Amid concern for the well-being of Jules Gounon following his sickening accident and the celebrations of newly-crowned ADAC GT Masters champions Connor de Philippi and Christopher Mies, a double win for the Porsche 911 GT3 R at Hockenheim went largely under the radar. But whilst Porsche took as many GT Masters wins as Corvette, Audi and Lamborghini combined in the first year for their new car, should we be wary of reading too much into their return to prominence in GT3? James Newbold investigates.
Had the ADAC GT Masters championship started at the Red Bull Ring in July, Team75 Bernhard would be celebrating their first season in GT3 with the championship. Full season driver David Jahn scored only 16 points in the first six races of the season, the bulk of those coming with a fourth place at the Lausitzring alongside Matteo Cairoli.
But once Kevin Estre came on board for the remainder of the year and the Porsche was granted a BOP break, their fortunes were transformed. Estre and Jahn won each of the four remaining Saturday races and added a further two podiums on Sundays to help Jahn claim second in the final reckoning.
— TEAM 75 Bernhard (@team75bernhard) October 3, 2016
After Estre and Jahn took race one, Martin Ragginger and Robert Renauer rounded off the season with their second victory of the year for Herberth Motorsport, elevating Porsche’s win tally to six from 14 GT Masters races. As if to emphasise their dominance, the three Porsches entered swept the top three positions on the grid for race two, with Ragginger ahead of Estre and Schütz Motorsport’s Christopher Zanella.
According to Renauer, who has also won the Zandvoort 12H, Paul Ricard 24H and Barcelona 24H with Herberth in Creventic’s 24H Series this year, the latest model has made a substantial leap forwards both in terms of the aerodynamics and drivability – a stark contrast to last year, where Ragginger and Klaus Bachler were unable to convert any of their five pole positions with the outgoing 997 model into wins.
“We have a new engine in the car, a new gearbox, more aero, a lot of new things which makes it easier for gentleman drivers and also for us,” explains Renauer. “Now the car is strong enough to win races, we can see that with the Team75 Porsche and with our car as well.”
“The new Porsche overall is a much better car,” agrees Ragginger. “Our problem last year was that we were fast on one lap, we had many pole positions and good starting positions, but then in the race we couldn’t keep up the pace. The new car definitely improved our endurance, so we can run the one hour without any problems – the biggest development is that if we are on pole, we can take the win. Last year was very difficult, but now it’s much better.”
Having been lost altogether from British GT and dropped down to only two customers in Blancpain, could Porsche’s GT Masters form inspire a GT3 resurgence? Perhaps, but despite the undoubted progress Weissach have made with their new car, they are by no means the only manufacturer that has been working hard to iron out the weaknesses of a previous model.
— Racing GT (@RacingGT) October 7, 2016
Norbert Siedler is well placed to pass judgement, with experience both of racing the new Porsche in VLN and competing against it with a Lamborghini in GT Masters. Although a Manthey-prepared GT3 R did take victory in VLN7 with works drivers Patrick Pilet and Jorg Bergmeister at the helm, Siedler argues that the car is still lacking in the high-speed corners compared to its rivals and needs more straight-line speed on the Dottinger Hohe to compensate.
“Porsche has improved everywhere, but also the other cars improved everywhere,” the Austrian told Racing.GT. “It is still lacking a bit of downforce in fast corners, on braking maybe it’s not the best, but the traction is really good and in the rain it’s really good. It’s all about the BOP, in every series it’s different.”
It’s the very nature of a sport governed by Balance of Performance that there will always be parties grumbling that they’ve been dealt a poor hand and sure enough, IMSA was rocked by the withdrawal of two customer teams – including the Park Place entry which Siedler qualified on GTD class pole for the Daytona 24 Hours – from VIR due to concerns over the BOP. WeatherTech Racing did not return for the Lonestar Le Mans at COTA, or last weekend’s season-ending Petit Le Mans.
