The 2021 Hankook 12H HOCKENHEIMRING featured the closest TCE finish in 24H SERIES history between Autorama Motorsport by Wolf-Power Racing and AC Motorsport. CREVENTIC catches up with Stéphane Perrin to relive that weekend.
Words – James Gent
Images – Petr Frýba and Boost Media
As Emil Heyerdahl brings the Autorama Motorsport by Wolf-Power Racing Volkswagen on to pitroad, a roar erupts from the AC Motorsport garage. There’s less than five minutes of the 2021 Hankook 12H HOCKENHEIMRING left to run, and what appeared to be an easy win for Autorama now looks to be anything but. In the 2nd-placed Audi RS 3, just over 90 seconds behind, Mathieu Detry is given the order over the radio. “Flat out!”
AC Motorsport can still win this race.
A jovial smile stretches over the face of Stéphane Perrin as he reminiscences with CREVENTIC just under a year later. And with good reason. Hockenheim 2021, THE closest TCE finish to-date in the 24H SERIES, remains one of the most impressive showings yet for AC Motorsport. Not least because the Belgian team’s dance partner on that occasion was three-time Overall TCE Teams’ champion Autorama Motorsport by Wolf-Power Racing. TCR competition doesn’t get much tougher than that…
“It’s always tough racing in TCR because the competition is always so high,” Stéphane explains. “Especially with Autorama: these guys always seem to find another level! We’ve had some amazing [battles] with them over the years, and, because we had raised our game too, Hockenheim was definitely one of them.”
Indeed, heading into last May’s Hankook 12H HOCKENHEIMRING, Autorama / Wolf-Power Racing and AC Motorsport were the TCR teams to beat in Baden-Württemberg. Though both TOPCAR Sport and Red Camel-Jordans.nl had taken category wins in Dubai and Mugello respectively, consistent podium finishes meant it was actually reigning champion Autorama on top in the Overall TCE Teams standings, just a single point clear of AC Motorsport.
That it was actually fellow championship contender CWS Engineering that took pole position at Hockenheim was ironic, given the crucial role the Ginetta would end up playing in this story later on. Admittedly though, the British team had made to work for the TCE top spot. Strong pace from AC Motorsport’s Mathieu Detry, briefly, included a time good enough for provisional TCE pole, but a momentary lapse in concentration meant the #188 Audi ended qualifying in the gravel trap. Having concentrated on its race setup, the #1 Autorama VW dutifully slotted alongside AC Motorsport on the TCE grid as both title contenders found themselves bumped to the second row: in a sign of things to come, their best times were split by just 0.01s.
Elbows are dutifully out on the first lap at Hockenheim: Detry, still kicking himself after qualifying, makes a determined lunge down the inside of Emil Heyerdahl at turn one, the #1 VW unable to fight back at the crowded hairpin and even slipping behind TOPCAR Sport’s fast-starting CUPRA TCR.
Further ahead, Yannick Mettler in the sister #112 Autorama Volkswagen makes an electric start from the front row, and has quickly dispatched CWS for the overall lead. Colin White’s attempts to outbrake the Volkswagen into the hairpin goes badly wrong, and the Ginetta flat-spots its way into the run-off area – fortunately without contact – and to the tail of the TCE field (40 minutes later, the Ginetta has managed to fight its way back into the lead). And so the Autorama-AC-TOPCAR-Autorama TCR quartet remains in formation during the opening stages, separated by less than 30 seconds as the first hour ticks by.
Neither AC nor Autorama need to wait long before the event’s first spanner is thrown into the works: the MRS GT-Racing Porsche hits the barriers hard 90 minutes in, bringing out the event’s first Code 60. It’s a free pit stop – of sorts – for AC Motorsport, Autorama having rolled the dice and pitted under green just eight minutes earlier…
“We usually bank around 2 or 3 plans so we can adapt our strategy to the Code 60s,” Stéphane continues. “That’s something you always need to be thinking about during a race. Our goal was to take the restart [on Sunday] with new tyres – or as new as possible – and new brakes, and, if we could, a one-lap lead. But things are never that easy, and you always have to be ready to make changes quickly.”
Back on-track, Stéphane, now in the Audi, now leads Jasmin Preisig in the VW by close to a minute. Impressively, come the end of his first 47-lap stint, Stéphane has managed to extend that gap to one lap over the #112 VW with the #1 Golf a further lap behind.
