After committing to Aston Martin Racing full-time in 2016, Nicki Thiim finds himself in the lead of the FIA World Endurance Cup for GT Drivers with two races to go. James Newbold finds out why the move is paying off.
Nicki Thiim’s racing schedule this year has been significantly lighter than he is used to. To give you an idea, the eighth round of the 2016 FIA World Endurance Championship in Shanghai will be only the Dane’s tenth race of a year that has also taken in the 24 Hours of Nürburgring and a truncated run in the 24H Paul Ricard with Massive Motorsport, which ended after two laps when a power steering hose blew. Now compare that to a hectic 2015, where he contested 27 weekends across the WEC, Blancpain GT, Nürburgring 24, Sepang 12, GT Masters, Porsche Carrera Cup Germany, VLN and TCR touring car series – life these days seems much simpler.
The 27-year-old made his Aston Martin bow in 2013 – the same year he won the Nürburgring 24 Hours with Bernd Schneider, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Sean Edwards – but prior commitments in one-make Porsche racing and latterly as part of Audi’s GT3 customer pool meant he was limited to fleeting appearances. He certainly made them count.
On his first visit to Le Mans in 2014, one year after Allan Simonsen was tragically killed, Thiim secured AMR an emotional GTE-Am class win – it’s first at La Sarthe since 2008 – and helped the team to secure the title with further wins at Silverstone, Fuji and Bahrain. Promotion to the Pro ranks beckoned for 2015, and although he only appeared three times at Silverstone, Le Mans and Bahrain, he was a standout on each occasion and earned his place in Autosport’s prestigious top 50 drivers list.
Finding himself at a career crossroads over the winter, Thiim took the plunge to join the Young Driver-backed AMR team full time and hasn’t looked back since.
— Aston Martin Racing (@AMR_Official) September 18, 2016
“For me, life is about challenges – I was searching for a new challenge and I wanted to do a full WEC season,” he explained. “I had different options, but I chose Aston Martin because I feel at home here, I feel the trust from the team and so on. I think it was the right way to go and so far so good!”
Alongside compatriot Marco Sorensen, Thiim has been a model of consistency all season long and maximised the points-scoring opportunities presented to put AMR within reach of its first Pro class title. Le Mans epitomised their approach – despite not having the pace of the dominant Fords or the Risi Ferrari, a clean run to fifth meant they still bagged a solid haul of points for second of the WEC entrants. Aside from a victory at COTA, they finished on the podium at every other round bar Spa – where Thiim was assaulted by an LMP2 car – and Fuji, where a pre-event BOP change meant Aston weren’t at the races.
However, with Ford sweeping the top two spots in Japan and closest rivals Sam Bird and Davide Rigon only finishing fourth, Thiim and Sorensen still have a ten point margin with only two races to go. They will start the 6 Hours of Shanghai from third, again behind the two Fords.
“I would say we are lucky we have the BOP, but that’s what makes racing nowadays, you have it in GT3 and also in GTE,” said Thiim. “I think you’ve got a good compromise. It’s not always in our favour, but we shouldn’t complain. You can see from the championship, the GTE-Pro category is the only one which is really not decided yet, so we’ve got it really good.”
At this high-pressure stage in the season, you could perhaps forgive a few nerves, but Thiim says his non-stop schedule in recent years – racing three different types of car no less – has given him a mental steel that he can draw strength from.
— NICKI THIIM (@NickiThiim) October 24, 2016
“The mental side is so important,” he said. “From 2014 to 2015 I did around 28 weekends of racing and that makes you grow up as a person, your mindset as a driver, everything – you get so much experience from all kinds of car and you can just put it into every car you drive.
“Motorsport is not like football where you can go out every day and kick some balls around with some friends, it’s a completely different world. You come to a race weekend and you have to deliver right away, there’s a lot of instinct in it. It definitely helps that I’ve been driving a Porsche that has the engine completely in the rear and now the Aston with the engine in front, so the physicals are completely different – again that’s what makes you strong is the challenge.”
Aston Martin are the only manufacturer to run the Dunlop tyre this year after switching from Michelin, who have been the company of choice in each of the previous four seasons. Thiim has been heavily involved in its development, drawing on his prior experience of developing the new Audi R8 LMS GT3.
“It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve been developing something, I was one of the two drivers who developed the new Audi GT3 car, so I have quite a lot of experience starting from the bottom to build up a fast racing car,” he continued.
“Of course it’s not a new car, but it’s a new tyre, so it’s not such a big thing compared to what I have been doing in the past, but I’m proud of being part of a new, smaller development I would say. It’s such a close championship with a lot of professional teams and manufacturers behind it, so we just want to give it everything.”
— Aston Martin Racing (@AMR_Official) October 16, 2016
Thiim has been around the block enough times to know that nothing in motorsport is ever straightforward, but he and Sorensen only need to keep up the consistent point-scoring approach to take the biggest prize of their careers so far.
“To win the Pro class is definitely one of the best things you can have on your CV – it’s the world championship for GT drivers and manufacturers, so if you win the Pro category it is the biggest thing you can win as a GT driver,” he said.
“Many will probably say there is not so many cars but the cars that are here are definitely at the best level you can have. I have a lot of GT3 experience also with manufacturers, but this is a completely different world and you see how much manpower and effort is put into it. If you have a GTE-Pro championship on your CV then I think your future is quite safe!”