Ever on the lookout for an opportunity to dig behind the headline story, Paul Truswell recently spent some time talking to Renaud Dufour, the Technical Director of HTP Motorsport, which entered the Mercedes SLS GT3 of 2013 Blancpain Endurance Series Driver’s Champion, Maximilian Buhk, and who was also, Trussers discovered, race engineer for the Nürburgring 24 hour winning car of the Black Falcon team.
I’ll come clean from the outset: before this year’s Spa 24 hour race I hadn’t heard of Renaud Dufour, but following the memorable win for Bernd Schneider, Maxi Buhk and Maximilian Götz we became acquainted as we discussed the strategy employed by the HTP Motorsport team, which played no small part in the team’s win in the blue riband event of the Blancpain Endurance Series.
Dufour joined Heico Motorsport at the beginning of last year and accepted the role of Technical Director over the winter of 2012/2013 as HTP took over from Heico Motorsport. Team owner Norbert Brückner established a partnership with investments company HTP to take the company into the 2013 season from the team’s new base in Saarbrücken.
At the start of the season the plan was to run two Polarweiss Mercedes SLS GT3 cars in the ADAC GT Masters, and a further three cars in the FIA GT Series in partnership with Gravity Charouz from the Czech Republic. Then Dufour hatched his plot to run in the Spa 24 hours. HTP Motorsport team boss, Norbert Brückner was interested.
Dufour takes up the story. “So I asked Norbert if we could do the Blancpain Endurance Series race at Paul Ricard at the end of June as a kind of test, to prepare for Spa, to be aware of what should be done, and also because HTP was not really an endurance team. I wanted get the team used to the pit stops, to the tuning and everything, so that was why we decided to do Paul Ricard.”
Key to the team’s success at Spa was Bernd Schneider, whom Brückner helped to get into karts at the start of his career. Dufour is obviously a fan. “Bernd is still really, really fast,” he says. “Oh yes, I know he has retired from the DTM now, but he is very good, very thorough, and he is close to AMG and Mercedes – he knows how to get the best out of the factory. But most important is his speed; he is quick and consistent!”
Having finished fifth (with Maxi Buhk, Luca Ludwig and Alon Day) at Paul Ricard, the team’s expectations going into the Spa 24 hours were realistic. “Before the race, we were not expecting to win. We were going into it to fight, for sure, but it is not really the kind of race where you can say that you expect to win and then you win – it’s really difficult!”
It was here that our discussion about HTP’s tactics during the race started. During the race, it became clear that the team’s strategy was to pit whenever the safety car made an appearance, in stark contrast to the competition, which ran more rigorously to 65-minute stints, as mandated by the regulations.
Dufour explains: “You know, it wasn’t clear for us either. We did the calculations – it is sure if you do the pit stop when the safety car is out, you lose half a lap, because there are two safety cars at Spa, so when you are behind the first safety car and you make a pit stop, it is sure, you lose half a lap; and half a lap at Spa is something like 1m 10s, something like that. But when you do a pit stop under green conditions, it is almost two minutes, so you save almost one minute, and it was this that pushed me to choose this strategy.”
The strategy meant that after the first Safety Car period at the Spa 24 hours, the HTP Mercedes SLS established a lead of 38 seconds. “Of course, you lose a bit in the traffic, because when you come out when the safety car is out you are at the back of the queue and then you lose time getting through the traffic,” Dufour continues. However, the strategy has to be used with care, as HTP found out when the Safety Car made its second appearance.
Dufour admits: “We stopped under the second Safety Car too, but it was too early, that was the only mistake. Because of the 65-minute stint rule, you do not really need to take account of the fuel, instead you worry about how far into the stint you are.” Of course the other advantage that the Mercedes had was that it was able to double-stint the tyres, which the Manthey Porsche could not do.
The HTP Motorsport Mercedes had a different handicap to overcome though.
“The main problem that we have with the SLS,” Dufour says, “is the position of the fuel tank. The filler is much higher than on the other cars and it takes more time to fill it up, because of course it is a gravity feed. This is a big difference with the SLS and we were taking something like ten seconds longer to refuel. I am not convinced that the fuel consumption itself is really that different, between us and the other manufacturers.”
Renaud sounds sincere enough as he explains this, but still I have my doubts, so I push a little harder. “OK, maybe today the Porsche consumption is a bit less (than the Mercedes), but I think Audi and BMW are about on the same level (as us),” he asserts. “I know that the Porsche Is close to four litres per second (during refuelling) and we don’t reach this.” He presses his own point home: “It is clear, for me, that the difference in pit stop time is due to the time taken to get the fuel into the car. It is not the consumption.”
So it was, in the brief, five round Blancpain Endurance Series, that HTP Motorsport headed into the final, 1000km or six hour, race at the Nürburgring with a good chance of securing the championship for Maxi Buhk. Dufour takes up the story: “It was really an amazing race: I was not expecting such a good pace. We knew that the SLS was really good for the Nürburgring because it is a low grip track and quite high speed corners and chicanes. We had the best drivers – they know the track really well. The result was really good for the team.”
In what amounted to a dream season for the team, losing the ADAC GT Masters was particularly disappointing. “We were in a position to win the championship at the final round, at Hockenheim, but then we had an engine failure; that was really,” he pauses, looking for the right word, “unexpected”, he concludes.
