The streets of Long Beach: stomping grounds for Team RLL for the past 4 consecutive years. With at least one position on the ALMS podium claimed every year since 2009, 2013 only adds to a growing tally of wins for the team. In only the second race of the season, and better yet, the second race of the Z4 GTE’s career, the number one and number two spots on the winner’s podium have been claimed, placing BMW in a tie for the points lead in the Manufacturers Championship for the 2013 ALMS season. The #55 and #56 cars are quickly earning their keep, and the world-class strategy and skill of Team RLL has pushed them to the front of the pack.
The cold ocean breeze melded with the high Californian sun to set the stage for perfect race weather through the weekend, stark in contrast to last year’s torrential downpour. Despite the conditions, however, Team RLL had to bring their A-game. An 8th and 9th place finish at Sebring in March put them far back in the standings. While the first year for the Z4 GTEs is largely considered “developmental,” there’s still a desire to prove their capability despite being the newest cars on the track. An unsuccessful year can be chalked up to testing and a learning curve, but success right out of the gate comes with bragging rights all in its own.
The 15-minute qualifying session took place in the setting sun of Friday afternoon. With just enough time for a few strong laps, the competition is tight and at a peak. It’s every team’s chance to place themselves at the front of the grid, which can make or break a race, and has many times before. Behind the wheel of the Frozen Black #55 car is Bill Auberlen, BMW’s right-hand long-time racing driver, and Maxime Martin, the team’s new recruit. In the classic white #56 car are teammates Dirk Müller and Joey Hand, powerhouses in every way imaginable, whom landed their own 2nd-place finish together in Long Beach last year in the E92 M3.
During qualifying, the BMWs put up a solid fight in an unbelievably competitive class. The session started off slow, but on his final lap, Auberlen put down his best time. “I believe we made some good choices after this morning’s practice and the No. 55 Z4 GTE was a pleasure to drive. That I was able to set my quickest time on my last lap means we have something for the race. A few tenths off the pole in such a competitive class means we’ll start fifth, but we have a car that can reach the podium tomorrow.” Just .2 seconds separated Auberlen from the top spot, meaning that, while his car would start a good ways back, the win was absolutely within grasp. On the other hand, it meant that a pair of Vipers, a Corvette, and Falken’s Porsche RSR would be leading the pack from the get-go, and the boys would have to put up a fight.
Dirk Müller and Joey Hand weren’t quite so lucky. Joey couldn’t find his groove during qualifying, putting him in the 7th spot on the grid. “We just were not 100% this afternoon. I’m not sure why, but I was not comfy and I could not produce the lap time to do better than P7. We’re racing at a competition level in this class that does not allow you to be off even a little.” While we couldn’t help but hope for the best, the lower-half qualifying positions and the outcome of the first race of the season were weighing on Andrew and I as BMW fans. We wanted to see BMW flatten the competition, but the trophy was within anyone’s grasp.
Back in the pits, the cars were given the traditional pre-race inspection and once-over, including the repair of punched nose on the #56 car, and addressing ominous clicking and clattering from #55. With just hours before the race, the team was in high-gear to solve the issue, with worry that perhaps #55’s engine was having issues – an undesirable place to find yourself when the clock is ticking. But as luck would have it, the sound was simply coming from under the car, and after some minor adjustments and clearancing, everything sounded perfect. The #56 car’s entire front end was removed to fix the damage, but it too was repaired in no time, and both cars were ready to head to the grid.
But without surprise, BMW wasn’t alone – seemingly every team had their cars torn down before as the timer ticked. The SRT team had both cars disassembled for unnamed changes and replacements. The pair of snakes were set to take pole position and third place on the grid, putting them in the sights of the Z4s as the target of the race. Heading into it, Andrew and I had expected Corvette to be the top contender, but the Vipers have quickly found their pace amongst the GT field. Their first race with the all-new chassis was just last year at Mid-Ohio; to say they’re doing well is an understatement.
Thirty minutes before the start of the race, at 4:30PM, the cars were gridded up. Maxime Martin would be starting the first leg of the race for the dark side and Joey Hand for the “good twin.” The grid was packed with team members, drivers, photographers, and special guests, gazing at the cars as they rest for their final moments before the main event. The drivers remained in a state of concentration, while others did what they could to keep them cool and focused.
The race began as expected, with the Vipers leading the group through the first few laps. The BMWs trailed closely, biting at the heels of the silver, yellow, and green obstacles in front of them, but before the cars made it around a second time, disaster struck. The Black #55 car spun, slowing Martin to a hault and sending him to the back of the field – the worst case scenario possible short of making the car inoperable. However, Martin stayed focus, and luck came into play when caution periods started after the 3rd place Viper spun just a few laps later, followed by a hard tag to its tail end.
Joey fought hard in the #56 car to gain ground right off the bat, working his way up to third place through the caution periods of the race. One by one he managed to swallow each car in front of him, until the first hour of the two-hour race had passed, at which point he passed the car off to his teammate, Dirk Müller.
The caution periods brought the #55 car a serious break. After just 16 laps in to the race, Martin went for the pits where Auberlen took over at the 25-minute mark. A fresh set of Michelins were mounted and the fuel tank was refilled – Auberlen set in for the long haul to finish the remainder of the race. A third caution allowed Auberlen to conserve fuel while the rest of the GT class pitted, and allowed him sneak to the front of the group, with just a single car ahead of him. When 6:00PM rolled around and the green flags were waved once again, he put the pedal down to take the lead. With just 15 minutes left in the race, Auberlen stole the spot and held it until the end.
Müller took the helm of the #56 car and followed suit – just behind Auberlen to take a second place finish, giving BMW Team RLL their first 1-2 finish since the 12 Hours of Sebring in 2009. It was a monumental feat for the team – a comeback from last to first, and a huge haul in points to make up for this year’s finishes at Sebring. “This is a really good one. The 55 car called excellent strategy. We followed a different tact and at the end we put both cars at the front of the field and the Z4 GTE into the history books with a 1-2 finish in only our second race. We were able to run more than one stint on the Michelins and that was crucial to make our strategies work. There is nothing like winning at Long Beach. Sebring is the big one, but Long Beach is not far behind in my book,” says Bobby Rahal.
The energy of the evening was contagious. The team was ecstatic in every way. “After qualifying seventh I was not pleased, but I told the crew that I thought we could win. It wasn’t our win today, but I could not be happier for Bill to get his first win at his home track. Dirk did a great job to bring the car home second,” said Hand. A win at Long Beach has been one of Auberlen’s goals for quite some time as a Redondo local. “Today the Z4 GTE took me to the top of the Long Beach podium and that is something I have tried to do for a very long time. Great strategy by the team and the Michelins were an absolute pleasure to drive on all day.”
Despite their mishaps in Florda a month ago, BMW is back in the running, and spirits are at an all-time high for Laguna, which is just three weeks away. We’ll be joining them once again, and we hope to see a repeat of their Californian success. To be involved with the team has been nothing short of a joy, and to catch their winning moments gives a defining sensation to every bit of our work. Here’s to a successful race in Long Beach. Let’s win it again in Monterey.