lap time-a 1:49.084. Rusinov is a gentlemen driver, but he’s good enough that he is ranked as a Gold driver by the FIA, that’s incredibly impressive for somebody whose company provides the title sponsorship of the team itself. Julien Canal serves as the Silver driver required by the FIA for LMP2 cars, and Olivier Pla is an exceptional driver and an excellent choice for the car.

Following up on the Russian G-Drive team, we come upon the VERY Russian SMP Racing, who are suffering many problems due to sanctions imposed by the EU and US because of the events in the Ukraine (more information can be found here: http://sportscar365.com/lemans/wec/smp-racing-faces-uncertain-future-due-to-government-sanctions/). Suffices to say that if not resolved this could prove to be the undoing of the team. As it stands now they are still going to take part in the WEC, and to that end they have enlisted two Oreca 03 chassis powered by Nissan with Michelin tires. They have entered the #27 with Serguey Zlobin, Nicolas Minassian and Maurizio Mediani, and the #37 for Kirill Ladygin, Viktor Shaitar and Anton Ladygin. This is a big step up for SMP, who only entered mainstream competition last year with a GTC program in the European Le Mans Series as well as selected Blancpain Endurance Series events, but even with that limited history they’ve proven to be a very professional team, even if they received help from AF Corse. As for their driving lineups, the #27 is clearly the stronger; Zlobin (although nowhere near good enough) was once close to an F1 drive, Minassian is a former Peugeot driver and superb in his own right, and Mediani is no slouch. This might very well be a growing year for the team, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they won’t be able to get the odd podium or win.

Now we come to the the Hong Kong based KCMG team. They’ve exchanged their Morgan for an Oreca 03 for 2014, running with a Nissan engine and using Dunlop tires. This will be the team’s first full season WEC effort, and for it they have enlisted the driving talents of Matthew Howson, Richard Bradley (KCMG Formula Nippon and Asian Le Mans Series driver), and Tsugio Matsuda (2007 and 2008 Formula Nippon champion). The car set the 4th fastest LMP2 time of the test- a 1:49.722. It’s an interesting lineup; Howson is the Silver driver, yet he is the team’s driver coach and set best LMP2 times in Sector 2 and 3 in the Saturday afternoon session. I’m convinced of their speed, but I don’t think the team has the consistency and reliability to stay at the front of the field in the six hour races that make up the WEC, not to mention Le Mans. In essence this is another team for which 2014 will be a growth year before they truly establish themselves in 2015.

Conspicuous by their absence are last year’s champions; Oak Racing. They are set to be at Le Mans with two brand new Ligier JSP2s, one with a Nissan engine entered by Oak Racing, and one with an HPD engine that is set to be entered by Oak Racing Team Asia. However, Oak Racing has not entered the WEC this year, which is a huge loss in this writer’s opinion. I do expect their return in 2015.

My picks for the top three in the championship are:  #36 G-Drive Racing Morgan in 1st, the #23 Millennium Racing Oreca in in 2nd and the #22 Millennium Racing Oreca 03 in 3rd

That’s all for LMP2, part three will cover the professional street fighters in the street cars; the GTE-Pro category.

Breaking news as of 4/15/2014: Millennium Racing to miss Silverstone WEC round- http://www.dailysportscar.com/?p=27461

WEC Preview Part 1



Here we go everybody, the big one we’ve been waiting for the entire winter. We watched the launches, the livery reveals, and the Prologue at Paul Ricard. It’s now time to get down to business in the 2014 FIA World Endurance Championship.

For 2014 there has been a wholesale shift in regulations with the emphasis now being placed on efficiency. So air restrictors and maximum cylinder numbers have been done away with in LMP1 and in their place we have massive hybrid systems and a new fuel flow formula. The cars have been made narrower and have smaller wheels to increase the field of vision for the drivers, and the minimum weight for the LMP1-H cars (hybrid) has been changed from 900kg to 870kg. That as well as a radical change in the regulations concerning the front of the car that have allowed for the nose of the car to be separated from the front splitter, effectively creating a front wing. The fuel flow combined with how long the drivers can make the electric energy last between recovery zones will determine how much of the car’s combined power will be available for the lap, and thus also determine the ultimate pace of the car.

These new rules have given birth to a battle of truly epic scale. Will the Old Master Porsche return and show his younger brother Audi and the upstart Toyota that he is still number one. Will Toyota become the second Japanese manufacturer to win Le Mans and finally cross off that world championship that TMG has hunted for all these years? Or will Audi continue in the form they’ve maintained since 2000? How will the non-hybrid Rebellion R-One fare against the might of the manufacturer teams? The answers lie ahead.

