There were tears of joy and relief when Starworks Motorsport claimed the PC class win with its #8 Martini liveried Oreca Chevrolet FLM09 in 17th annual ‘Petit Le Mans’ at Road Atlanta last weekend.
The Fort Lauderdale based squad has concluded a difficult year by finishing third in both the Tequila Patrón North American Endurance Cup and the inaugural TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, with Dutch driver Renger van der Zande ending his first season as runner up in Prototype Challenge class and team mate Martin Fuentes, in the sister #7 Bomberg Official Starworks car, close behind him in third.
The triple race winning driving duo of Renger and Mirco Schultis were joined by Alex Popow for the 10-hour enduro in Georgia, with Martin, Ryan Eversley, Adam Merzon and John Martin coming home a commendable fifth in class in the team’s sister 7 car at the chequer of the 2014 season finale.
The #7 Starworks race challenge commenced with Martin Fuentes pulling an excruciating triple stint; two hours and 15 minutes of drive time to ensure that he would receive Championship points for the race. Adam Merzon was next to jump in to the cockpit to complete his first racing laps, and a solid double stint, in a Prototype Challenge car. Unfortunately, Adam got collected by a GT towards the end of his run which cost the 7 car a few laps.
“It was great to see Ryan Eversley in one of our cars and he did a great job cranking off fast laps and keeping us in contention,” Peter Baron, team owner said. “Considering his very limited time testing in practice, Ryan showed solid pace and the whole 7 car crew did an awesome job; it ran the 10 hours flawlessly and when it was all over we were happy to secure a top-five finish for the two PC rookies.”
The weekend did not run smoothly for the 8 car, with technical issues setting them back during free practice and qualifying. An all-nighter by the team on Friday ensured that the car was ready for the race on Saturday morning, however it was to start from the back of the 51-car grid.
“Our awesome crew only managed three hours of sleep on Thursday and then pulled an all-nighter trying to find a mysterious electrical gremlin that was not allowing our 8 car to even start!” continued Peter. “There are an unbelievable range of emotions when you go from thinking you’re not even going to make the race at 4.00am to the car running flawlessly and winning one of the toughest races of the year. Our drivers also did a fantastic job and put us in the perfect position to do so.”
With three-hours left on the clock on Saturday night Peter decided to completely change the 8 car’s race strategy – a gamble that made all the difference to the outcome of the race. “We were praying for it to go green the rest of the way. We knew after our final stop, with 45 minutes to go, we were the only car at that point that could make the finish on fuel, so we managed our pace to ensure that when the lead cars pitted, they would come out behind us.
“Renger did a fantastic job of keeping the gap where it needed to be to the 8Star car, right at the 30-second mark. Naturally we were worried when Sean [Rayhall] had a dramatic lap with 17 minutes to go, so we pushed to build a gap big enough for us to be ahead when he made his final stop. We knew the 52 car was close, even with the yellow, but once the race went green with only a few laps to go, it pitted immediately and Renger came on the radio and said “The 52 car is pitting! We are leading!” It was unbelievable. I was definitely watery eyed after this win. I have always been a huge fan of the Petit and to get a win there in our first PC attempt is fantastic, especially in the manner of how we did it!”
Renger van der Zande, #8 Starworks Motorsport, said, “It feels amazing to win this race, which was a real thriller. We had all kinds of trouble throughout the weekend and when the car got fixed at 6.00am on race day we were fastest in warm up. It was not easy when my right headlight gave up and my vision was very poor in the dark. Most of the corners are right-handers, so I was guessing my steering-in points most of the time. Overtaking also became a big challenge as the drivers couldn’t see me coming from behind. Being in the car for over six hours was tough and a great challenge at the same time. The Starworks team did a perfect job and I am very happy to win together with two top team mates, Mirco and Alex.”
However, the year started on a very different note for Peter Baron’s team. The Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona back in January saw the unsuccessful return to the Prototype class for the team’s #78 Starworks Riley-Dinan, and a motor failure and fire at the end of the race put the #7 PC car out of action for the 12 Hours of Sebring. After a move back to a Honda HPD power train, the #78 Daytona Prototype made its come back at Road America, but with very little testing and an early race retirement, Peter decided to park the project until 2015. His first foray in to Prototype Challenge racing this year with two Oreca Chevrolet FLM09 vehicles, however, saw increasing success as the season unfolded.
“It has been an amazing season with Starworks for me. We achieved six podiums including three wins and I also had some great results in Europe as well,” Renger added. “It was a year where we [Starworks] have had many problems and many successes at the same time, but everything peeked at the right moment. Finishing second in the championship is a good result for me, but there is room for improvement! I am enjoying American racing very much; it’s highly professional with spectacular formats. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Mirco for being a great team mate and Peter, plus all the Starworks guys, for having a great season together!”
Peter Baron concluded: “It has been a fantastic year; getting our drivers to 2nd and 3rd in the championship and we’re ready to go for the top spot next year. Finishing the season with wins at three races and podiums at six is an accomplishment we are quite proud of, especially as Prototype Challenge is one of most competitive classes in the world. We can relax for a little bit and enjoy the end of the season, but I am already calling tracks to work on our fall testing programs. We had an awesome year, but we are already planning on making 2015 even better.”