01 Dec CoTA 24: Rewind
Winward/HTP Motorsport can look back on the Hankook 24 Hours of CoTA with a huge sense of satisfaction along with a lingering sense of what could have been. The team’s AMG GT4 made its North American debut at the Austin event running in the SP2 Class. Despite a handful of issues, costing the car many laps to the SP2 leaders, the car was running the fastest lap times in the class as the checkered flag fell at 6pm on Sunday evening.
The practice sessions on both Thursdasy and Friday morning showed how close to the front the new AMG GT4 could be. In Friday morning’s session, HTP’s flying Dutchman, Indy Dontje, posted the fastest time in the class which meant the team could approach the late afternoon qualifying session with a great deal of confidence. A niggling alternator belt issue was proving to be tough to cure and this required a number of extended visits to the garage between practice runs. The one-hour qualifying session gave all of the drivers the chance to get laps under competitive conditions. The car continued to show it’s potential pace with a time good enough for P2 in the SP2 class and 11th overall.
Saturday’s race would see 14 hours of competition with the green flag at 9am and the checkered flag at 11pm. The teams, drivers and crew would then reconvene at 8am on Sunday morning for the final 10 hour race segment. AMG factory driver, Maxi Gotz took the Green Flag and quickly grabbed the class lead and, incredibly, by the 75 minute mark, the German was P7 overall. Next into the car was Indy Dontje who rejoined P3 in SP2 but within fifteen minutes, he once more had the lead in class and ninth position overall.
With just over two and half hours gone and the #84 Winward/HTP Motorsport AMG GT4 running at the head of the class, the team faced its first major issue of the race as a faulty fuel sensor resulted in Indy Dontje stopping on track with an empty tank. The car was towed back to pit lane, where after a driver change, the three-man crew had to push the car and driver uphill along pit lane to the fuel station. For new driver, Damien Faulkner, it was a frustrating way to begin his first competitive outing in the AMG GT4 but, as it turned out, running out of gas was only the beginning of his frustrations. “Refuelling in this series is done at the fuel station and that is quite the way up the pit lane from our garage. The three mechanics did an incredible job, in the heat of the day, they pushed the car the length of the pit lane. I wanted to jump out and help push myself as this is a heavy car. Because we tried to start it so many time, the battery was now dead so one of the crew had to run back to the garage for an external battery. After fuelling we had to push the car out of the fuel station too. After all of that, we got a thirty second stop and go penalty because we took 2.5 liters too much! The series keeps a sharp eye on things and you don’t get away with anything.”
Faulkner was able to complete the 30 second penalty at the end of his stint in the car before handing it over to his 2018 IMSA teammate, Russell Ward. The primary aim of the event, from Ward’s perspective, was to maximize his seat time, and the two-hour double stint in the last of the Fall daylight was hugely helpful. Having dropped down the order after the fuel and pit-stop issues, Ward was able to hand the car back to Maxi Gotz in an excellent third place in SP2.
The drama now began to escalate for the Houston based team as Gotz hit a tire from another team as he left his pit box. Fortunately no penalty was called on the #84 team and there was no damage to the front of the AMG GT4. Gotz was once again the class of the SP2 field as he circulated in third place, but as it looked liked the team had a chance to recover some of the laps lost after the earlier incident, the car was back into the pits, this time for a lengthy stop to repair a broken turbo hose caused by the ongoing alternator belt issue. The team also took this time to change the brake pads and discs.
After a 26 minute stop, Indy Dontje was able to rejoin but the car was now 15 laps behind. One lap later, the Dutchman was back in for yet another stop, this one lasted 16 minutes and put the car 19 laps behind the leaders in SP2. This was made all the more frustrating as Dontje was able to lap six seconds faster than the class leaders on his first flying lap out of the pits.
As the chance of a class victory became less likely, the team decided to change plans and focus on getting Russell Ward more time in the car. The driver schedule was re-arranged and the 26 year old Texan climbed back into the car for an extended night stint. After an hour of night driving, Ward came in and handed the car over to Faulkner. The Irishman’s stint was cut short after an ABS failure. Maxi Gotz jumped into the car to bring it to the conclusion of the first 14 hours.
Sunday’s 10 hour conclusions was now looked upon as a chance to put some hard test miles on the car in full race conditions. It was also a chance to fully test the crews performance under pressure. After just one lap, the car was brought in to repair a cracked brake disc. With an hour and fifteen minutes gone, Indy Dontje brought the car in again complaining of a loss of power. A full three hours and seven minutes later, the car was back on track with a new flywheel and Russell Ward behind the wheel. The car ran flawlessly for the final five and a half hours providing the team with a sense of achievement to somewhat counter the disappointment of the result.
“I really enjoyed racing in the USA here at Circuit of the Amercias, this is a really special and demanding track,” said Indy Dontje after the race. He went on to describe just how much potential the car has, “I really had to find my rhythm this weekend and once I found it I was really flying. My second stint in the car was fantastic I was even racing with some GT3 cars. That was amazing, the GT3 Porsche came out of the pits in front of me and I just said ‘yeah, I’m going to get you my friend’. He was getting a bit annoyed, I think. We went side by side after the esses and he opened the door a bit coming into T10 and I was able to get him at the hairpin. I was able to fight with a lot of the GT3 cars at night, I didn’t have any problems racing at night but some of the GT3 drivers certainly did. At times it really felt like being in a GT3 car even though I was driving a GT4.” Despite the result, the HTP Motorsport regular also saw the benefits of the event “It’s such a shame that we had some problems in the race, but ultimately it is good for the development of the car.”
For Winward/HTP Team Principal, Bryce Ward, the event delivered far more positives than negatives. “The AMG GT4 handles well and the engine and transmission were unbelievable. The issues we had were all small but the team overcame them and basically ran at 100% for the last five hours of the race.” The chance to give the 2018 Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge drivers more time behind the wheel was also welcomed by Ward. “Russell ran the last hour and forty five minutes in what was a fantastic stint for him. Prior to that, Damien was in the car for an hour and a quarter. We ran with the air conditioner belt on for the last two stints so the car ran in full race spec for more than the length of the longest Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race and that is hugely encouraging.”