24H Diary with Chantal Kroll. Dubai

April 09, 2018

What does it take for a team and its driver to race for 24 hours straight? We caught up with Hofor-Racing’s Chantal Kroll at the Hankook 24H DUBAI to find out.

  • Check out the original post on 24hseries.com HERE

Friday (4pm)

That I’ve managed to find Chantal Kroll anywhere other than by the monitors in the garage is remarkable in itself, given that, aside from her driving duties, a quick bite to eat and the occasional 40 winks, the fold-up chair by said bank of screens is, by her own admission, where she’ll spend much of any 24H SERIES race weekend.

It’s understandable. After all, from this position, she, like the army of increasingly weary red and black-clad mechanics furiously swarming about pitbox 11B, can chart where the #1 Mercedes-AMG GT3 is on-track, compare lap and sector times with the team’s A6 rivals – the #24 SPS automotive performance Mercedes-AMG, on this occasion – and talk strategy for, quite literally, every waking moment. Even from the ‘comfort’ of the fold-up chair, it sounds exhausting.

When I do finally catch up with Chantal though, she’s about to sit down for a quick bowl of pasta, courtesy of the field kitchen Hofor-Racing ensures is at every race. She’s still in her race suit having just completed her first, admittedly shortened, stint at the wheel and the accompanying debrief with her engineers. Her race boots have been ditched for a pair of flip-flops, and her Hibiscus-adorned white helmet – inspired by a previous trip to Hawaii – has been stowed in the garage alongside those of teammates Christiaan Frankenhout, Roland Eggimann and Kenneth Heyer (her father, Michael, has just jumped in the car).

“It’s frustrating that a lot of my first stint was under Code 60, but I managed to get into a good rhythm at the beginning at least,” explains Chantal, who’s graciously abandoned her meal to speak with us for a few moments. “I told my team over the radio that there was a very long line of oil on the main straight, so I knew there would be a caution period. But I didn’t think it would run for that long. Then the call came to pit, so that was pretty frustrating.”

Deviating from strategy, and hoping it will save them time during the night, the team has opted to pit the #1 Mercedes under Code 60 as a stationary Renault RS01 is recovered from turn 15. Although frustrated that her first stint has been curtailed after just eight laps, Chantal is happy to at least have some running under her belt in the early going.

 

“Deviating from strategy, and hoping it will save them time during the night, the team has opted to pit Chantal early.”

 

“Honestly I would have liked to drive a little longer, but I don’t really think it matters for me whether it was two months or three weeks ago since I was last in the car. I’m usually pretty nervous during the first stint! I’m very familiar with the Mercedes, but any time you’re on-track, anything can happen. You just have to be prepared for it.” I’m unaware how apt these words will be the following afternoon…

“Last night, we had some trouble with the drink system [in the car], and I forgot to test it before I went out. I normally stop drinking about 45 minutes before my stint, so that could have been really bad! Fortunately, when I tested it at the fuel station, it worked.”

Given that there’s still 21 hours still to go before the chequered flag is waved tomorrow afternoon, I’d understand if Chantal wanted to cut our conversation short and disappear for a few hours of sleep.

That’s not the plan though. As the Code 60 just demonstrated, Hofor-Racing’s strategy is always developing, and the team’s ‘Am’ drivers, Chantal, father Michael and Roland, collectively, are expected to complete at least 50 per cent of the race distance in Dubai, or risk a hefty penalty. Any information she can get from Christiaan and Kenneth’s lap times are equally as vital as sleep.

“Normally I would have been at the track earlier, but I could not take time away from my internship” – Chantal’s currently studying for a degree in physiotherapy – “and I only flew in on Wednesday. But the team shuffled it so I could do most of the running in Free Practice yesterday. Usually I do a few laps before I watch the on-board video of Christiaan. I speak to him about the gears, braking points, etc, then drive a few more laps and compare my lap times. That kind of relationship with my teammates really helps.

 

“Hofor-Racing’s ‘Am’ drivers, collectively, are expected to complete at least 50 per cent of the race distance in Dubai, or risk a hefty penalty.”

 

“For now though I’ll do the same thing I do after every stint,” Chantal explains. “First I watch the monitors for a few minutes to see how the race is going, then I’ll go eat my meal and re-hydrate myself, and after that, I check with the team what the strategy is so I know how long my break is.”

Having finished her meal, drank several large glasses of water – “about a litre” – and grabbed a protein shake, the Swiss driver is readying herself for another stint at the computer monitors in her fold-up chair.

