It’s business as usual. I come into the paddock on Saturday, a day earlier than expected because I know race day is even more formal, and I figure the extra day is worth getting to know my surroundings. It’s also intriguing to see the team’s order of operations: drivers attending meetings, mechanics building up cars only to tear them down and build them up again, technical analysts making sure telemetry and vehicle setups are optimized for the track and weather conditions. This level of dedication isn’t foreign to anyone here, but when the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) comes to race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (Mosport), attention to detail seems to be heightened.
In the BMW garage it is already at its peak. I arrive around lunch and find the team press officials over at Marion’s Catering for a quick bite while the mechanics and engineers prep for the final practice session heading into qualifying. Marion and her team travels as part of the ALMS and IndyCar circuit, and with fresh coffee and plenty of southern hospitality, it’s a great place to start introductions.
I’m quickly given an itinerary of the team’s events and it’s as much as I expected, but in about half the time. I plan my day and quickly realize there’s no way I can keep up with everything. For starters, I would need some form of motorized transport to cover the time and distance. Second, there are multiple events happening at once. BMW Team RLL is a top-notch operation co-owned by none other than racing legend and Team Principal Bobby Rahal, television icon David Letterman and entrepreneur Mike Lanigan, so if there is any team with high expectations, this is it.
Team RLL’s partnership with BMW began in 2009 with the M3 GT2. Piloted by current drivers Joey Hand, Dirk Müller, Bill Auberlen and former teammate Tommy Milner, the team from Hilliard, Ohio claimed first and second place finishes at Road America in just their first season. The following year, RLL won its first team title and BMW’s first manufacturer’s title since 2001. In 2011, they swept the driver, team and manufacturer championships. It is a formula built on success.
Coming in to 2013, the automaker dropped the fan favourite M3 in place of the newly-designed BMW Z4 GTE. With the current-gen M3 coupe now out of production, the Bavarian automaker looked to their sleek, small coupe that has been so successful in GT3 competition overseas.
In GT3 trim, the Z4 V8 outputs approximately 35 more horsepower compared to the ACO-regulated GTE (515 vs. 480), has a smaller fuel tank, and makes use of ABS braking and electronic traction control systems, which makes the switch over Le Mans GTE regulations a fairly straightforward process.
“We had the setup history from the M3 as a basis to start from, but the Z4 GTE is a very different car,” says Team RLL Technical Director Jay O’Connell. “It’s been a lot of fun to work on – it’s smaller and shorter, so it’s a lot more agile because it’s wide and low. But we’ve been able to make it just about as stable as the M3 by getting the setup just right, even though it has a shorter wheelbase.”
What makes the move to the new package so impressive was the team’s ability to string together two wins in the first four races: first at Lime Rock, then at Long Beach. But as any professional in the racing industry will tell you, a weekend at Mosport is very different to other courses on the calendar.
“It’s one of the toughest tracks that I see every year. It’s what I call a real ‘man’ track – you’ve got to have confidence in your car,” driver Joey Hand says after coming off a five-race stint in Germany’s premier DTM touring car series. “It’s one of these great North American tracks that has so much history. It’s been a track where we’ve struggled actually. We’ve led here before, we’ve had good fast cars before, we just haven’t won here, so I’d really like to win here.”
That objective is obvious from the final practice going into qualifying.
When teams prep for the weekend, there is a host of dedicated staff members. Each car is outfitted with two mechanics, tire changers, two gas personnel, spotters, a Michelin tire engineer, a race engineer, the technical director and an extra member for window cleaning and other tasks. Final practice is serious business going into qualifying, but in the pits it’s packed and feels like race day.
The radio chatter during the final practice session between the drivers and their engineers is the same – nonstop from start to finish. Feedback is given at each corner and straight – entering and exiting characteristics, steering, suspension, tires, balance, speed and track conditions. I equate it to writing an algebra test while a sitting next to a classmate asking a barrage of questions. It might not be as annoying, but for anyone other than a professional driver, it would be more than distracting, let alone at 250 km/h.
After making the necessary changes, the GT class is back on track just 30 minutes later, this time with a much quieter, more focused demeanor. The Z4s are set up as optimal as possible, with a focus on some steering issues that plagued both cars during practice. Last year the M3 qualified with times of 1:16.011 and 1:16.398. This year in the Z4, Müller (who has qualified on pole twice in the M3 at CTMP) smashes that time in the white no. 56 with a 1:15.672. BMW veteran Auberlen isn’t far behind with a 1:15.726 in the black no. 55. That puts the Z4s in fourth and fifth, higher than the team’s expectations at a track where straight-line speed and horsepower rules. The team qualifies ahead of the Ferrari 458, the Porsche 911 GT3 RSRs and one of the Corvettes, but behind the more powerful Chevy and both SRT Vipers.
“Frankly I’m more enthused than I thought I would be,” Rahal says. “I thought we were going to be further off the pace just because of our straight line deficit. Forget that the back is a long straight – it’s all uphill too. That’s pure power there that makes all the difference. Right now the Vipers are quite a bit faster than us up the straights, but we’re better than they are through the corners, so we really have to be opportunistic and give the guys really good pit stops and have good strategy. If it comes down to pure horsepower, I think they (SRT Vipers) have everybody covered. But races are usually dependent on more than just that.”
On Sunday morning teams make final preparations for the official start of the Mobil 1 SportsCar Grand Prix at noon. The qualifying tires are scrubbed and sitting in the sun, warmed and ready to be mounted on the cars as per regulations, while mechanics make their final checks. The drivers are nowhere to be seen, except for Müller, who offers a brief pre-race insight.
“Our races are pretty unpredictable, there are a lot of things going on,” he says. “The first two laps are pretty critical, after that it calms down a little bit. If we continue what we’ve been doing [this season] and have a trouble-free race, we’ll hopefully be on the podium again – that’s what we’re aiming for.”
The green flag waves and the cars are off clean, the Z4 GTEs running as high as first at the first- and second-hour marks. Running consistently in third and fourth, the team is having the trouble-free race they’d hope for, but straight line speed and traffic hurts the BMWs chances at victory. Ultimately they drop a position from qualifying to fifth and sixth, a result of steering issues carrying over from qualifying and a 10 km/h straight speed difference from the class-winning and fourth place Corvettes and the SRT Vipers, which finish second and third.
“I was surprised the track took so much rubber and that the balance went so far rearward during the run,” Hand says. “The car had a little bit of understeer throughout the weekend, but we had a lot of understeer at the end of the race. That was a big struggle for me, because the understeer caused me to overheat the front tires in traffic, and then I had to be really easy on them when I was by myself. When I got behind the guys and got a little bit of aero push – combined with an understeer balance the tires just started to cook.”
Fifth and sixth may not be the biggest surprise at a track where flat out speed is so important, but a late surge from CTMP first-timer and BMW newcomer Maxime Martin saw him take the fastest lap in class (1:15.907) with more than 20 minutes remaining. It’s a positive result to take forward, and one that shows that this newest BMW still could see the top of the podium in years to come, when the ALMS merges with Grand- Am Road Racing to become United SportsCar Racing next year.
In this, the 15th and final year of the ALMS, BMW has brought yet another iconic car to Mosport, and one that continues to show the strength of the German automaker. From the 1999 Le Mans-winning V12 LMR that didn’t start due to safety concerns, to the Prototype Technology Group M3, Schnitzer M3 GTR and the newest Z4 GTE, BMW has been a staple of the world-class sports cars that carve through the hills of Bowmanville every year. And regardless of the result, it gives the fans something great to watch.