At the 2022 Hankook 12H MUGELLO, four-time FIA World Rallycross champion Johan Kristoffersson made his 24H SERIES debut aboard an HRT Performance Porsche 992 GT3 Cup. CREVENTIC caught up with the Swedish rallycross star throughout the weekend to see how his return to the endurance racing circuit went.
Words – James Gent
Images – Petr Frýba / Red Bull / Volkswagen
Bizarrely, to praise Johan Kristoffersson as ‘just’ a four-time World RallyCross champion would almost do him a disservice, given the variety of series in which the Swedish star has competed…
“I actually didn’t start racing at all until I was 20 years old,” Johan explains. “I never did go-karting when I was younger either. I actually started out doing cross-country skiing before switching to circuit racing in 2008.”
Prior to his time behind the wheel, a young Johan cut his motorsport teeth as a tyre gunner for the family ‘Kristoffersson Motorsport’ team – which would enjoy enormous success as the factory-based ‘Volkswagen Motorsport Sweden’ in the years that followed – and his father Tommy, a European Rallycross and Swedish Touring Car Championship race winner in his own right before officially hanging up his helmet in 2008. When finally Johan did get behind the wheel, the young Swede took to racing like the proverbial duck to water.
In 2008, Johan competed in Sweden’s national Junior Touring Car Championship, claiming two wins en-route to 4th in the standings. The following year, having vaulted to the Swedish Touring Car Championship proper, Johan finished second in the ‘Semcon’ privateer ranks with six division wins to his name. Though there’d only be a few outings in the Scandinavian Touring Car Cup in 2010, Johan Kristoffersson was about to make a big splash…
“I finished 2nd overall in the Porsche Carrera Cup Scandinavia in 2011, and for 2012, I also moved into the Scandinavian Touring Car Championship and Superstars International Series Italia. That was kind of my breakthrough year because I won all three series.
“After that I started European Rallycross in 2013 and did some endurance racing too: I did the Bathurst 12 Hours in an Audi R8.” – Johan finished 4th overall with Phoenix Racing on his event debut. There were plans for another season in ‘Superstars’ with Petri Corse aboard, of all things, a Porsche Panamera before that fell through. – “Of course I started full-time in World Rallycross in 2014 – I finished 3rd that year – and 2015, and that same year, I also did my last full season in the Porsche Carrera Cup Scandinavia. That was my best season because I won 13 out of 13 races!”
In 2016, Johan took another win en-route to the runners-up spot in World RX (he finished top three in the STCC that year as well with two wins) before finally claiming World Rallycross gold in 2017 with an astonishing seven wins from 12 outings. A record he’d blow completely out of the water in 2018 with 11 wins from 12 entries to secure his second consecutive crown. Three wins and a further four podiums to secure the TCR Scandinavia crown that same year – three wins less than he’d managed during a part-campaign in 2017 – were almost modest by comparison.
“In ’16, ’17 and ’18, I did a bit of circuit racing here and there, and then I did one last STCC full-season in 2018 with a Golf TCR. And I won that, together with the World Rallycross championship. Then Rallycross again in ’20 and ’21” – with Volkswagen having pulled its official works rallycross team, Johan joined Sébastien Loeb Racing for a solo year in the World Touring Car Cup in 2019 and took three wins – “another year in the Porsche Carrera Cup in 2020, and now we’re here!” Were all this not diverse enough, in 2021, Johan also secured the inaugural Extreme E championship with Rosberg X Racing and Australia’s Molly Taylor aboard an all-electric Odyssey 21 off-roader.
“Here,” incidentally, is the CREVENTIC Endurance Lounge in the paddock of the Autodromo Internazionale del Mugello. And in just a few day’s time, Johan will make his 24H SERIES debut aboard a Porsche 992 GT3 Cup, entered for the event by Saxony’s HRT Performance.
