Stèphane Ortelli – Fast Team Player
© Guido Quirmbach
www.projectlemans.de

Stèphane Ortelli is one of the successful, current racing drivers. Only a few racing drivers have as many victories and podium finishes as the French sportscar racer. Guido Quirmbach met Stèphane in Frankfurt, at the “Automechanika Fair”, where the Frenchman had a promotion date for his sponsor “one-too“. It had been planned as a short interview, but ended up as a two hour conversation with the charming and charismatic racer.

Brands Hatch, September 1996, the BPR series - the last free practice session before qualifying for the four hour race. In the Konrad pits Bob Wollek analyses the practice times of his new colleague: “OK, you are fast, you drive in qualification. But remember, we have to run with the same tyres at the start of the race and for the first stint. Don’t drive too many laps!“ said the native of Alsace to his young compatriot. Ortelli drove the out lap, went for it next time round, then came in and stepped out of the car: the Porsche would start alongside the Marcos on the front row in GT2. Wollek was content and was even happier the next day, when the pair of them won the class. It was the start of one of the most successful careers ever in sports and GT cars, one which continues at the highest level ten years later.

Stèphane Ortelli was born on March 30 1970 in the Southern French town Hyeres, spending the first years of his life there, then growing up in Cannes. As with other drivers, he inherited the enthusiasm for engines and cars from his father. From 1984 to ‘88 he won many Kart events and the famous “Volant Elf“ in 1990, the career boost for any youngster in French motorsports. In Formula 3, he was the winner of the B-championship in France in1991 and a year later he was the test driver for Larousse in Formula 1. In 1993 he raced in the Peugeot Spyder Cup, and the two next years in the French Touring Car championship, where he was the ‘95 winner among the independent drivers.

In 1996, Bob Wollek introduced him to Franz Konrad, and from that time his career went steeply uphill. “I have to thank Bob Wollek a lot. He was my mentor and later also a good friend. From him I could learn many things about long-distance running,“ explains Ortelli, ten years after they first drove together.

The fine achievement at Brands Hatch led to greater things. In ‘97 the Roock team received some factory support from Porsche (for example works engines) for Le Mans and Ortelli was joined in a Porsche GT1 by Allan McNish and Karl Wendlinger. The trio was optimistic for a podium result, but just after 30 minutes the Scot was in the wall and out of the race. Ortelli and McNish however were united in their belief that “if we should get such a chance again, then we will win“.

They had their opportunity one year later, this time in the official works car, the 911 GT1 98. Stèphane explains how team play came into action: “We had Laurent Aiello in the team, an outstanding pilot, who knew the car, but not however the track. At pre-qualifying he had to run in German Touring Car, so he missed it. Because of that I did not run any practice laps in daylight, just in the night, so that Laurent had more training time than usual. He set a quicker lap time than myself, but in a 24 hour race, it doesn’t matter. It was Allan’s job to set the qualifiying lap.“

In the race all three drivers were consistently quick and without any errors. “We selected the timing that Aiello drove the car, but in the darkness, throughout the night, Allan and myself drove. And my stints was really good! There were mixed conditions outside, half wet, half dry, every lap different. However I stayed on slicks, which not many others did. In this part of the race we made up much time.“

Thus the Porsche GT1 with the number 26 Porsche crossed the line first, followed by the sister car of Wollek / Alzen / J. Müller. “I felt mixed emotions on the podium, I was happy to win one of the most important races in the world, but on the other side I felt so sorry for Bob beside me. Maybe he realized that he had lost his last chance to become an overall Le Mans winner.“

Stèphane Ortelli and Allan McNish made their oath come true and gave Porsche their last overall victory ever. These two guys are connected by a deep friendship and success: “After our first race together when we failed, from then on we were never worse than P2! We complement each other very well in the car and also have a lot of fun together in Monaco. He is my favourite team-mate. “

Soheil Ayari perhaps did not seem such an ideal team-mate, ahead of the 2006 Le Mans Series races – in the Oreca Saleen. Henri Pescarolo had ruthlessly criticized Ayari for his incidents at Le Mans 2005 and fired him.

