Last year, APR Motorsport made its Rolex 24 debut in a new Audi R8 Grand-Am racecar, with a steep learning curve for the team and Audi Motorsport. But for 2013, Audi brought out the big guns. To add an American win to one of the most successful racecars of 2012, even Dr Wolfgang Ullrich was on hand to oversee the program. And when Dr Ullrich is in attendance, you can guarantee Audi intends to collect the checkered flag.
For 2013, there would be four R8 Grand-Am edition LMS racecars. APR Motorsport would field two, while WeatherTech and Rum Bum Racing would each field one.
The LMS cars were modified to meet Grand-Am regualtions, which meant the front canards were removed, front splitter and rear diffuser shortened, rear wing was modified and 43mm intake restrictors fitted. Furthermore, each Audi was approximately 88-110 lb heavier than the Porsches and Ferraris in the field.
The Porsches had a distinct aerodynamic advantage, while the Ferraris were lighter and could wring out their power advantage on the front straights. So APR and Audi had to work hard to achieve a competitive finish.
We spoke to Stephen Hooks, APR's president and CEO , who gave us some insight on the operation. He revealed there was a playful hazing between the crews, with the # 52 car manned by a German team earning the name Heidi, while # 51 was APR's privately owned R8, run by the APR crew and named Dixie.
To compensate for the R8's disadvantages, the teams had to make each pitstop count, stretching every mile earn from their tires and running the drivers for longer stints to minimize time lost to driver changes in the pits.
At the start of the race, APR qualified # 52 in tenth and # 51 in 26th, putting them into the middle of the field by the end of the first hour. Rushing to the front of the pack isn't important at the start of a 24-hour sprint. The goal is to stay on the lead lap for the entire race, but it's easy to let the leader slip away with lengthy pitstops and pitlane penalties.
This year, pit officials ditched the radar gun for digital speed controllers in the cars. After the slightest infraction, cars were called back to the pits for a drive-through penalty. This shuffled the deck more than many teams expected.
As the race progressed, APR was fighting through the pack. By the 12th hour (373 laps) # 52 had moved to ninth but was one lap down on the leader, with # 51 in 17th.
Another factor was the weather and mother nature had its own plan, bringing heavy fog before dawn and an inevitable safety car period for several hours, slowing the field considerably. This gave APR a chance to regain the lead lap and fight to the finish.
As the 20th hour approached (586 laps), # 52 was up to fifth, with # 24 WeatherTech car in third, and # 51 battling hard to 13th - considering this car was spun onto the grass after contact with a DP car, it was good to see it running at all.
As the race entered its final hour, the APR pit box fell silent. With a full-course yellow underway, # 52 was nipping at the heels of third place. And as the green flag waved they took third.
Two more yellow flags would jam the field together, leaving only 15min to decide the winner.
As the leaders passed us, the # 52 APR car held the lead, with the # 24 WeatherTech and # 13 Rum Bum R8s filling the top three spots. There was anticipation among the entire Audi organization as a potential clean sweep of the podium seemed possible.
As the white flag waved, the three R8s blazed over the finish line within a few seconds of each other. But the Rum Bum car was being reeled in by the # 69 AIM Autosport Ferrari. Entering the final turn, WeatherTech and APR were fighting for the checkered flag, with APR claiming a famous second place behind # 24 - a huge relief after 2012.
Sadly, the Rum Bum Audi pulled off-track on the final lap, out of fuel as the # 69 Ferrari screamed past for third.
"It makes it easier," joked Will Turner, owner of Turner Motorsport, in reference to World Champion Andy Priaulx crashing the # 93 BMW M3 beyond repair during the practice session. It also prematurely ended the race for co-drivers Michael Marsal and Gunter Schaldach.
Turner was referencing the immense strategic and logistical challenge that was somewhat lessened by running only one of the two cars they brought. The humor also acknowledged that this race is anything but easy. It was disappointing for the team, and a sign of what was to unfold for Tuner Motorsport.