It’s a learning curve we expect will be pretty steep: not only will this be the first endurance race the four-time RX champ has competed in for almost a decade, the 2022 Hankook 12H MUGELLO is set to be the longest event he’s contested, full stop.
Not that this prospect seems to bother him all that much…
“Gustav [Bergström] did the 24H DUBAI with HRT Performance in January, and he’s a close friend of mine: Gustav’s father was my engineer when I did Porsche Carrera Cup in Sweden. Ole Christian [Veiby] and I also did the Porsche Carrera Cup together in Sweden in 2013. He drove for my father’s team back then, but he’s mainly a rally driver now and I work quite closely with him. One day an opportunity came up for us to join Gustav at HRT for Mugello, and because we have a good relationship, we said yes.
“From my side, it’s always good to break away from RallyCross for a bit, get back to circuit racing, and use that to fine-tune how I drive. It’s always good, as a driver, to jump into new things and see how quickly you can adapt [to a new discipline]. For example, in Rallycross, when the track conditions change very quickly, it’s always good to know you can adapt quickly to that, or if you can use a little circuit racing knowledge to hopefully become a better rallycross driver. That’s what I’m here for.
“There will be long stints, a lot of trying to understand the tyres, how to react to a Code 60 and all of that stuff. There’s a lot of things to learn but I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
“Yeah, it’s been okay so far. I have some experience of Mugello, so the track is at least a bit familiar, but I haven’t been here since 2012!”
When CREVENTIC catches up with the series’ newboy later on, Johan, still in his civvies and with a meticulously pressed, off-white ‘Red Bull’ cap dutifully planted to his head, it’s about an hour removed from the only Free Practice running he’ll get before qualifying starts. A crucial one-hour of track-time, not just for HRT teammates Gustav Bergström and Ole Veiby – who have just one start in the 24H SERIES between them – but particularly for Johan, who hasn’t raced the 992-generation Porsche before.
That his run in Free Practice went smoothly is no doubt adding to the champ’s good mood too: with no major issues to contend with, Johan banked seven of HRT Performance’s 21 laps during the one-hour session, the 1m 52.816s he set on his penultimate run the fastest of any ‘992’ class runner. Clearly his time adapting from the ‘old school’ 991-II Cup he last competed with in 2020 to the “complete racecar” he’ll use this weekend has been well-spent…
“The Porsche, when I started back in 2011, with the gearstick, clutch, ‘heel-and-toe,’ etc, was a little more ‘old school’. And I really, REALLY liked that! It was so more difficult back then to nail a lap because you really had to be on it. Now, it’s still difficult to nail a lap of course, but it feels… different.
“You have to be a perfectionist in every corner because everything comes down to the fine details: only when you get the absolute best out of the tyres, or the ABS, can you get the best out of the car during a lap. And the 992, compared with previous versions, is becoming more and more like a complete racecar. The 991 was always a bit tricky to rotate through the mid corners, but now there’s so much front grip, the 992 is almost like a GT3 car now.”
There’s still an hour to go before qualifying, and that’s also set to be another new challenge: Johan, Gustav and Ole will each be expected to set their best times in their own, individual 10-minute qualifying sessions, the average from which will determine their place on the grid. There’s no room for errors, though the short, sharp ‘sprint’ format is hardly likely to stump the 26-time World RX race winner.
Still, while, as a professional racing driver, he’d like his weekend to end with a good result – “I don’t hate to win. I just love to win!” – Johan is under no misapprehension what’s expected of him during a 12-hour race…
“I really have no idea what competition we’ll be up against, or who are nearest competitor will be. Obviously you want to be faster than the other teams around you, so that’s the main target, and to be as fast as possible for the guys you’re competing with in the same car. But I did realize pretty quickly when I arrived that we really need to be cautious, and just make sure we don’t get any penalties, or make any silly mistakes with Code 60s, yellow flags, pit exit speeds, pit entry speeds, refuelling, track limits, etc. If we can avoid that, I think we have a good chance of getting a good result.”
