Exclusive Q&A: Van Der Linde Going for Hat Trick in Third Intercontinental GT Challenge California 8 Hours
South African factory Audi driver set to defend 2017, 2018 titles at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca March 29-30
Kelvin van der Linde stood atop the podium at both previous Intercontinental GT Challenge California 8 Hours events as a winning co-driver of the No. 44 Audi Sport Team Magnus Audi R8 LMS in 2017 and the No. 29 Audi Sport Team Land Audi R8 LMS in 2018. The 22-year-old South African driving ace is eyeing a three-peat at the West Coast’s only professional endurance race at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on March 29-30.
This year, van der Linde will enjoy some continuity when returning to the No. 29 Audi Sport Team Land Audi R8 LMS with one of his winning co-drivers from last October – German Christopher Mies, who recently drove for Audi in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s GT Daytona class at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. Their other co-driver is German Markus Winkelhock, who van der Linde won with at Audi Sport Team Magnus in 2017.
Though van der Linde and Audi have dominated the first two years of the Intercontinental GT Challenge California 8 Hours, they face their most competitive grid during their quest for a three-peat. A record eight manufacturers are fielding full-time efforts in Intercontinental GT Challenge powered by Pirelli competition – Audi, Mercedes AMG, Porsche, Bentley, BMW, Nissan, Ferrari and Honda. Notable adversaries include Matt Campbell, the young Australian who made headlines with his victory for Porsche at the Bathurst 12 Hour, and Tristan Vautier, the French Mercedes AMG driver who clinched the drivers’ championship at this event last October.
Van der Linde took a rare path toward international GT racing that is three generations in the making. European connections from his father’s Touring Car racing career helped the two-time national karting champion find a way from South Africa to the thriving European GT endurance racing scene where he earned such accolades as becoming the 2014 ADAC GT Masters champion and winning the 2017 Nürburgring 24 Hour. This helped carve a path for brother Sheldon – a 19-year-old BMW factory driver – and fellow countrymen like Jordan Pepper.
Van der Linde took time to answer questions leading up to the Intercontinental GT Challenge California 8 Hours in this exclusive interview.
Q: We look forward to having you and the rest of the Intercontinental GT Challenge powered by Pirelli grid back for the California 8 Hours. The series continues to build momentum with eight full-time manufacturers this year. What are your thoughts on returning to WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca?
A: That’s for sure. I cannot wait to get back. I love going there. It’s going to be cool. I don’t get to race in America often, so I plan to stay for a little bit as well to see a little bit of California while I’m there.
Q: What was your impression of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and the surrounding area during your first two visits?
A: Obviously, the track is awesome for a driver. For our GT3 cars, it is fantastic. The only thing that we really fought with was tire dig for the endurance runs. That was a challenge. The area itself – I love it. There are some cool places to go and visit.
Q: Having competed in and won the California 8 Hours on two occasions, what kinds of strategy are at play? What kind of unique challenges does the circuit present?
A: Laguna Seca is quite unique in the sense that we raced with TCR cars and MARC cars in the past, so it really was a multiclass event. From that point of view, traffic management was pretty tricky, particularly at the Corkscrew. It is very important to stay off trouble. Avoiding any instances early on will keep you fit for a good run at the finish. There weren’t that many safety cars, I would say, compared to a race like Bathurst or Spa, so from that point of view it was a bit more like a sprint race than a tactical race. It’s very different. In Bathurst, sometimes there are so many safety cars that you don’t really race at all because you know the safety cars are going to back everything up. In Laguna Seca the last two years, there were so few safety cars that you knew you just had to push because you didn’t know if there would be a safety car before the end or not which is different than the other races we do on the Intercontinental GT Challenge. Winning it two times is something I didn’t really expect, to be honest, but I had two great teams and driver lineups for both races. It worked out fantastically. That was obviously a proud moment for me.
Q: Why do you think that you and Audi have fared so well at the California 8 Hours?