Audi enters the season as the perennial favorite (no surprises there), with a brand new car freed from the 4WD speed limit, a 2 megajoule flywheel hybrid system (the smallest allowed) with only one Motor Generator Unit (MGU), on the front axle, and a change from a 3.7 to a 4.0 liter V6 turbodiesel engine. The engine change and the (relatively) small hybrid system really confused me; why would they go to a bigger engine when the new regulations seem to be forcing smaller engines and bigger hybrid powertrains? I’ve come up with a few reasons reasons why: one- a bigger engine means that it doesn’t have to rev as high to make the same power thus improving efficiency, two- that they intend to rely on their engine more than they rely on the hybrid system-which is indicated by their choice of the 2MJ system, and three- that Audi has gone the conservative approach because reliability is always one of the most important of Audi’s priorities. For which they seem to have been punished in the most recent Equivalence of Technology table; with their fuel tank size shrinking from 54.8 to 54.3 liters and their fuel allocation shrinking from 140.2 to 138.7MJ. But Joest Racing’s hustle is tight, and I trust that they’ll use what they have been given to their advantage.

In testing the 2014 Audi R18 has proven to have an interesting performance envelope. It set the fastest Sector 3 time at Paul Ricard (Signes to Start-Finish) being a 44.400 seconds, and having the fastest session time in that sector in four of the five sessions, but they were never higher than fourth through Sector 2 (Mistral Straight) and they set the fifth fastest trap speed at 302.5kph, which is 37.1kph slower than the fastest car- the #14 Porsche. That and being consistently in the top three of Sector 1 (Start-Finish to L’ecole) times throughout the sessions can means that Audi simply didn’t bring a low downforce configuration (and they’re saving it to run on the #3 car at Spa) and that current aero package was developed with downforce in mind rather than minimizing drag and maximizing efficiency.

As for their drivers, Audi once again returns with their team of all-stars. Allan McNish’s retirement left a huge void not only in Audi’s lineup but in sports car racing as a whole, but Audi has named Lucas di Grassi as his replacement in the #1 car with last year’s Le Mans and WEC champions Loïc Duval and the King of Denmark himself, Tom Kristensen. And in the #2 are the 2011 and 2012 Le Mans winners, as well as 2012 WEC champions Marcel Fässler, Andrè Lotterer and Benoit Trèluyer. Both lineups are stacked, but it will be interesting to see how well Lotterer and Duval handle the double duty of a full WEC season AND a full season of Super Formula (Formula Nippon) over in Japan while they develop new cars in both series. With the restrictions placed on the car, the driver that is smoothest behind the wheel while being able to push and make up time will come out ahead in the long run.

There has been a lot of hype surrounding the Toyota TS040, with the 1,000 horsepower figure causing the first mention of the WEC on the Yahoo homepage in recent memory. This year Toyota has gone for a 3.7 liter V8 and a 6MJ supercapacitor system with an MGU installed on each axle. The 3.7 liter engine has undergone quite a change from last year’s; TMG has optimized this engine for maximum efficiency whereas before they were they were purely seeking power. It’s safe to say that the FIA has certainly helped them by increasing their fuel cell size from 66.9 to 68.3 liters and increasing their fuel allowance from 137.5 to 139.5MJ per lap of Le Mans. That allowance might give them some wiggle room, almost like finding you’ll have 60 liters of fuel left in the fuel bowser for the final hour Le Mans back in the Group C era.

While the TS040 does carry over some concepts from its predecessor, it is very much a new car. But the version tested at Paul Ricard performed a lot like the TS030 did back in 2012 and 2013. The car was consistently fast in Sector 3, while much like Audi being down on the Porsche in Sectors 1 and 2. So it’s quite clear that TMG arrived with and proceeded to test with an aero package that was more suited to high downforce circuits like Silverstone. Extrapolating that data we can assume that a low downforce package is coming for Spa or the Test Day at the latest.

TMG has retained the same driver pairings as last year, with Alexander Wurz, Stèphane Sarrazin and Kazuki Nakajima in the #7 car, and Anthony Davidson is partnered by Sèbastien Buemi and Nicolas Lapierre in the #8. No real dark spots anywhere but Nakajima is racing in SuperGT and Super Formula in Japan as well as in the WEC, once again we’ll have to wait and see how the pressures of testing and developing three completely new cars effects his driving. Both lineups have a nice balance of aggression, but this is their first year driving a 4WD car, and they will have to adapt not only to that, but to the different characteristics of the new energy recovery systems that are mounted on both axles and not like it was previously where it was only mounted on the rear.