Four hours into the 2022 Hankook 12H MUGELLO, and for HRT Performance, it’s so far so good. Fastest laps from Gustav, Ole and Johan during their qualifying runs means the #929 HRT Porsche lines up on ‘992’ category pole position – and an impressive 13th on the overall grid – for Saturday’s race start. Series newboy Johan takes the opening stint.
A mammoth one it turns out to be too: the champ completes 49 laps of Mugello’s 5.245km Autodromo during the opening two hours, his 1m 53.829s on lap five the quickest the #929 Porsche will post across the entire opening day. By the time he hits pitroad for his second stop, Johan’s close to 40 seconds ahead of the nearest 992 runner.
“First of all, qualifying went really well. I was very happy with the quali. And then the first stint went almost two hours, which was pretty long but I was felt very fit during the whole run and I knew pretty early on that I would do around two hours, and that meant I could take care of the tyres as I wanted and keep a good, steady pace going during the whole stint.
“We were struggling a little with the first fuelling – you just never know what the queue will be like at the refuelling station – so we lost a little time there. And there’s so many things to think about during a pit stop: report the fuel, reset the fuel, change the driver ID, etc. But all in all, I think we had a pretty decent first stint, I’m happy with that, and I think we made more or less the right decisions.”
Deft use of four opening Code 60 caution periods means that, at several points, Johan is classified well inside the overall top 10…
5th, we’re immediately corrected with a cheeky grin (turns out, for a fleeting moment during the second round of pit stops, the #929 even climbs as high as 3rd overall), and by the time Johan’s first stint is done and he’s handed the undamaged car over to Gustav, HRT is back on-track in 8th place overall, four positions further up the road than category rival, Red Camel-Jordans.nl.
The joie de vivre of yesterday is clearly still here with abundance, but CREVENTIC can tell the competitive side of the four-time World RX, three-time Porsche Carrera Cup, and two-time STCC champion is starting to creep in. Gone are the civvies, replaced now with a BAUHAUS / Volkswagen racesuit and boots, and while previously we were chatting in the CREVENTIC Endurance Lounge, we’re now stationed not too far from the HRT pit garage. The Red Bull cap – blue now – remains in place, but every so often Johan’s eyes bounce back to the timing screen on his phone. The importance of pre-race preparation is brought up during our conversation too: “in rallycross, you don’t really get big G-Forces through your neck like you do here for such a long time, so that’s a big difference.”
On that note, what about the change in driving style? This being a 12-hour event, and with both halves sandwiching the 24H SERIES’ customary overnight intervention, learning to race at night is negated this weekend in Mugello. Johan freely admits though that the mental shift from the sprint-focused world of rallycross, TCRs and Porsche Carrera Cups to the more conservative reality of a 12-hour race has not been quite the mental stumbling block you might think…
“People don’t realise how long a Rallycross weekend can be. In some ways, it’s even longer because you start earlier and you do so much preparation: on the Wednesday, you need to do your recce, and you have really long days leading up to the start of the rally, so there’s limited time for sleep. So, weirdly, ‘switching off’ your head for endurance racing doesn’t actually take that long.
“The amount of driving time itself… yeah, it’s a lot longer, but you can adapt to that quite quickly. I personally really enjoyed the challenge of wearing down the tyres in the best possible way. To try and read the tyre, and understand how much you can push them. I really enjoy that.
“So it’s a little different but, at the same time, everyone’s also being quite aggressive out there. Everyone is going for every gap, because… it’s an endurance race, but it’s still a race!”
Two solid stints apiece from Johan, Gustav and Ole mean the #929 HRT machine completes the opening 5.5 hours in 12th place overall, a scant 4.195s adrift of 992 class leader Red Camel-Jordans.nl. Unlike HRT, which pits for fuel and fresh tyres with just five laps left to run, the Dutch team opts against a final stop to retain track position, meaning both 992 runners will restart ‘part two’ tomorrow morning on the same lap.