No stranger to winning in the 24H SERIES – the Belgian team took its first series win at the Hankook 24H DUBAI – AC Motorsport is even more determined to reach the chequered flag first at Hockenheim in 2021. One round earlier at Paul Ricard, victory seemed assured for Stéphane and Mathieu Detry only for a wheel hub to fail almost within sight of the flag…
“We were quite angry after Paul Ricard. We had the race in our pocket, two laps clear of Autorama, and we had a problem with only an hour, maybe two, left to go. And we finished 2nd. So, when we arrived at Hockenheim, we were determined to prove that we were not pushovers. That we didn’t always finish 2nd. That we could win!”
Similarly purposeful stints from Detry and new teammate Stefan Wieninger mean that, by the time Stéphane jumps back aboard the Audi for the final 18 laps of the day, AC Motorsport still leads TCE outright, though strategic pit work from Autorama Motorsport means the gap to Jasmin Preisig (#1) has now dropped to just four seconds. There’s also another six hours of racing to complete after the overnight intervention.
Still, it’s been a good start for the Belgian team.
The faultless run however comes undone in the closing two laps on Saturday when the RS 3’s brake pedal goes long. Suddenly Stéphane, who had been intermittently dropping Preisig by two to three-tenths, is now losing four to five seconds per lap as he tries to slow the Audi without completely destroying its callipers. Any pit stop made within the final 10 minutes, as per the regulations, will land the Belgian team a 10-lap penalty.
There’s no choice. Stéphane has to keep going.
“We lost so much time with that problem. When that happened, it was so difficult to cool the brakes, which meant I had to drive around the problem, which also meant I had to reduce my pace. There wasn’t much left at the end. So after six hours, things were a lot closer than we thought they would be.”
Having started his stint four seconds to the good, Stéphane eventually crosses the line nine seconds behind new leader Preisig (#1) with Rhys Lloyd (#112), though 56s further behind, also on the TCE lead lap. After six hours of racing, the top three are right back where they started.
Memories of Paul Ricard notwithstanding, it’s not the first time misfortune has struck AC Motorsport at Hockenheim. At the inaugural running of the event in 2020, the #188 Audi was involved in a bizarre collision just moments after the green flag flew, Vincent Radermecker and TOPCAR Sport’s Fabian Danz inadvertently pincering Red Camel’s Ivo Breukers on the run down to turn one. Mere metres into the race, the #188 Audi is spun into the grass, the contact breaking its rear left suspension arm. The resultant handling defects eventually led to the car’s retirement shortly after half-distance.
Tempting as it is to blame some kind of ‘jinx’ at Hockenheim for their issues, as CREVENTIC posits only half-jokingly, Stéphane just smiles, dismissing the idea…
“No, I don’t think so. The problem in 2020 was that we were on the second row, and the [TCE] cars on the front row, they just didn’t start quick enough! And from behind, a Ligier overtook us past the pitwall then came back into the middle of the track right in front of us. The contact was just on our back wheels I think, but we lost so much time trying to fix the suspension. It basically meant out race was already done after 100m.
“But we’re not superstitious like that. We’ve actually had more mechanical issues at Barcelona over the years than we have at Hockenheim, and without that contact in 2020, we probably would have had a good result. This is just motorsport. Things happen.”
Back to 2021. At the restart on Sunday morning, another scintillating start from Mettler vaults the #112 Volkswagen back into the lead, Heyerdahl (#1) this time managing to keep Detry behind him into turn one. AC Motorsport doesn’t stay 3rd for long however, Detry quickly finding his way back past his Norwegian rival on the second lap before hoving into Mettler’s rearview mirror. It’s another 90 minutes before AC Motorsport finally gets back in front, the Belgian team’s rapid pitwork once again paying dividends.
Sadly, the first pit stop of the day strikes a decisive blow against Autorama’s #112 Golf: the Volkswagen is stuck in 4th gear, and will not re-emerge from the garage for another three hours. Early contender TOPCAR Sport has also hit trouble and already been retired, leaving AC Motorsport and the #1 Autorama VW unopposed at the top of the TCR ranks.
It’s a straight fight to the finish.
“We were so focused on winning that race. For us, it was too early in the season to start thinking about the championship. Points are very important of course, but we knew we had the pace to win in Hockenheim. The whole team wanted it so badly.”
Just over 50 laps from home and the Hockenheim jinx (sorry Stéphane!) appears to strike AC Motorsport again as Stefan Wieninger is spun at the hairpin by the CWS Ginetta. It’s a clumsy move that nets the British team – still in the lead in TCX, albeit five laps down on the TCR frontrunners – a 30-second penalty and leaves Wieninger limping back to pits.
