I’ve put together a quick write-up of the experiences in the pits of BMW RLR on the day they won the Manufacturer’s Championship. We’ve also compiled a quick video of the entire day as narrated by Joey Hand only minutes after the #92 M3 GT took fourth and piloted the team to their first championship.
5:45AM and I’m up, showered and piled into my E46 with a laptop bag , tripod, a Nikon D5000 and way too many lenses. I pull out onto Peachtree and leave the luxurious Buckhead area of Atlanta and head North on Highway 400 to I-85 North. Shockingly, there isn’t anything resembling traffic at this time of the morning. Once onto I-85 and heading towards the Mason-Dixon Line , I jet by a Porsche 993 911 – all black with only a small, white skull and cross bones placed dead-center of the movable spoiler over the engine. Hopefully that’s not a sign of things to come for the day as I hurdle towards my destination: Road Atlanta for the 2010 Petit Le Mans.
My goal was the capture the experience of the final race of the season for the BMW RLR Team as, good or bad, this would be an important and decisive day for them. Over the course of nine races, BMW RLR had managed a podium finish at every single race with the M3 GT – in only their second season. The 90 car of Joey Hand and Dirk Muller managed a first place finish at the massive Road Atlanta earlier in the season as well. For these reasons, BMW RLR found themselves precariously wedged between the Flying Lizard Porsches, the M3 only one point behind, and the Risi Competizione Ferrari F430GT’s in third place, just close enough to create some major headaches with their outright speed on a fast circuit like Road Atlanta.
Upon arriving before the sun did to Road Atlanta, I found that I was the first person to arrive for the credentials line – even before the folks working at the booth! After chatting with a few members of the Corvette crew, the booth opened and I snagged my credentials and parked just by the Yokohama bridge. Over the bridge, through the paddock and up the deceivingly steep hill behind the paddock I stopped to have breakfast with our contacts at Marion’s, a wonderful and delicious buffet-style restaurant that travels with the ALMS. After discussing cars, the season and men’s track attire, it was back down into the BMW RLR trailer to get ready for my face-to-face interview with Dr. Mario Theissen, Director of BMW Motorsport. Dr. Mario Theissen was present to observe the progress of the M3 GT and the partnership of BMW and Rahal Letterman Racing. Given the rapid learning curve the team faced from the 2009 season to the 2010 season, he was obviously not disappointed with what he found!
I also ran into Andy Priaulx who was trying to relax and chit chat before the long race and having to be thrust out in front of the crowds and media. Andy was exactly what I would expect of a British driver: polite and joking but when the race pulled closer, had a very serious game face he pulled on once in the pits that little could disrupt. This was in strong juxtaposition to Joey Hand who always kept things light with his sharp wit and sense of humor.
After the interview with Dr. Theissen, it was only a few minutes until the start of the race, I tried on a handful of jumpers before, unfortunately, finding that the only track suit that fit me was the 3-layer, BMW-ebroidered Sparco suit which I had to wear throughout my time in the pits with the team. After a walk-around of the cars on the grid, me and the rest of the fans were pushed off the track and the cars lined up to start the race and decide the history of the 2010 ALMS season. I clambered over the wall and settled in to the pit area between the 90 and 92 cars with Andy Priaulx, Joey Hand, Dr. Theissen and Bobby Rahal all huddling around the 90 car pits to watch car-mounted cameras as burble and pops of 40+ individual engines sounded the start of the 2010 Petit Le Mans.
The 90 car had qualified 5th and the 92 car in 10th so they certainly had their work cut out for them over the next 10 hours. The main goal was to stay ahead of the Porsche’s and Ferrari’s and that’s exactly what they did. Muller and Auberlen were the first stint during which time Muller managed to hang up Jaime Melo in the F430GT while Auberlen vied for more places before a tire malfunction brought him into the pits for new tires and to swap spots with Tommy Milner during the first hour and a half of the race. The third member of their crew, Dirk Werner, would be up next. The good news was that early on the M3′s were using the push to pass buttons in the cars to get around slower GTC cars – showing the M3 GT’s had the necessary speed to be fiercely competitive for their duration at Road Atlanta.
Just under 2 hours into the race, Dirk Muller in the 90 car was forced into the pits while battling for the top spots in GT2 class. Muller had been flagged for making contact with a Porsche in the GTC class through one of the turns.
However, when he came in for the drive-through penalty, he pitted and planned to switch with Joey Hand. However, when the M3 was being restarted – nothing happened. The car simply would not turn over. The crew all around me immediately sprung into action and attacked the car with a near frightening since of urgency. Up went the car, off came the truck lid and rear bumper and under went the mechanics. Working feverishly right in the pit lane they found the M3 needed more work than initially thought as a shaft on the starter motor had been damaged, likely from hopping curbs a bit too much.
