Marc Basseng – Heading Back To Where He Belongs
And Looking Forward To The Rolex 24

dailysportscar.comThose of you who have followed our coverage of the German Endurance Championship (still affectionately known as the “VLN”) at the Nürburgring have heard quite a lot about Marc Basseng over the last two seasons, as driver of the Land Motorsport Porsche 996. You will have come across his name in the entry list for the upcoming Daytona 24 Hours as well, in the #83 Farnbacher Loles/Orbit Racing 997. With this name comes quite a story.

As part of his training as a Porsche “Junior”, Marc was part of Porsche’s victorious 1998 Le Mans campaign: together with Dirk Müller, he handled the pit boards. His time with the Stuttgart marque ended less than a year later, but he says he is still predominantly known as a Porsche driver. “I have only driven for the Porsche Junior team for a little over two years, and since then I’ve done a lot of other racing, won the Renault Clio RS Cup, but wherever my name is mentioned it still mostly says ‘the Porsche specialist’”. A case of “once a Porsche man, always a Porsche man” or perhaps something to do with the way his premature exit from the Junior team made the headlines in 1999? Some six years later, in the wake of two successful seasons in German endurance racing, Marc is taking further steps to rebuild his international career. When we met up with him to talk about his plans for 2006 and beyond, we found a relaxed and quietly confident individual, at ease with himself and the world around him. He himself suggested this had not always been the case.

But first things first: with his second appearance at the Rolex 24 imminent, how does the Daytona International Speedway of today compare with the track he raced at in 1998?

“To be honest, it didn’t seem like the same track at first. I hadn’t remembered the infield part to be quite as narrow, with so few orientation points. On the other hand, the banking seemed huge this time! In ’98 (in a 911 RSR, with Kelly Collins and Cort Wagner), I took it flat out on my first attempt, that surprised our team’s spotter a bit!

Dominik Farnbacher set the fastest time of our team at the test days earlier this month; Mike Fitzgerald, Pierre Ehret and myself were slower, but we all were within a second of each other. The car – the Porsche 997 Cup - was new for me; and the handling was somewhat unfamiliar because the Hoosier tyres we use are bigger at the front than usually used on a Porsche. This gives us unusual handling with a very sticky front end, where you have to watch for oversteer; not a problem, you just need to be familiar with it.”

Wolf Henzler’s fastest GT time of the test weekend (in the Tafel Porsche) prompted the Grand Am officials to add another 40 kilos to the 997’s minimum weight, so the Porsche teams may be confronted with new and interesting handling characteristics in the pre-race practice sessions at Daytona this week.

“I had to get used to being one of the slower cars out there again; on the Nürburgring, I am the one who does all the passing. On the banking, the Daytona Prototypes drive away from the GTs quite easily at first, but they cannot really pull away from us; top speeds aren’t all that different, with about 285kph for us, and 295 or 298 for a prototype. It is possible for us to stay in a prototype’s slipstream.”

In 1998, he was classified a lowly 47th with the Technodyne 911 RSR, after suspension damage; this year, if the test times are anything to go by, he is in with a shout for the class podium. His expectations for the race: “among the Porsches, the Tafel Porsches and the Red Bull car are in front of us on speed, perhaps also the SAMAX car with Johnny Mowlem and the Porsche Juniors. Also, I think the Pontiacs have not shown us quite what they can do. But we are a team of quick, steady, closely matched drivers; it will be most important to survive the long night, then we will always be able to charge.”

With yet another mention of the Porsche Juniors, it was time to go back to 1997, and the beginning of Marc’s association with Porsche. His racing career had started in 1993 with karting, and success and its rewards came quickly. When the Porsche company set up its Junior team, Marc Basseng was one of the first drivers to be selected for the programme.

After initial difficulty in adjusting his driving style to the 911 Cup 3.8, the results started coming. One of the most significant moments of his 1997 season was the German Porsche Carrera Cup round at the brand new Motopark Oschersleben, where he made the pace in practice, and throughout most of the race: “It was the first pole position for a Porsche Junior, in the first ever race at Oschersleben, so no one knew the track. And there I was, blazing away in the lead until my tyres and brakes were shot. Wolfgang Land, who was in second place, hung back and watched me, then for the last part of the race put on the pressure. A slight mistake was enough, and Wolfgang sailed past and won the race. And he hasn’t let me forget about it since!” Beaten by the man who would go on to become the 1997 champion, it was nevertheless the first podium finish for a Junior, and Marc’s first win would eventually happen a year later, at the venerable AVUS in Berlin. He finished the 1997 Carrera Cup season in tenth place, with Dirk Müller in fifth.

In 1998, Müller won the series and broke every record along the way. He also came second in the Daytona 24 Hours. This exceptional Carrera Cup run somewhat eclipsed Marc’s performance, with third place overall in the Carrera Cup, and a steady string of podium finishes. He lost the points lead with a crash three races from the end.

“I was comfortable with finishing third in the championship, in front of many well-known drivers. For me it was all right that Dirk should win the series, he had more experience, it was logical for me that he should be in this position. From today’s point of view, I should have raced for the championship right until the end.”