It’s been Mission 2014 for Porsche ever since they informed us of their return way back when. Their concept is radical, but Porsche doesn’t show up just to test and collect data for the following year, they come to win from day one. The 919 Hybrid fills out the trio of electric energy storage systems with a 6MJ (but capable of 8MJ) battery hybrid system, with an MGU on the front axle and an F1-style MGU-H attached to the turbocharger on the very unusual 2 liter V4 turbo engine. Clearly Porsche has placed the emphasis on maximum efficiency rather than outright power.

This emphasis on efficiency is evident in the design of the car, it set the fastest Sector 1 and Sector 2 time as well as the fastest trap speed of the Prologue- a time of 30.384 and 25.183 seconds respectively in the two sectors that requires low downforce and low drag, and they were consistently the behind the Audis and Toyotas in Sector 3 where a high downforce configuration is necessary to set good times through the fast corners. That didn’t stop them from setting the fastest time of the test- a 1:41.289. Porsche ain’t playin’ folks, they will be coming out with at least two new aero packages: one for Le Mans and one for the rest of the season post-Le Mans, and one possibly for the first two races of the year.

Porsche possessed the worst kept secret in racing, that being a contract with a certain Mr. Webber, who has enjoyed his time so far with the team. He is joined in the #20 by the equally Antipodean Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard. In the #16 we have Romain Dumas, Neel Jani and Marc Lieb. When I first looked at the driver pairings, I was shocked to see that the Dumas-Bernhard team was broken up when they’ve been together since the RS Spyder days, but it makes sense when you look at it in terms of the overall performance of the team. Porsche has put one of its two most experienced drivers in each car to help mentor the two drivers who don’t have the sports car experience that they have. Mark is the only driver that’s driven a KERS equipped car, Timo and Romain were both kept in an R18 Ultra when they were at Audi, Jani was at Rebellion, Hartley has been driving an LMP2 and a DP car, and Lieb has been one of Porsche’s factory GT drivers for a while now. It’s been a long time since Marc Lieb’s driven a downforce car (opposed to a GT car that predominantly uses mechanical grip), so I would have to say the #20 is the stronger of the two lineups.

We now come to the real quandary of the LMP1 field, Rebellion Racing has yet to run their new car- the Oreca designed and built R-One; built to LMP1-L regulations, which are for privateer, non-hybrid cars. The team has in fact decided to run their old Lola B12/60s at Silverstone, and there are doubts over whether the car will race at Spa as well. All we know is that Nick Heidfeld, Nicolas Prost and Mathias Beche will drive the #12, and Fabio Leimer, Andrea Belicchi and Dominik Kraihamer will race the #13.

Season predictions: Toyota wins the Manufacturers’ championship, but the #2 Audi wins the Driver’s title. I think Audi will have the edge on the faster tracks like Silverstone and Spa, but lose out on the slower circuits like Bahrain.

That’s all for LMP1, Part 2 will cover the less advanced but no less exciting LMP2 class.


Blancpain Endurance Series Preview Part 2

In the interest of time, let’s jump right into the Pro-Am Cup.

As with many Pro-Am divisions, the races will often come down to the amateur (sportsman) driver. It may seem obvious, but a team with a faster amateur driver means that he will not only be able to try and maintain the car’s position in the field, but also improve it as well. Additionally the amateur driver needs to be reliable enough to put down consistently decent lap times without stuffing it in the wall. I hope that made sense because it’s time to look at the teams, cars and drivers.

It’s easier to look at the Pro-Am class by going manufacturer by manufacturer starting with Aston-Martin.

The British marque has a singleton entry into the Pro-Am Cup, with MP Motorsports AMR running a V12 Vantage GT3 for their usual pairing of Richard Abra and Mark Poole, who are joined again this year by Joe Osborne. This team finished second in the Pro-Am class at the Silverstone round in 2013, which was the only round of the championship the team entered last year. Much like the stock market, past performance is no guarantee of future success, and that’s the problem I have with this team. Yes they scored a second place, so they can score good results against this kind of opposition but since the team only has one outing in the series, their consistency remains in doubt,