Saturday (7am)

Turns out, we don’t catch up with Chantal again until 8am on Saturday. During the night, and with father Michael happy to remain at the track “just in case”, Hofor-Racing has instructed Chantal to head back to the hotel for a few hours of uninterrupted sleep, a rare luxury in the endurance-racing world.

“That was a nice surprise, but actually it was for strategic reasons,” Chantal explains. “During night qualifying, we could see each others’ strengths and weaknesses in the dark, and agreed to let the professionals” – namely Christiaan and Kenneth– “do most of the night stints. So the team let me go, I was back here at 6am, and in the car by 6.30am.

 

“I never switch off until after the race. I’m constantly thinking what might happen.”

 

“Dubai is actually quite different to the European races. Here we only have a tight corner in our container, and every 20-30 minutes, there’s always someone coming in. In Europe, we have our own truck, in the corner of which we have our beds where we can sleep. I always make sure to bring an air mattress, my own pillow and my earplugs, so it’s actually very comfortable with earplugs.” (I can’t help but think wistfully about my 90-minutes of semi-contorted slumber at the wheel of my rented Renault Clio).

“Honestly I prefer to stay at the track anyway. At the hotel, your sleep is not that much better: I kept waking up every 20 minutes afraid that I’d missed my alarm! Plus, I never switch off until after the race, so I’m constantly thinking what might happen, and usually I end up checking the live stream or the timing screens rather than sleeping.”

That, right there, is an eye-opening reminder of Chantal’s endurance racing experience. Having turned her first wheel in anger in 2005 – belonging to a Porsche 964, no less – Chantal has been a regular member of Hofor-Racing’s driver line-up since 2013, has been crowned Ladies Cup champion three years in succession, and claimed the 24H SERIES Drivers’ crown outright in 2015 after stints in the team’s now retired Mercedes SLS AMG GT3 and BMW E46 M3 Coupe (that included an A2 class win in Dubai too, by the way). Alongside Michael, Roland [Eggimann], Kenneth and Christiaan – the ‘Familie Kroll’ – the quintet have secured A6-class honours two years in a row, were GT Drivers’ champions in 2016, and she’s even taken on the formidable Nürburgring 24 Hours. She knows how to be successful in endurance racing, essentially.

 

“The ‘Familie Kroll’ have secured A6-class honours two years in a row and were GT Drivers’ champions in 2016. She knows how to be successful in endurance racing.”

 

But back at the Dubai Autodrome, in the middle of her second stint, Chantal once again has to bring the #1 Mercedes back to pitroad on lap 436, right after she’d set her personal best lap of the race. This time 30 agonising minutes are spent repairing the power-steering, and to compound the team’s frustration, the Hofor-Racing AMG drops from 2nd in the A6-Am class to 7th, 14 laps behind the leading HTP Motorsport Merc.

“When I went back out, I was lucky enough to have the sunrise, which is really beautiful here but does mean you’re effectively blind for two or three corners,” Chanral continues. “I actually got hit once by a Lamborghini – whenever you see green you have to hide! – but other than that the stint was going really well until the power-steering went off in the middle of a corner. You can drive around this with the throttle to spin the car around, but it’s difficult to do that when there are so many other cars around. Luckily that happened in sector three, so I did not have far to go to pit. But, here I am, another short stint.”

Luck has not been on her side so far in Dubai, and ‘relaxing’ before her next stint isn’t going to happen either as Chantal heads back to the fold-up chair with protein shake and a light breakfast in tow. There’s still more than a third of the race left, after all…

“I skipped breakfast earlier, so I will go get a bite to eat, get all my carbs” – it’s a different diet plan, lots of pasta and rice – “and build up my energy, then I’ll go back into the pitbox, check the screens, and maybe fall asleep in the chair again from time-to-time! You have to be mentally ‘there’ all the time, and if you have no energy left in your body, the first thing that stops is your concentration.

“I trust that the team will sort everything out: you can’t find any more professional teams than Hofor-Racing. But this is endurance, and anything can happen at any time. I’ll still be giving it my best.”

Saturday (12pm)

By mid-morning, things seem to be improving for Hofor-Racing. The reigning A6 and GT champions are still 14 laps behind the A6-Am class leaders, but their pace is consistent, there’s no sign of their earlier power steering woes, and they’re even starting to make in-roads to the GRT Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini ahead of them. The only issue is the sleepless night for the mechanics, made worse by the Arabian sunshine already blasting through the open garage door. But as Chantal readies herself for hopefully-lucky-stint-number-three, things are running smoothly.

