Endurance racing is perhaps the ultimate test of skill and, well, endurance for the veteran driver.
Racing for hours on end is an entirely different ball game versus your average trackday. Consumables like fuel, tires, and brakes come into play, not to mention the durability of the vehicle and the driver’s stamina throughout the race. A lot of variables present themselves over a long period, and one small mistake can cost the whole race. Participating in an endurance race isn't exactly an amateur's game.
Skill-wise I wouldn't consider myself a professional driver by any means, but when I was approached by the distributor of GAC, a Chinese car brand, to drive with them for this year’s Kalayaan Cup 12-Hour endurance race I knew this was an opportunity I couldn't pass up.
Thing is, training and gearing up for a half-day race isn't exactly the same as prepping for a trackday. It's an entirely different ball game with lots more practice and actual physical training to ensure that we get the car across the line after 12 hours. And for a fairly stout person like me, that meant a lot of hours on the treadmill to build my stamina apart from on-track training. While we won't exactly touch on the specifics of fitness, we will go over the automotive side of things when it comes to training for the race.
Safety first, and that’s about it
GAC Motors fielded one GA4 1.5L MT, their entry-level compact sedan offering, for the 2019 Kalayaan Cup. Since we were participating in the Manufacturer's Cup, hardly any modifications can be done to the car to truly conform to its "showroom stock" condition.
To participate in this class, zero performance modifications nor any suspension modifications can be made to the car, period. Seeing as this was a race however, the head honchos at GAC made sure to keep the drivers safe by adding the necessary modifications for safety – which of course, the scrutineers were glad to approve.
A full FIA-grade roll cage was welded in by the folks at Debest Autofix, while a Sparco seat and harness was fitted to keep the driver in place. For longevity and better feel, endurance-spec brake pads and Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires in OEM sizing were utilized to give drivers more peace of mind. Everything else had to be showroom stock despite the interior already sort of looking gutted. These upgrades, while hardly beneficial for performance, were enough to give all drivers the confidence we needed to extract a consistently fast laptime throughout the day. And at the end of the day, being consistently fast is all that matters.
Ignorance is Bliss, but Knowledge is Power
They say practice makes perfect, but when it comes to getting the shortest time around a circuit you can only go so far with just having seat time around the track. Knowing exactly when to brake, make a turn, or taking a certain line is of utmost importance – especially when you’ll be doing it for hours on end. Everything needs to be consistent, and all drivers have to maintain a certain pace to pull off the perfect strategy.
To do this, GAC employed a team of race managers, coaches, and datakeepers to keep track of our progress. Every track outing was an eye opener. While friends can only teach you so much about technique during a trackday, we had perfectly quantified data to back up any inputs by the coach. Driving line comparisons, section times, and even live split timing while out on track were all employed to ensure that we get the most information about our runs – and figure out what we can do to improve further.
The learning curve with data to back up every run is exponential, and I personally feel I've improved my driving more in the past month than I did over the past few years. Perfect practice makes perfect would probably be better.
All this talk about teamwork and dreamwork
It is not humanly possible (nor safe) for one driver to drive for 12 or 24 hours straight at full speed. Professional endurance racing teams for the 24 Hours of Le Mans or the 24 Hours of Nürburgring have at least four drivers in their roster depending on regulations, each taking stints behind the wheel throughout the day. In the case of the Kalayaan Cup 12 Hours, GAC Motors brought in a total of six drivers: five other guys and myself. Fortunately enough, we were all fellow alumni of the Atenean Car Enthusiasts (ACE) and were thus really good friends.
Surrounded by a group of experienced drivers, I felt a bit like I was letting the team down during our first practice session because I had quite a long hiatus from circuit racing and wasn't clocking laps as fast as they were. These folks thought nothing of it, instead giving me tips and helping me pick the pace up to match theirs as I was slowly taking rust off my driving. Suffice to say I still made the cut, enough to ultimately keep the pace during the race itself.
Following this whole exercise I cannot stress enough the value of teamwork when it comes to getting good results from a grueling endurance race. The importance of knowing what makes drivers tick, what gets them going, and how the rest of the team does things in the garage all contribute to making everything work like a well-oiled machine, which brings us to the third point.
Talent goes beyond driving the car
One episode of Wangan Midnight, a popular Japanese highway-racing anime, talks about two types of car enthusiasts: those with gasoline running in their veins, and those with oil. Gasoline types are pretty textbook, those who love to sit behind the wheel and drive – what else is there to do when you have a car, right? The Oil types however deserve a bit more of the spotlight. These are the people who love fixing cars, the ones who actually thrive in turning a spanner and solving problems with mechanicals. When it comes to endurance racing, having a good pit crew is an invaluable asset which can make or break your final result for the race – let alone dictate whether you finish or not.
In our case, our team was in the good hands of racing veterans from Debest Autofix whose mechanics have credentials working on vehicles from the Blancpain Series, Porsche Cup, and even Ferrari Challenge racecars. Their staff are regularly flown out for races around the world to work on some of the best racecars money can buy. These guys literally know all the tricks to get a car back up and running on track ASAP whenever there’s an issue, and the rituals for a local 12-hour endurance race seemed to be a walk in the park for these boys.
Case in point would be the sudden need to change brake pads 9 hours into the race, right before my stint. Since I was primed to hop into the car, I witnessed a sub 5-minute brake pad change for both front wheels. Do take note that your average service shop does this in about 30-45 minutes, and that they don’t need to do it on scorching hot brakes fresh out of being beaten out on track. It was this quality of pitwork, in my opinion, that truly made us do well in the race. The drivers stuck to the strategy by maintaining pace, but effectively the ones who sealed the deal were the boys in the garage.
Helmet strapped, visor down
With six drivers sharing 12 hours worth of driving, each driver had to stay out for 2 hours and maintain a certain pace throughout the day. Considering our driver lineup, we had our more experienced drivers set the pace early on in the day so that the guys in the afternoon could work with a certain margin. This strategy put me second to last among the drivers who would go out. It just so happened that around 2:30pm would be the hottest stint throughout the day, and I had to contend with other things apart from driving the GAC GA4 at a quick pace.
Despite staying hydrated throughout the day, dehydration quickly sets in with the windows up and wearing a full racing suit. Sometimes concentration falters in a lapse, but somehow muscle memory helps with executing the necessary steps for each corner – we have been practicing on Clark for weeks prior afterall.
One of my worst mistakes going into my stint was wearing a not-so-absorbent balaclava which then allowed for sweat to get near my eyes. On the main straight and other straight sections I would find myself scratching my eyes just to get the sweat off them – not ideal if the car were to do away with straights quickly. Thankfully though a couple outings of the Safety Car gave me a short break, and I was able to catch a second wind of energy to get back on pace till the end of my stint.
After all was said and done, we were able to bring GAC Motors their first place finish for the Manufacturer's Cup for this year's 12-hour Endurance Race; that is our thank you to Wilbert, Gina, and Brennan Lim of GAC for giving us the opportunity to race.
We finished in fourth place overall in comparison to the other more powerful vehicles in play, a testament to the work of Jun Magno and the crew from Debest Autofix to keep the car in check. Apart from that, we’ve also secured a first place class finish and second overall in the 4-hour category, definitely a result of the help of A.line Speed School for the coaching and datawork leading up to the race.
The Kalayaan Cup was really tiring to say the least, but I certainly would want to spend my Independence Day like this again given the opportunity, and hopefully with the same crew of people and friends.