A partnership forged on the Nürburgring Nordschleife and the ADAC GT Masters circuit, Connor De Phillippi and Land Motorsport head into the Daytona 24 Hours as one of the dark horse picks in a stacked GTD field. James Newbold weighs up their prospects in the biggest race on the US endurance racing calendar.
The story of the 2016 ADAC GT Masters could have its own film script, such were the number of twists and turns that panned out during the final weekend alone.
In a rain-affected weekend at Hockenheim, the title looked to be slipping away from pre-event leaders Connor De Phillippi and Christopher Mies when the Callaway Corvette of chief rival Jules Gounon crashed in avoidance of another car, handing the championship to the grateful Land Motorsport duo.
In a bizarre twist of fate, the unfortunate Gounon will join De Phillippi, Mies and Porsche Supercup regular Jeffrey Schmidt at Land Motorsport this weekend in one of three Audi R8 LMS GT3s in the 27-car field. As might be expected, it wasn’t long before Hockenheim came up in conversation…
“Absolutely, that was the first thing we were ripping on him about, just to bring down the shields and create a friendship between everybody,” De Phillippi told Racing.GT.
“We drove the whole season with a lot of respect against [Callaway Competition] and they all did a great job. The relationship with Jules is great, we have a lot of respect for him and we know he’s quick, which is why we brought him into the team.
“I think we’re kind of the unknown factor going into Daytona. Not a lot of people who Jules is, or who Jeffrey is. He’s also really quick and a respectable name in Carrera Cup in Supercup, so I think we have a really solid four-driver line-up. I’m looking forward to being under the radar, performing well and seeing if we can make the most out of it.”
According to De Phillippi, an important factor in the team’s success has been their tight-knit bond, helped by the Californian learning to speak German during his time based in Europe as a Porsche junior. He describes the team as his “European family” and since making his debut in Carrera Cup Deutschland in 2015, has formed a strong relationship with team boss Wolfgang Land.
“He’s a really old-school German, he doesn’t speak hardly any English other than ‘yes’ and ‘good!’” De Phillippi said.
“It brings the relationship that much closer, because now that I can do that, whether we are talking English or German, I can always be engaged in the conversation and be part of the team family.
“It definitely is strange, especially being back in my home country and speaking German 80% of the time, but also kind of cool, because you can communicate and nobody really knows what you are talking about. They would just assume that I was non-US, but little did they know I’m actually one of the US guys that has been over in Europe for a while and a little bit off the US radar.”
In that time, De Phillippi has been keeping himself busy. After graduating from the Porsche junior programme and joining Land in GT3, De Phillippi contested the majority of the Nürburgring-based VLN series and won three times, in addition to his GT Masters schedule. Having only raced the Audi for the first time in last year’s Dubai 24, where he led 193 laps before running out of fuel and then suffering gearbox problems, that extensive seat time has allowed him to flourish.
“I feel I’ve progressed a huge amount,” he agreed. “Dubai was a really good performance from me, it was my first time in the car, but since then I’ve logged a lot of miles, had a handful of wins and really have developed as a driver both off the track and in the car.
“The support that I’ve gotten through last year was massive and I really had the resources I needed to focus on my personal driving performance, which wasn’t really the case in previous years. Just enjoying it and having fun with it is something I’ve learned is important and that’s also something the team has done. They’ve created an atmosphere that is fun, where everyone is really close and focused on having a good time – that’s really where the results started coming.”
Of course, it helps that De Phillippi and Mies are like two peas in a pod outside the car, the German factory ace spurring him on to reach greater heights.
“Chris is a good benchmark to have because he’s one of the best GT drivers in the world,” he added. “To be able to get in the car and perform on his level gave me the extra motivation to extract the absolute maximum every time I went out in the car.
“Of course, we always want to be the quicker guy in the car, but there’s no real ego between us and we have a great friendship off the track. On the track, I think the biggest thing is honesty. We can trust one another which is huge, especially in a VLN race when there’s oil here and there and debris here and there.
“We really like the same type of car as far as setup goes, so any feedback I give or any feedback he gives and whatever changes we decide to make to the car generally will apply for me as well. It’s a unique relationship inside and outside the car, which doesn’t happen very often and we certainly made the most of it every weekend.”
That said, the GT Masters title didn’t come easily to them, as the Audi was rarely the strongest car. De Phillippi says BOP was “pretty much stacked against us the entire season,” which is borne out by the statistics – Porsche and Corvette took nine out of the 14 wins between them, as de Phillippi and Mies managed to win only once at the Nürburgring, but their consistency would ultimately play dividends in a chaotic final weekend.
De Phillippi recovered from an off in qualifying to set pole for race one and extended his points lead over Callaway with second in the race. However, race two was a different matter, as the Daniel Keilwitz-driven Corvette made good early progress into fourth, while Mies was rooted behind Christopher Zanella’s Schütz Motorsport Porsche in seventh.
To make matters worse, Mies made a rare mistake and found the gravel trap on his in-lap, leaving De Phillippi with a lot of work to do before Gounon’s accident swung the title back in their favour.
“Really the entire weekend was complete insanity,” he said. “Chris never makes a mistake and outbroke himself into Sachs Kurve, a little bit out of frustration because we were quicker than the Porsche, but on the straightaway they had more pace than we did, so we decided to stay out one lap longer and really try to push on that in-lap.
“Mistakes happen, nobody’s perfect, but when I saw that I put my hands on my head and I thought it was a bad dream. All we had to do was bring it home at that point, but in motorsport, whenever you go into conservative mode like that, things like this can always happen.
“When I got in the car, there was a lot of work to do and when I got in I said ‘listen, we got this, no worries’. I just picked my way forward, then we got a bit lucky with Jules’ wreck and managed to bring home the title, so it was a pretty good weekend although I think it’s fair to say we all aged a bit on that weekend!”
Having come through that experience together, De Phillippi is eagerly anticipating his third crack at Daytona – the first with a fully-fledged GT3 – with the same Land Motorsport crew. Although he admits that they have some catching up to do on the Continental tyre, compared to the regular IMSA GTD competitors, De Phillippi believes they are well set to upset the apple cart at the 24.
“We did the testing in November and December and we learned a lot from those test days, especially with this Continental tyre because it’s quite different than what we were used to,” he said.
“At the Roar we already had a good base, so we just focused on giving Jules and Jeffrey seat time in the car and just getting basic information like fuel mileage numbers. It was our first test with the entire team there, our first test doing hot fuelling and hot pitstops, so just kind of procedural things and making sure we’re all on the same page.
“We were up front more or less in every single session, so I feel we certainly have the pace in the car and now it’s just a matter of going through the motions and doing what we normally do.
“I think I’ve become a really well-rounded driver for every situation and coming back to the US with the whole unit operating as we did in Europe I think is definitely a combination to be noticed.”