Drama on the Ring

The last race in the German VLN Endurance Series became a bit dramatic for Møller Bil Motorsport.

In one way I was well prepared before our first race in almost four months. Even though I have a very busy life with a family with two kids, a house we are renovating and two jobs (check out some of the action here: http://www.instagram.com/atlegulbrandsen), I managed to train a lot before the six hour race. I knew I was going to drive two stints early in the race, and I was physically and mentally very well prepared.

But after almost four months away from the race car it was like starting a new season all over again, and even though I have visualized a lot, it’s not the same as being in the race car.

Therefore it was good to get some laps around the Nordschleife in a regular car together with the Norwegian TV-host Henrik Elvestad on Thursday. You can see the result on Golden Goal on Norwegian TV2 later this fall. Golden Goal is a very popular program in Norway with around 20% of Norway’s population watching, so this will be very good exposure for both Møller Bil Motorsport and the Nürburgring.

The free practice on Friday went well, and right after the practice I held my regular presentation for our guests – but for the first time in English, since the guests came from Møller Bil in the Baltic countries this time.

The day was a bit dramatic, though. My team mate Håkon Schjærin skipped the practice and went to the hospital because of severe stomach pain, and he was unsure if he could do the race.

QUALIFYING
The qualifying rained away for me this time. I was supposed to set a time towards the end, but rain and double yellows made it impossible. But Håkon, with his pain, did a great job and put us in third position.

FIRST STINT
I started the race, and had a good start and was soon in second place just behind the Audi TT number 303. However, already in the NGK-chicane I was unlucky and ran onto some gravel in the track, and lost some time. But I got my rhythm back, and felt the speed was ok the next laps. But I also felt that I was a bit out of practice after four months away from the race car, and that I especially lost some time in traffic. The good thing about this is that I know where I can gain time in the next races.

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I decided to keep my safe rhythm and save the tires, so that they would last for the whole stint, and this worked fine. It was a lot of double-yellows, and some where there was no green flag afterwards. Then I just had to guess where it was OK to go full speed again.

Suddenly the third-placed VW Scirocco was just behind me, something that took me with big surprise, since my last radio message was that this car was 15 seconds behind. At Dötinger Höhe the car was quite a lot faster and made an easy pass on me. We have also seen that our car is a bit slower than our competitors on the straights earlier this year, and that makes it difficult both to pass cars in front and to keep the cars behind from passing me.

In to the first pit stop after almost 1,5 hours of driving, I was only around 20 seconds behind the leader, and on the next lap I heard that the Scirocco, that now was second for a brief moment, got a stop-and-go penalty. I guess it was because he was driving too fast in a double-yellow (where the speed limit is 60 km/h), because he was 15 second behind me, as mentioned earlier. If not, I was too careful when I didn’t see the green flag after a double-yellow, and therefore lost 15 seconds, but then again I don’t know why the Scirocco got the penalty.

SECOND STINT
Håkon jumped in the car for the second stint after a perfect pit stop by our mechanics. Remember that half of our mechanics are so-called “guest-mechanics” that never have been mechanics at a race before, and still we have the best pit stops. Amazing!

After just one lap it started to rain, and Håkon came in for rain tires, while the competitors decided to stay out for one more lap. It was pure luck, because it started to rain even more, and suddenly we had a lead of over two minutes.

Håkon did an amazing job. He was still in big pain, but still managed to drive fast with a car with no traction control and with the roll-bars tuned for dry weather.

Then the rain stopped, and the track got dry again. Therefore we decided that I was going to drive with slicks in the third stint.

THIRD STINT
It seemed like the perfect strategy and after one lap I was just behind the 303-car, that now was leading the race, but they hadn’t done their third pit stop yet so they were still on rain tires. But into the very first corner on the Grand Prix-track the rain started again. It was raining quite heavy, but I didn’t have any choice other than to continue on my slicks, and I was hoping that the Nordschleife still was quite dry.

It was not, to say the least, and out of Hatzenbach I met the heaviest rain I have ever seen. It was just crazy, and just in front of me a Porsche was standing almost still at the bridge towards Flugplatz. I braked, but my car was just aquaplaning off the track, and for the first time in my ten years in the VLN I hit the barriers. I could continue, but thought it was something wrong with the car, because I had absolutely no grip at all.

OK, I know that driving on slicks on heavy rain is like driving on an ice-rink, but this was just unbelievable. Just in front of me an Opel Astra had the same problems with traction as me and drove in 60 km/h. I felt he was going a bit slow and tried to pass, but as soon as I hit 70 my car was just floating as a boat. I had no other choice than to drive in 60 km/h into the pits – and that on a track where I usually have an average speed of 170 km/h!

My laptime was over 20 minutes, and even though it sounds unbelievable with a lap time that bad, the cars driving on rain tires (and that was most) had lap times of around 15 minutes, and some cars had lap times of around 25 minutes!

I could feel that front suspension was not right, but I didn’t know how much I lost on the heavy rain and how much I lost on the front suspension. Therefore we took the car into the garage to check if everything was ok. It was not, and my wheels were not pointing in the same direction, so we had to fix this. All in all this did cost us almost 15 minutes and we were out of contention for the victory.

I got out on the track again, with rain tires this time, but it was difficult to find a good rhythm. First of all I have almost never driven this car in the rain, and I didn’t want to touch the barriers one more time. I was taking it a bit easy, and I was also struggling with the concentration since I had to go to the toilet… I have never experienced this in a race car before, and this should not be a problem either since you sweat a lot. But I drank a lot between my two stints, and clearly I drank too much. And this was actually really disturbing my driving.

FOURTH STINT
Kenneth drove the last stint for us, and now it was dry again. He went out on slicks, and he was much faster than the top three that where still driving on rain tires. With two laps to go he passed the third-placed car, and suddenly we were on the podium. Kenneth also set the fastest lap of the race in our class in his stint.

But then it started to rain heavily again, and we were down to fourth again. As a last desperate try, we decided that Kenneth should change to rain tires before his last lap, and maybe he could catch the third-placed car.

The pit stop was fast, and Kenneth got out of the pit lane just before the light turned red. But on the track he was just waved into parc ferme because the overall leader had just crossed the finish line. I don’t think this was right, and we should have been allowed to drive one more lap. Now we suddenly lost our fourth place, but it really doesn’t matter.

NOW WHAT?
We don’t drive all the races, and don’t care about the championship. We race for victories, and we won the two first races this year. This time we were just unlucky.

When the weather changes like it did that day it’s all about luck. We don’t know how the weather will be, and I don’t think our competitors have a radar system either. In a situation like this Saturday all we can trust is our eyes towards the sky, and then we have to guess. The first time it started to rain we were lucky, the second time it started we were extremely unlucky, and we were also unlucky the third time.

This is how it is, and we were actually quite happy with our race performance. So thank you to my team mates for a great job, our mechanics for a flawless job as always, the rest of the team and to Raeder Motorsport for a perfectly prepared car (as always, and that feels SO GOOD!!). I think we can fight for more wins in the last three races this year, but first it’s back to family. It’s school, day care, horseback riding, soccer, tennis, birthdays, home work – and then some time for my own work and some preparation before the next race September 13th.

Atle

Photo: Speed 2 Pic

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