Coming off some misfortune that lead to a less than satisfactory result at Sebring, the guys at Falken were looking to come into Long Beach and score some much needed points. While the rest of the competitors weren’t too happy about the rain on Friday, the Walker Racing team couldn’t have hoped for more ideal conditions.
The combination of Falken’s excellent rain tire and the skills of Porsche factory driver Wolf Henzler in the wet are Falken’s trump card. When there are puddles on the track the green and blue 911 is the car to beat. In the morning practice session Wolf backed up the team’s track record by setting the pace for the GT field.
While walking through the paddock area before qualifying I spoke with drivers from several teams, all of which said that if it were to stay wet, Falken would undoubtedly be sitting on pole. Unfortunately for the guys at Falken the weather decided to turn on them and the clouds made way for the sun about an hour before qualifying would start.
With most of the water evaporated from the track surface the officials declared that qualifying would be considered a “dry session”. Those of you that read the Friday recap will recall that almost as soon as qualifying got underway the rain started coming back down and the session ended up being cancelled altogether.
This was unfortunate for the team since, even though they were on slicks, Wolf was still the fastest man in the short session. Regardless there was nothing more they could do and the grid was set based on Sebring’s results. This would relegate the #17 car to eighth position for Saturday’s race, not an ideal place to start on a street course.
Almost as soon as the rain started coming down during qualifying it let up again once the session was cancelled. I took this time to take a closer look at the 2012 RSR as this was the first time I had seen it in person, truly a thing of beauty. I asked about the black and white stripe on the hood which turns out to be in memory of Ferdinand Porsche, the designer of the 911, who had passed away a week earlier.
The team spared no time getting the car back up in the air to begin changing the settings for the next day’s race. Elsewhere Wolf was busy being the rockstar he is and waited patiently to do some video interviews. The life of a factory driver isn’t for the camera-shy.
When I arrived in the paddock area on Saturday morning it seemed as though nothing had changed since I left the evening before. The team was still tinkering with bits here and there. The settings on the car would be a very well-educated guess since the new car had yet to see any dry pavement over the weekend.
Using data from last year and correlating other known factors the team did the best they could to setup the chassis and choose the appropriate tire compound. At this level of motorsport even the slightest of a degree or fraction of a millimeter can be the difference between finishing first and not finishing at all.
Most teams in ALMS are focused primarily on car setup and winning races and are fortunate enough to have their tire manufacturing partners take car of the rubber stuff. Falken is in a unique position where they are developing a tire and setting up a race car simultaneously.
To further add busyness around the vehicle hauler Falken auction off used components and team merchandise and donate all the proceeds to the Austin Hatcher Foundation. Race fans get the opportunity to own authentic one-of-a-kind signed memorabilia and the foundation gets more funding to help children with pediatric cancer – about as win-win as situations get.
The auction creates quite a bit of buzz in the paddock and within seconds the vehicle hauler is swamped with people. Of course that might have as much to do with the scantily clad Falken girls as the auction itself, but hey it’s all for a good cause!
Despite a busy schedule of signing autographs and taking pictures, drivers Bryan Sellers and Wolf Henzler still make time for a quick chat. Whether making a connection with a new fan or talking shop with the chairmen of Falken and SRI, I never saw either of the guys without a smile on their faces.
Prior to the race crew chief Alex Zaric discusses a few final notes with assistant team manager Phil Howard and Falken’s ALMS Supervisor Kevin Jones. What they were talking about we may never know, but I like to think they were discussing what to get at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles for dinner. Carol C Special if you ask me.
The start of the race was pretty straight forward and things went mostly according to plan. Bryan was able to keep the car clear of trouble and gained a spot right off the bat for doing so.
Although the pace of the car wasn’t blistering, it was consistent which is the goal in endurance racing. Bryan was doing a great job balancing overall speed while keeping the car out of the tire barriers.
Unfortunately for Sellers he spent much of his stint stuck behind a slower LMPC car that he just couldn’t get around. Although normally a faster car than the GT class, occasionally some of the gentlemen drivers (amateurs) just aren’t up to the task of pounding the pavement at speed.
This meant that Bryan had to sit and be patient while the front runners in the GT field stretched their legs. There wasn’t much to do about it except to dig in and wait for an opportunity to present itself while keeping the car in one piece.
Putting in a stellar drive Bryan to brought the car into the pits in fourth position fifty-nine minutes into the two hour race.
The pit stop was uneventful which is a good thing. With four new black-and-rounds on, a fresh payload of petrol and a Porsche factory driver strapped in, the #17 car exited pit lane.
To become a factory driver isn’t exactly the easiest thing one can do, particularly in the case of Porsche who have only nine worldwide. It shouldn’t take much explaining then to describe the magic that Henzler performs from his bucket seat. After the pit stops cycled through the Falken car was in fifth place in GT due to an out-of-sequence stop by the #56 BMW.
True to his typical fashion Wolf drove the wheels off the RSR making it do things even it didn’t realize it could do. Masterfully making his way through traffic it was clear that this man was on a mission with Jan Magnussen’s C6R in his sights.
Towards the end of the race the car setup and tire compound selection based off virtually no testing started to show its true colors. All the hard work Wolf had put in reeling in the leaders had taken its toll and the performance of the car started to fall off.
The team looked on comparing telemetry with the fate they saw unraveling on the video feed. There’s nothing worse than slowly waiting for the inevitable to occur.
But that didn’t mean Wolf was going to give it up easily. For several laps the double-o-seven Aston Martin of Adrian Fernandez got closer and closer until the gap was virtually nothing.
The gamble on the setup was revealing its flaws and with twenty minutes left in the race the team knew that a position would likely be lost by the checkered flag.
Fortunately for Henzler the tight course layout makes passing very difficult and a modest block is usually enough to keep someone behind you. The only real passing zone is in turn #1 but the low-end grip from the rear-engine 911 provides and excellent launch out of the final hairpin.
Eventually Fernandez would find the opportunity he was waiting for and advanced into the fifth spot, leaving the Falken car in the number six position. Wolf would spend the few remaining minutes keeping the car in one piece.
When the checker fell the car was still in P6 which is not a bad result and gaining two positions is deceivingly tough here at Long Beach. Although not the result I’m sure the team had hoped for after Friday’s practice they moved the car in the right direction and scored a few points in the process.
The unfortunate after math of driving hard on a closed circuit is broken panels, which for Falken rings up to the tune of $10k for a new front bumper. In comparison to some of the other team’s damage from the weekend this is chump change.
Despite missing the podium the team was able to gain something more important to them – tire data. As soon as the car rolled into the paddock team principal Derrick Walker and lead engineer John Ward eagerly examine the race rubber. As the year goes on the car will continue to improve, but at the end of the day Falken’s real priority is making better tires and using this information to trickle down in the products you and I use every day.
Until next time…