Audi Sport TT Cup

This weekend I was invited to be a guest driver in the Audi Sport TT Cup at the Norisring in Germany.

It all started a few months back when Audi Sport asked their importers to find their countries “fastest journalist” that also had a racing license and racing experience. Since I’m both the F1-commentator for Viasat Motor in Norway and a race car driver for Møller Bil Motorsport in the VLN-championship, Audi Norway chose me.

Audi Sport TT Cup Trackday 2016

My background was good enough to be among those who got invited to a “qualifying” at Audi Sport’s test track in Neuburg back in March. There I got three flying laps on a damp circuit, but it went good and a few weeks later I got the message that I was among those journalists who had qualified for a guest drive.

I was asked if I could do the race at Norisring, and I was very happy for that. The Audi Sport TT Cup also races at the Nürburgring, and that would have been a big advantage for me, since I can drive that track almost “blindfolded”. But I really wanted to race somewhere else since I have done almost all my races at the Nürburgring the last twelve years. Norisring was a new challenge since it’s a street circuit and a guest drive is also something you do for fun, and where the results are not important.

tt_cup

Since I just got three laps with the car in March, I was invited back to Neuburg the Monday before the race to learn the car for a couple of hours. The cup-car has some similarities with the Audi TT I drive in VLN, but it was a bit more different than I thought.  The Cup-car has less power, less aerodynamics and a couple of new features like a push-to-pass button and traction control. I had a good test though, and was around 0,5 seconds behind the best times of the regular drivers, and I was very happy with that.

Friday

A few days later I came to Nürnberg and the street circuit Norisring. We did at track walk with all the drivers, guest drivers and the coaches Marco Werner, Marcus Winckelhock and Sepp Haider. The other guest drivers this weekend were Lucas di Grassi (Audi WEC driver, Formula E Championship leader and former F1 driver), Zaid Ashkanani (Porsche Supercup driver and former winner of the Porsche Cup Middle East), Edy Saaiby (driver of the Toyota GT86 Cup and Radical in UAE), Marcos Martinez (former race winner in Formula Renault 3.5, driver in GP2 and Superleague Formula – and now journalist) and soccer coach Michael Henke.

Audi TT cup #98, Atle Gulbrandsen

Di Grassi and Henke were the celebrities, the two drivers from the Middle East were invited by Audi Middle East and the two journalists were Martinez and me. So the level was high, to say the least. And the level among the young talents driving every race in the championship is also very high.

Free practice

Friday afternoon I got my first taste of the Norisring in the free practice. I tried to learn the track and it worked quite good. I was not completely happy with my set-up, but I focused on the driving. And when the practice was over, I was eleventh among the 21 drivers – just 0,5 behind the best laptime. I was also fifth fastest in sector two with the S, but I was a bit further behind in sector one and three with the two hairpins. I was very happy with that. The car was still very new for me, I didn’t have a set-up that I liked and the track was difficult to learn. And it was very close between me, Martinez and Ashkanani.

Audi TT cup #98, Atle Gulbrandsen

Towards the end I had a small spin/slide out of corner three. Nothing dramatic, I was just testing the limits and the car was too loose in the rear to my liking. I continued and was in the racing line towards corner four. There you go from the left side of the track and over to the right side before you brake. And just when I was supposed to brake another car suddenly hit me and sent me straight into the wall. I was shocked. Where did he come from? I had checked my mirrors just before and it was no car behind. How could he be in my blind spot? What was he trying to achieve by trying to pass me on the right hand side just before a left hairpin? And why the h*** did he not brake?

I was ok, but the doctor at the scene said I had to go to the hospital. So then I was picked up by an ambulance, and that was quite frustrating. Suddenly I was at the hospital doing all kinds of chekcs, it was no signal on my phone, I still didn’t know exactly what had just happened, I didn’t know if the car would be ready for the qualifying Saturday morning, I didn’t know my laptimes and I had no idea how I should come back to the track again…

Eventually I was picked up by Audi Sports own doctor, and I was very humble when I came back to the Audi Sport hospitality. There I was met by the Audi Sport TT Cup-team, and they told me not to worry. They had checked the video, and knew that it was impossible for me to see the car behind. The other driver had also been driving on the complete opposite side of the racing line, and they didn’t understand why he hadn’t braked. The driver also came to me and apologized and said he was thinking of braking, but by some reason he didn’t do it.

I was being found “not guilty”, but of course I had my small spin just before. But after that I just headed back to the racing line, it was nothing else I could do. The other guy should have braked. End of story.

Even though I was found not guilty, it is never good to sit in the car that hits the wall. Some will remember just that, and not the reason for why it happened. And because of the crash I was not able to change the set-up on the car before the deadline Friday evening.

Qualifying

Because of the crash on Friday I took it quite easy in the qualifying. I didn’t have any confidence with the car’s set-up, and I drove with a big margin. Therefore I ended up 16th for the first race and 15th for the second. Now the gap up to the best times was 0,9 second, but I was still just around 0,7 behind Di Grassi and just a couple of tenths behind Martinez and Ashkanani – and almost 1,5 in front of Saaiby. But all in all I was not happy with the qualifying, and knew that I had the potential to drive faster.

