Wolfgang Kaufmann Interview
’Piranha’ – On The Past, Present & Future
© Markus Berns

Q: With your 2006 season about to begin, it is time to take stock of last year; what were your personal high points of 2005?
A: First, the development of the only internationally campaigned Porsche GT1 turbo, by A:Level Engineering, and the third place at the Le Mans Endurance Series race in Silverstone - but also the podium finish at the FIA GT race in Imola, with my team mate Luca Moro, whose progress as a driver I have been overseeing since the end of 2003.

At first I thought that this result against the two factory supported GruppeM cars would be very hard to top. In truth, you can feel a moral victor when you reach the podium; their technical superiority is a bit scary and frustrating for the FIA GT2 privateers. Then came the FIA GT round at Brno where I drove for my regular team Renauer Motorsport. And with a little luck we again drove to the podium, this time in second place.

If I had to single out a race it would be the Silverstone 1000 Kilometers, with the A:Level Porsche 996 turbo. The weather was in fact “very British”, with lots of water on the track. Water and yet more water made for extremely difficult conditions, worse than what we had had in the FIA GT race at the Lausitzring in 2000; back then, Hubert Haupt and I won with the Freisinger 993 GT2 - still the only GT1 (they were still called “GT2” back then) victory for Porsche in FIA GT history.

Q: Although your appearances in FIA GT with the Lammertink RS and the Renauer RSR (Monza and Brno for Renauer; Imola (left), Oschersleben, Zhuhai, Dubai, and Bahrain for Lammertink) were only sporadic, you were able to establish yourself as fastest privateer behind the Porsche works drivers. Do you keep an eye on the overall standings, or is the individual result all you think about?
A: True, I did drive only sporadically in the 2005 championship, and the emphasis was on the individual results at first. But once I’d achieved those two fine podium results, my own personal goal changed. I wanted to be the best placed privateer behind the factory men. Unfortunately technical issues in Zhuhai and Dubai put an end to that.

Q: To get back to the season’s high point, with the A:Level 996; the people at the track were cursing the weather, but you are renowned as a specialist in rainy conditions. What was the race like from your point of view?
A: You had to be careful as hell as you were aquaplaning all over the place, and there was always a real danger of losing control of the car on the straights. But I did enjoy myself quite a bit. The turbo Porsche had great traction, and except for a few small problems the “Burner” ran faultlessly. After my double stint I handed the car to my team mate Marcel Tiemann, in the lead. Unfortunately we lost that lead due to some small “issues”. The headlights kept getting weaker, and throughout the dusk and darkness, the oily windscreen made the visibility even worse. So I do look at our third place with a trace of regret.

Q: Did you feel sorry for the fans?
A: Such weather really is less than perfect for the fans out there, and especially for the spectator turnout, and thus for the promoters. That said, the British fans did show up in force at Silverstone. I’ll bet it was a tad uncomfortable in those stands – but endurance racing fans are made of sturdy stuff and know how to protect themselves from the elements with the appropriate gear. It is enormously encouraging to see, though, that people trackside are putting up with such conditions to see us race.

Q: How much does a driver see of the fans at the track?
A: Generally you do catch some of the atmosphere around the circuit. I think about the 24 hour races at Le Mans and the Nürburgring, or the 12 Hours of Sebring, that’s an incredible atmosphere there; it is unbelievable how many people come to these races. And the party aspect, the camp fires, the smell of barbecues, comes across as well. It all depends on the weather of course. In conditions like what we had at Silverstone, you must keep 110% focused on the track and the car.

Q: After a weekend like the one in Silverstone, what has more value for you, the result as such or the definite signs of progress?
A: Both! But mainly the result. I have been involved in the A:Level Engineering’s GT1 Porsche turbo project from the beginning; when you look at how the car has come along since 2004, it’s impressive what team manager Vladimir Raikhlin and his crew have achieved. And this podium was also my, and Marcel Tiemann`s, way of saying thanks to the team for their tireless effort.

