Less than 72 hours after claiming victory in his final race as an Audi GT factory driver, Laurens Vanthoor is set to begin a new chapter in his driving career this week at Daytona, as the Belgian gets behind the wheel of a Porsche 911 RSR for the first time.
The newly crowned Intercontinental GT Challenge and FIA GT World Cup champion has become one of the German manufacturer’s latest factory additions for 2017, joining the Porsche North America squad in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
For Vanthoor, it marks the end of a career-defining five-year run with Audi, and also with Belgian Audi Club Team WRT, where the 25-year-old delivered numerous victories, two European GT3 championships and a world title.
“It’s true that we have had quite the ride together,” Vanthoor told Sportscar365. “Audi, they made me, and you have to honest, WRT as well for all the time I spent there, they made it possible for me to become a professional driver.
“Especially Vincent [Vosse, WRT team boss]. They made me became a professional driver and since then we’ve had a lot of success together.”
In the motorsports world, timing is often everything and that proved to be the case in Vanthoor’s switch.
“My dream has always been to do LMP1 with Audi,” he said. “But if I waited [any] more, it wouldn’t have been the smartest thing.
“The more and more I was talking to them, the more it became clear to me as well that it seemed that things were in the middle of a struggle.
“I wasn’t getting any clear answers, there was a bit of rumors, this and that.”
An impromptu meeting with Porsche at this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, where Vanthoor was driving Michael Shank Racing’s Ligier JS P2 Honda, led to further talks with the manufacturer through the summer.
“From the beginning, from the first meeting with Porsche, I knew this was something I wanted to do,” Vanthoor said. “It was a category I like, a brand and a company I liked, a family.
“I had a final meeting with Dr. Ullrich and he said to me, ‘If you get a chance to do something well, I would advise you to do it.’ And I told him my options and he said, ‘Go to Porsche.’
“Two weeks later, we got the word from Porsche that we were going to do it. And three weeks later we got the news that Audi had stopped LMP1.”
Vanthoor said he believes he would have been in the frame for an Audi LMP1 drive had the VW emissions scandal not happened.
“Things happened that were outside of my hands, but now I’m very, very happy to join Porsche,” he said.
“I think it’s one of the best places to be. A Porsche driver, to me when I was young, had a lot of value because Porsche, the 911, has the biggest history in motorsports.
“They have always done motorsports and I think they will always do motorsports.”
The 2017 season will mark a number of firsts for the European GT ace, in not only making his Porsche debut, but also embarking on the U.S. racing scene for the first time, a racing discipline he’s followed from afar with interest.
“At the moment that I signed, I didn’t know if it was WEC or IMSA,” Vanthoor said. “I always said that WEC, it’s a world championship so it has a lot of value and Europe, it’s maybe more noticeable.
“But from the pure fun point of view, I had no doubt in my mind I wanted to do IMSA.
“The tracks, the way the races go… In IMSA you have GTLM and Prototypes, they’re given equal attention [unlike WEC].
“In the middle of the year when I was thinking about… Porsche, I found an onboard channel of a 911 on every [IMSA] track, and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to drive.’
“I saw the highlights of the races and you have some of the… artificial safety cars, but it makes the race. I see the highlights, I see how they go hard and battles, and that’s what I like.
“I’ve never raced in America so I cannot judge it 100 percent. But it looks like something exactly how I see racing. The race director says race how you would want to be raced, all of which I like.
“I’m looking forward to that experience.”
His first chance of chasing the American dream will come this week at Daytona, in the public debut of the radical new mid-engined 911 RSR.
“It’s a whole new job and a new world,” he said. “I spoke with my guy who is helping me with mental training and he said it’s like a book.
“[Last] weekend I finished a chapter in my book and then I turned the page. That chapter I have to put in the closet and forget about it.
“I’m starting from zero. I have to build up the respect, to gain the respect of Porsche and the team. It’s work that will take all year to gain respect from everybody.”
While Vanthoor’s focus will be on the WeatherTech Championship with new season-long co-driver, and former GT3 rival Kevin Estre, he hopes to be able to also still be able to tackle some of the key GT endurance races next year.
“My personal goal would be to do the four big GT3 races: Bathurst, Spa, Nürburgring, and Macau,” he said.
“I think some of them I will do with Porsche, possibly all of them, then there’s still the possibility to do Le Mans. At the moment, I’m doing [just] IMSA but then after, I don’t know.
“Some people have asked me if I would do some races with WRT in an Audi or do Le Mans in an LMP2 like this year, and I don’t know.
“At the moment I want to stick with what I have because I’m doing the championship I want.”