“When Stefan came back into the pits, everyone jumped into action. You might think we’d be remembering Paul Ricard, but actually, our mechanics made sure we lost as little time as possible with that pit stop, and our guys on strategy looked at the best way to close the gap and try to put maximum pressure on Autorama.”
Though the suspension, miraculously, shows no signs of damage, it’s still a costly blow. The incident has brought the #188 Audi on to pit road at least five, and maybe as many as 10, laps earlier than scheduled with just under two hours of the race left. Unless the team goes hyper conservative on fuel, a late-race ‘splash-and-dash’ now seems inevitable.
Detry though, back out for what will be his final double-stint, is on an absolute charge. On lap 322, the TCR BeneLux racer winner trails new leader Heyerdahl (who else?) by 32 seconds. By lap 332, that’s dropped to 23s, and by lap 342, it’s down to 10s. When Detry brings the Audi in for its expected splash-and-dash on lap 346, the VW has only just made it to turn one.
Ironically, two laps earlier – 12m 15s to go – Herberth Motorsport’s Ferrari 488 GT3 had ground to a halt at Parabolika, its electrics fried. It’s a potential Code 60 that, with some gentle use of the throttle, might have got the #188 Audi to the chequered flag after all, but one that fails to materialize, Alfred Renauer having found a gap in the fence to safely pull into. Another cosmic slap in the face for AC Motorsport from the Hockenheimring. There’s now eight minutes left on the clock – 6m 55s by the time a partially refuelled Detry rejoins – and despite a sensational, 45-lap sprint from the Belgian, that really does seem to be it.
But as the clock ticks past 4m 50s, the live feed camera jumps to Heyerdahl’s onboard camera.
He’s in the pitlane!
Is Autorama being cautious? Has the team cut its final 90-minute fuel quota too close? Did Autorama need that Code 60 too?
A roar bursts from the astonished AC Motorsport garage as the VW rolls past at an agonising 40kph. They’re still in this.
“Honestly, we didn’t think Autorama would need a splash-and-dash as well. So when we saw that, we were so excited! To come back from our problems with the brakes and the puncture, and for it to still be possible to catch the leader was just…wow…!
“I think there was definitely more stress in the garage than behind the wheel. In the garage, you can do nothing. All we could do was wait, and see, and hope that Mathieu could catch Autorama. We just tell kept telling him the gap, where Emil was in the pits… we knew they didn’t have time to change his tyres, and they’d had some problems with front degradation, especially through the stadium section. So we knew we had the advantage at that moment. We knew Mathieu could win if he really pushed it.”
3m 15s to go. Heyerdahl spins the VW’s wheels onto pit exit as Detry emerges on the start-finish straight. Autorama’s pitstop has taken 1m 30s. AC Motorsport’s took three seconds longer, but the gap, with only three laps to go, is already down to 7.146s. Detry is catching…
Two laps to go, 5.664s. One mistake from Heyerdahl could decide this race.
In the end, an exhausted Heyerdahl keeps Detry at bay by a staggeringly tight 4.3 seconds. It’s the closest TCE finish in 24H SERIES history – besting Bas Koeten Racing’s inter-team fight to the line at Portimão in 2018 by 13 full seconds – and a finish for the ages.
“Mathieu did an amazing job to push, on the limit, right to the very end. We were counting how many laps we could do in the time that was left, because Mathieu was around two seconds per lap quicker than Emil. We knew it was possible, but in the end we just ran out of time.”
Though he can’t help but smile at his teammate’s superb final stint, not to mention the efforts of the AC Motorsport crew and the habitual professionalism of long-time rival Autorama – he’s a gentleman as well as sports man – Stéphane can’t quite hide his frustration at another win slipping through the team’s fingers. Not least because the grandstand finish at Hockenheim may even have decided that year’s title fight…
“For us, it was a very frustrating race. At Paul Ricard, we’d been so unlucky and Autorama had [capitalized]. And Hockenheim is probably even more frustrating because it wasn’t a mechanical issue that caused the problem this time. Also, if we’d won – we counted this back – the points for a win at Hockenheim would have been enough for us to win the championship. So, you could say that we lost the 2021 title by four seconds!”
*You can check out Stephane Perrin’s interview, and more, in our magazine for the 2022 Hankook 12H HOCKENHEIMRING, available for download below.