In 2016, Georg Weiss bade farewell to a 16-year tenure with Porsche to start a new relationship with Ferrari. That the prancing horse now donning the distinctive ‘Wochenspiegel’ livery is one of the most successful in Maranello’s modern history, with more than 300 wins and 69 championships to its name across its first four years of competition, suggests WTM Racing’s time on top could be just around the corner…
Words – James Gent
Images – Petr Frýba / Ferrari
There’s a long-held assumption in motorsport that every driver, at some point in their career, wants to drive for Ferrari. Since its maiden win in 1947, Enzo Ferrari’s eponymous scuderia has captured public and professional imagination, both on-track and off it, as the most charismatic carmaker of them all. A reputation built not just on the passion of Il Commendatore himself, but the evocative likes of the 250 GTO, the 365 GTB4 Daytona, the Testarossa, the F355, and the F40 among many, many others, that launched the brand into motoring’s upper echelons. To say nothing of the Schumachers, Fangios, Ascaris, Laudas, and Villeneuves – again, among countless others – that took the prancing horse to motorsport immortality.
For Georg Weiss and WTM Racing though, the ‘dream’ switch to Ferrari from Porsche in 2016 proved an altogether more practical decision…
“We drove with Porsche for 15 years,” begins Georg, who, during that time, had competed in 996, 997, and 991-generation GT3 Porsches in the Spanish GT Championship (in the early noughties at least), the VLN, and, most significantly, at the Nürburgring 24 Hours. “Even though we had a lot of interesting and successful races. But with Porsche, the [customer] experience was sometimes good, sometimes bad, and costs were going up. We were also having mechanical issues with the Porsche too: the engine we’d usually change every 30 to 50 hours, but sometimes we’d go to a 24-hour race, with a new engine, and still have problems with that…
“Or the gearbox,” Georg’s son and teammate Leonard jumps in.
“…or the gearbox. We lost a lot of races because the gearbox failed. It just felt like a good time to try something new.”
The relationship finally drew to a close, ironically, on Georg’s 24H SERIES debut at the Hankook 24H BARCELONA in 2016, the race coming to a premature end when, yes, the gearbox on the WTM-entered 991 GT3 R let go. For Georg though, the switch could not have come at a better time, as just under a year earlier, Ferrari had pulled the silks off its 488 GT3, the track-going example of, what would become, Maranello’s era-defining 488 GTB.
Officially revealed at the Geneva Motor Show in 2015, 40 years after the debut of Ferrari’s original mid-engined ‘Berlinetta’ sports coupe – the 308 GTB – the 488 bid a controversial farewell to natural-aspiration, effectively replacing the 4-litre V8 in the outgoing 458 with a downsized, though more efficient, 3.9-litre twin-turbo V8. A “change in philosophy” that, surprise surprise, Ferrari purists weren’t ready to accept.
Criticisms were quickly dispelled however by early test drives of the still-unbelievably-potent turbo V8. Mated with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, said 3,902cc unit and twin-scroll turbochargers sent a whopping 670hp to the rear wheels, while a new Variable Torque Management system meant 760Nm (560lb ft) was delivered “in an increasing and continuous way” to the rear wheels rather than in one blunderbuss-style lump. Was a slightly muted soundtrack an insurmountable price to pay for brutal response time, stronger acceleration across the full rev range, and imperceptible turbo lag? A sub three-second 0-100kph sprint time, a 330kph+ top speed, and an 8.4-second 0-200kph time – a full two seconds faster than the vaunted F40 – certainly didn’t suggest so.
Dizzying engine performance though was far from the only reason critics fawned over the new 488. Penned by the Ferrari Style Center, the new aerodynamics significantly reduced drag and increased downforce by a mammoth 50 per cent over the 458. Beneath that, a “thoroughly reinforced” aluminium chassis and sublime balance meant the 488 was not just agile but incredibly forgiving, while the advanced traction control – Ferrari’s clunkily titled ‘Side Slip Control 2’ system which used individual wheel braking to all-but-eliminate understeer – had been reconfigured to be more precise yet, somehow, less invasive. All told, razor sharp longitudinal acceleration that could easily be taken by the scruff of the neck meant Ferrari’s newest flagship offered track-like performance not just to the world’s finest drivers but to ‘gentlemen’ enthusiasts as well.
A track-going version of Ferrari’s best roadcar in a generation was inevitable, and thus the new 488 GT3 was unveiled at Ferrari’s Finali Mondiali event in Mugello in late 2016. Power from the twin-turbo V8 had been dropped to “around 600hp,” and the seven-speed dual clutch was replaced with a six-speed racing transmission, but the GT3 had keen kitted out with new carbon fibre bodywork for yet more dynamic cornering potential, and close to 200kg of the GTB’s 1,475kg kerb weight had also been slashed. Crucially, an extended wheelbase – infinitesimally up from 2,650mm to 2,710mm – helped reduce tyre wear but also meant the GT3 could be converted to FIA GTE-spec with comparative ease. Another bonus for prospective customer WTM and its global racing aspirations.
