Tafel Racing’s 2006 – Tricky
So Far

The Rolex Series GT cars have already, as of the end of April, competed at four race meetings (five events including the qualifying race at VIR) – which is quite a contrast with some other series, a couple of which have only had one meeting so far, and one hasn’t even started yet.

The DPs typically draw more than 50% of the attention, but ahead of this weekend’s event (plus qualifying race, again) at Laguna Seca, here’s a chance to have a closer look at how the GT class is unfolding, through the eyes of Tafel Racing’s Robin Liddell (driving the #72 car with Wolf Henzler, and pictured with Tony Dowe, right) – and also gather some clues as to where Tafel Racing is heading.

The points thus far look like this:

GT Driver Points
1 Andy Lally / Marc Bunting 151 (1 win)
3 Robin Liddell / Wolf Henzler 146 (1 qualifying win)
5 Kelly Collins / Paul Edwards 140 (2 wins)
7 Steve Johnson / Robert Nearn
9 Jim Tafel / Andrew Davis 107
11 Leh Keen / David Murry 105
13 Robert Bell 104
13 Bill Auberlen / Matthew Alhadeff 104
16 Eric Lux 101
17 Charles Espenlaub 90
18 Ian Baas / Randy Pobst 88 (1 win – Rolex 24)

GT Team Points
1 #65 TRG 151
2 #72 Tafel Racing 146
3 #64 TRG 140
4 #17 SAMAX 128
5 #80 Synergy Racing 105
6 #05 Sigalsport BMW 104
7 #74 Tafel Racing 101

GT Manufacturer Points
1 Pontiac 169
2 Porsche 162
3 BMW 118
4 Chevrolet 84.

Ian Baas / Randy Pobst (plus Michael Levitas and Spencer Pumpelly) missed out Mexico and Homestead, but took the GT win at Daytona, so let’s start with them.

“Although TPC had the option of a 996 and a 997 at the Homestead Test last December,” begins Robin Liddell, “I think Michael Levitas took the view that perhaps he would have preferred not to enter a new car in the 24 Hours.”

He was certainly vindicated by taking the GT win there. The TPC team then missed a couple of races, but Pobst and Baas finished on the podium at VIR (in the main race)… so we need to ask the question: How can the old car beat the new one?

“I think it’s fair to say that our 997 has been quicker at all races than the 996, which is confirmed by the lap times in both qualifying and the races, but at VIR, a track with a lot of undulation, where you are often braking and turning in, the fact that the 996 has ABS (which we don’t), meant that over a race distance, it was a competitive car. On balance however the 997 is clearly a better car and the sequential gearbox helps give a faster more reliable shift, as well as allowing a better choice of ratios.”

Tafel Racing’s Jim Tafel and Tony Dowe took the view, when preparing for 2006, that they needed two professionals in their lead car, and whoever has started the races in #72 – Wolf Henzler or Robin Liddell – the car has looked like a winner for the first hour. So what has been going wrong?

“One of the things which is easy to overlook is the fact that TRG/Pontiac competed in most of the 2005 season, with race wins. When a team enters a new season off the back of success, they hit the ground running, they are already in their stride and they have already gelled as a team. We have clearly made some mistakes in the first few races, but what is important to the progress of the team is that nobody will try to cover up or make excuses; if you make an error, you need to admit it, understand what led to you making that error and then work together to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. Whether this means adopting a different approach or putting a new system in place, we have demonstrated as a team that we are willing to do that.

“One of the things I really value is having a good relationship with Tony (Dowe). When you think about the teams and drivers he has worked with, and the results he has achieved, he has had a really great career. At the same time, it’s easy to forget that you can also make a big impact to the performance of the car and team by simply pointing out things which need pointing out; I think that’s why we have a healthy respect for each other.

“I think that if you look closely at the first four races, somebody at TRG/Pontiac has been playing a clever game this year. We lead every race because we drive at 100% all weekend, which is what you should have to do.

"They don’t go out to lead the races, but they seem to be able to raise their game towards the end of the races, which is also demonstrated by the lap times. This has caused us a problem at both Homestead and VIR.”