Audi. Only one team has signed on to race an R8 LMS Ultra, that team being Brother Racing Team, a Chinese outfit new to the championship. They have enlisted the driving talents of Congfu Cheng (Frankie Cheng) leaving after his three race sojourn with Rebellion Racing, Sun Zheng and a yet unnamed third driver. Frankie Cheng does bring some sponsorship dollars, but he has done a lot of racing, the highlight being his third place finish in LMP2 at Le Mans in 2008. He’s one of those drivers that have jumped from seat to seat without a great deal of success in any of them. Sun Zheng is completely unknown to me, having only raced in the Formula Masters China series, with 11th in 2011 being his best final placement in the championship standings. The R8 LMS Ultra is a very competent package, but I’m afraid the team is just too mediocre to unlock all of the car’s potential. I would put Brother Racing Team closer to the tail end of the Pro-Am Cup field.

There must be some really funny people on the grid because four Clown Shoes have been entered in the category. Yes the BMW Z4 GT3 has become a popular car for the discerning GT team. Look for the BMW to shine through the corners where it can use its massive downforce to its advantage. On the other hand, the drag associated with all of that downforce will prove to be a bit of a hindrance on the long straights. As for the teams-TDS Racing has stepped up to a two car team for this season with Eric Clement, Benjamin Laniche and Nicolas Armindo in the #10, and Henry Hassid being partnered by Nick Catsburg in the #12. ROAL Motorsport has entered Michela Cerruti, Stefano Comandini and Eugenio Amos in the #43. And finally Ecurie Ecosse is running the #79 for Oliver Bryant, Andrew Smith and Alasdair McCaig. I have to say that Ecurie Ecosse looks very strong even though it’s only their third year back in full time motorsport, and their first year in Blancpain. They’ve proven that they can run up front and win in one of-if not the most competitive British GT grids in recent memory. But I also really like the lineup in the #10, and TDS Racing has a lot of experience with endurance racing gained through competition in various ACO races and series. Expect to see all four of these teams towards the pointy end of the Pro-Am category, but look out for those two cars to be in with a shout of the class championship.

We now move from the blue roundel to the black prancing horse. By far the most numerous manufacturer in the Pro-Am category with six cars, the Ferrari 458 Italia has proven to be a very fast machine in both GT3 and GTE guises, being extremely adaptable cars that can win at such varied circuits as Le Mans, Monza and Road Atlanta. Out of the teams running the Fezza, I like the #333 GT Corse by Rinaldi car, the 458 of Scuderia Villorba Corse and the #50 AF Corse machine. Honestly it isn’t a proper GT race unless AF Corse is somehow involved with at least one car. You have to count AF Corse in for the title hunt just based on the sheer clout of engineering and strategy might that they bring to the table (being Ferrari’s “works” GT team). GT Corse by Rinaldi carries hotshoe Marco Seefried along with two Russians who strangely haven’t driven any SMP Racing car. But what SMP has shown us is that there are many sponsorship or money carrying Russians who can wheel a car at considerable pace. While Villoba Corse won the hotly contested Internationa GT Open driver’s championship last year, winning five of the 16 races against such teams as AF Corse, MTech and Kessel Racing. All the Ferrari teams have the potential for a top ten in the championship, but on paper these three appear to be a cut above the rest.

Jaguar? BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!! Emil Frey Racing needs a priest on retainer praying for divine intervention if they want to have any hope of getting a decent result.

The lone Lamborghini entered by AF Racing International only has Thor Christian Ebbesvik named as driver. The car won’t be present at Monza for the first race AND is entered on a round by round basis. That mean they won’t be able to find enough drivers and/or money in time for the first round, and that their prospects of finding either of them for the rest of the season aren’t looking too good. Realistically, their prospects of any degree of success at this point in time are slim to none.

Boutsen Ginion has the only McLaren MP4-12c GT3 entered in the Pro-Am category for Phil Quaife, Alex Demirdjian and Shahan Sarkissan. Just as a team, Boutsen has a huge amount of experience running both GT cars and prototypes, so they clearly have the engineering capabilities, but their driving lineup can be best described as “slightly above average”. Shahan Sarkissan raced in the Formula Renault UK championship for the last two years and finished in the top ten , Quaife is more or less a McLaren factory GT driver, and Alex Demirdjian is a businessman who has raced in French F3. Maybe a podium or two, but I really don’t see too much coming from them.