Q: With the A:Level Porsche, you went to the season finale of the Spanish GT Championship, and drove home to a dominant victory. Sadly you were disqualified for a minor pitstop infringement. How about the return to the series where you competed in 2001?
A: The last Spanish GT race was a complete success for Team A:Level Engineering! In terms of the driving crew as well as the car’s potential, we were the favourites going into the race. But this race has its own special rules. You were not allowed to use a pressurised fuel rig during the race, each stop you could only take on 24 liters of fuel, with a canister. Because of this we were at a slight disadvantage to the atmospheric engines with our thirsty turbo. It was not the usual two races of one hour each, as is normal in Spanish GT, but one two hour race with set maximum drive times for each driver. Also, every team was given a time “penalty” according to its specific driver/car combination, which had to be served twice during the race. Still we would have won, even though we went the whole distance on one set of Dunlop tyres. It wasn’t until the Dubai race that I got the news that we’d been disqualified for an irregularity. Marcel Tiemann supposedly exceeded his maximum drive time by a fraction.

Q: Speaking of Spain, your partner Paco Orti “awarded” you the nickname Piranha during your 2001 season there. How did this come about?
A: The name was also Orti’s idea, but mainly my mechanics’, as I always fought with determination, was always aggressive on the overtaking, and never gave up, especially when we had to start from the back.

Q: You have already mentioned that you were plagued with technical trouble toward the end of the FIA GT season. How does a driver keep up his motivation at such a time? At the next race, do you think about the previous DNF?
A: Of course failures such as Zhuhai and Dubai make you sensitive with regards to the car’s mechanics, you really listen for the car’s every noise. But there is no if, but, or maybe in motor racing. You always keep looking forward. Maximum Attack!

Q: When you are not driving races, you work as a safety instructor at the Nürburgring. So inevitably you will have observed when cars such as a Radical or a highly modified Donkervoort roadster were used for attempts at the title of “fastest road car on the Nordschleife”. In 2001, you and tuner Gemballa also duelled with Roland Asch and TechArt, on street legal tyres. As a former “contestant”, how do you see this race for the Nordschleife record today?
A: I have been working as a freelance instructor at the Nürburgring driving safety center a lot, going back all the way to 1994. In addition to this, I am an instructor for performance driving courses such as the ones organised by Sport Auto magazine. The road car record is a difficult subject to comment on. When I held the record with Gemballa, the parameters were different to what they are today. Certainly we have now reached a point where the technical evolution on a track such as the Nordschleife must be reined in. But Sport Auto has already taken steps, and as of 2006 will follow the Tuner GP regulations. This is definitely a step in the right direction.

Q: Looking at your history, you had your own Formula 3 team from 1986 to ’89. How did you get to set up your own team at age 20? An unusual step for an up-and-coming driver to take.
A: throughout my time in the VW Polo Cup I’d been marvelling at the Formula 3 and Super Vee cars; I was never too excited about Formula Ford 1600. Sadly I never had the budget to get associated with one of the major F3 teams. So the only way of staying involved in racing was to organise, prepare, and run everything myself. We were a very small outfit; my father, my mother, my brother, and a friend – that was it. We made up for it with plenty of extra effort. Everything we achieved we had to work and fight for the hard way. I’d especially like to thank the Spiess family, Bertram Schäfer, and Horst and Gisi Schübel, to whom I owe a great deal. For this, I am still very grateful.

Q: Your reward for this was an Opel factory contract for Formula 3. In 1991 you fought for the championship with none other than Le Mans record winner, Tom Kristensen – until your heavy accident at Diepholz. How do you recall that accident?
A: The 1991 German championship did have its ups and downs. After the `90 season, it was decided that the Schübel team would not run Spiess engines anymore, but rather those built by Peter Gärtner of Gätmo. Horst Schübel’s goal, and my own, was clearly to win the championship. At the first race nothing came together. The second round, on the late, lamented Grand Prix circuit at Hockenheim, we won – a really good race, and a tough fight with Tom Kristensen. We also won at the Nürburgring and got a few podium places (Zolder, below), I was third in the championship behind Peter Kox and Kristensen and had a good shot at winning the 1991 German F3 title.

And so we went to Diepholz.