However Ortelli did not have any problems with Ayari: “When Hugues de Chaunac asked me whether I would agree to have Soheil as team-mate, I immediately agreed. I know what he is able to do and how quick he is. Therefore I made him very welcome. Only if a driver feels that his team believes in him is he able to do his best possible performance.“ The Monegasque was quite right, Ayari completed an error free-season and they celebrated victories in Spa and Jarama. “Sometimes he was faster than me, but that is good! Because only with two strong drivers can a team win in such a big competition.“

He likewise learned this attitude from Bob Wollek. “Bob pressured me already, but only in the correct place, but he did not hesitate to tell it to everyone in the paddock if his colleague made errors.“ This not so positive character characteristic was one Ortelli did not acquire himself.

“When I shared the cockpit for the first time with Romain Dumas, at Daytona in 2002, we were in a promising position but he threw the car into the wall, a short time before the end. Afterwards a sad Dumas returned into paddock, I tapped on his shoulder and said “be glad that I am not Bob Wollek. Shit happens, we win and lose together!“

Together with Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb, Stèphane Ortelli celebrated one of most remarkable successes in the Long Distance Racing – ever. At Spa in 2003, the N-GT Porsche GT3-RS of Freisinger Motorsport won the 24 Hours in heavy rain, against potentially faster GT1 cars.

“An amazing victory. It had everything. The strategy of Norbert Singer, the pit stops, the performance of all three drivers, simply amazing!“ remembers Stèphane.

He has good memories about the time with the Karlsruhe-based racing team: “We never had the best hospitality and there were probably also much more beautiful cars, but we were a successful team with a very good spirit.“ Two titles in N-GT, in 2002 and 2003, tell a very clear story.

Striving for harmony in the team is always the desired goal, but Ortelli remembers the Cirtek Aston Martin in the FIA GT Championship at Dubain in 2005. “I took over the car in practice from Christophe Bouchut. After a short time I was faster on old tires than he had been on new tires. But that had its reasons. I had known the DBR9 much longer than Bouchut and made a few set-up changes. But Christophe is not used to someone being faster in the same car, and he made his feelings known to me. It is not so easy to work like that, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.“

Stèphane Ortelli has tested and raced 16 different makes, and last year he also raced an Oreca Seat in WTCC; here he was quick from the first lap. However he has celebrated most of his successes with Porsche, where he was one of the works drivers until 2005. Apart from the two N-GT-titles, Le Mans ‘98 and Spa ‘03 he also became the Porsche Supercup Champion, in 2002 with Kadach Racing. “I drove so many (altogether 58) Supercup races and also won a lot (eight) but only once did I run a complete season because of overlapping dates, and that was 2002 when I became champion,“ says Ortelli with pride. From the priority of titles he is still the most successful active pilot for Porsche. However, why did they not extend his contract? “I don`t know,“ he answers and his facial expression changes, from merry laughter to sadness. “When Porsche announced the RS Spyder project, I was confident of being able to bring in much of my experience. I had driven for Audi in 2005 in the LMES, drove the Bentley - and none of the works drivers had more experience with a high downforce racing car than I had. But nothing, not once was I called for testing, although I was still under contract and ready at any time.”

The release from a Porsche contract was a stimulus for the 36 year old: he supported the Ferrari team of Risi Competizione in the best possible way, to terminate Porsche dominance in GT2 of the ALMS in this year.

But he still has a big target with Porsche: “I won with Porsche and Norbert Singer at Le Mans and Spa. It would be great if we could succeed at Daytona too. A driver and an engineer with the same marque have never won the three most important 24 hour races, as far as I know.“

Next try is 2007, but nothing is fixed yet.

Further goals for 2007: “I do not have a direct goal, but I wish for myself to drive and win for Audi at Le Mans.“

In 2000 it was close, but Audi could only lose the race among its three entries, so Dr. Ullrich had ordered the drivers to hold positions on Sunday morning, at a time when Ortelli was closing the gap to the leader. But Ortelli entirely understood that position. “From Audi’s point of view, it was absolutely the correct decision to stop the fight among ourselves and secure the 1-2-3 victory.“

Ortelli has still good contacts to the team from Ingolstadt, and Ralf Juettner. “It is a similar family as it once was with Porsche, with the correct spirit to win Le Mans.“ He sees the diesel as positive development. “Le Mans is the only race in the world where a manufacturer is able to demonstrate his technology. Where else is that possible? And motorsport is also technology!“

www.projectlemans.de has the original German text of this feature.
With thanks to
Guido Quirmbach

 

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