We ran back to the trailer with the M3 and watched as mechanics worked to get the car race-worthy once more while Andy Priaulx, Joey Hand and some of the crew watched with much consternation about the state of the 90 car. A few more minutes and a bit of grinding down a drive shaft and the car was back to the track and ready for more punishment – though many laps down now and mostly likely out of contention for a podium finish. Ironically, when Dirk brought the car in for the penalty, there were no visible signs of contact from the supposed collision with the Porsche GTC car – unfortunately a somewhat defining moment of the race for the 90 car team.
As the afternoon progressed, I met up with some of our friends from TeamSpeed and toured the track for photo opportunities, also taking a welcome break from the fire suit that caused me to instantly sweat uncontrollably whenever I pulled it on. At the top of the esses, I found some beautiful views of the pair of M3’s battling the C6R Vette’s, Flying Lizard Porsche’s and sneaking by the GTC cars. It was obvious as well that the 90 car, now many laps down, was making every effort to get back into the race and tackle the other GT2 opponents. The one eerie part of my little camp on the top of the esses was the approaching LMP1 diesels of Audi and Peugeot. I could see their approach weaving through the esses but there was very little beyond a gruff snort and a heavy whisper as they shot by. This in strong juxtaposition of the distinctly peaky P65 V8 of the M3 GT shrieking down the straight and into turn 10a or the baritone roar of the Corvette’s.
After a quick snack at Sonny’s Barbeque atop the peak of last hill by the Suzuki bridge, the sun was beginning to slip behind the undulating Georgia hills and I knew it was time to get back to the pits. By this point, all three drivers from each car had done a stint and with it being near 7PM I knew there was only another pit stop or two before the end of the race. Before heading back to the BMW pit, I found a nice perch on the top of a retaining wall at the pit exit. While snapping shots as a flock of GT2 cars powered up through turn 1 I felt a blast of hot air jet up from underneath me as I heard a familiar whisper. I reeled back in shock – barely gripping the chain link fence and, sure enough, I looked up to see one of the Peugeot twins streak up the pit exit lane and off toward turn 2 – passing just underneath me! A cluster of fans further down the same wall saw my reaction and gave a knowing laugh and nod – obviously they’d gotten the same scare I did!
Once back into the ever-enjoyable Sparco fire suit, I stalked around the pits taking photos of many concerned faces. Throughout the afternoon, the 92 car which was in contention for the lead, had reached up to where the 90 car had been prior to its mechanical difficulties and held first in GT2. After a handful of pit stops and driver changes, the 92 car had fallen back to 5th place in GT2 and was behind a crucial rival: the Risi Competizione Ferrari F430GT being driven by Toni Vilander. The F430GT in question had just come into the pits for a “splash” of fuel to carry through the end of the race. Despite the stop, it held 4th with an unrelenting grip. The M3’s were prepared for any slips ups though as both the 90 and 92 cars came in just before the 1 hour mark. As lap 354 began, the cars in GT2 reached the 1,000 mile mark. I looked around the pits and a somber mood had settled across the faces of the BMW crew, many looking dejected by the forthcoming result – second place in the fight for the manufacturer’s championship for a team worthy of first.
Suddenly, voices erupted out of the darkened 90 car’s booth “He’s out of gas! The Ferrari is out of gas!” the entire pit froze and spun to catch a view of the monitor – the track leaderboard still showed the Risi Ferrari ahead of the M3. Confusion broke out as nobody knew quite what to believe. It was the last lap and two turns from the end the Ferrari ran out of gas with no real coverage of this monumental turn of events. However, the 92 M3 GT flew across the finish with Dirk Werner at the wheel and BMW by default landed fourth ahead of the Ferrari and the Manufacturer’s and Team Championship was sealed.
The pits around me erupted in cheers and disbelief as crewmen who’d been jammed into seats on both team booths for the last 9 ½ hours came pouring out with handshakes, high fives and back slaps. The partnership of BMW and RLR had done it, though by a single point, snagged the Manufacturer’s championship from well-established teams (and rival brands!) in only their second season.
As the cheering and applause started to dissipate and the beers came out - I found Martin Birkmann, Manager of BMW Motorsports. Still looking to be in a state of disbelief he could only remark “ I can’t believe after so many thousands of miles this season it all comes down to the last lap!” and with that he couldn’t stop grinning.
Ironically, neither could I. It had been an incredible day and I was lucky enough to be at the pinnacle of the Joy(pun intended) of a team’s culmination of months of hard work and dedication to a great friend, Jack Pitney. I’d seen the first chapter at the 12 Hours of Sebring testing with a team full of hopes and the final chapter in what would be the book of BMW RLR’s 2010 season in which these hopes were realized. It was a wonderful end to an incredible season for a team that fought for every point earned. From speaking to the drivers post-race, it’s a season they’ll never forget and one that a simple BMW enthusiast from East Georgia never will either.