Few manufacturers can boast a pedigree in the 24H SERIES like Mercedes-AMG, the roll call of the three-pointed star including three consecutive A6 championships, a near record-equalling number of race wins at the Hankook 24H DUBAI, and a podium strike rate that leaves rival brands weeping. Could another title be on the cards? We ask IDEC SPORT RACING team owner Patrice Lafargue.
It was only a matter of time before we descended beneath the carbon fibre engine cover of the three-pointed star in our ‘On the grid’ series. Mercedes-AMG after all has been a staple of the 24H SERIES since almost the turn of the decade.
The now departed SLS AMG GT3 has three wins to its name at the Hankook 24H DUBAI, collected 10 outright podiums at the event from a possible 18, and remains to this day the only GT car to lockout the Dubai podium. On top of that, the SLS claimed seven more overall wins in the 24H SERIES during its six-year tenure, a whopping 21 outright top three finishes, and took RAM Racing and Hofor-Racing to A6-class championships in ’15 and ’16 respectively.
So decisive was the SLS’ performance in the 24H SERIES in fact that only TWICE did it fail to finish on the podium. And we haven’t even mentioned wins at the Nürburgring 24 Hours, Spa 24 Hours, and Bathurst 12 Hours – all part of Mercedes’ 2013 ‘Grand Slam’ – nor the 182 victories between ’10 and ’14.
A tough act to follow, but the SLS’ replacement – the AMG GT3 – has similarly impressed since its arrival in 2016. Of the 14 races completed in the 24H SERIES seasons from ’17 to ’18, Affalterbach’s newboy finished all but one on the outright podium (Paul Ricard ’17 still delivered an A6-Am class win). Victory at Dubai last year means Mercedes is just one short of equalling Porsche’s event record. And the AMG’s pace was such last year that PROsport Performance swept to both the European Championship and the Championship of the Continents in its maiden campaign with the three-pointed star. Chalk up another Nürburgring win in 2016 too.
If IDEC Group President, and IDEC SPORT RACING team principal Patrice Lafargue, has hopes of one day clinching the 24H SERIES crown for his beloved French outfit, he’d struggle to find a better charger to do so. It’s the reason the team made the jump to AMG from Porsche in the first place.
“The Porsche is a very good car,” explains Patrice, who began his racing career in the FFSA in 2006 and helped Oak Racing secure the LMP2-class Intercontinental Le Mans Cup in 2010. “We won the [24H SERIES] championship in the 997 category in 2015, but we wanted to move up to the A6 category. And the Mercedes was the obvious choice.
“It’s true that the Porsche was more or less the emblem for Ruffier Racing” – the team Patrice took over from namesake Jean-Claude in 2015 – “but it was important for us to develop our own way of doing things, even if Jean-Claude still watches closely what is going on! We could have got any GT3, but we really felt the magnificent AMG GT was the way to go.”
Unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in 2015 just a few days before the road-going ‘GT’ on which it was based also hit the stage, Mercedes’ new AMG GT3 may share a lineage with its successful predecessor, but, oddly, little else. The new look, one “primed for attack”, was, if anything, even wider than the already broad-shouldered SLS AMG GT3, bringing with it more cavernous air intakes, a more convex ‘shark nose’, and a re-styled carbon fibre front splitter, all designed to work in tandem with a whopping rear diffuser and enormous rear aerofoil to maximise aerodynamic efficiency and produce maximum downforce.
At its base is the same aluminium spaceframe as the road-going GT, albeit one significantly more rigid and lighter than the outgoing SLS. Quite a lot lighter in fact. Throw in a predominantly carbon fibre body – including doors, ‘gaping mouth’ bonnet, front wings, side walls and boot lid – and the new homologated AMG GT3 weighs a stonking 240kg less than its 1,540kg road-going alter-ego, and almost 100 kilos fewer than the SLS AMG GT3 it replaces.
The centre of gravity is thus dutifully lowered, while a wider track, a larger wheelbase and revised aluminium double wishbone suspension means the AMG GT3 promised higher traction, better agility through the corners, and higher lateral acceleration straight out the box. Even the carbon fibre seat shell has been mounted in place to keep the centre of gravity on point (both the steering wheel and pedal cluster are adjustable instead).
“Victory at Dubai last year means Mercedes is just one short of equalling Porsche’s event record.”