Competitive success was immediate, the 488 GT3 walking its debut at the second round of the 2016 Australian GT Championship in Melbourne – having, admitted, been jettisoned to the ‘Invitational Class’ on BoP grounds – before making headline with a Sebring 12 Hours win a few weeks later. Class wins in IMSA, the International GT Open and the Le Mans Cup soon followed, as did a maiden win in the 24H SERIES, with series newcomer Scuderia Praha, at Brno.
Unsurprisingly, with conciliatory tests with Mercedes-AMG and Audi already done, Georg Weiss was soon placing a call to Maranello…
“For me, there are two ‘proper’ GT manufacturers: Porsche, and Ferrari,” Georg continues. “So, in 2016, we arranged a test with the [488 GT3]. That went very well, and since we bought the car, this relationship has been very positive.
“There’s a big difference to Porsche. Ferrari is a family. If you have any problems, you can call and you get help. Any time, day or night. That wasn’t the case with Porsche. When we started with this Ferrari, we stayed with Michele [Rinaldi, team principal of Rinaldi Racing], and when we went to see [Fiorano] for the first time, they said, ‘welcome to the family of Ferrari’. This is our fifth year with Ferrari, and it still feels like a family. That really makes a big difference.”
Ahead of an inaugural VLN campaign with two brand-new 488 GT3s however, an unexpected problem arose for WTM Racing. ‘W’ stood for ‘Wochenspiegel’, the weekly newspaper of the Weiss publishing group – of which Georg is the fourth generation of his family to manage it – since 1966. So that obviously stayed. ‘T’ stood for… well, ‘Team’, so no issues there either.
‘M’ though stood for ‘Manthey’, the Porsche loyalist that oversaw WTM’s setup and development for more than a decade, and, with the arrival of the 488 GT3, had now been replaced by Rinaldi Racing. And since ‘WTR’ didn’t have quite the same ring to it…
“Our first team, in the early days, was called ‘Captain Racing’, but in 2007, I decided to buy a new car. At that time, it was quite difficult to get a new car from Porsche, and you needed someone with a good reputation who could help you get a Cup car. That, for me, was Manthey Racing….
“So, when we started with Manthey, ‘Captain’ became ‘WTM’, ‘Wochenspiegel Team Manthey’…” (Leonard)
“Problem was, when we got a new works team, we thought, ‘what should we do?’” – Back to Georg. – “We didn’t really want to change ‘WTM’, and we were living in Monschau, so in the end the change was actually quite easy.
“Partnering with Rinaldi [Racing] was a good first step for us too, because they have a lot of experience with Ferrari, and we had a good four years with them. Since then, we’d made another change and we now work with Phoenix Racing. Another strong team!”
Nomenclature duly sorted, WTM Racing thus embarked on an exploratory return to the VLN in 2017, which yielded one win from six outings. Across in the 24H SERIES meanwhile, Scuderia Praha was continuing its winning form with its own 488 at the Hankook 12H MUGELLO, thereafter collecting two more podiums at Paul Ricard and Imola (a brake-related retirement against the barriers at the Red Bull Ring was the only duck egg of the season).
Buoyed by a strong 7th in-class at the 2017 Nürburgring 24 Hours – Georg’s 14th consecutive entry at the event – WTM duly prepared for another crack at 24-hour glory with CREVENTIC, this time at the 2017 Hankook 24H PORTIMAO and with Georg lining up alongside Nico Menzel, Jochen Krumbach, and Oliver Kainz.
A stunning performance it proved to be as well, the German quartet leading 373 of the completed 722 laps – more than any other competitor – and denied victory only by an unfortunately timed Code 60 in the closing stages.
“Shortly before the end, the opposing Ferrari” – Scuderia Praha, naturally… – “was a little luckier than us during the last stops, and we fell behind. But overall it was very close. We were totally satisfied with the team performance and the reliability of the Ferrari. We will definitely start again in this series. It was a great event with a real happy ending.”
It would be another full year – during which the 488 failed to add to its loan win in the VLN – before the WTM Ferrari returned for its third 24H SERIES event, a second run at the Hankook 24H BARCELONA. Sadly, exhaust issues ended the Ferrari’s charge from 8th on the grid after just five hours.
Come the end of 2018, WTM’s time with the VLN was up (temporarily), the German team having grown weary of augmented balance of performance regulations and instead entered the 488 GT3 for its first full European season in the 24H SERIES. While Scuderia Praha started Ferrari’s season strongly with a 3rd in Dubai, WTM’s first outing of 2019 was a two-car effort at the Hankook 12H MUGELLO, Georg driving the #22 entry – dubbed ‘Luigi’ – alongside Krumbach and team newcomers Hendrick Still and Daniel Keilwitz, while the sister #21 – ‘Guido’ – was driven by Menzel, Kainz, South Africa’s David Perel, and Weiss generation number five, Leonard, in only his second year of GT competition.
“I’m very happy to have the opportunity to do this,” Leonard explains, “and especially to drive a 24-hour race with my dad is very special to me. Since I was a kid, I’ve been to the Nürburgring many times, where he started racing, and watched his races, and I’m very happy we can race together now.