Trouble was brewing in the Supercup, where the new 996 was already in use, and the Juniors also took part in selected rounds, but were not eligible for points - which did not stop them from doing what they had come to do: race as hard as they could. Both Basseng and Müller were involved in crashes at the A1-Ring, then Basseng again tangled with a championship contender at the Hungaroring; at this point, the company decreed a non-interference policy for the Juniors. Stay out of harm’s way in the Supercup, do not influence the championship outcome. In a competitive single-make series, this is easier said than done.

In 1999, with Müller promoted to senior works driver status, Lucas Luhr joined the Junior ranks: “I was in awe of him - he’d been a star in karts, his dad sent him to race in Italy, he was a factory driver; whenever he showed up to race against us in karts, he kicked our backsides. Now he was coming into my team, and I suppose I was still worried if I could keep up with him.” It did not take Luhr long to match Marc’s lap times, so perhaps this also weighed on his mind as he left for the first race of the 1999 season, the Supercup event at Melbourne; Luhr was not entered there.

“At the first corner, I got on the grass and lost several places which I wanted to make up again into the second corner; I braked very late, as it turned out, too late. I spun round and was stationary in the middle of the track, almost everybody got by, but our VIP car broadsided me… - my car was very bent. I worked with the mechanics and we went to a local garage and put it back together overnight. The next day I felt that it didn’t handle right any more, the chassis damage was worse than we could fix on location. Besides, Roland Kussmaul – Porsche’s legendary race engineer – gave me strict orders to just drive along and stay out of trouble. I was in twelfth place when I had to avoid two other cars that had tangled in front of me, and I went over the grass again and hit another car. It wasn’t a heavy hit but it broke the radiator. Roland was usually understanding about damage as a result of racing incidents, but when I returned to the pits this time, he was really angry with me.”

With pre-qualifying at Le Mans lined up, Marc was rerouted to the next Supercup round at Imola. “I took it as a tactical decision by the management, and thought nothing more of it. I was in sixth spot in the race, when someone hit me at Variante Alta; a whole train of cars went past me, and when I was back on the track I found myself behind Lucas! So that was my good result gone; after we’d crossed the finish line, I decided I might as well have some fun, and when I got to that spot again – it was probably silly but I thought nothing of it - I did a couple of donuts. At this spot, Formula 1 has its timing beam.” When he got out of the car, Marc was asked to meet FIA chief steward, Charlie Whiting. By the end of that meeting, his licence had been suspended for three months. A couple of days later, Porsche Motorsport director Herbert Ampferer told him that his contract would not be renewed at the end of the 1999 season, and that he would drive no races for Porsche in the remaining time. The German motor racing authority, DMSB, later reversed the FIA judgement; but together with a series of private setbacks, by the end of the year Marc Basseng had hit rock bottom.

“The FIA stewards told me it would be my fault if the Grand Prix couldn’t be run, that I had damaged the timing installation - which I hadn’t; also that I had put the marshals at risk - the marshals had stood by and cheered me on! But in the end, there is no excuse for what I did. It was the wrong action at the wrong time. I didn’t misjudge the situation, I didn’t judge it at all. I wanted to go motor racing, nothing more. I was naïve.”

Two more Carrera Cup races with Horst Farnbacher’s team led to nothing, and he was faced with having to raise money to go motor racing. “At the Essen Motorshow in late ’99, it was suggested that I have a talk with Henry Panhuis about the Ford Puma Cup. At first I said, you’re joking.”

Ford dealer Panhuis was a major name in the marque’s single-make racing series, but obviously this was a different world to the Porsche factory team. “The mechanics and I didn’t get along too well at first. I suppose I came across as arrogant. And while I don’t want to tell anyone what to do, I was used to working with a factory team. Some people who knew me then say I’ve changed quite a bit since.” His tainted image didn’t help, either; during the 2000 season, he was grounded for one race after a race incident at Zandvoort. Nevertheless he was part of the works-supported team that won its class at the Nürburgring 24 Hours that year. The transition to the little 1700cc, front-wheel driven Puma was not easy, and the results were somewhat lacklustre.

During our talk, Marc Basseng mentioned several people who proved important for his career. Wolfgang Kussmaul, for whom he still holds great respect, is one of them. Another is Rainer Stiefel who brought him to the Renault Clio V6 Cup, and also became his employer away from the racetrack. As of 2002, Marc has maintained a day job which today still provides his main income. Rainer Stiefel was his team mate at Molitor Racing in 2001, and subsequently set up his own team, RS Line Racing, where Marc did double duty as driver and team manager. Two more names of significance: Burkhart Bechtel and Rainer Braun, two of Germany’s most respected and influential racing journalists, and both involved in Renault’s motorsports activities at the time. “Renault also maintained a Junior programme, with a separate points system within the championship, and Burkhard helped me get in despite having come from a factory team. He’d always believed in me, even after the Porsche situation, and eventually convinced Rainer Braun who was, to put it mildly, sceptical at first.” The 2003 Clio Cup title marked the end of the Renault era; the Clio V6 series was discontinued and a move into the then European (now World) Touring Car Championship did not come together.

