The quiet Bavarian country town of Kirchanschöring, nestled in the shadow of the Alps on the border with Austria, is not the sort of place you’d expect to find a 20-year-old girl from New South Wales, Australia. But unlikelihood aside, this is exactly where you’re prone to find Caitlin Wood, who has based herself in this far-flung corner of Germany to be near to her team, Reiter Engineering. This weekend at Misano, Wood will make her debut behind the wheel of a Reiter Lamborghini Gallardo R-EX GT3 in the Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup as her prize for winning the Reiter Young Stars. Sandra Michiels found out more.
The new-for-2016 Young Stars Cup is a private championship organised by Reiter Engineering with the intention of helping young drivers and engineers get a foot into the world of GT racing. Last year Reiter entered eight teams into their championship – all consisting of two rookie drivers, two student engineers and a student marketing delegate – and pitched them against each other in identical KTM X-Bows entered into the full European GT4 Series. Effectively a championship within a championship, the Young Stars were eligible for regular European GT4 points, but were also ranked via Reiter’s own scoring system.
“The Young Stars programme didn’t base your points on your finishing position in the GT4 races,” Wood explains. “Points were based on your times. The Cup organisers took your five quickest times, calculated the average and then ranked you accordingly. It made the competition more equal, especially if you had a solid team-mate or if your team-mate was faster than you. It allowed them to get the best out of everyone individually.”
Reiter’s scoring system meant that the Young Stars were constantly under pressure to set their fastest possible lap time and consistently match it. To maximise her chances, Wood had to push the boundaries of her racing skills every time she stepped into the car. It was a good thing, then, that she was no stranger to stepping out of her comfort zone, which she has been consciously doing since the beginning of her racing career.
“I started in go-karting when I was seven. I got into it through my brother – he used to go on weekends and I used to come out as a supporting little sister. I thought racing was a normal thing to do on weekends, so as soon as I was old enough I jumped in myself,” Wood recalls.
“Obviously at the start it was just a family hobby, but as I grew older, probably when I was about 12 or 13, I turned to dad and said ‘look, I really enjoy racing, can we take it to the next level?’”
Wood ascended the motorsport ladder by competing in the Australian junior Rotax go-kart series and later, the national Rotax series. Aged 15, she switched to Formula Ford, first with an older spec-car run by her family, then with a newer model provided by Synergy Motorsport.
“Signing with Synergy was definitely one of the best decisions I’ve made, because for the first time I was in a proper team environment – that’s a big thing you need to get used to in motorsport,” she continued.
“Working with the team was very cool. We all had a lot of respect for each other and they taught me much about the basics of car racing and all the fundamentals you need to learn as a driver.”
However, financial difficulties forced Wood to leave the team before the end of her second season. She continued to look for opportunities to further hone her racing skills and eventually found a temporary home in Australian Formula 4, but at season’s end, everything became quiet. She had no firm plans for 2016 and her journey might well have ended there had it not been for Reiter team manager Tomas Enge, who approached her about entering the Reiter Young Stars.
“GT racing is something I’ve always wanted to get involved with,” she says. “I was happy to sign the deal with Reiter and I came over last year to race in the European GT4 championship – it was honestly amazing.
“I guess for any Australian to come overseas, come to Europe, and get to race on those mega tracks that we always see on TV in Formula 1, like Monza and Spa, is fantastic. I never thought such a thing would happen to me!”
Wood found the KTM X-Bow GT4 an ideal car to get to grips with the fundamentals of GT racing and was rewarded for her progress by being crowned RYS Ladies champion. Her reward was a fully funded Blancpain Sprint Series season in one of Reiter’s Lamborghini Gallardo GT3s, a far more powerful beast than her friendly low-grunt KTM. To master it, Wood will have to start from scratch again and push her personal boundaries harder than ever before.
“I’ve got a big year ahead, because Blancpain Sprint is very competitive,” she continued. “I’m genuinely going to be up against the best GT drivers in the world and that’s going to be tough. But at the same time I’m only going to get better from that. Competing on this level with this calibre of drivers means I’m going to come out of this year much more experienced and developed as a racer.”
When asked about her goals for the season, Wood keeps a level head. She’ll be partnered by her fellow Young Stars Cup winner, Finnish racer Marko Helistekangas and is all too aware that as GT3 rookies, the odds will be stacked against them. However, there is no shortage of hard work going on behind the scenes and Wood is optimistic that it will pay dividends by the end of the year.
“Marko and I have to be realistic about our goals. We have to learn as much as we can, keep being consistent, finish races, get all the experience that we can and learn off the best in the business,” she said.
“We understand that getting good results will be hard, but at the same time we’re not there to run at the back. I hope that once we get our first round out of the way and get that experience underneath our belt, by the third or fourth round we’ll be pushing with everyone else in the field. We’re putting in a lot of work to make that happen.
“In January I competed in the 24 Hours of Dubai, my first 24-hour race, and I’m extremely glad that I did it, especially with our first round of Blancpain being a night race in Misano. I’m also in Kirchanschöring nearly every day, to be around the workshop, work on data, be with everyone, and spend time on the simulator. Hopefully it will help us be competitive by the end of 2017.”