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Michelin GTLM Insider: Going to Work

A look into the factory drivers in the WeatherTech Championship…

Photo: Michelin

If the truth is to be told, few of us aspire to a “factory” job. Although many factories are quite modern, images of old, drab, often windowless factory floors, clanky machinery and endless repetition are not the stuff of which dreams or exciting careers are made.

Ahh, but earning a factory ride in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Le Mans class is a top career goal for many drivers.

Bring Talent, Not Money

Why? Because in a world where many racing series require that drivers bring money to a team, a solid factory ride actually pays a driver both literally and with opportunities for on track and career success.

And with 14 manufacturers currently entered in the WeatherTech Championship, there are factory linked drivers in the Prototype, GTLM and on the Pro side of the GT Daytona class grid.

The Best of the Best

In addition to a professional’s pay package, the GTLM factory teams typically have the latest equipment, top engineers and crews, extensive testing and simulation resources and consistent funding which can provide at least some semblance of security in the fast-changing paddock.

That level of competition is intense but rewarding.

Simply put, factories can afford to identify, retain, and develop the best talent. And best of all, drivers typically don’t have to bring sponsorship money and can avoid the annual scramble to find a competitive ride.

Photo: Michelin

More than Steering a Car

While the factories regularly monitor developing talent and support series, young talents who may expect offers based solely on their pace will be quickly disappointed.

“It’s a big world and in sports cars, a top factory ride is the top of the pyramid,” said Chris Baker, director of motorsport, Michelin North America.

“The best factory teams throw a wide net and they can choose the best technical partners, managers, engineers, crews and drivers.”

In addition to their speed, factory drivers must be strong team players able to communicate, collaborate and strengthen a team while meeting the off-track marketing, promotional and media responsibilities which manufacturers demand.

Rookie Error

One young driver arrived at the track for his first factory test accompanied by his girlfriend, manager and PR representative.

Unbeknownst to him, he was virtually eliminated from serious consideration the moment that they all emerged from his rental car.

“You don’t show up for a job interview with your entourage,” a veteran team manager later commented.

“You spend time with the team, the other drivers, engineers, and the crew, everyone on the team. He was reasonably good in the car, but it was obvious that he wasn’t going to fit.”

Photo: Scott LePage/IMSA

Lots of Seats, Few Vacancies

The GTLM class alone provides full season rides to 18 factory-linked drivers with an additional number for the NAEC events, WEC and Le Mans or other assignments.

Porsche has a powerful roster of 19 official factory drivers this year. That includes six drivers for its WEC LMP1 program and 14 drivers in GT programs.

Patrick Pilet, Dirk Werner, Gianmaria Bruni and Laurens Vanthoor lead Porsche’sWeatherTech Championship GTLM roster while Joerg Bergmeister and Patrick Long are placed with GTD teams.

Ford Chip Ganassi Racing has eight full-season drivers with Joey Hand, Dirk Mueller, Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook on board its GTLM entries and an additional four drivers in the WEC programs.

Stars like Scott Dixon and Sebastien Bourdais join the Ford IMSA squad for the long events with an additional pair joining the WEC side.

BMW is expanding its driver ranks as it introduces the new M8 GTE in 2018 WeatherTech Championship GTLM and WEC GTE-Pro competition. Bill Auberlen and John Edwards are the incumbents, while Alexander Sims and Martin Tomcyk have turned in strong performances in their first GTLM season.

At Corvette Racing, Oliver Gavin, Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Tommy Milner are joined at the long races by Audi refugees Marcel Fassler and Mike Rockenfeller.

Although an independent team, Risi Competizione relies on a pair of Ferrari factory shoes, Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander, with top third drivers for Le Mans and the NAEC events.

Photo: Scott LePage/IMSA

Free Agency

Unlike traditional stick and ball sports, race drivers are the ultimate free agents.

When a contract opens up, the driver may deal directly with a number of teams. There are no compensatory draft picks, players to be named later, or salary caps.

Bruni was contracted to Ferrari when Porsche wanted to sign him for the new Porsche 911 RSR. Porsche then negotiated agreements with Bruni and Ferrari and he joined the Porsche GT team starting in June at Watkins Glen.

Hand (2015) and Mueller (2016) went from BMW to Ford in recent years, while Porsche snagged Werner from BMW for this year.

No Guarantees

However, all is not forever and always in factory racing. What the factory giveth, the factory can also taketh away.

Even winning drivers are not guaranteed a seat. If the competition passes them by or the team dynamics aren’t working they can be paid, moved to a support series, a testing and development role, or find that their contract is not being renewed.

Sometimes circumstances are beyond the team’s control, such as when the corporate meat axe is swung.

In 2014, SRT Viper’s Kuno Wittmer crossed the finish line at Road Atlanta to claim the GTLM driver’s championship. When he returned to the paddock, he learned that he was unemployed.

SRT’s parent company had pulled the plug on the program and compounding the pain, other factory teams had already filled any vacancies for the following year.

Today, three years later, Wittmer is a BMW factory driver, but only aboard at the NAEC events.

Photo: Michelin

Playing Long Term

The four full-season drivers at Corvette Racing (Gavin, Magnussen, Garcia and Milner) have been with the team for a combined 46 seasons.

Milner, now 30 years old and a two-time GTLM champion with Gavin and a two-time Le Mans class winner, is completing his seventh season with the team, yet remains low man on the team driver seniority list.

There is good reason for the lack of turnover in the four full-season seats at Corvette.

In the past seven years the team has won Le Mans twice and is looking for its fourth WeatherTech Championship since 2012.

Magnussen and Garcia currently lead the championship and look to score their second title (2013) to match Gavin and Milner’s score (2012, 2016) in that span.

And Corvette isn’t the only manufacturer to foster long relationships.

Auberlen is now in his 22nd season with BMW. His teammate, Edwards, is just 26 years old, yet already is wrapping up his fifth season as a BMW factory shoe.

Porsche’s Pilet is in his 10th season as a Porsche factory driver while Bergmeister is in his 14th season and Long, now 36 years old, has been an official Porsche factory driver since 2003.

For some drivers like Audi’s Allan McNish and Tom Kristensen, Corvette’s Ron Fellows, and Porsche’s Hurley Haywood, the relationships continue long after their driving careers have ended.

They become Ambassadors or, in McNish’s case, a program manager.

“Sometimes life in the factory can be a great gig,” said Baker, who has been with Michelin for 35 years.

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