Meanwhile back in Europe, two long-time Porsche customers have openly flirted with Porsche’s Bavarian rivals BMW. Frikadelli Racing were highly impressed by the M6 in a one-off outing at VLN7, while this weekend’s VLN9 will see Falken Motorsports run back-to-back comparisons between the BMW – due to be driven by Alexandre Imperatori and Philipp Eng – and their trusted Porsche, with works drivers Wolf Henzler and Fred Makowiecki at the wheel.
— Nürburgring (@nuerburgring) September 3, 2016
“In VLN I think we need a bit more power, because all the other cars are much quicker in the fast corners and the Porsche is only a little bit faster on the straight, so we are losing four or five seconds,” Siedler added.
“In other series like GT Masters, the Porsche is good, but for me, the BOP in GT Masters is too good! In Blancpain it’s not so good because they have 3mm less [on the restrictor] and that makes a big difference. It’s really hard to make it right, but I don’t understand why the Porsches in America pulled out because they had five pole positions out of nine races, which is not so bad actually.”
This is an issue which irks Nicky Catsburg even more than multiple Tweets about the weather. The Dutchman started the season with second at the Daytona 24 Hours in the Black Swan Racing Porsche, but couldn’t hit the same heights alongside team patron Tim Pappas in the regular season races, before Pappas withdrew citing family issues. Catsburg contends that abuse of the driver ratings system by one Porsche line-up resulted in a distorted BOP for the bone-fide Pro-Am crews which as a result, left them fighting an uphill battle.
“The main reason for the difficulties in GTD was the Alex Riberas/ Mario Farnbacher combination, because they are two Pros driving in a Pro-Am championship, so they are always in front,” he said.
— Alex Riberas (@AlexRiberas) September 16, 2016
“The BOP is sometimes a bit results-driven, so if a car wins a race, they are not going to have a break for the next one. I know it’s very easy for us to always complain, but this one in particular is very obvious. For me it was really frustrating to know you have zero chance and it messed up a lot of things in the championship.”
But do Porsche’s struggles in IMSA render their promise in other categories a mirage? Not necessarily. Porsche works driver Pat Long heads into this weekend’s Pirelli World Challenge finale at Laguna Seca with a very real chance of the title, sitting just nine points behind series leader Alvaro Parente’s McLaren and, as Catsburg points out, there is plenty more room for improvement.
“When I drove the car for the first time in Portimao, I absolutely loved it,” he continued. “You could say that the car is a normal GT3 car – it has some very good things and it has some weaker things like any other GT3, but it’s not like the car is not up to speed, they know how to build a car!
“This year was the first year of the car and obviously we had some things to improve, but it’s the same with the M6 for example and it was the same back in 2010-2011 when the Z4 came out. There were little things in terms of braking in America, but nothing which cannot be solved, nothing special. We’ve seen it having some good results, so I don’t see the big deal about the Porsche being not good enough. I think in GTD which is basically where all this stuff is coming from, the problem is with the driver line-ups.”
So what should we expect from Porsche in GT3 racing going forward? Quite apart from the vagaries of BOP, they are taking steps in the right direction to build technical partnerships in key markets. In the Asia-Pacific, Craft-Bamboo Racing switched from Aston Martin to run two cars in the GT Asia championship, while Australian powerhouse Walkinshaw Racing notched a first Australian Endurance Championship podium with the 911 GT3 R at Sydney and are expected to enter at least one car in February’s Bathurst 12 Hour.
Before that, Manthey are entering two full factory line-ups in the season-ending Sepang 12 Hours, while a four-strong Porsche contingent featuring works drivers Estre and Earl Bamber alongside Craft-Bamboo pair Darryl O’Young and Richard Lyons will take on the FIA GT World Cup showcase at Macau. It’s a clear signal of intent from Porsche that they are taking GT3 racing seriously, and should they snatch a victory from under the noses of Audi and Mercedes on the daddy of street circuits, it might just give customers a decision to make…
Sandra Michiels contributed to this report.