Trackside: How a Mercedes-AMG GT3 Team Meticulously Preps for a 10-Hour Race

Every racing discipline is demanding, but endurance racing is on another level. See how Mercedes-AMG rises up to the challenge.

byPeter Nelson|
Petit LeMans Sept 2022 mercedes amg winward racing weathertech imsa
Brian Cleary

There are many moving parts to a racing team's operation—transporting, marketing, logistics, etc.—and that's just what it takes to get on the track. To finish or even win a race, a myriad of other factors must line up to produce the coveted result. Within motorsports, however, endurance racing is the ultimate test for a racing organization. These races can range from 24 hours to 12 and sometimes "just" four. But regardless of length, they all require the utmost precision from every member of the team.

I recently attended the 2022 Motul Petit Le Mans, a 10-hour endurance race in its 25th year at Georgia's famed Road Atlanta, part of the IMSA Weathertech SportsCar Championship. I shadowed the Winward Racing Team and its No. 57 Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the pro-am GT Daytona (GTD) class as they prepped for one of the most important races of the season.

Photo by Brian Cleary for Mercedes-AMG Brian Cleary

Team Culture

Crew members are on the deck turning wrenches and doing final checks to the carbon-fiber-clad No. 57 before it goes to qualify. Others are checking, cleaning, and organizing gear while some are moving in and out of the trailer holding laptops. In the middle of all of it is the team's manager, Ed Hall.

Hall's worked in motorsports for a long time for a wide variety of teams in different series, and on both sides of the rulebook, having been an IMSA official before. Hall ensures that it runs like a well-oiled machine—in fact, as a dry-sump 6.2-liter naturally aspirated Mercedes-AMG M159 V8—the powerplant beneath the GT3's hood.

"We came here and tested earlier in September, had a great test, and are quite confident in the car and drivers," Hall told me. "Our goal, like everybody, is to get the pole and win the race. But it's a 10-hour race and there are 42 other cars out there competing in different classes and at different speeds."

Photo by Brian Cleary for Mercedes-AMG Brian Cleary

When it comes to having a herculean, enduro-ready strategy, the old saying "it's a marathon, not a sprint" rings no truer. As long as the team keeps the car alive and the drivers do their job, they've got a high chance of climbing atop the podium.

"As far as strategy, there's just a lot that goes into it," Hall added. "A lot of race fans probably don't grasp the amount of time and energy that's spent looking at the data, speaking with the drivers—everything that goes into developing the race strategy. We'll be here until this evening coming up with our strategy for the race… but then 30 minutes into the race, what if something happens that completely blows that strategy out of the water?"

This brings up an important point to any race duration: fluidity and flexibility are key. "It's got to be very fluid, and you've got to be light on your feet to be able to react. Whether it's a double-yellow, a crash, the car has an incident, or a mechanical situation that we have to deal with—all of that has a huge impact on your strategy for the remainder of the race. You've got to be able to react to it."

Peter Nelson

And that's where a strong team shines. Every team's going to have challenges, but it's the championship-contending teams that respond accordingly.

The team's previous race at Virginia International Raceway is an example of this. The race started off quite well, but an issue with an impact gun took sent them to the back. They didn't throw the whole race away after that, though, which would've been an easy call considering how competitive the field is in IMSA GTD. Instead, they put their heads down, nailed the next two pit stops, and won the race.

"It's how you respond to the issues that are going to come up, especially in an endurance race. You're going to have issues, everybody does. It's how you respond and can react to those, and continue your race—that's what puts teams at the front of the field," Hall concluded.

The Crew

"We've got a great crew," Hall said of the guys who hop over the wall to service the car in a quick, confident, and methodical fashion. "We've done probably 60 pit stops this month in practice getting ready. It's difficult to pass on Road Atlanta, but the safest place to do so is in the pit box. If we can just have a solid 7-8 hours tomorrow and push really hard in the last couple, then we'll be there at the end."

Peter Nelson

Sixty practice pit stops sound like an unfathomable number until you're present when they leap over the wall. A full lap before the car pulls in, they're suited up in fire- and impact-resistant gear waiting calmly for the No. 57 to pull in and get to work. Then, there are the guys on the other side of the wall, assisting them by holding the slack in the air lines and keeping tires ready for the handoff. It's a well-choreographed dance.

Watching everyone move so swiftly and precisely is really something to witness up close, as you can see in the video below. It's also the result of lots of practice.

Based on the crew's pit stop performance alone, it's no wonder that all three drivers were able to keep the car in the top five for almost the entire race.

Mercedes-AMG Motorsport Support

"We had some issues in the beginning of the season with driver error and some little mechanical issues, but ever since Watkins Glen we've always been at the front and very competitive," said Thomas Gleib, who along with Toni Ristolainen work in Customer Support for Mercedes-AMG Motorsport Customer Racing. They're the guys who are crunching the numbers and directing every member of the team toward victory.

They're responsible for directing car setup, race strategy, and keeping the mechanics busy. "We make sure that the tires are mounted correctly, the tire pressures are fine, that there's enough fuel in the car to run the whole stint, and overall that the performance of the car is top-level," Ristolainen said.

"For me, I'm the Head Engineer of Winward Racing, but mainly in Europe in DTM," Gleib said. "Here, I assist on the American side and join in the big races as there is a lot of strategy that needs to be monitored. I'm also here to take a step back and see the bigger picture." "It's always good to have a second set of eyes," Ristolainen added.

