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Have Helmet, Will Travel: The Life of a Factory Driver

When You Compete in Multiple Series and Cars, Adaptation is Key


By John Oreovicz


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Mercedes-AMG had a lot to celebrate following WeatherTech Racing’s GT Daytona Pro (GTD PRO) class victory in the Rolex 24 At Daytona in January, the opening round of the 2023 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.


But the German marque’s “factory” drivers had no time to revel in the accomplishment.


That’s because within hours of the Daytona finish, winners Jules Gounon, Daniel Juncadella and Maro Engel – along with GT Daytona (GTD) class pole position qualifier Philip Ellis – were all on their way to Australia to race for Mercedes-AMG customer teams in the Bathurst 12 Hour, a round of the Intercontinental GT Challenge.


Just 121 hours elapsed between the checkered flag at Daytona and the green flag at Bathurst, yet a total of 11 drivers representing Mercedes-AMG and Porsche who competed in the WeatherTech Championship opener spent about a quarter of that time making the 10,000-mile journey down under.


If they were jet-lagged, it didn’t show. Engel smashed the GT3 track record to claim pole position, while Gounon and Luca Stolz teamed with Kenny Habul to win the 12-hour enduro for Mercedes-AMG and Sun Energy 1 Racing. Mathieu Jaminet and Australia native Matt Campbell, the 2022 WeatherTech Championship GTD PRO class champions for Porsche with Pfaff Motorsports – who competed at Daytona as Porsche factory drivers for Porsche Penske Motorsport in the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class – finished second at Bathurst in a 911 GT3 R Spec 2.


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Though Ellis and Juncadella didn’t fare quite as well, finishing eighth, Ellis – who competes for Winward Racing in the WeatherTech Championship – believes it was absolutely worth the effort to make the trip to Australia for one of the “major” races on the international GT3 calendar.


“That’s one of the big benefits of being a factory driver – you always get to be at the big races,” Ellis said. “It’s a very privileged position to be in.”


IMSA’s 2022 realignment of its GT classes in the WeatherTech Championship created a model for customer teams to receive varying levels of support from the participating manufacturers. Almost all the competing marques employ “factory” drivers that are assigned to teams in sports car championships in North America, Europe and Asia.


For factory drivers, the employing manufacturer’s car is the constant. But they often are required to adapt quickly to working with a variety of different teams and co-drivers, while racing on different tires and to a different set of rules and regulations – sometimes even during the same race weekend.


Dane Cameron is slated to drive the No. 5 Porsche Penske Motorsport Porsche 963 in every round of the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC). He’s also part of the team’s driver roster for three rounds of the IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup in the WeatherTech Championship, meaning he will quite literally double-stint the upcoming SuperSebring weekend – racing in the WEC’s Sebring 1000 Miles on Friday, March 17 and IMSA’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring on Saturday, March 18.


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Cameron, a multiple-time WeatherTech Championship season champion, says driving essentially the same car both days will make the task easier. But there are still plenty of key differences he needs to stay aware of.


“To do it in the same car, same organization, with more or less the same tires should streamline things a little bit,” Cameron remarked. “Everything inside the cockpit will be the same and that will help a bunch.


“Really the big challenge is going to be the pit lane being in two different places,” he continued. “The car numbers are going to be different, different pit boxes, different regulations in terms of how the race starts and restarts, safety car procedures…all those little details are slightly different. But I have a good team around me that will support me, and I’ve just kind of been reminding everyone to help me out if I’m not quite sure where I am at whatever time.”


Unlike Cameron, who drives a Porsche 963 prototype in both IMSA and WEC, fellow factory driver Laurens Vanthoor must make the transition back and forth between the 963 prototype he races full-time in WEC and the 911 GT3 R (992) that he drives for Porsche customer teams. His 2023 program includes all IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup rounds for Pfaff Motorsports in GTD PRO, along with his full-time commitment to Porsche Penske Motorsport’s No. 6 car in WEC.


Learning the complex controls and systems of one modern racing car is a monumental task, and Vanthoor has stepped up to the task of two.


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“When you focus on one championship or one car, you’re busy with that all the time,” said the 2021 IMSA GTD champion. “There’s nothing else you have to think about, so your brain and your body are fully focused and I think you can extract the best performance.


“When you go to a different car, it only takes a handful of laps to get used to it,” Vanthoor added. “But when you go to different tires or a different team, with a different engineer, or a championship with different rules, it’s not a routine and there are things that are different day in and day out. You’re a professional and it shouldn’t be a problem, but if you want to extract that last 1 or 2 percent of performance, it obviously becomes more difficult when you have to adapt to everything.”


The common denominator between all factory drivers is a sense of pride to be working with renowned brands to carry on their history of racing success.


“I think everybody in the sports car racing world kind of aspires to align yourself with a brand and to be in their stable of factory or works drivers,” said Cameron. “It’s something we’re all trying to achieve and I’m very pleased to have that honor with Porsche.”