GT1 Team Champions : Vitaphone Racing Team
Vitaphone Racing Team has claimed the FIA GT Championship for an historic 5th time in succession – a new record for the Championship in terms of multiple wins, and an impressive achievement. We spoke to team manager Jens Hagelauer, and to Michael Bartels, about this fine result.
“The first year you win something, it’s easy,” Jens Hagelauer commented. “No-one is really expecting it, you just do it. The second year, it’s a bit more difficult, as people are watching you. The third year, it’s even harder. A fourth title, it’s nearly impossible. So for a fifth – there are just no words left. But I know what lies behind this fifth success. It’s hours and hours of work, preparations, getting everything ready, planning for every eventuality, working on backup solutions for every potential problem. But finally, we achieved our goal, with a lot of help from many, many people you don’t even see. People who are in the background, who never come to the track, who are never on the podium. We have an incredible network of small companies, of friends, of people who can help us in every possible situation. You never see them but without them we would not be able to run in the conditions we do, or to achieve the high standards we set ourselves. And motorsport only works when you have this sort of passion.”
So what about this fifth title ? “It was not so easy to win the Championship for the fifth time, especially when everyone said at the start of the year that the competition was not so high this year. It’s true that there were not so many strong two-car teams, so to some extent we were fighting against ourselves. But although the field may have been easier, we had a lot of problems this year, like the crashes in Spa, and a whole range of problems, so it was not so easy. We’d never had issues like these in previous years; we were lucky ! I am very happy, especially for the crew. It has seemed a long, hard way, even if there were only eight races!”
“This title means, most of all, that we have stabilised our performance over the last years,” Michael Bartels continued. “To win once, maybe you have had some luck or special circumstances. But five team titles in a row is very special, especially for a young team like the Vitaphone Racing Team, which was created in 2004, 50/50 with the Saleen operation run by Konrad, and which became its own structure in 2005. To have five Championship titles in a row means that you have a stable situation. But you also have to look at the realistic side; we were not up against a real two-car team every year, so in some ways, we had to win ! If not, we were doing something totally wrong. But some other years we had really strong competition, like against Phoenix last year, which was really a challenging year for us, where it was important not to lose a single point. If we look back over the years, it shows we had a stable situation, good performance, that we always had the possibility to run strong driver line-ups. This year we’ve had four podiums for myself and Andrea, and four podiums for Miguel and Alex. We have always been lucky, but we’ve also been quite careful when selecting drivers. It’s a mix of performance, experience and budget, but we’ve always had a lucky hand with this.”
This year, Vitaphone has been back on pole position at a number of races, following a pole-free year in 2008. “I think the biggest change over the winter was the new commercial tyres, which seemed already in the winter tests to fit our car a bit better,” Michael added. “Everybody had the same choice, but I think this was the advantage. Our car was a bit better in the balance than some of the others. Alex has had three pole positions – but also the reason for pole positions is sometimes bad luck in the previous race, meaning no penalty weight. I think Andrea and I have never run a car with no weight, except in the first race and Spa ! In the end, this is a key factor of the success; you have to score consistently in the points, and then you are not in a position to go for pole. But even with 0 kg or 20 kg, pole position still has to be achieved, and in our team, Alex is the driver who can squeeze out every last tenth of a second out of the material, which is what you need in qualifying.”
Vitaphone Racing Team has more overall race wins than any other team in the history of the Championship, but Michael Bartels is also towards the top of the statistics, being 3rd in the number of wins, 2nd in the number of podiums and 6th in the overall points, which his team-mate Andrea Bertolini leads. “This also shows the consistency. The number of podiums, especially, for Andrea and myself, is very speaking. Statistics are always nice. But it really shows that since we started with the Maserati programme, it was the right decision. You’re never sure at the beginning which way something will develop. But this partnership was like winning the lottery. And especially the partnership between Andrea and myself. As well as the friendship between us, after all these years, there is something not usual in the racing business, a kind of blind understanding between us. Most of the time it is quiet and relaxed; we push each other but there is no jealousy, no problems. It is a high-profile combination, and exactly how it should be. It is a team game, and it works well. We also depend strongly on the whole Vitaphone Racing Team, and this is also something which is not usual, the level of motivation, trying to do everything they can. For example, our car in Spa, after the big accident, normally it was lost. We nearly closed the garage doors, but then the guys said no, let’s try again. The car was heavily damaged; they repaired it. We knew that every point was important. But from the management side there was nearly the decision to give up, but the team said they wanted to try. At the same time the nr 33 car came in, damaged. So there was only one car on the track. But all the mechanics from all the cars helped each other, just quickly doing the refueling and tyres for the nr 2 car and then going back in to work on the cars. This real team-work, and this feeling, you could feel right from the beginning of the team. Of course it’s never perfect, there is always room for improvement, but those are the key factors for the success of the team since 2005. It’s not a single person, it’s a team. “
Now, there is just one final step – the Drivers title in Zolder. “We’re used to the situation, going to a final important race. I did this in 2007 with Thomas Biagi, when we had a close fight. Last year was easier as we had a good lead. This year the situation is a bit different – there is a lot of competition between the Maserati and the Corvettes. We’re racing on Belgian soil against a lot of Belgian teams and drivers, and I think it’s going to be interesting ! I think that the performance of the Maserati over the last two years has shown that it is very good at that circuit, and we are in a very good position to defend our title. But I think that if you do one little mistake it can cost you the Championship. So we have to come there with the maximum focus, discipline and to rely on our strengths of team-work. Hezemans and Kumpen have a strong technical package, they are strong drivers who have good knowledge of the circuit, and they have the extra motivation of trying to win the Championship on home ground. But Zolder is also a special circuit for me –I did my first-ever car race there, in Formula Ford, back in 1986. I have lots of good memories of the circuit, and I hope I can continue the story there. But it is going to be difficult , for sure – nobody will make our life easy. But I’m looking forward to it.”