Photo by Brian Cleary for Mercedes-AMG Brian Cleary

DTM follows the same GT3 ruleset as IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, which is a huge advantage that Winward has for setup and strategy. Both series even run the same tires, so there's a lot of knowledge transfer. Between the U.S. and Europe, Winward's cars are running almost every weekend during the race season, which nets the team a lot of data to share.

Communication between the two is key," Hall said. "You can be running solo programs all over the world, and it doesn't help anybody. But as soon as you open up communication, you take the challenges that they've faced and have come up with a solution for—they communicate it to us—now we're not going to face that challenge. And vice versa."

Strategizing for Road Atlanta includes staying out of trouble and having a strong car toward the end of the race. "Yesterday's night practice was quite important as it was the same conditions more or less as the end of the race," Gleib said. "Strategy-wise, the car needs to stay clean, out of trouble, and on the leader's lap the entire time. And then, in the final two hours, have the best driver in it and on the attack." That driver would be Philip Ellis.

The Drivers

From left to right: Russell Ward, Philip Ellis, Marvin Dienst. Peter Nelson

It all comes down to the person behind the wheel. The driver turns hypothetical strategy and hopeful engineering into action and reality.

"It's the second time for me here, so I know what to expect," said driver Philip Ellis, who's been with Winward in America or in Europe since 2019. "It will be super aggressive in the nighttime, but for the long run we look pretty strong. It'll be interesting to see where Russell puts us in qualifying."

A quick handshake between Marvin Dienst and Philip Ellis before Ellis hops in for his final stint. Photo by Brian Cleary for Mercedes-AMG Brian Cleary

"We've got nothing to lose and I hope the guys around us remember that," Russell Ward added, jokingly, with a grin on his face. Ward's co-driven with Ellis all season long in both IMSA and SRO Fanatec GT World Challenge America, America's other professional sports car racing series. Between the two, they've earned a total of five wins, one second place, and one third place in 2022.

"Last year was tough, and you can see what happens when you have this kind of mix of traffic, especially on a course where there's a lot of blind corners and ups and downs,'' Ward added. "This is one where you really got to keep it clean because every hit here is huge." He was referring to Road Atlanta's unforgiving walls that are a bit too close for comfort on such a high-speed stretch of tarmac, especially with so many cars crammed onto its 12 turns and 2.5-mile length.

Peter Nelson

"For the first eight-to-nine hours we'll keep it clean and then deliver it to Ellis in a good position," third driver Marvin Dienst added. "It's never been a race that was won in the first nine hours, or nine hours and 59 minutes, it's decided in the end—you always have to finish strong to be on the podium. Our goal will be to keep the car in good shape, have a good rocket in the end, and see where Ellis can put us."

The maximum stint for a single driver is two hours, which is a herculean task on Road Atlanta, given the speed differential between the sports cars in GTD and GTD Pro, and prototypes in DPi, LMP2, and LMP3. The stress and fatigue after two hours can be monumental.

"It's a super long race, so there's no point in taking unnecessary risks or stressing yourself out," Ellis added. "If somebody passes you, let them pass. If it's early in the race it doesn't matter, because you're in it for the long run. Be calm and collected."

After the green flag waved midday on Saturday, the team's preparation and strategy came together and held the No. 57 in solid position for almost the entire race. But then, in an instant, it all fell apart.

The Checkered Flag

Photo by Brian Cleary for Mercedes-AMG Brian Cleary

Everyone I spoke to had their own way of saying that Petit Le Mans' final hour is no joke. It's easy to see why, too. After keeping the car running and in good shape for nine hours, the enduro quickly turns into a sprint in a field that's split up between five classes with massive performance differentials.

A battle between a gaggle of DPi prototypes quickly happens upon a gaggle of battling GTD cars, which eventually sees a couple of LMP3 prototypes thrown in as well. Add in blind corners, high-stakes passes, hard braking zones, all on a relatively short circuit, it's hell to deal with in the dark.

Photo by Brian Cleary for Mercedes-AMG Brian Cleary

For the Winward Mercedes-AMG, the race ended after an impact with a Cadillac DPi, shortly after a double-yellow caused by the Cadillac DPi car's impact with a fellow Cadillac DPi car. Winward was on the receiving end of some suspension damage that quickly ended their effort over 9.75 hours into the 10-hour race. They ultimately finished in P11 in class.

Before the incident, Ellis had driven up to a comfortable P3. If he held on to the position until the checkers, it would've guaranteed the manufacturers' championship for Mercedes-AMG.

Hall explained a little bit about what happened, but he was clearly frustrated. I felt so bummed for the team.

Crashing out sucks, especially when some solid titles are mere minutes away. But next up is SRO Fanatec GT World Challenge America's Indianapolis 8 Hour—its own season finale. Winward's got to be loaded in and ready to test on Wednesday, followed by practice, qualifying, and another eight hours of endurance racing on Saturday. They can dwell, or they can focus on a serious chance at earning a win in the Pro class, as well as a third-place finish in the team championship.

Photo by Brian Cleary for Mercedes-AMG Brian Cleary

It's moments like these that make the season's wins so much sweeter. After all that prep, strategy, and hard work by every member of the team, any finish—especially a podium finish—is well-earned indeed. And if things don't work out as planned or hoped for, rest up in the off-season and come back swingin' next year.

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