Form fundamentally follows function, and Mercedes is adamant that the AMG GT3 “avoids any sign of unnecessary showmanship.” That the vertical chrome strips in the new ‘Panamericana’ front grille is an homage to the classic 300 SL that won Mexico’s border-to-border road-rally endurance race in 1952 is neither here nor there.
Oddly, one component that did survive the jump twixt the SLS and its successor was the naturally aspirated 6.2-litre V8, Mercedes having opted against running its new, ‘hot inside V’ 4-litre twin-turbocharged V8 in competition. The biturbo engine is more than capable – the more compact unit with internally mounted turbochargers produced 510hp in the top spec GT S from the get-go – but the decision was purely one of pragmatism from Mercedes’ top cats. The established 6,208cc naturally aspirated unit after all offers lower running costs, longer service intervals and proven reliability for AMG’s customers. With no need for an oil sump (the V8 is dry sump lubricated), it could even be fitted lower and well behind the front axle. There’s that centre of gravity consideration again.
“The Mercedes is an exceptional machine,” Patrice continues. “She is very fast, so you need to remain focused behind the wheel. But she is still very composed given the performance levels she achieves.”
All looked good on paper, and after intensive testing throughout 2015, the new Mercedes-AMG GT3 was ready for its competitive debut at the 2016 Hankook 24H DUBAI.
Perennial Dubai front-runners Black Falcon led just two of the completed 588 laps, falling foul of accident damage (#2) and gearbox failure (#3) respectively before quarter distance, but a second row starting position showed demonstrative pace, and a “faultless” 30-hour pre-race test proved reliability was lingering beneath the carbon fibre. A dominant performance from the new Audi R8 LMS was another unexpected spanner in the works.
AMG didn’t waste much time licking its wounds though, the GT3 storming back to finish on the podium in its second race – round eight of the 2016 VLN at the Nürburgring – before claiming the first podium of its 24H SERIES tenure at Paul Ricard. Come Dubai 2018, AMG was the benchmark once again, Hofor-Racing having claimed four class wins en-route to the outright 2017 title and Black Falcon sealing its fourth collaborative win at the Hankook 24H DUBAI to kick off the 2018 season. Mercedes’ new “challenger for victories” had shown its cards.
“After intensive testing throughout 2015, the new Mercedes-AMG GT3 was ready for its competitive debut at the 2016 Hankook 24H DUBAI. Results were…varied.”
And what of IDEC SPORT RACING, a customer mainstay of Mercedes-AMG since 2016? Well, having wrapped up the 997-class title in 2015 as ‘Ruffier Racing’ (in the team’s debut 24H SERIES campaign no less), the rebranded IDEC SPORT RACING began its maiden season with the Mercedes SLS AMG GT3 in 2016, the team taking its first A6-Am class win in only its second start. Incredibly, father and son Patrice and Paul Lafargue, Gabriel Abergel and Sacha Bottemanne took the car’s first A6-Am class win in only its second start.
“Our way of thinking about motor racing is that enjoying ourselves is our prime concern. That is a key principle for IDEC SPORT. But we work seriously too, and if we don’t do anything silly, we can get some good results. In 2016, the planets came into alignment!”
In 2016, the team finished an impressive 4th overall. In 2017, the IDEC-entered Porsche 991-I Cup came close to winning the 991-class European Championship, and were even in the running for last year’s 24H GT SERIES European Championship until brutally timed engine issues knocked the Fontenay-Trésigny-based squad out of contention in Barcelona.
Things haven’t quite gone to plan for the IDEC SPORT RACING Mercedes in 2019 so far either. At the Hankook 12H MUGELLO, the #17 AMG GT3 was felled in its first race of the season with clutch issues, while a broken ABS block and damaged suspension eliminated the Mercedes from a podium-contending fight at Spa-Francorchamps. Having missed Brno altogether, points on the board is surely a must at Portimão.
“Unfortunately we’ve experienced a few technical problems at the start of the season, so we weren’t able to fight with the leading cars. But in terms of performance, I think we have the same pace as the best cars.
“The rebranded IDEC SPORT RACING began its maiden season with Mercedes in 2016, the team taking its first A6-Am class win in only its second start.”
“In January, we were clearly aiming for the overall podium. That was a reasonable goal, given our performances in 2018” – IDEC took outright podium spots at Imola and Barcelona en-route to 9th in the A6 class – “But after the first two races this year, we can see that it is going to be a bit more complicated. We’ll be thinking about the future and see what options we can consider.