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Enter Marc’s old adversary of 1997, Wolfgang Land. “In 2003, I did a Carrera Cup race for Wolfgang. Then someone I know at Bilstein told me about the project they were putting together with Land Motorsport for the ’04 German Endurance Championship, with a 996 RS. So I had a word with him about it, and we soon reached an agreement. I have the greatest respect for his integrity. Right now I know that I’ll be driving for him again in 2006 because he told me so. His word is as good as a written contract.” Land is known not only for his integrity but also for his strong will: “At the races, when there are too many people in our garage watching us, he’ll sometimes show them the way out in no uncertain terms. I always feel sorry for them. But when these same people approach him some time later, he’ll be perfectly friendly with them. Also, whenever he is confronted with a problem, he has this uncanny ability to right away spot the solution. The car will come in with a mechanical problem, and he will immediately see not only what the problem is but also what there is to do – and it is always the correct thing to do. He isn’t an engineer, but I have every faith in the things he does with the car.”

In the 2005 season alone, this combination yielded four race wins on the Nordschleife. The Porsche factory ‘provides’ works drivers to share the car with Marc, an indication perhaps that his standing with his old employer has improved.

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Besides his endurance racing, Marc has been busy in other fields, such as TV work; he was a stunt driver for a popular German TV series that involves the motorway patrol, and lots of wrecks in every episode: “But I didn’t do the crashes, just the precision driving!” - This joking remark nevertheless reveals his eagerness to rid himself of the “Marc Basseng, Master of Mayhem” image that has stuck to his name for so long. Also on TV, he works as co-commentator on German satellite channel Premiere for, ironically, the Porsche Carrera Cup. “Again Burkhard Bechtel said they were looking for someone, and you can do this; and the people at Premiere relied on that as well. There was no audition of any sort.”

Back in PorscheLand: “When I first worked at a race, and went to the Porsche tent and asked if I could have lunch there, they called the factory and checked! But in general, my relationship with the people at Porsche Motorsport, such as motorsports manager Helmut Greiner, Hartmut Kristen and Owen Hayes, has been excellent for quite a while.” With the factory offering drivers to share the car with Marc Basseng in the German Championship, this sentiment seems to be mutual.

dailysportscar.comHow does it feel to meet his former colleagues, all of whom have moved on to works driver status? “I get along with them very well, I’m great friends away from the track with Marc Lieb. Of course there is a little envy sometimes – when I look at the parking lot at the ‘Ring, and see their company cars next to my 10 year old Volkswagen… - but I don’t begrudge them their success at all. They have earned it, and it isn’t their fault things have turned out differently for me.”

“The VLN is probably the second-most important racing series in Germany today, after the DTM. And someone who is fast on the Nordschleife can be competitive on any other racetrack in the world. The track itself prepares a driver for everything he will find anywhere else. It does force you into a different approach: you never quite go all-out, you always leave a little margin for error, and to conserve the car. Also, with the speed differential between the fastest and slowest cars, you must be patient. Countless times I’ve tagged along in third gear behind a group of smaller cars that were racing among themselves. When there is no room to overtake, you can either take a silly risk or be patient. Some other drivers prefer to take the chance, I wait.” His mastery of the grand old Nordschleife has netted him the vote of “driver of the year”, the loyal ‘Ring fans’ equivalent of a knighthood.

And then, along came a surprising Saleen drive. “At Johannes Scheid’s traditional end-of-season party in his garage on the ‘Ring, I asked Peter Zakowski if I could turn a few laps in his new Saleen S7-R some time, in a test session. He said, sure. Then a few weeks later he calls me and says, come down to Oschersleben for a race! It isn’t the most powerful car I’ve ever driven, we had some tests with the 911 GT1 in ’97 and ’98; but the Saleen is a terrific car. That big V8 only revs up to 5500, but it gives you power all the way. I quickly got up to speed, such as it was possible with the conditions at Oschersleben, with ice on some parts of the track.” His chances for an FIA-GT drive with Zakspeed. “I’d like to try the car again in warmer weather, and then we will see.”

Unfinished business also waits in Stuttgart: “For me, Porsche is still the best manufacturer in the world. If at all possible, it would be a dream to return there, and be signed up with the factory again.”

“For 2006 with Land Motorsport, the ‘Ring 24 Hours is my main goal. We’re working on a good VLN season as well, of course, but we won four VLN races last year, that will be hard to match. So we are putting our main effort into the 24 Hours. Apart from this, I’d like to do some more driving elsewhere, be it in FIA-GT, LMS, or in America - perhaps as third driver at Sebring, Road Atlanta, or the Petit Le Mans. I honestly wouldn’t mind the commuting!”

Hence the 2006 Rolex 24 holds some importance for Marc Basseng, on his way back onto the international racing stage where, in this writer’s humble opinion, he belongs.
Johannes Gauglica (and Guido Quirmbach)

 

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