A Year With Spyker
Benjamin Leuenberger Looks Back
It was early spring 2007 when I had contact with Alexander Pesci and Michel Darbellay from Speedy Garage for the first time. They invited me to join their test at Valencia in order to get to know each other. Although the test did not lead to a deal for that season, we stayed in contact and I followed the progress of Speedy Garage in the LMS and at Le Mans with great interest.
In spring 2008 Mr Pesci asked me again to test his car in Paul Ricard at the official LMS test. I’m sure many of you still remember what happened at this test – an oil leak caused a big fire and lead into the total loss of the test car. Andrea Chiesa was at the wheel at this time and we were all happy that he escaped with just some minor burns. Still, the test had a positive outcome for me as I was asked to do the full LMS season and the Le Mans 24 hours for Speedy Garage and Spyker Squadron.
Because of the financial trouble Spyker ran into after their Formula 1 adventure, the green light for Spyker Squadron to continue with their sportscar program came very late in the winter. The team had plans to replace the Spyker C8 Spyder GT2R cars they where using in 2007 with the all new Spyker C8 Laviolette GT2R model; but because they received the permission to continue with the sportscar program so late, the time to get the cars ready for the first race in Barcelona was very short. The guys at Spyker Squadron worked 24/7 and they really made it happen, managing to have both cars ready for the first practice in Barcelona. It was a huge team effort and I was deeply impressed by the positive spirit within the team, considering that they had worked seven days a week for over a month.
Due to the time problem, I never had a chance to drive the car before the first race. So the first practice session in Barcelona was at the same time the first roll-out for the new Spyker Laviolette GT2R cars. Surprisingly the car ran without any major problem from the beginning. We only had to sort out some minor electrical problems – not only was the chassis new, but also the complete electronics and software.
Since we had no experience with the new car we started with the setup Spyker had used on the old cars. The new chassis is a lot stiffer, so we had to adapt the springs and damping to it. In every session we learned more about the new car and we quickly found out in which direction we had to go. In the third practice sessions before Qualifying, we managed to find a decent setup and qualified eighth in class. This was a huge success considering that the car ran for the very first time on Friday before the race.
Everything had gone well for us so far, but this was about to change at the race day. Andrea would start the race, but when he left the pits on the way to the grid, the right rear wheel came of and the car got stuck in the gravel trap. With some help from the organization we managed to get the car back into the pits and we started the race four laps after the official start. Unfortunately, about one hour into the race, we had to retire with a broken exhaust pipe. That was very disappointing and I felt especially bad for the team since they worked so hard to get the car ready. They would have deserved a good result.
After the Barcelona race the team stripped down the cars, checked everything, and put them back together for the second LMS round in Monza.
I like this well known Italian track so I was excited to race there with Spyker. The team had solved the problem with the exhaust and I had a good feeling when I arrived at the track on Thursday. We then discovered in the practice sessions that we were really good on engine power, but we lost a lot of time in the chicanes because the chassis would roll too much. But every time we tried to stiffen it up, we would loose all grip and the car was very tricky to drive. In Qualifying we also lost some power because the engine was going down. Because of these two problems we only managed to qualify in 11th position. We got a fresh engine for the race and knew that everything was still possible.
We were able to run a good pace during the race and we gradually moved forward in the field. After about three and a half hours in the race Andrea reported a problem with the car. The car was pushed in the box and the mechanics found that a faulty wheel drive pack was the cause. It took a few minutes to fix the problem and Andrea could join the field still running in sixth position. At the end we finished the race in fourth position. In the beginning it was difficult to be happy about the result, because we knew that, without the small problem with the wheel drive pack, we could have made it onto the podium.
After the good race in Monza we travelled on to Spa where we were running a new engine-configuration in the #85 car. Both the crankshaft configuration and the firing order had been modified. This modification also changed the sound of the Spyker – instead of the typically V8 rumbling, it now sounded more like a high-revving V12 engine.
We qualified 12th in class, but we were working on a good race setup, rather than on a quick qualifying setup, and we knew that we would have a good car in the race. Due to our starting position, we then decided to start from the pit lane, avoiding the trouble in the first corner whilst saving two laps of fuel compared to the rest of the field.
In the race we quickly moved up position by position and our strategy to focus on the race rather than the qualifying proved to be the right decision. We stayed out of trouble on the track and the Spyker Squadron pit-crew did a fantastic job, with fast and faultless pitstops. In the final stage of the race, with only 15 laps to go, we were fighting with the number 88 Porsche for third position. Unfortunately, we were hit by a prototype about four laps before the end of the race. The hit messed up the steering geometry so we weren’t able to attack the Porsche for third position anymore. Again, I didn’t know whether to be happy about the fourth place finish or sad about missing the podium by so little.
The next race on the schedule was Le Mans and I thought that with two fourth place finishes in a row, we would be in a good position for the big one.