Next we have another SLS AMG GT3 from Black Falcon with a trio of Russians who again surprisingly haven’t done a stint in an SMP Racing car. I’ve come to expect good things from Russian drivers after seeing how SMP fared in 2013, the team’s first year of racing, and they demonstrated that Russia was and up and coming force in the world of motor racing. And Vladimir Lunkin, Yuri Loboda and Mikail Loboda have chosen a fantastic team in Black Falcon. All three are newcomers to endurance racing, although they have all done various Russian series and Renault championships- with Lunkin having raced in the Megane Trophy and the Loboda brothers raced in the 2010 French Clio Cup. The Spa 24 might be hard due to their lack of endurance racing experience, but I think they just might sneak up and steal some good results.

Now in its third year of racing, the Nissan GTR NISMO GT3 has not been the most popular of GT3 racing cars for customers, but Nissan GT Academy Team RJN seems to make them work, as they look to defend their 2013 Pro-Am team title. Blancpain has become the first stop for some of the GT Academy graduates; drivers like Peter Pyzera and Wolfgang Reip where they can hone their skills before moving up. RJN usual Mark Shulzhitskiy is joined by GT Academy Europe winner Miguel Faisca and Katsumasa Chiyo in the #35; the sister car #80 has Florian Strauss, U.S. GT Academy champion Nick McMillen and RJN usual Alex Buncombe. JMB racing has also entered a Nissan for Alon Day, Mathieu Jaminet and a certain Mr. TBA. A pretty solid team, but not up to the standard of RJN. Although they only won a single race last year, the clearly have the consistency, pace and reliability that other teams in the Pro-Am cup may not have. That and along with the crop of extremely talented young drivers gives them an edge over some of the other teams. To win the championship, you’ll have to go through them first.

And finally, ze Porsche. The 997 GT3 R isn’t in the first flush of youth as Weissach and Zuffenhasen have moved on to the 991 model in GT and the new 919 in LMP1, but it still can’t be counted out because well, it’s a Porsche. They’re just so damn solid that even if they’re having a bad time they still manage to hover there or there about and pick up a result. Two of the three Porsche team have completely confirmed lineups; those being Pro GT by Almeras with the #53 for Eric Dermont and Franck Perera; and Graff Racing with Eric Trouillet and Nicolas Marroc in the #60. Both lineups are very solid, but I’d go for Almeras because it just feels like more of a complete package. If all goes well Almeras and Graff should find themselves in the top ten of the standings.

So, my picks for the top five: #35 RJN Nissan, #79 Ecurie Ecosse BMW, #333 GT Corse by Rinaldi Ferrari, #80 RJN Nissan and the #10 TDS Racing BMW.

That’s all for part two. Part three will cover the Gentlemen Trophy.

Blancpain Endurance Series Preview Part 1



On April 3rd, SRO released the entry lists for the first rounds of the Blancpain GT Series; which include the Blancpain Endurance Series with 44 cars at Monza, and the Blancpain Sprint Series (formerly the FIA GT Series) featuring 22 cars at Nogaro. In this part we will be covering the runners and riders of the BES. Yes sir, GT racing is back!!

For those who don’t know the Blancpain Endurance Series is a GT3 championship contested over five rounds with three hour races along with a 1000 kilometer race at the Nurburgring as well as the championship’s blue riband race: the Spa 24 Hours.

The series only needed one season (and the failure of the FIA GT1 World Championship and the FIA GT3 European Championship) before many teams and drivers, both professional and amateur, decided to mount an assault on the series, and while the majority of the grid is indeed made up of teams in the Pro-Am Cup and Gentlemen Trophy, the quality of both the teams and the drivers in throughout is simply astounding. In part one, we will look at the Pro class, the big boys of the Blancpain Endurance Series grid; starting off with one of the two newcomers to the field, Bentley.

Ettore Bugatti once said that “Mister Bentley builds the world’s fastest lorries”, and the new Continental GT3 certainly lives up to that reputation. The folks at M-Sport managed to bring the car to 1,300 kilos as specified in the GT3 regulations, that being said the car is still as big as a school bus. The car has been tested extensively, but we have seen time and time again that testing is not a substitute for racing. So this will be more or less of a development year for the Continental. Both cars have solid driving lineups with 2003 Le Mans winner (for Bentley) Guy Smith teaming up with 2010 Le Mans LMP1 Petrol class winner (and Deltawing driver) Andy Meyrick and Steven Kane teaming up in the #7, and ex-F1 driver Jerome D’Ambrosio, Duncan Tappy and Antoine Leclerc sharing the duties in the #8. The strong lineups may be let down early in the season by unreliability or being slightly off the pace due to teething troubles with the new car, but expect the majority of them to be ironed out by the end of the year. As for which team finishes ahead of the other, I’m picking the #7 because they have more experience driving GT cars, and Meyrick has the experience developing a car from his ongoing work with the Deltawing team.