The # 94 car driven by Bill Auberlin, Paul Dalla Lana, Billy Johnson, Maxine Martin and Boris Said qualified 34th. It made a solid start, reaching 27th in the first few hours. However, six hours later, with Martin at the wheel, the left rear axle broke, requiring 30min in the paddock for repairs.
Both axles were changed and the brakes serviced during this stop, since the brakes must be changed once during the 24 hours. This dropped the car to 42nd and essentially took it out of podium contention.
Yet there were another 18 grueling hours remaining and the revitalized car ran strongly through the evening, a small consolation for the tired crew and drivers. The early morning is the toughest part of the race for teams, spectators and journalists alike, but as the sun rises and the race draws to a close, excitement wins out over tiredness. The # 94 Turner Motorsport M3 finished 28th overall.
AIM Autosport was coming off a strong 2012 season in which it captured the team, manufacturer (Ferrari) and driver (Emil Assentato/Jeff Segal) championships in the Grand-Am GT class. So this year they expanded to a two-car assault, with the Rolex 24 seeing the start of the hunt for another winning season.
The 2012 championship # 69 FXDD Ferrari 458 GT Grand-Am saw Assentato returning, partnered by Anthony Lazzaro, Mark Wilkins and Nick Longhi. Last year's co-champion Segal moved to # 61 and was joined by Max Papis as well as Ferrari factory drivers Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander.
Both cars qualified above mid-pack in the deep GT field, with the # 69 and 61 landing 10th and 12th place, respectively. But as team principle Andrew Bordin told us, "Qualifying at the top in a 24-hour race isn't really an advantage."
Good preparation, however, is an advantage and as we joined the AIM crew on Saturday morning it was busy putting the final touches on the two Scuderia Red Ferraris.
We spoke to Remo Ferri, whose deep roots at Ferrari go back to the legendary NART team and beyond. He's a man with a fascinating story and explained his passion for racing. "Ferrari has been part of my life. I grew up with Ferrari. I started with Ferrari when I was 16 years old as a technician and worked for the factory."
As the of the green flag dropped, both 458s tore through the field, but trouble struck # 61 after the first 39min. Segal pulled behind the wall with undisclosed electrical issues and after changing many components, the car would rejoin. Despite a strong drive from the team, the car would continue to have intermittent issues and finished well down the GT field. Despite everything, the team never gave up; # 61 continued to give 110% for the full 24 hours and the car ultimately made the finish. Back at the AIM Autosport workshop, the issue was eventually traced to a fault in the car's main wiring harness.
With the more favored # 61 out of contention, it was up to the # 69 pro-am line-up to carry the Ferrari flag. Despite stiff competition from the Porsches and factory-supported Audis, last year's winning chassis stayed in the hunt.
Running a flawless race, the crew executed 32 pitstops, each surgically precise and the last as good as the very first. The drivers ran a similarly clean race, and after 23 long hours # 69 had been either leading or in the hunt for the lead for nearly the entire race distance.
Driver Anthony Lazzaro put in a storming final stint and handed the reins to Canadian Mark Wilkins to bring the car to the finish. In the end it came down to fuel strategy, with Audi running 1-2-3 and AIM Ferrari looking as if it would miss the podium entirely.
Stress and fatigue showed on the faces of the crew, engineers, drivers and owners. Tension in the pit was palpable during the final laps, and to miss out would be heartbreaking.
In a race as long as the Rolex 24, time was running out. Wilkins was gaining on the Audi R8 in third but would the checkered flag fall first? Like a scene from a Hollywood movie, three cars ran out of fuel on the final lap, allowing APR # 52 to move into second place followed closely by the AIM Ferrari in third.
The team erupted as the car crossed the line. Even as the reigning Rolex series GT champions, a podium finish in one the most closely contested endurance races in the world is an accomplishment to be truly proud of.