Arguably one of the storylines to watch heading into this weekend’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge Microsoft Visual Studio 150 at Sebring International Raceway is the debut of Compass360 Racing’s new Audi S3s in the ST class.
Karl Thomson’s team has been a longtime Honda partner, and still is active with the manufacturer in other championships.
But for the Canadian and his team’s CTSC ST class plans this year, the move to Audi signals the beginning of a new, forged manufacturer relationship.
“We had a very good relationship with Honda, and we did a lot of the technical work there,” Thomson told Sportscar365.
“But when we decided to move platforms to the Audi, I was pretty confident in our guys and in Ray (Lee, technical director) that we could get it done.”
The C360R squad ran the Honda Civic Sis at the season-opening Daytona round, where the full-season co-driver pairings of Kyle Gimple and Paul Holton (No. 75 Honda) finished seventh and Nico Rondet and Jim McGuire (No. 74 Honda) ended 24th.
Since that point, the team has focused on learning its new platform and completed more than 20 hours of testing of the all-wheel drive S3s at both Homestead-Miami Speedway and Road Atlanta.
The team purchased both cars from a dealer, rather than Audi directly.
While the Audi S3 program technically isn’t under the Audi Sport customer racing umbrella, Thomson explained that there still is a goal for Audi to help in other ways.
“The Audi guys want to give us support in many ways, particularly on the marketing side,” Thomson said.
“But because these are road cars and not race cars, there’s a limited amount of help they can give us. So we’ve done a bit of reverse engineering to help ourselves.
“We’ve talked to Tristan (Herbert) and Brad Kettler, Romolo (Liebchen) and everyone involved. They wanted us to do it. Audi said, ‘We can give more help with an S3 because we’re launching it, and we can piggyback off that.’
“I went and bought two new S3s in Canada from the dealers, full retail, and the guys started turning them into cars. We jumped in with both feet.”
Both Thomson and Gimple admitted the car is something of a work in progress and there are elements of the Audi that are more complicated than the Honda, but less complicated than the team’s GS class Subaru WRX-STi. Still, they expect Sebring to fit the car’s characteristics well.
Gimple’s in a double transition year as it is. Besides adapting to the Audi, Gimple has become the No. 75 car’s closing driver. He’s now partnered with fellow young rising star Paul Holton, who steps up to CTSC full-time in 2015, replacing fan favorite Ryan Eversley.
“The car really drives like a Honda,” Gimple told Sportscar365. “It kind of drives similar to the Subaru we raced in Lime Rock. The biggest thing is remembering there’s not a clutch.
“I want it to do well and I think it can. But it might be tricky initially.”
Both Thomson and Gimple also praised Holton’s quick adaption to the team. Coming from single driver sprint racing in Pirelli World Challenge, Gimple said will be an adjustment for him.
“I think the biggest thing for him is that these aren’t sprint races,” Gimple said. “We have to keep the car intact for the full two and a half hours. But he has a really good attitude and personality.”
C360R will look to have its Audis battle and eventually topple the class dominant Porsche Caymans, which have strength in numbers and a perceived performance edge.
Overall though, Thomson said he and his team wouldn’t have made the switch if he didn’t think the potential was there to eventually win and win often.
“We’re known for being in the championship hunt – we win races,” said Thomson, whose team won the final two ST races of 2014.
“We wouldn’t have taken on the Audi platform if we didn’t have the technical chops to deal with it.”