Paul Miller Banking on Maassen’s Experience
There was an amusing moment last month during one of media conferences at the American Le Mans Series’ Sebring Winter Test when GT driver Sascha Maassen was asked what he thought about the venue and its unique history. Initially he said not a word. Instead, seated on a stool, he started convulsing, then shaking his head up and down. After a few seconds, pausing for effect and grinning broadly, he said simply, "It’s b-b-b-b-b-bumpy!"
The first time I recall meeting Sascha was in 2002 in Miami, where he and fellow German Lucas Luhr won the GT class of the ALMS race for Alex Job Racing on the challenging Bayfront Park street circuit. Nothing new there. The combination won seven of the 10 races that season, emerging as dominant champions. I don’t claim to know him especially well but we have talked many times since then and I have always found him to be friendly and engaging, with a well-developed sense of humor and a passion for the sport. This year, as last, Maassen will share the GT class No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Porsche 911 GT3 RSR with Bryce Miller. He is a tremendous asset for this ambitious team. With a strong background in open-wheel racing, which included a win in the prestigious Macau Grand Prix Formula 3 race in 1994, Maassen made the switch to touring car racing (sedans as we know them in the U.S.), and thence to GT sports cars in 1998. He found his niche right away. Always at the wheel of a Porsche, he has won just about everything there is to win, including two class wins at Le Mans, five at Sebring (including four in a row for AJR from 2001 to 2004 and another with Muscle Milk Racing’s Porsche RS Spyder in 2010), two ALMS championships (he repeated in 2003), and a total of 30 ALMS race wins. His wealth of experience and proven ability is exactly what the No. 48 team needs as, for the second year in a row, it embarks on a campaign in the immensely competitive GT class with a new tire partner. One year ago it was Yokohama. This time it’s Dunlop. This past weekend I asked Sascha whether, from his perspective, it is more enjoyable to compete with a proven package or to be involved in a development process where, I suggested, winning might be regarded as a bonus. "Well, that’s a good question," he responded. "You know, it’s always good to be in front, winning, but of course if you are in front then the pressure is on you. Right now we are in a situation where we are not in front, we’re chasing, and actually it’s a little more difficult, maybe, but there’s less pressure." The team obviously has high hopes for the future, given Dunlop’s success with both BMW and (in Europe) Ferrari in recent years, but the brand-new 2012-spec Chopard/Dunlop Porsche’s characteristics are quite different and the new relationship has just the Winter Test under its belt as it prepares for this week’s 60th Annual Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh for Florida. "It is a challenge that we already noticed," said Maassen. "We saw in the Winter Test that Dunlop was very quick and the Porsche was very quick, but not the Dunlop/Porsche, our car, so we have to make the connection. That’s our goal now. The competition in GT is really tough and, you know, there are so many factory cars and we are not, we are a private team, but we have ideas and I am very optimistic we are working into the right direction. It might not be [fully competitive at] Sebring but I’m pretty sure we have a good picture and we can improve constantly on what we have right now. I have to say we are starting on a very high level. I think we already are pretty close to Michelin. "I think, and I’m not 100 percent sure, that these tires that we have now, the main [basis] comes from their testing with BMW and Ferrari. That’s where we’re starting. We haven’t done really a big program with Porsche yet – we are still learning what the Porsche needs and then, hopefully, we will react on that. "I have worked with Dunlop before but this is a completely new group of people. I have to say that my first experience in the Winter Test was that they are very, very enthusiastic. They’re racers and they want to win races. We all have the same goal so it might be good!" Clearly, Maassen is enthusiastic about his prospects for this season and beyond. He realizes the learning curve is steep but is confident the Porsche/Dunlop combination will be competitive in the long term. He had a taste of prototypes when he was invited by Porsche to join the Penske team for its LMP2 assault a few years ago – and then renewed his association with the RS Spyder when he joined Greg Pickett and Klaus Graf to win the LMP2 class at Sebring in 2010 – but he is perfectly content to be competing in the GT ranks. Back to his roots, you might say. "Well, my biggest success came in GT racing, in American Le Mans and also in the FIA [GT Championship, which he won with Luhr in 2004]. When I had the opportunity to join the LMP program, I really, really enjoyed it. The challenge for me was higher in LMP, I have to say, because there’s a different kind of driving and maybe I have to work harder [to be competitive], but now I’m back in a GT car and I feel very, very comfortable. I like to have a development program. Right now we have a development program, with the team and the tires. I like where I am now and I don’t like to change all the time, so I would like to bring that to a happy end." Maassen concedes that success is unlikely to come over the bumps at Sebring, but he is relaxed, happy with his lot, secure in the knowledge that he remains as competitive as ever and relishing the challenge that lies ahead.