After 8 seasons with European-based Audi Sport, Marco Werner will race for North American-based Highcroft Racing at this year's 24 Hours of LeMans
------Former Audi factory drivers appear to be in high demand as of late. First, five-time Le Mans winner Emanuele Pirro landed a ride with Drayson Racing for its LMP1 endurance racing program. Now, SPEEDtv.com can confirm that German veteran Marco Werner has signed with Highcroft Racing for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, completing the team’s lineup for its race debut.
Werner, a three-time overall winner at Le Mans, was not renewed by Audi Sport for 2010 following a reshuffle of the German manufacturer’s drivers, opting to bring new blood into squad. That left Werner and fellow Audi drivers Lucas Luhr and Alexandre Premat without full-season prototype rides, and the 43-year-old Werner immediately evaluated his options.
“When I looked at the market, it was a really good decision to go to Duncan [Dayton] because I think they are just a few teams that are on Highcroft’s level,” Werner said. “Highcroft Racing is one of the best. I’m not going to Le Mans to just cruise around or to be the 10th or 12th best team in LMP1. I think it’s a really good position to do it with Highcroft Racing because while the team is new to Le Mans and doesn’t have the experience over there, they have plenty of knowledge from the ALMS and I’m looking forward that we’ll do a good job.”
After spending the last eight years with Audi, Werner’s move to the Duncan Dayton-owned Highcroft organization came as a surprise to some. But with a team embarking on its first Le Mans, Werner adds the credibility and pedigree needed to succeed.
And coming from such a massive, factory-backed program, Werner is also able to bring years of Le Mans prototype experience with him. He also doesn’t lack the pace or consistency that’s needed to get the job done in what’s almost always a grueling 24-hour marathon.
“I visited the team’s race shop in Danbury, Connecticut two weeks ago and I was really surprised of the shop and what I saw there,” Werner said. “I felt the spirit of the entire team, especially Duncan, as he’s focused to have success in the larger races like Le Mans. I felt to be in a very comfortable position. And sometimes, it’s better to have a small team as opposed to a big team when it comes to decision-making. It’s really great to work with these guys as I’ve seen.”
Werner’s first laps in the team’s Honda Performance Development ARX-01C came this week at Sebring, where he joined Le Mans teammates David Brabham and Marino Franchitti in the LMP2 car for a multi-day test following the Twelve Hours. Immediately, Werner was up to speed, and had even surpassed initial expectations. His best lap of 1:46.800 on Tuesday evening was close to one-second faster than Simon Pagenaud’s best time in the same car during Saturday’s race.
While Werner has come to grips of the light and nimble prototype, he quickly noticed the differences between the HPD and the diesel-powered Audi R10 and R15 TDIs he had become accustomed to over the years. The biggest difference, he says, is the ability to push the car deep into corners, sometimes without even lifting.
“For sure it’s completely different, so I have to learn,” Werner said. “The Audi machine did everything [with] the power. You had to brake much earlier, especially for Turn 17 [at Sebring] and it’s much more high-speed. We’re talking about 40-60 kph difference between a LMP1 and LMP2 from what I saw on [Tuesday]. That’s really a lot.
“With a P2 car, you use all of the downforce and brake deep into corners, much, much later than with the Audi. Aside from the differences in speed, there is also a big step with the weight and downforce. It’s a lot of fun to have a car with a lot of downforce and cornering speeds. I never had so much cornering speeds at Sebring than this week testing the HPD.”
Teammate Brabham, who won Le Mans overall in 2009 at the wheel of a Peugeot 908 HDi-FAP, can relate to jumping from one kind of car to another, having also won the ALMS LMP1 championship with Highcroft’s Acura ARX-02a last year. The veteran Australian feels Werner is the perfect fit for Highcroft in their Le Mans debut.
“It’s a great choice for the team because he’s been around for a long time, he’s won Le Mans, he’s won here in America,” Brabham said. “You want to be able to bolt someone in at Le Mans to be able to help the team progress to the next step. For Highcroft Racing, competing in America is one thing, but competing in America and doing Le Mans is another. The team will be going through a huge learning curve and can obviously draw on the experiences of Marco and myself who have been there many times, won it and know what it takes.”
Werner has also given high praise to Brabham and Franchitti, who have both helped him get acclimated to his new environment this week in testing. From driving the 3.7-mile Sebring circuit in a rental car and pointing out certain details to optimizing his comfort inside the HPD ARX-01C, Werner has felt right at home with his new teammates.
“Being with Brabs and Marino, it’s a nice lineup,” Werner said. “There’s no doubt Brabs is one of the best prototype drivers in the world. He won Le Mans last year. I’ve seen how quick Marino can be and feel he will have a great career in prototypes. He’s really fast and hope he can get a full-season ride next year. He’s one of the quickest drivers in the business. I’m really looking forward to working together with them at Le Mans.”
Werner feels he made the right choice in going to Le Mans with a team that has a shot for the P2 class win, instead of running mid-pack in P1. With prospects of a top-10 overall finish, or higher, in sight for Dayton and company, there’s plenty of optimism heading into June. “You need a complete package and it’s all here,” Werner said. “The engine is strong enough for 24 hours, the car is very good and with the new configurations, especially for Le Mans, the car will also be very good on the straights. Everything is there. We just need a little bit of luck, like every time at Le Mans or in long-distance races. I’m really looking forward to it.”