Then, just before 10am, a shock rips through the paddock, the pitlane and the commentary booth. There’s a Mercedes in the wall. The purple Code 60 flags are immediately waved, and everyone cranes forward to the monitors to see which car it is…

It’s the A6-Pro leader.

The #3 Black Falcon Mercedes-AMG GT3 has had a major collision with another car on-track, and it’s a few moments before the second player in this unfolding drama comes into view.

It’s the #1 Hofor-Racing Mercedes. Chantal’s car. You can almost feel the air being tangibly squeezed out of pitbox 11B.

The left-side of the engine bay and bonnet is destroyed, the drivers’ side door has broken free of its mountings, and the front left wheel and suspension have been ripped off completely. Mercifully, both Hofor-Racing’s Roland Eggimann and Black Falcon’s Luca Stolz extricate themselves from the debris unaided, but both entries are toast.

 

“Just before 10am, a shock rips through the paddock, the pitlane and the commentary booth. There’s a Mercedes in the wall. It’s the A6-Pro leader.”

 

Ironically, the collision is set in motion by yet another Mercedes-AMG GT3 – that of the ‘rival’ #24 SPS automotive performance, no less – which impacted heavily with the turn 14 tyre barriers not five minutes earlier, race control throwing the race’s 12th Code 60 caution period to clear up the wreckage. As the race returns to green, Stolz, who slows the #3 Black Falcon Merc on the back-straight to avoid getting tangled with backmarkers, and Eggimann, who’s at speed and completely unsighted, find themselves inadvertently sparring for the same piece of tarmac under braking for turns 10 and 11. Contact is inevitable.

It’s some time before we track down Chantal again. Glued to the monitors for updates immediately after the accident – fatigue all but forgotten in a wave of adrenaline – she spends the next two hours liaising with both the medical centre to make sure her teammate is okay (he is) and the team to gauge the full extent of the damage.

 

“The left-side of the engine bay is destroyed, the drivers’ side door has broken free of its mountings, and the front left wheel has been ripped off completely.”

 

“I didn’t see the accident on the screen because I was preparing to get into the car, but the impact was pretty hard and Roland’s very lucky he walked away from it,” explains Chantal, who’s back in flip flops and now in her street clothes. “He actually wanted to come in during the Code 60, but when he came down the pitlane, the fuel station was completely full and we figured we’d lose too much time waiting, so Roland went back out again. But that’s just how it is with endurance racing. It can be fun, and it can be brutal. You just never know.

“The fatigue had started to set in, but when the team said I would be in the car in five laps, that’s when the adrenaline started to come back, especially when I’m warming up. Obviously none of us wanted the race to end like this.

“It’s disappointing, and now we’ll just start packing up and getting ready to ship out. Before that our mechanics will look at the car so they can pre-order the parts we need from Mercedes. As heavy as the impact was, the car probably has to go to AMG in Germany, via customs in Switzerland, so we might lose a lot of time. Hopefully we can get it fixed and be ready in time for Navarra.”

Turns out, there’s still a small smile on her face. Her frustration is obvious and understandable, but nobody was hurt, and the team’s sister entry has quietly opened up a significant lead in the CUP1 class, and Chantal is keen to cheer them all the way to the chequered flag from – where else…? – her fold-up chair in front of the monitors.

Though the shell of what was once the #1 Mercedes-AMG GT3 haunts the paddock for the last four hours of the race, Hofor-Racing’s weekend amazingly ends with celebration as Michael Schrey, Michael Fischer, Bernd Küpper, Gustav Engljähringer and Chantal’s uncle Martin bring the #131 Hofor-Racing powered by Bonk Motorsport BMW M235i Racing Cup home for a comfortable CUP1 class win, cheered on through the catch fencing by the crew members of both garages. It’s a truly heart-warming sight, epitomising the pain, exhaustion, cruelty and joy at the heart of endurance motorsport. The #1 crew after all will head back to Europe with nothing more than a battered Mercedes to show for their herculean efforts, but apparently, that’s not going to halt their enthusiasm.

“That’s just how it is with endurance racing,” Chantal explains before disappearing into the throng of back-slapping mechanics. “It can be fun, and it can be brutal, you just never know. But for sure we’ll be back.”

 

*Images courtesy of Petr Frýba Photographer, 24hseries.com and David Benson