Kelleners, Anthony Lazzaro, Matteo Bobbi and Risi Competizione are
fighting a lone battle with their Ferrari 360. Look at the entry
list here at Sebring, and other than two TVRs and a Morgan, there
is nothing but a single Ferrari there to battle the hordes of always
present Porsches. But when you look at the timing sheets, chances
are you will see the Risi entered car right up there near the top.
Last season, which started somewhat slowly, gained
momentum, and the team was a regular on the podium, and finished
the season very strongly, eventually taking the Privateer Team Championship
in GT, aided by strong finishes and a very good reliability record.
Ralf was able to finish the season tied for third in the points,
with teammate Anthony Lazzaro, trailing only the Alex Job drivers.
“Last year, there was a big difference between
the Job Porsches and the rest of the world. We couldn’t compete
with Job, but we were able to compete with the rest of the Porsche
teams, and actually beat most of them regularly. This year, it looks
like the gap between the Job Porsches and the rest of them have
tightened up some. I think they are all on a more equal basis than
they had been in the past. How that works for us this year, I just
don’t know. It could be better or it could be worse for us,”
This season, Risi is using the Ferrari Factory developed
Ferrari 360, built by Michelotto. “The car appears to be an
improvement on what we had developed over the last season and the
few races in 2002. The engine is improved, and I feel it is worth
about half a second. The rest is all detail improvements, with various
bits and pieces. The weight distribution is better and the engine
is about 1cm lower. Not huge changes, but they make a difference.
What is the difference? Maybe a tenth here and there.
at Risi are not a factory team at all. You look around at some of
the Porsche teams, and there are factory people all around. Job
would have seven people from Michelin and a further seven from Porsche
supporting their efforts. It is much more difficult for us. We don’t
have that level of support. If something breaks on our car, we’d
better have it in our truck. We can’t run down to the factory
trailer and pick up the parts we need. We have to make do. Because
of this, running the Ferrari is about 50% more expensive than running
a Porsche. It is not in the actual cost of the parts, but it is
more with us having to stock a much greater number of spares.
“As the factory developed the car around the
Pirelli tires, we are going that way also. It is not that we had
problems with the Michelin tires that we ran last season, but they
were developed around the Porsche. This year, we are running tires
that are developed for our car. Now we have to further develop them
to race here in the States, as the conditions are different and
in general, the temperatures are much higher. Our testing here in
January showed that we needed to run very different compounds than
was thought. Pirelli is responding to us and getting us what we
need in the right amount of time.
“We are running the same restrictor size and
weights as Porsche. We could use a little more RPM, as our 5 valve
motor just can’t rev to where it wants or needs to. For now,
here at Sebring, we are very quick when compared to the Porsches.
Is it that we are fast or that they are coming to grips with their
new cars? Many people have asked me if the Porsches are sand bagging
(Ralf was talking on Wednesday), but that is just not possible for
them all to be doing that. I really don’t know where they
are in their development, but we know what steps we have ahead of
us. We know what we want to be doing in the future.”
Earlier in his career, Ralf ran at the head of the
field with the Porsche GT-1 program, the Toyota GT-1 program, and
then in the Ferrari 333SP, along with a couple of outings in the
Champion Porsche and Audi. But now he is in the ‘slower’
of the classes. “Well, that is pretty normal for me. Actually,
I found a spot in the Risi team and have never enjoyed racing more.
We have the perfect team. We are from all over the world, but it
works. I fully trust everybody here and really feel like I have
found a home. Yeah, I could use more power and more down force,
but I’m very happy where I am. Besides, there are many good
drivers out there that are having a hard time getting rides. Believe
me, I’m very happy here. Who knows, maybe we can get a Maserati
to move into later.
“I was racing in the 1996 Carrera Cup for
Porsche and had some pretty good success. From that, Porsche asked
me to drive their GT-1 at the race in BPR at Zhuhai. From there,
I was able to race further with them. As a German, just to be asked
to drive for Porsche at Le Mans is like getting the gold medal.
I wish we could have won Le Mans together. We were leading in 1997,
when 22 and half hours in, the engine broke, then the following
year, we were leading at 21 and a half hours and retired in the
Toyota. I guess it is better to go out that way than to retire about
an hour and a half into the race.
“I left Porsche for Toyota, when I was only
offered a ride at Le Mans in 1998. I really wanted to be in the
FIA series and I felt that if I was only offered the one race, they
really didn’t think that much of me. So I signed with Toyota.
That GT-1 was quite a car and was specially made for racing at Le
Mans. It was designed with only one track in mind, and that was
Le Mans. But I have to say that the Audi has to be absolutely the
best car I have driven. It is absolutely 100% perfect in all ways.”
Ralf is another second generation driver, as his
father, Helmut, was a very accomplished driver in the ‘60s
and ‘70s. “It all came rather naturally to me. It seemed
pretty normal to want to do it. I actually got a pretty late start
at it, as I didn’t start till I was 16. It took me a while
to convince my dad to buy a kart. He finally arranged a test for
me, and it came to me very easily and naturally. From that day on,
he started me on to what is now my career. It’s just at 16,
it isn’t natural to look at racing a car as a career. Then,
it is just a good thing to be doing. Well, it still is, but now
it is also my living.”
Things are good for Ralf, also known as ‘Joey’.
“I came over here to race and nobody could say my name, so
I just told them to call me Joey. You can’t mess that up,
and now it has stuck with me.” It could be worse…