Over the course of 24 Hours, 49 seconds may appear of little consequence, but that was the margin by which the Land Motorsport Porsche 997 GT3 Cup took victory in the fourth running of the Dubai 24 Hours in 2009. In the years that followed, the first round of the 24H Series has grown exponentially to become the traditional curtain-raiser of the international GT racing calendar, with the entry for 2016 attracting some of the world’s top GT3 teams and drivers including defending winners Black Falcon, 24H Series champions RAM Racing and Blancpain behemoths WRT for the first time.
When Land won the event back in 2009, Californian Connor de Phillippi was busy winning the Skip Barber Dodge title and had his sights set on joining the likes of Foyt, Unser and Castroneves by conquering the Indianapolis 500. But since his single-seater career stalled due to a lack of funds, his career has taken a rather different path. Now a graduate of the Porsche Junior Programme after three seasons racing in the Porsche Carrera Cup Deutschland and the F1-supporting Supercup, de Phillippi will tackle Dubai in Land Motorsport’s brand-new Audi R8 LMS, the first time the 23 year-old has raced a sportscar that wasn’t built in Weissach.
“It’s exciting to be in something different, as a racing driver you’re always happy to expand the cars you’ve been able to check off on your list,” says de Phillippi, who regards Wolfgang Land’s team, which ran him to tenth in points in the Carrera Cup Deutschland last year, as ‘like family’. “I think it will be a fun car to drive; obviously it’s proven itself winning 24 hour races already before it’s been delivered to customers, which is a rare thing to be a part of.
“The team only took delivery of it a few weeks ago and once they finished up they had to ship it out to Dubai, so the first time I drive it will be on the race weekend, but luckily I’ve already driven the track before. Our line-up for Dubai is really competitive, we have Christopher Mies and Marc Basseng, who both have a lot of experience with Audi and can help me out, so I’m really looking forward to it.”
January is shaping up to be a busy month for de Phillippi, who heads to Dubai direct from the Roar Before 24 test at Daytona where he was putting miles on the Frikadelli Porsche he will campaign at the Rolex 24 Hours. Although he no longer has factory support from Porsche, who provide each of their juniors with 150,000 euros to negotiate a drive, de Phillippi is optimistic that he will have the opportunity to remain a part of the Porsche family in some capacity.
“Nothing is set in stone yet,” he admits. “The junior programmes are always only three years and 2015 was my third term, so at the moment they’re helping to find me a position, but it’s still early.
“I’m very grateful to them because being part of the junior programme made racing in Europe possible; without the support and budget help they give, I would never have been able to make the transition. It’s very difficult for drivers from the US to find partners to go to Europe because although there are a lot of big US companies that are international, those companies are so big that to get to the right person to try and put a deal together is, I don’t want to say impossible, but very slim!
“They also gave us a lot of support with both the mental and physical training. Every winter we would have our fitness camps so we could spent six to eight days with the factory guys and get to meet them which was really inspiring, because their stories are the ones that we’re trying to write ourselves.
“It was a huge advantage to spend with guys like Pat Long and Jorg Bergmeister who have been in the business for so long and pick their brains, because they’ve been through it all. It’s not necessarily that they can tell you what to do, but if they can tell you what not to do, that eliminates a couple of the boxes on the list of the things you were trying and gets you to the end solution much faster.”
But even with a wealth of information from the factory drivers to call upon, there’s nothing quite like learning from your own personal experience. Having spent three seasons finding his way around a Porsche, de Phillippi has set his sights on a future in endurance racing, where the ability to extract every last tenth – a fundamental prerequisite for success in sprint racing – pales into significance against a mature temperament and consistency.
“Once I got my first taste of endurance racing, I truly fell in love with it – I think it really suits my style,” he says. “One of the things I’ve struggled with in Supercup and Carrera Cup is that last bit of aggression; I’m a very smooth driver and over the long run I can be very consistent and easy on equipment, but when it came to running over every kerb and cutting the track in every corner possible I think I was maybe missing those extra two tenths that would put me in the top three to five cars.
“It’s an art – I had the opportunity to race with Sean Edwards in 2013 and that’s what he was good at, he knew where he could cut and where he ride the kerbs and jump the car up in the air. When it came to qualifying he would pound everybody by two or three tenths, but in endurance you’re not going to be pounding the kerbs for 24 hours, it’s a completely different style.
“The best experience I had this year was definitely the 24 Hours of Nürburgring – it’s one of those places where if you put a wheel wrong, there’s no coming back. You don’t drive it to the 100th percentile, you’re always having to scale back a little bit. I was doing the 12-2 stint in the middle of the race when it started sprinkling, but only on around a quarter of the track and a lot of the SP9 cars had big crashes. You experience so many things – working traffic is another aspect that I love. It’s such a mental game, you have to be well-rounded to be a good endurance driver.”