Moving from British muscle to American Muscle, the Reiter Engineering Camaro is back and better than ever. The car was updated in the middle of last season to rectify the substantial problems the car was having, the largest area of concern being the brakes. Because of those issues the Camaro is now the only GT3 car with 19 inch wheels, which are needed to house the massive brake discs needed to haul the huge V8 to a standstill. Those updates have certainly helped as the car set the fastest time in the morning session on the second day of Blancpain GT Series testing at Monza. Driving the car is the usual Reiter duo of Peter Kox and Prince Albert von Thurn und Taxis (yes, he is a real prince) and they are joined by ex-F1 driver Tomas Enge. The Camaro should hover around the midfield for most of the season, and will shine on the circuits with long straights like Monza, where the car can use its big V8 to its advantage. Prince Albert, while fast for a sportsman driver, is still not a professional and will probably prove to be a liability in terms of pace in the Pro Cup. Based on the car and the level of competition, it would be safe to say that the #23 will probably get the occasional podium, and maybe a win if they’re really lucky.

Oman Racing has entered a single Aston-Martin V12 Vantage GT3 for Michael Caine, Ahmad Al Harty and Stephen Jelley. Another team in the Pro Cup with a very solid sportsman driver. Oman Racing probably isn’t as good a team as Reiter, but the Aston-Martin is a known quantity and the Chevy is still a bit of an unknown, so they could end up ahead of the Camaro at the end of the year.

Before moving to the large German elephant in the GT3 room, there are a whole host of teams with drivers TBA that should be looked at first. Out of those five cars the #99 McLaren MP4-12c GT3 entered by ART Grand Prix; driven by Andy Soucek, Kevin Korjus and TBA, and the #85 HTP Motorsport Merecedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3 of Step Dusseldorp, Sergei Afanasiev and TBA are clearly the strongest teams still missing drivers. The Bathurst 12 Hours demonstrated that the SLS does well in a straight line with the torque from that massive naturally aspirated V8, and the McLaren lives in the corner. Honestly both of these cars should be in contention for the championship when it gets down to the last two or three races.

Black Falcon returns with their SLS AMG GT3. Returning from last year’s efforts are Hubert Haupt and Andreas Simonsen, but for 2014 they are joined by Abdulaziz Alfaisal; no stranger to GT racing having placed highly in several Porsche Carrera Cups and 4th in the 2012 Dubai 24 Hours. He obviously isn’t a professional driver, but he can pedal a car at a decent pace. They should be closer to the front of the midfield provided nothing disastrous happens to the team.

And at last we get to the 500,000 pound elephant in the room, the unstoppable Ingolstadt Juggernauts, the two Belgian Audi Club Team WRT Aud R8 LMS Ultras. Usual WRT driver Laurens Vanthoor is joined in the #1 by 2010 Italian Formula 3 champion Cèsar Ramos and 2012 FIA “GT1” World Championship champion Marc Basseng. And in the #2 we have Christopher Mies and Frank Stippler-both Audi “works” drivers have taken on a newcomer to the series, 2011 BTCC Independents’ Champion and 2013 WTCC Yokohama Independents’ Trophy winner James Nash. WRT has raced the R8 LMS since its introduction in 2009, so they have more experience with their chosen steeds than any other team in the Pro Cup. Honestly, if this team were a video game character; it would be Oddjob (and NOBODY gets to be Oddjob), if it were a mecha; it would be a Gundam. The combination of team, car and drivers that WRT brings to the table is so overpowered that they should consider it a disappointment if both teams don’t finish the championship in the top 5, of the standings, if not the top 3. Which car will do better than the other? I’d have to go with the #2 because James Nash has more touring car experience than Cèsar Ramos, even though Ramos raced in Blancpain last year with Kessel Racing, winning the first round at Monza and eventually finishing fourth in the championship, and Nash only has one year of British GT in a GT4 Lotus Evora back in 2011.

So after all of that, my picks for the top five in the Pro class are: in 1st– the #2 WRT Audi, 2nd-the #99 ART Grand Prix McLaren, 3rd– the #2 WRT Audi, 4th-the #85 HTP Motorsport Mercedes-Benz and in 5th-the #7 M-Sport Bentley.

In part two I’ll take a look at the meat of the BES grid, well, those who actually have drivers that is.