Going to Le Mans is always a very special and emotional journey. It was going to be my 3rd Le Mans but my first in the GT class. When I arrived at Le Mans, a lot of memories came back to me. I still remember like it was yesterday when I was sitting in the Panoz LMP 900 at the end of the pitlane, waiting for the green light so I could go on my very first lap around the famous racetrack. Those moments you’ll never forget in your life.
For the race week in Le Mans, Michelin provided us with some new, softer tyres. After the #85 Spyker has tested the new tyre, it was clear that they were faster; but unfortunately we didn’t receive enough sets to make it through the race with just the softer tyre. We decided to save our soft tyres for the race so we would have enough to make it true the night, using just them. Andrea started the race in 12th position and quickly moved up to eighth position, just behind our team-mates Kelleners/Dumbreck/Vasiliev in the #85 Spyker.
After Andrea completed his double stint, I took over and could rejoin the field still in eighth position. My first stint was trouble free, but a few laps into my second stint I got a ‘low voltage’ warning and returned to the box to change a broken alternator. It took about ten minutes to fix the problem. After this quick fix I could finish my second stint without any further problems. Iradj Alexander took over from me after I had spent just over two hours in the car. About one hour into his stint, he reported to the box that he had lost torque and speed, but before he could make it to the pit box he stopped at the track and could not restart the engine.
I couldn’t believe it, just six hours into the race our Le Mans adventure had already come to an end. The disappointment within the team was huge, especially because both cars had to be retired after only one third of the race. After all the hard work the team had put into this effort, it was a really hard hit to take for all of us.
After a long break we went to the Nürburgring for the fourth round of the Le Mans Series. Nürburgring almost feels like home to me, as I spent most of my career racing in Germany and therefore I know this place very well. It’s always nice to race in Germany and I enjoyed catching up with a lot of old friends that I hadn’t seen for a while.
It was up to me to qualify the car and I managed to set the ninth quickest time. More important than the position was the fact that we managed to get closer to the top cars. At every meeting we were closing the gap a little bit and that showed us that we were heading in the right direction.
Our race speed on Sunday was again good and we hovered around a seventh position in the competitive GT2 field. A pit stop of our neighbour LMP team cost us a lot of time: the LMP entered the pit lane just in front of me and drove half speed to the box. I already lost ten seconds there and the LMP driver also parked the prototype in such way that I could not get into my box. It took us valuable seconds to manoeuvre the Spyker C8 to the right position to refuel. After I went out again I experienced an engine problem about 30 minutes before the end of the race and I had to park the car in the box. Another disappointing finish for us, but we could see an improvement in lap times due to developments on engine and chassis which made us feel optimistic for the next race.
After the ACO cancelled the race in Shanghai, Silverstone was the last round for us this season. Spyker had a strong 3-4 finish at Silverstone one year ago so expectations were high.
As always the weather was the big unknown in Silverstone. After the first practice was held in dry conditions, it started to rain before the second session. I had never driven the Spyker in the wet before and I have to say that I really enjoyed it. Just in time for the first rain session we finally received traction control and it was working perfectly. I set the fifth best time in the rain session and I knew that there was more to come in the wet.
Unfortunately Qualifying was held in the dry and Andrea set the tenth best time in class.
The race on Sunday was again held in dry conditions, but it was going to be a wild ride for us. About 25 minutes into the race, Andrea reported on the radio that he was hit by another car. Although his left rear suspension was damaged he was able to return to the pit box. The damaged car was pushed into the box and it took the crew 16 minutes to replace the damaged suspension before we could rejoin the field.
When I got in the car the left mirror was missing and the steering was also a bit off due to our earlier contact and the suspension change. It wasn’t easy to get into a good race rhythm as the prototype drivers were overtaking very aggressively. A few times I could avoid being hit by a prototype but then I got hit at the end of the long hangar straight. A prototype drove into my right side and pushed me into a Ferrari on the left side causing all of us to spin at about 250km/h. After coming to a halt I managed to drive back to the box with several punctures. I stayed in the car for another stint, but about 30 minutes into my second stint I was hit again by a prototype. I went off but fortunately I didn’t hit anything. At the end we finished the race in eighth position, but a lot more would have been possible without the contacts.
If a prototype in ALMS hits a GT2 car, the prototype gets a penalty for sure, but in LMS they don’t get penalized – it seems like they can hit us as they want. I cannot understand the difference in penalties and I hope the ACO will be stricter about this next season. A few of the prototype drivers just don’t respect what we are doing and this has to change. I raced prototypes in Le Mans and the LMS so I know both sides of the story.
After a difficult season, things look a lot better now at Spyker. We are on schedule for the next season and we finally have an intense winter testing program ahead of us. The guys from Speedy Racing as well as from SNORAS BANK and Spyker itself are very ambitious about this project and everyone is pushing hard in order to get the maximum out for next season. I’m very confident that we will be back next year, stronger and more reliable than ever.
As I experienced this season, Spyker has a huge fan base out there and I’d like to thank all of them for their support. I look forward seeing all of you again at the races next season.