“In a championship like the 24H SERIES, there are no secrets to running at the front. It’s down to hard work paying off. But even if you work hard, you can’t be certain to be up amongst the leaders. We’re lucky to have a very competent team, which I trust, and that helps a lot. It’s up to us to avoid making any silly mistakes out on the track.”
Of course, endurance racing is rarely that predictable, as Patrice and IDEC know all too well. At last year’s Hankook 12H SILVERSTONE, for example, and with the #17 Mercedes in contention for an overall podium spot, heavy rain left the Formula 1 British Grand Prix venue awash. Caught out by the slick conditions at quarter distance, Dmitri Enjalbert, an IDEC pillar since 2015, was unable to stop the Mercedes snatching a rear tyre exiting Club corner and smashing those Carrera Panamericana tributary chrome struts against the wall on the International Pits Straight. The front end was destroyed, and the Mercedes was done.
“When you take part in motor racing, you have to come to terms with certain things and in particular, the problems you can do nothing about. There is the man and the car. If both work well, it’s fantastic. But if one of them has a problem, it can quickly become complicated, particularly if the problem is with the car. You just have to accept that each race will always be different in some way.
“Things happen in a race. You can be lucky and you can be unlucky, and you can’t really explain either. We just have to try to overcome the bad luck as best we can.”
There’s also IDEC SPORT’s other commitments to consider as Patrice and team manager Nicolas Minassian – a former European Le Mans Series race winner and runner-up in the 2000 International Formula 3000 championship – work towards salvaging their 2019 24H SERIES season. While the Mercedes-AMG GT3 needs some TLC, so too does the team’s ELMS-entered Oreca 07 and Ligier JS PS217.
“Our team has done a remarkable job and has managed to cope with the timetable for each car, even if sometimes the timing is tight between two race weekends. We have two cars, a Ligier used by a trio of gentlemen drivers, and an Oreca, which is driven by a fast and complementary team in which Paul is our Silver driver. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that race wins will happen again this season.”
“You can be lucky and you can be unlucky, and you can’t really explain either. We just have to try to overcome the bad luck as best we can.”
Given the scheduling headaches of prepping three championship calibre racing machines, sometimes on the same weekend, the likelihood of seeing the team’s Porsche 991-II Cup in action again this year is slim (“for the moment, she is in our workshop. Above all, we are interested in the GT3, and we are looking at acquiring a second car for that category too.”). All 24H SERIES honours thus rest on the ‘shark nose’ of the IDEC Mercedes.
Still, a proven Nürburgring 24 Hours winner. THE current title-holding manufacturer in the European Championship and Championship of the Constructors. Already a multi-time winner worldwide as the de facto prodigal son of Mercedes’ customer racing program. Yeah. If there’s a car that could turn these fortunes around for Patrice Lafargue, it’s the red and black liveried Mercedes-AMG GT3 in his garage.
*Images courtesy of Petr Frýba Photographer and 24H SERIES
Team(s) 2019, so far
Toksport WRT (#15)
SPS automotive performance (#16)
IDEC SPORT RACING (#17)
CP Racing (#85)
Engine: V8, twin-turbo, 6,208cc
Transmission: Six-speed sequential manual
Suspension: Double wishbones, PKM
Brakes: 390mm (front), 355mm (rear), AP Racing and Brembo
Wheels: 18in (front and rear)
Notable results (general)
1st 24H GT SERIES Championship of the Continents – Overall Teams’ and Drivers’
(#85 PROsport Performance – Charles Putman / Charles Espenlaub / Joe Foster)
1st 24H GT SERIES European Championship – Overall Teams’ and Drivers’
(#85 PROsport Performance – Charles Putman / Charles Espenlaub / Joe Foster)
1st outright 24H GT SERIES, Hankook 24H DUBAI
(#2 Black Falcon – Yelmer Buurman / Abdulaziz al Faisal / Hubert Haupt / Gabriele Piana)
Notable results (IDEC SPORT RACING only)
1st outright 24H GT SERIES podium, Hankook 12H MUGELLO
(Patrice Lafargue / Paul Lafargue / Dimitri Enjalbert)
1st A6-Am class win, Hankook 12H MUGELLO
(Patrice Lafargue / Gabriel Abergel / Sacha Bottemanne)