A: I think the Audi R8 is suited very well to Laguna Seca. We are generally very good in low- and mid-speed corners. We are also very good at tire degradation. We manage our tires well, which is also very similar to the Mercedes that was very competitive at the race last year. Managing traffic really gave us the win last year more than outright pace. That’s endurance racing. You have to make it to the finish without any scratches. You still must have a competitive car, which we did. In the end, it all worked out.
Q: What kind of fitness is involved in preparing for endurance races in various locations and conditions? How do you prepare?
A: I use the example that the actual loads are not as high as a driver would experience in Formula 1, but it is very repetitive because we are in the car for so long. F1 is kind of like having a 20-pound weight for 10 reps while endurance racing is like taking a 10-pound weight and doing it 100 times. That repetition is what tires you out during a race. We don’t have the high loads during a race, but it is very hot inside the cockpit with no actual airflow like a single seater car would have. I spend a lot of time in a sauna, climatizing the body to that kind of heat. We do a lot of endurance training instead of the weight training that F1 guys do for their neck and stuff like that. For us, it’s more about surviving that heat, being in the car that long, and being able to do multiple repetitions at a low rate.
Q: You tweeted some interesting numbers regarding your travel schedule last year: 229 hours on flights, 20 countries visited on five continents, 172 nights spent in a hotel, 26 different race tracks visited. Does it seem like you spend most of your life on the road?
A: It’s crazy. Some of the GT drivers, especially at Audi, travel around with customer teams as well as the factory-allocated races. 25 race weekends per year does start adding up pretty quickly.
Q: How did coming up in a racing family lead you to this?
A: My grandfather started racing and was more-or-less at his peak in the late ‘80s. It crossed over to my dad, who was quite active in the Touring Car scene. He made a couple appearances in Europe in the British Touring Cars and the [FIA Touring Car] World Cup. He was really involved in the European scene. In the end, some of his contacts led to relationships which I then built up in Europe. It has now gone over to my brother and me who are actively racing. He is with BMW as a factory driver, and I am with Audi as a factory driver. It’s a pretty cool story for both of us, two brothers traveling the world racing. It is a great thing to experience at such a young age – he is 19, and I am 22. Hopefully, we can carry on doing it for years to come.
Q: Having reached such a high level of GT endurance racing early on, what are your goals moving forward?
A: I am a big fan of endurance racing, because you are exposed to so many different elements like the aspects of nighttime driving and sunrise and sunset. We go to some great places like the 24 Hours of Nürburgring and experience 24 Hours of Le Mans. I’m really happy where I am at in endurance racing. I would like to try out a few different classes, maybe experience the Prototype side of things, and see how the electric era is developing. Maybe we will be driving hybrid or all-electric cars in the near future. I am exciting to see what is in store for my generation in the next 5-10 years.
Q: What does it mean to represent your home country of South Africa at racing events?
A: It is fantastic. When I started racing overseas around five years ago, I was one of the first to really make the step to European and international racing. There were not too many South Africans abroad at the time. I managed to create a path for young South Africans. Now there are three or four of us competing at a very high level for manufacturers in endurance racing. I’m extremely proud to have us drivers representing the country week-in and week-out. We are seeing a lot more young guys showing interest overseas trying to make the break into international racing. From that point of view, there is an extremely proud feeling. From a personal side, I am able to live my dream and go to tracks like Laguna Seca that I watched on TV with MotoGP and IndyCar in the past. To now be racing there and already be a two-time winner at the California 8 Hours is a super-proud feeling. It is something I want to keep on doing and hopefully carry on doing it for a few more years.
Q: I’m sure your co-drivers will have a good feeling going into it with your track record at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
A: [Laughs] I hope so. But like I said, it’s a team game as it was the last two times. Everything really needs to click. We’ll probably need the same circumstances again to get the hat trick. Audi is always a good car around there. We’ll make the best of our driver and team lineups and go for that triple.
The Intercontinental GT Challenge California 8 Hours March 29-30 kicks off the 2019 premier event season at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. For tickets and information, please visit here or call 831-242-8200.