Audi TT cup #98, Atle Gulbrandsen

Race

Before the race I changed the set-up on the car. I don’t like cars that are too loose in the rear, so we changed the settings of the anti roll-bar and the tyre pressure.

I’m not used to standing starts, but I had a great start off the line and almost took two positions already in the first corner. But I backed off because I didn’t want to take any risks with the other drivers. They race for championship points, and I was just a guest driver.

Start, Audi TT cup #27, Dennis Marschall, Audi TT cup #31, Sheldon van der Linde, Audi TT cup #4, Joonas Lappalainen

I felt straight away that I could drive faster than the cars in front of me, and the set-up changes suited me perfect. For the first time this weekend I could really push, and already on the first lap I overtook Martinez. Then I overtook some of the regular drivers (Meyer and Nielsen I think), but I was really careful not to touch them. One driver was also off the track and we had just driven eight laps (where two were behind the safety car).

In front of me was Ashkanani fighting with Lefterov. I was closing in on them, and felt that I had the speed to overtake them both. I was really flying and finally the car was to my liking.

Audi TT cup #98, Atle Gulbrandsen

In corner two Ashkanani went wide, and we were side by side going into turn three. I gave him room on the inside, but because of that I was outside of the racing line and I just lost all grip and hit the wall. My suspension broke and I was out of the race…

I was so disappointed and also surprised that it happened. If this had been on the Nürburgring or any other permanent race track it would have been no problem, because then it would have been some grip outside the racing line. But on a street circuit there is almost no grip outside the racing line, and I learned this the hard way. A rookie street circuit mistake from me, and Ashkanani – that I was trying to pass when the accident happened, finished the race in seventh position. And around seventh in this field is where I felt also I belonged this weekend…

I was far from the only one hitting the wall, and actually it was so many crashes that they didn’t have enough spare parts for Sunday’s race. So they asked me if they could use some of my spare parts to get all the other cars out on the track for Sunday, and I said yes to that. That meant that I couldn’t race on Sunday, but I had already done what I came there for. I had raced in the Audi Sport TT Cup at the Norisring, and I had enough material for the stories I should do for Audi Norway.

Debrief

So this was really not my weekend results-wise. It was a typical race weekend where I proved to myself that I could do a good job even as a guest driver on a new circuit, but where I just couldn’t materialize this into results.

I just got off on the wrong foot when I was hit by another car in the free practice. If that hadn’t happened I could have changed the set-up before the qualifying and I would have driven the qualifying with less margin. Then I would probably have qualified better, and then again the race could have been so much different.

It’s a fine line between success and failure, and this weekend was no success for me. But that’s racing and sometimes all the bits just don’t fall into place.

Audi TT cup #98, Atle Gulbrandsen

I also had a difficult mission. Norisring is a very difficult track with no margin for error, and the level of competition this weekend was probably the highest in the Audi Sport TT Cup ever. Lucas di Grassi impressed me with his speed, but he did come straight from Le Mans, he is the championship leader in Formula E that drives solely on street circuits, and he has several victories in Formula 3 from the Norisring. Marcos Martinez won four races in Formula Renault 3.5 in 2009 and was invited to test Renault’s F1-car. Last year he did one race in the Maserati Trofeo – and won. Ashkanani has won the Porsche Cup Middle East and finished eighth in the first Supercup race this year. And it was very close between Martinez, Ashkanani and me all weekend, and in the race I was in front of Martinez and on my way by Ashkanani…

I have checked some results from other races in the Audi Sport TT Cup, and most guest drivers (from WRC, WRX, GRC, WTCC etc.) have been further off the best lap times than I was. And when journalists with some racing background have tried their luck they have normally been far off. This year it seems like Audi has picked racers who also have become journalists (like Martinez and me), and then we are closer to the top.

So to summarize the positives: I qualified as one of twelve journalists to race in the Audi Sport TT Cup in competition with journalists with current racing experience (and a racing license) from all over the world. I was fast straight away in the free practice and just 0,5 behind the best times on a new track and with a new car. I had a great start in the race, gained many positions, passed a former Formula Renault 3.5-winner and proved to myself how fast I could drive with the right set-up. The videos I have made for Audi Norway have got massive attention, and I had a very fun experience driving in the Audi Sport TT Cup at the Norisring!

Now that I have got the retirement on a distance, I have to say I’m very satisfied with my speed this weekend. I have got some nice phone calls from other Norwegians who has raced at the Norisring before, and none of them was as close to the top as me the first time they raced there.

IMG_1636

I got this chance at the Norisring because of my combined role as a race car driver and a F1-commentator, and I’m very happy for that. When you’re a guest driver, the result in the end doesn’t matter, but I must admit I also missed the Nürburgring and my team Møller Bil Motorsport a bit this weekend. At the Nordschleife I’m just a racing driver, we’re om the home turf and the one’s to beat.

Luckily I’m doing four VLN-races this fall!

Finally a big thank you to all that made this happen. Audi Norway who gave me the chance and the perfect service from everyone in the Audi Sport TT Cup. I was taken so good care of all weekend, and I really believe the Audi Sport TT Cup is the perfect series for young talents with ambitions. The next days we will make some more content from the race at the Norisring so that Norwegians can learn even more about the series and Audi Sport.

All in all I had a great experience. Now it’s summer vacation before the racing starts again in August!

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