European audiences watching round two of the ADAC GT Masters at the Red Bull Ring could be forgiven for asking ‘just who is this Australian bloke taking the fight to the championship regulars?’ Sure enough, in amongst the familiar contingent of Porsches, Corvettes, Nissans and BMWs, the howling Reiter Engineering Lamborghini Gallardo shared by former F1 driver Tomas Enge and David Russell made quite an impression, winning the opening race before adding a further maximum points haul for finishing second in race two behind the invitational Grasser Lamborghini Huracan of Mirko Bortolotti and Adrian Zaugg.
For Porsche Carrera Cup Australia frontrunner and occasional V8 Supercar racer Russell, this isn’t the kind of opportunity which presents itself all too often, and one he made sure to grasp.
“I totally didn’t expect it; to get the call from Reiter to come out and to then get a race win and a second in the next one was definitely a dream come true,” he recalls. “Tomas had told me it would take a little bit of getting used to, because the Red Bull Ring is the sort of track where you have to attack with the right amount of exuberance to get the most out of the car and yourself. There’s a lot of heavy breaking, but it’s also very technical with all the camber changes. All the guys at Reiter did a fantastic job and I’m very happy with how it went.”
Coming hot on the heels of Shane van Gisbergen’s victory in the recent Blancpain Endurance Series round at Silverstone, Russell’s success at the Red Bull Ring shows that the boys from Down Under have all the necessary tools in their locker to succeed in Europe; if ever they could tear themselves away from dreams of winning over the legions of Holden and Ford fans camped on Mount Panorama by adding their names to the Peter Brock Trophy.
“I think to begin with, you can be quite closed-minded in seeing the V8 Supercar Series as almost the be-all and end-all,” says Russell, who will again partner Rick Kelly for the three Endurance Cup races at Sandown, Bathurst and Surfers Paradise. “But we all know what makes motorsport tick and if you haven’t got that family wealth, you have to rely on sponsors. If you can’t compete with that, you don’t want to be banging your head up against a wall.
“GT racing in the last three years has gained some massive momentum and the cars are great fun to drive too. I did a test at Hockenheim and I just couldn’t keep the smile of my face, so I started to look outside of Australia to see what opportunities are out there, but it’s difficult because first of all you need a team to give you the opportunity and then work out where the backing is going to come from. Is the team able to stand on their own two feet with their own funding to get a driver across, or is that driver going to bring something to the table as well? I’m fortunate enough to have been given a very good opportunity with Reiter, they’ve seen my experience and invested in that, so hopefully something grows from there.”
Unfortunately Russell’s trip to Europe, which also encompassed a visit to the Le Mans 24 Hours, didn’t exactly end as planned.
Following a heavy shunt at Stavelot during qualifying for the second of his two planned outings in the ADAC GT Masters at Spa Francorchamps, Russell and compatriot Steve Owen were forced to withdraw, a timely reminder – if ever one was needed – of the Belgian circuit’s brutally unforgiving nature ahead of next month’s Spa 24 Hours.
But with Australian racing legend Craig Lowndes – who notched up his 100th career victory in V8 Supercars at Hidden Valley last weekend – returning for another crack at the biggest GT race of the year alongside car owner Roger Lago, Russell and Owen, there is significant potential to be unlocked from their updated Gallardo R-EX, which Russell qualified on the front row for the Bathurst 12 Hour earlier this year.
“It will be awesome to have Lowndsey on board because he’s got so much experience and in Australian motorsport, he’s the top dog who everyone looks up to, so using him as a benchmark will be great,” says Russell.
“Of course absolutely anything can happen over 24 Hours, but first and foremost you obviously need to finish. We got to the 13-hour mark last year but had a couple of dramas with the car, so we decided to pull the pin rather than keep going around and potentially having the same problem again, which was really disappointing. But I have every confidence in Roger – and for a bronze gentleman driver he’s very quick! It’s a great combination with some fast pro drivers in Craig, myself and Steve Owen as well. And as we saw from last year, even if you start down the back you’ve still got a chance, so let’s see how we go.”
In a Pro-Am class bolstered by factory drivers including Gianmaria Bruni, Stefan Mucke, Dirk Muller and Bernd Schneider, there will be no easy pickings and the all-Australian Lago crew will certainly go in wearing the underdog tag. But free from the stresses of going for the Blancpain Endurance Series title – not to mention the relative anonymity to be enjoyed in Europe compared to the pressure-cooker environment of Bathurst – Russell is relishing the fight and has his sights set on a spot in the 20-car Super Pole; no mean feat in an entry of 66 cars.
“The atmosphere at Bathurst is just incredible: people know the drivers, co-drivers and all that, so there’s no absolutely chance of slipping past someone out the back of the pit area!” he laughs. “Certainly to come over for a huge race like the Spa 24 Hours, there’s a certain degree of pressure there because it’s such a huge race and you naturally want to do well, but the pressure is only as much as you put on yourself. Definitely not being part of the full championship over here allows you to not have that added pressure of certain backers or sponsors attending the round. We just can’t wait to get over and get amongst it in the Aussie spirit!”