Under the guise of HTP Gravity Charouz, Dufour is also involved in the FIA GT Series, which with one round still to go, sees the team leading both Pro-Am and the Gentleman Trophy Teams points standings. “It is a good collaboration with Charouz,” reports Dufour. “They do the preparation and maintenance of the car, and we use the Charouz mechanics, but we bring all our management and engineering expertise to the races. It is a good way for us to be involved in more series.”
But what about the Nürburgring 24 hours? “That was very special, of course,” smiles Dufour. “It was a request of Bernd (Schneider) that I be involved with the Black Falcon car at the Nürburgring – he did the Baku race with us last year, and was happy with the way I was working and he asked me to engineer his car for 24 hours at the Nürburgring. It was a bit of last minute deal, but also Mercedes was happy with the arrangement, so we talked to Black Falcon and of course it was a good result!”
It is important to remember that HTP Motorsport is not a factory team, although clearly Dufour and his boss, Norbert Brückner, are close not only to Mercedes, but also to Schneider. Until last year, he was working with the Persson Mercedes team in the DTM – whose workshops HTP has now taken over. “But we still need to find the budgets for everything,” says Dufour, “and this is what Norbert is doing – the money comes mainly from the drivers.”
Although his father took him to some races when he was young, Renaud Dufour’s initial interest in competitive motor sport came from the world of radio-controlled racing. “I was European Champion in 1998,” he admits, “I did seven or eight years RC racing, a lot of championships, this taught me how to do the set up and things like that.”
It’s a discipline of the sport of which I am pretty much ignorant – my knowledge of radio-controlled cars is limited to watching my 12-year old son navigating around the lounge furniture. But these aren’t toys. “You know, there is really a close correspondence between these and the real thing,” Dufour goes on, “I was racing with one-quarter scale cars, these are nearly one metre long. The suspension and the engine are really high-level and although it is not exactly like a normal racing car it gives you a good basis for set-up and balance. It is a really good school: I would recommend it for someone who wants to learn about racing. For sure it is expensive, but not as expensive as a go-kart or a real racing car.”
Renaud’s engineering qualifications and skills led him to professional racing, as he explains. “In the career of an engineer you have some choices, but sometimes the choices are limited to where you can find the opportunities,” he says, pragmatically. “I did every kind of racing car – F3, F Renault, Touring cars – that was a lot of fun. Then I worked for Graff racing, a very important team in France, and that led to Porsche Carrera cup, and then to GT3. My heart is with GT3 at the moment, with HTP Motorsport, with Mercedes and with Bernd Schneider.”
Having experiences in such a broad range of racing, how does GT and Endurance racing suit him? “Very well, I am very happy in it,” he replies, without hesitation. “With single-seaters, the job is a bit different: you have so many other parameters, like managing the parents and the families. I don’t like it so much, quite honestly. I did not have so much fun when I was working in Formule Renault and Formula BMW. Although you have some talented young drivers, it is not so easy to deal with the politics of the family; this makes the engineering job not so interesting, because you have so many parameters that are not really to do with engineering the car, if you know what I mean…
“I am having much more fun with the drivers I have now. We also make them improve; we help them with driving, coaching and so on. But there is different spirit, it is not young guns. It is sometimes a bit annoying working in the lower formulae.”
He doesn’t necessarily always want to be involved with GT cars though: “I am really interested in prototypes; I would love to do an LMP1 or LMP2 car, if the opportunity arose.” And Le Mans? “Of course, I would love to win at Le Mans; that would be great!” For now though, the immediate future is HTP Motorsport and Mercedes.
“At the moment I am really happy with HTP, we have had a great season. But it is still a young team – we must remember that the team only started this year – so we have to concentrate to grow the team and make it stable, and then we can maybe think about something else. So at the moment we have to concentrate on that.”
“I am fully committed to HTP Motorsport,” Dufour says, speaking of the immediate future, “but nothing is fixed for 2014 at the moment,” he continues. “The team is looking at Blancpain, at the FIA GT series and at the ADAC GT Masters. Also we are thinking about the Nürburgring 24 hours, which is a separate project.” He pauses. “Then there is also the United Sports Car Championship in America: that looks really interesting, although the rules are not clear. If the USCC organisers accept GT3 like it is now, then HTP is really interested to do some races. As soon as we know the rules, then we will know whether it is an option.”
This could be a major undertaking for the team, of course, but at the time that we spoke, the GT class rules had not yet been defined. One suspects Dufour knows more than he is prepared to say, though. “I know that the Mercedes SLS project leaders are close to the USCC organisers, I know they are talking. And I would love to go to Daytona or Sebring, it would be really nice.”
There is no doubt that this is an ambitious programme. By any measure, HTP Motorsport had a successful season in 2013. Renaud Dufour is relishing 2014 already: “Sure, next year will be pretty full. We will push as much as we can. We will try to have as good a season next year as we have had this year, but it will be difficult. That’s motorsport, though: if it would be easy it would not be fun!
Postscript: A few days after our conversation, came the news of Sean Edwards’ death in Australia. Renaud asked that I include his own tribute: “Sean was a great guy, really fast and he was a big part of our win in the Nürburgring 24 hours…. I worked with him for one race only but I really enjoyed it a lot.”