Homestead was the race in which Andy Lally played the team game in the closing stages, baulking Liddell whilst a lap down and Paul Edwards nipped through for the win, Sylvain Tremblay’s Mazda also getting past the Tafel #72 car in the process.

“Paul Edwards was able to set his best lap on 30 lap old tyres: that’s something we couldn’t even dream about. The Pontiac is a full spaceframe car, almost like a front-engined DP."

Wolf Henzler was a very happy winner of the (first) qualifying race at VIR (right and above). Then came the main event.

“It would be fair to say that we haven’t always made the best calls on strategy: having led the first stint at VIR, at the first caution, I was stuck behind a slow car and we pitted one lap too late. That cost us track position to three cars that pitted a lap before us. Then we had an issue with a wheel gun, and that cost us track position to two more cars.

“So Wolf resumed in sixth place on new rubber, and although he was making some headway, he lost six seconds with a moment at Turn 1. At the final caution, the decision was taken that we’d just take a splash of fuel, and no new rubber. The ones on the car had done 18 laps by that stage, which was only half a stint.

“With hindsight, that was a mistake. At least Wolf had got the track position back, but the rest were on fresh rubber, and we lost out to both Pontiacs and to the TPC 996, dropping us off the podium.

“Had we taken fresh rubber, the best we could have managed would have been second – probably third: I don’t see that we could have finished better than that, we simply were not quick enough for the Pontiac”

So four races into the season and Liddell and Henzler are five points off the class lead (Lally and Bunting) and six ahead of the other Pontiac pair.

But with a worst finish of sixth at Daytona, perhaps a better all round performance there might actually have seen the #72 Tafel pair at the head of the points at this stage?

“We got our pit stops working much better in Mexico: we definitely weren’t good enough at Daytona – but we also had the two problems there: one with the wheel nuts, and then when Johannes (van Overbeek) had contact with a DP which resulted in a damaged water radiator.

“But at Mexico, we lost out twice: we pitted too early and by doing so missed the wave-by, and therefore lost a lap, and then I had the drive through penalty, for passing under a yellow. We still don’t know exactly how that one happened, Grand Am said they called the caution on the radio, I was in the middle of lapping a slower car at the time and my engineer didn’t hear the call until after turn 1, after I had called it to him!”

So what about the other teams in contention – SAMAX with its 997 and the Sigal BMWs?

“The BMW is a clearly a very good car, but Bill (Auberlen) is suffering because his partner isn’t on the pace, and the team is still finding its feet. In the opening stages at VIR, I came up to lap the #05 BMW, which was battling with two of the Corvettes, and the BMW had me on the grass as I tried to lap him. I lunged past him, then came up behind the Corvettes, which were side by side. Alhadeff, then a lap down, then tried to re-pass me, hit me in the door and knocked me onto the grass again. I think that aspect of the driving needs looking at by the organizers.

“The SAMAX 997 has been going better and better, and on its fresh rubber might have been better than us in the closing stages at VIR – but I don’t believe the car has had as much development as ours.”

It would be reasonable to suggest that Tafel Racing has come a long way in the last 18 months: from one car last year to three in 2006, and challenging for outright honours.

“Jim (Tafel) and Tony (Dowe) are certainly very ambitious. They’re looking hard at options for the future (in terms of what cars we race and in what championship) – and Tony is working away at the feasibility of a completely new engineering facility, near the teams existing base outside Atlanta; in it he wants to include a shaker rig, with our own fabrication and carbon shops.

“Tafel Racing is destined to become more and more of a commercial entity, and shaker rigs are in big demand: you struggle to find one that’s available in North America, because the NASCAR and IRL teams are always using them.”

So sum up where Tafel Racing is going, Robin Liddell.

“Well, we are clearly very determined to win the GT Championship this year – which is going to be tough, especially as the Pontiac is such a strong package. But we can do a better job – so we can’t really complain, being only five points adrift. We are constantly looking at ways of improving our package, and let’s face it, Porsche knows how to win, so we are clearly well positioned with them as a partner.”

And in the longer term? “This is a team that’s very ambitious, is on the up and will ultimately be competing at the highest level – we need partners alongside us that have the same goals as Tafel Racing.”

 

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