“It’s not really work. It’s spending time together as a family. Sure, we want to compete at the front and fight for the podium, but we also want to have fun!”
2019 would prove an extraordinary season for the Ferrari 488 GT3, Scuderia Praha taking an unprecedented four GT wins on the bounce in the 24H SERIES to comfortably secure the Overall GT Teams’ Europe championship. WTM’s season of ‘fun’ though would be severely tested.
A potential 6th place for the #22, despite being shunted on-track by a lapped GT4 car, became 9th when a penalty for pitlane etiquette was served post-race, but was nevertheless a promising start. The sister #21 however suffered a far more dramatic end to its race on lap 213 when the back of the Ferrari ignited after a fuel stop, a suspected loose filler cap the culprit. Menzel fortunately emerged unhurt – “it was for me my first experience of a fire!” he explained at the time – the damage was significant enough to eliminate ‘Guido’ from the following month’s event at Spa. Ironically, a race blighted by punctures led to the #22 being retired on safety grounds. A third DNF was recorded in Brno, this time due to a defective seal in the transmission that caused an oil leak, despite ‘Luigi’ receiving ‘Guido’s less-traveled engine and gearbox before the event: “success and suffering go hand in hand in motorsport!” (Georg)
Then came Portimão, just two weeks removed from the team’s 12th place finish at the Nürburgring 24 Hours (the GTE to GT3 transition proving particular helpful on this occasion). A conservative qualifying session saw the #22 488 GT3 qualify 8th overall, and despite the team chasing speed all weekend long, a faultless run meant WTM – finally – took its second 24H SERIES podium in the Algarve.
“The best race, for me, was Portimão in 2019,” Leonard begins. “This was my first podium away from the Nürburgring, I got faster and faster during the weekend as I learned the track, and everyone did a great job. It was a good race!”
“With CREVENTIC, it’s always a nice event.” – Georg – “It’s fun for us, but there are a lot of good teams to compete against. And Portimão is a very nice racetrack, almost like a little Nürburgring. In 2019, we still didn’t quite have the speed [of the frontrunners], but it was great to be on the podium again.”
Two months later, the bad luck appeared to be over, when, at the third time of asking, WTM finally went the distance at the Hankook 24H BARCELONA, a hard-earned 7th place bringing the curtain down on a ‘character-building’ 2019 season. Ironically, Georg, Leonard, Still and Krumbach and Still finished ahead of newly-crowned champion Scuderia Praha after a problematic run for the Czech-based 488.
“It was nice that we settled the score with Barcelona!” – Georg – “We had a lot of fun; the car was fantastic to drive, the atmosphere in the team was great and everyone worked perfectly together. Only the unscheduled brake change and a few minor incidents cost us time. But it was a good way to end the season.”
Covid-related delays meant Weiss father-and-son would have to wait for their next 24H SERIES outing, this time at the inaugural Hankook 12H MONZA in July 2020, albeit now with a 488 boasting “an evolved aerodynamic spec.”
Revealed in October 2019, the 488 GT3’s new ‘Evo’ package boasted no performance updates – the twin-turbo V8 produced the same 600hp(ish) and 700Nm, though peak torque was now available 1,000rpm sooner and the engine management system had received a tweak – with development instead focused on “further refin[ing] certain aspects of one of the most successful cars in the marque’s history.” A more tapered front end allowed more efficient airflow, while redesigned – and larger – vents in the wings sent more cooling air to the V8. New flicks, the result of 18,000 hours of CFD simulations and wind tunnel testing, produced more downforce, thus making the front end more stable. A carbon fibre clutch and brake calipers, adopted from the WEC-spec GTE, and ‘quick fill’ calipers for the oil and coolant receptacles headlined a new ‘endurance’ package.
Even new Sabelt-developed seat dropped 2.4kg from the overall kerb weight.
Sadly, despite the improved stability, a spate of punctures once again brought WTM’s race – Georg’s first at Monza since 2005 – to an early close, though the new Evo package had left its mark. However small…
“It was actually quite a small difference at Monza, especially in the dirty air.” – Leonard – “There was a new setting for the traction control, which was a bit difficult to setup. But the car did feel more controllable. That’s never a bad thing!”
There’s a bittersweet irony that the same issue which befell WTM’s first 24H SERIES event in 2016 – the gearbox – also stymied the German team’s most recent series outing in 2021 (in Barcelona, unsurprisingly). Something both Georg and Leonard will no doubt want to put to rest with, hopefully, a third podium finish this weekend at Spa-Francorchamps. That the 488 GT3 is a two-time winner of the Hankook 12H SPA suggests Maranello’s flagship GT racer more than has the capabilities to do so.
More than that though, in spite of the 16-years of heritage with Porsche, the pragmatic reasons behind the switch, and the hungered desire to put a spell of bad luck firmly behind them, a win for Wochenspiegel Team Monschau with the 488 GT3 Evo would mean a lot.
Because… well… it’s a Ferrari.