After an excursion onto the grass my Dallara’s underbody caught a landing light that was solidly anchored in the ground. It tore up the monocoque, the car went straight up in the air, flipped over and came down on the track, on the rollbar; it slid along the asphalt for a few hundred meters, wheels up. I was very lucky! But, in the collision with the landing light I’d sustained a fracture of the right heel bone. At first I thought it was no big deal, planned to sit out one race and come back for the last two rounds. But I soon found out that a fractured heel bone is something very unpleasant and tedious. It was the end of the world for me when I was out of the contest for the F3 championship with three races to go.

Q: After the accident, did you ever consider giving up motor racing?
A: No, I never had that thought at any time.

Q: Two years later, you changed categories. In GT racing, you were unknown at the time, and so was the team you would collaborate with for many years, Freisinger Motorsport. How did you get together?
A: I met Manfred Freisinger by coincidence at the 1992 Nürburgring 24 Hours. Thanks to the trust Herbert Linge had put in me, I did the Carrera Cup race on the Nordschleife (this is at Hockenheim, below) in the Pirelli/Shell VIP car.

At Freisinger, the regular drivers Edgar Dören and Michael Irmgatz were nominated, with no third driver. Again the impulse came from Herbert Linge, a very interesting, friendly and fair person, and Manfred Freisinger gave me the chance to drive his RSR in the 24 Hours.

Q: Together with Freisinger, you worked your way up into FIA GT. Where did you race through the years?
A: Manfred Freisinger, the Freisinger Motorsport team, and myself complemented each other very well, and progressed together into FIA GT. At that time, Freisinger was mainly active in the Veedol Langstreckenpokal. We also did the BPR series together; in conjunction with the French Chateau Sport team, the French GT championship; Nürburgring 24 Hours, Daytona 24 Hours, (second overall in 2001 with the Porsche 996 GT3 R), Sebring 12 Hours, Le Mans; 1000k at Suzuka and Fuji; FIA GT, basically everywhere you could run a GT in the ‘90s.

(BRP events at Jarama and Zhuhai, and Le Mans - all in 1995, below)

Q: Then you clinched Porsche’s first and so far only GT2 (now GT1) win, in 2000; you won the Porsche World Cup, and half way through the 2001 season, you were out of the Freisinger drive alongside Stephane Ortelli. What happened?
A: The 2000 Lausitzring FIA GT race was a grand show. On that Saturday evening, the race went into the darkness, and it rained very hard. Through standing water and aquaplaning, Hubert Haupt, the Freisinger team and myself managed Porsche’s only FIA win for a 993 GT2. I was able to work with many splendid drivers at Freisinger, most notably Bob Wollek, Thierry Boutsen, Olivier Grouillard, my long team mate Michel Ligonnet, or Yukihiro Hane of Japan. I still don’t quite see the reasons that led to our parting of ways in the middle of 2001. Personally, this decision hit me hard at the time.

Q: The next disappointment came in 2002. You were supposed to start with a Viper in FIA GT. The project never came together and you were without a steady drive right before the start of the season. Did you think about your starting own team at this point?
A: My sights were firmly set on FIA GT again for ’02 – in GT2 with a Chrysler Viper, a good team mate, Dunlop tyres, and a newly formed German team. I had committed to this team and passed up other offers for Spanish GT as well as the ALMS, or only agreed for races that did not clash with FIA GT. Well, the Viper project and the whole new German team never came about, for reasons that have remained a mystery to me till this day. So after a terrific ’01 season, I was left empty handed. What can I say, that’s racing. 2001 had really been super fine, with the Porsche World Cup, the Nordschleife lap record, complete seasons in the French and Spanish GT championships with a 993 GT2, third overall in the Spanish series; 2002 it all collapsed around me. I did think about running my own GT team more than once during this period. In the end I never gave it a try as without strong financial backing from sponsors, you don’t stand a chance these days. Times have changed quite a bit.

Q: Wolfgang, so far it is confirmed that you will take on the 2006 FIA GT season with Renauer Motorsport, where else will we see you this year?
A: I will in all probability start in three races of the Le Mans Series. Spa-Francorchamps, Nurburgring and the Monza replacement race are on my shortlist at the moment. Without a permanent entry, Donington is very uncertain. For the Nürburgring 24 Hours I don’t have a drive at the moment but I hope to find one in time.

Translation by Johannes Gauglica. With thanks to www.projectlemans.de

 

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