Unsurprisingly, with HRT well in contention for class victory at half-distance, thoughts of a conservative “good result” just one day earlier have already vanished. Now, the four-time world champion – and multi-time national champion – has just one thought on his mind…
“I think now our goal is to win our class. If we don’t make any mistakes, and if the team makes all the right decisions, I think that’s a realistic target.”
At 9am the following morning, the green flag is unfurled, and racing is back underway in Mugello. While eventual winner ST Racing and the MANN-FILTER Team LANDGRAF Mercedes go resume their fight at the sharp end, further back in the pack, a late-braking move down the inside of San Donato from Johan, once again in the HRT hot seat, means the #929 Porsche is already back into the 992 lead before Sunday’s opening lap is even completed. Emulating his form from one day earlier, the Swede drops the car’s fastest lap of the race – a 1m 51.961s – yet further on lap ‘seven’.
Not that the champ, in spite of his early pace, has forgotten that there’s still more than six hours of racing left…
“How you treat the tyres has a bigger effect on the setup of your car than what your setup of the car is,” a freshly rested Johan explains to CREVENTIC shortly before the restart. “Gustav and Ole understand that because, so far, we’d had more or less the same feedback and feeling from the car. Sometimes you can find yourself in a situation where some drivers want to go in one direction for setup, and you want to go the other, and that can be a bit annoying. So driving the way we have been has made things a bit easier.”
Clearly up to speed with the Porsche 992, another new concept Johan will continue to wrap his head around today is CREVENTIC’s Code 60 caution periods: he experienced four of them during his opening stint alone yesterday. Surprisingly though, the 2022 Hankook 12H MUGELLO continues for almost a full hour on Sunday morning before the purples are thrown, the SK Racing Ligier having beached itself in the gravel at Bucine. While it’s an opportunity for HRT’s engineers to stretch their creative strategic muscles, Johan does admit that the Code 60 concept has its pros and its cons, from his perspective as a driver at least…
“When it’s out of my hands, I don’t like it!” he laughs. “During the second Code 60 yesterday, there was a car in front of me that I was catching – a GT3 car – winding him in by 5-metres per lap, slowly, steady. And then in the Code 60 he gained 80 metres on me again. So, that can be frustrating. But it’s also part of the game. It’s tricky, because you have to be so strict with yourself driving at 60kph, but it also means there’s always something happening. If you go out and drive a stint for two hours all alone, it’s a bit boring. If there’s always something going on, it makes the race a bit more exciting.”
Sadly, we don’t get a chance for further catch-ups with Johan on Sunday. On the 194th lap, while Johan is running 11th overall, the Porsche’s left rear tyre lets go completely, the ruined carcass escaping the rim halfway round the lap at Arrabbiata 2. Though the puncture occurs towards the end of Johan’s scheduled double stint, and the #929 escapes any suspension and/or floor damage, significant time is lost bringing the Porsche back to pitroad. It’s also the second puncture Johan has experienced this morning alone, and by the time Ole Veiby returns the #929 Porsche to the track, HRT has lost two laps to Red Camel-Jordans.nl. It’s a brutal blow to the team’s hope of 992-class victory.
Back in, fittingly, for the final stint of the weekend, Johan eventually brings the #929 Porsche home an impressive 9th overall as the second- highest-placed 992 runner. HRT Performance even manages to recoup one of its lost laps during the remaining four hours on Sunday, the gap back to Red Camel down to just 1m 36s at the flag after 12 exhaustive hours.
There’s an understandable air of disappointment that floats over the HRT garage though as a potential win goes wanting. Not that two errant punctures will keep Johan Kristoffersson down. Sooner rather than later – and hopefully in the 24H SERIES once again – he’ll be looking for the next challenge in a Hall of Fame motorsport career. Be it on the rally stages or on-track, in a Porsche Cup car, a Volkswagen TCR, or an electric ‘Odyssey’ off-road buggy, we can pretty much guarantee that.