The third Blancpain GT Sprint Race took place at our home track, the Nurburgring. This time we were the support race as the Big Truck GP was the main event. So that means we found ourselves in a rodeo-type atmosphere of cowboy hats and boots. The Truck GP spectators are a different species, I tell you!
Rinaldi Racing was using the 488 GT3 Ferrari in the Sprint Series for only the second time. We are still in a learning process with the car since we didn't test after Brands Hatch. Even though we know the "ring in and out," we couldn't do better than P14 in qualifying.
In the first heat of the qualifying race on Saturday, we fought up to P11, which would be our starting position for the main race on Sunday. My teammate, Norbert Siedler, was chosen to start the race. He had a great run and made it up to P4. We lost one position during a pit stop to Mies/Ide in the WRT Audi R8. When I went out for my stint, I had Maxi Buhk in the AMG-HTP Mercedes right on my bumper, followed by Laurents Vanthoor. Both are well known as two of the best GT3 drivers worldwide. For the first laps Maxi put on a lot of pressure, but I was able to keep our Ferrari in front and we finished fifth at the Nurburgring, which we feel is a strong result. The next race of the Blancpain Sprint will be in Budapest at the Hungaroring. Hopefully we will have the 488 sorted.
The next event on my schedule was the ELMS in Austria at the Red Bull Ring. It was a pity that I couldn't be with the Proton team for the previous round at Imola because of a clash with the Blancpain Series at Silverstone. So I had some tea in the English rain while the Proton guys enjoyed Italian espresso under nice sunny conditions.
The Proton Competition No. 77 991 RSR Porsche was driven by Wolf Henzler, Mike Hedlund, and of course, me. In the first free practice, Wolf and I struggled with too much understeer. Wolf was confused because at Imola the car was very strong and they dominated on the way to a win. But in Austria, we fought with this problem all weekend and it showed on our qualifying result of seventh in a class of eight. It wasn't the position we'd been looking for. We continued to try and sort out our problem right up until the race started, but it was a futile effort. Our strategy was that I would start the race with a double stint. We had been in the lead when I handed over the Porsche to Mike, but even with the best strategy we just couldn't get the car sorted the way we wanted. As we Germans say, afterward—you always know better. Mike and Wolf drove a great race but still we just finished sixth right behind our sister car, the No. 88 RSR. Next up, that circuit in the Ardennes.
The Spa 24 hour race is a special one. I was back with Rinaldi Racing and the 488 Ferrari. We were able to test prior to arriving in Belgium and were of the opinion that the car was finally sorted. The team decided to participate in the GT AM class and as there is just one pro driver allowed with a silver rating, my mate Norbert Seidler wasn't in the lineup. So I drove with Pierre Ehret, Alexander Mattschul, and Rinat Salikhov.
I was kind of shocked during my first practice because neither our 488 Ferrari, or any of the other 488s in the race, were competitive at all. I didn't recognize the car from the test sessions. We were way too slow. There was a BOP change with less boost, but I never expected it to be that bad. Discussions began immediately and Ferrari did manage to get back some performance, but it came too late; we started the race as real back markers from the 56th position.
I drove the start of the race and before the first lap was over, another Ferrari hit me. It was an unnecessary move for such a long race and we lost more than three laps because I was stuck in the gravel bed. The race director declared an FCY (full course yellow) because of my unplanned visit in the gravel. It was difficult for the entire team to keep the motivation up when we were three laps down just 15 minutes into the race. But we struggled on and did our best to make it out of an unfortunate situation. The maximum driving time for a driver regulated to six hours. My focus was set for the night stints, but that meant my seat time would be complete by 6:30 a.m. The racing at Spa is most difficult during the night, especially with all the elevation changes and fast curves, but not as tough as it was in the past because the track organizer added some lights. It did help, especially at Eau Rouge. We were fortunate with the weather; the usual Ardennes dampness stayed away and the circuit remained dry through the night. When I got out of the car, our position was surprising—third in class. After doing two double stints in the night, I went for a nap. When I came back to the pits, I discovered that some fan must have stolen one of my racing suits. I have never had that happen before. Maybe he or she fainted on their escape run, since the suit was quite smelly. The Rinaldi crew performed great pit stops and my teammates did really well considering how difficult the car was to drive after that first lap contact. We lost a lot of the aero performance because of a non-working diffusor. After 24 hours, we crossed the line third in class and made the podium. I will return to America later this month to test with Magnus Racing and prepare the Audi for Petit Le Mans. That is a race I am looking forward to!