The prospect of Audi factory drivers as Corvette Racing third drivers might sound weird on the surface, but speaks to a strong collaboration between both programs that enhances their respective lineups for the U.S. endurance races.
For 2016, Corvette’s gone the non-traditional route of using either open-wheelers or Taylor brothers for the opening U.S. rounds, and instead brought on Marcel Fassler and Mike Rockenfeller for Daytona and Sebring.
Rockenfeller, a GT veteran, is another somewhat returning to his roots in North America after recent years spent as the third driver with the VisitFlorida.com Racing Corvette DP program.
The opportunity arose following some conversations earlier this year, and with both manufacturers giving the green light to the loaning of the Audi factory ace to another Corvette program, this time the factory GT Le Mans squad.
“Basically Corvette came up to me and asked if there is interest from my side to join the team, to drive the opening races, Daytona and Sebring,” Rockenfeller told Sportscar365.
“I have obviously been racing with Corvette – not in the team – but seen them many times, and watched them competing, and looked up to them.
“It was a quite easy decision to say yes and ask Audi, obviously. I am an Audi factory driver. It’s clear, not every manufacturer would allow this to happen. Thanks to them and to Dr. Ullrich. He has known Doug Fehan for quite some years. It was an easy one to sort out.”
The plan was only for just the two races to open the season, with the 24 Hours of Le Mans never serving as an option.
As it is, due to the Volkswagen Group’s cutbacks for Audi’s LMP1 program from three cars to two, Rockenfeller is currently sidelined for next summer’s endurance classic anyway.
“It was always these two. That’s what they came up with and asked me for,” he said.
“You never know what happens in the future. But I am an Audi driver; I have a good program there. This is a great extra two races in the calendar.
“I made that decision when the offer came, because it’s a factory deal. That’s always where you want to be as a professional race driver, and that is where I am.”
Adapting back to GTLM, in the new Corvette C7.R, has then gone as smoothly as you’d expect following his first test at the two-day test at Daytona International Speedway in November.
“It’s a great opportunity to be back in a proper GT car with one of the best teams in the world,” Rockenfeller said. “It’s a new experience.
“It’s a long time ago, in the past I was in GT2 with Porsche, it’s now GTLM. It’s fantastic to be part of it, great to be in Daytona and Sebring, after always competing for the overall victory let’s say, in the top class.
“In recent years, GTLM is the class for toughest fights and the best competition.”
Rockenfeller, whose DTM commitments with Audi have been at the forefront of his program in recent years and will be again in 2016, said there isn’t much that translates from the touring car beast to the rumbling Corvette.
“I say always… the most similar things are the steering wheel and the three pedals you need,” he said. “You go right, it goes right and left, left. But the rest, every race car is different!
“I jumped in and felt safe and comfortable. I tried to get up to speed. We got some good laps to got to know everyone in the team.”
Rockenfeller’s next test with Corvette will be at the Roar Before the Rolex 24. While both he and Fassler have been confirmed, which car they will be in is yet to be revealed.
The German’s concerns heading into the month of January are the class speed differentials, and whether he thinks Corvette will be in the window on Balance of Performance.
“We have to see on the BoP… I hope they get it right,” he said. “Everyone needs a fair chance, but this is something you never fully know obviously.
“But the biggest battle in this whole race is in this class. GTD is also really good with a lot of cars and high competition, but with factories involved, this is the one to be in.
“I haven’t been in a GT car in this championship before. With PCs and some gentlemen drivers, the spread between the classes was not big enough in the past. I don’t know how it will be, but that is part of the game. Everyone has the same challenge.
“What I experienced on this car that is fantastic is the rear view mirror/camera, with the radar system. This is something I’ve never had before. It’s really nice and sophisticated. The rest I have had to get used to.
“I have been in slower classes in the past and I liked it. Now it’s different like you said, with all these classes, all interfering with each other. I think I will learn it.”