The Porsche Purist team sat down with Farnbacher Loles driver Dirk Werner last summer at Mid-Ohio, one of the foremost race tracks in the Midwest (and, arguably, the U.S.) It was a hot day, yet Werner was still fresh after coming off his practice session in the #87 Farnbacher Loles Porsche.
We had first met Dirk informally at Watkins Glen, where we had run into him at the media center, introduced ourselves and shown interest in interviewing him. We were impressed with the young German driver’s approachability and confidence; he was happy to pause to say hello to our team and gladly agreed to a future interview. (He and co-driver Leh Keen later went on to win the GT Rolex race for FarnbacherLoles at the Glen).
We made our way to the Farnbacher Loles transporter to meet Dirk. The Farnbacher team [was] always hospitable and welcoming, and this time was no exception. We met [then] manager Frank Resciniti, who (re)introduced us to Dirk. After congratulating Dirk on his win at Watkins Glen, we ask him to tell us more about the race from his own perspective.
“With the changes Grand-Am allowed us to make for the Glen, especially with the tire fans, and also with the wider rear track, the Porsche was pretty competitive,” began Werner. Whereas Werner felt like in the previous race they had “struggled a little but still managed to keep the race pace,” at Watkins Glen “the car was really good from the beginning.”
Changing the Porsche's Set-up
The Farnbacher Loles team made changes to the #87 Porsche, Dirk tells us, and “by quali we were perfect.” Race strategy at the Glen was “to save the car and drive carefully.” We ask Dirk to elaborate on this strategy. “Well, we didn’t take a lot of curbs in the beginning and I think that helped us to regulate the tire temps a little bit better,” explains Dirk. When other cars didn’t avoid curbs, thus using tires more aggressively, “you can see that they dropped off—like the [Pontian GXP] #57 car. He was really giving everything in the beginning and after half the stint he dropped back.” Keen and Werner maintained their strategy until the end of the race, only pushing to 100% “if we felt the pressure of another car.”
Not only was this strategy in place, said Werner, but the team “made no mistakes at all – the drivers and the team were perfect; the pit stops were perfect. There was only one situation where we dropped by a little because we did not get a wave-by, but everything else was perfect!”
We asked him about the co-driver Leh Keen had with a prototype earlier in the race. “The little Leh had with the prototype, where the one car drove into him while lapping him, did not damage the car,” said Werner. However, after that it was smooth sailing, save for the challenge of racing with no cautions for the remaining 2 hours. “The last two hours were hard,” affirmed Werner, adding, “we were in second and we really had to push hard by the end of the race. It really was two hours of giving a lot.”
Earlier in the season, we’d spent some time with Roger Garbow, FarnbacherLoles’ affable marketing director, discussing the challenges Porsches generally face during races. The subject of rear tire wear had been the focus of our conversation. Given the 997’s rear-engine configuration / 40-60 weight distribution, rear tires tend to wear much faster than on other cars competing in Grand-Am. We ask Dirk, did he feel the rears falling off at the Glen?
“Watkins Glen was not a big problem because the outside temps were not too hot,” answers Werner, adding that cooler temperatures hand Porsche drivers a clear advantage. However, in a place like VIR (Virginia International Raceway), where it can get really warm, “the tires [can] drop off really fast.” At MidOhio, Grand-Am allowed the use of tire fans in the FarnbacherLoles Porsche, lowering tire temperatures by 10-15 degrees and extending their life. The difference, Dirk tells us, is “huge,” but if temperatures rise “we still struggle.”
Dirk Werner's Background
Werner’s character seems altogether calm and focused yet jovial and positive, all impressive characteristics in a young driver. He was born in Hannover, Germany, and grew up in Kissenbruck. Although his family was by no means one of racers, he came to the sport early.
“Nobody in my family was into racing,” tells us Dirk, calling his meeting with fate “more of an incident.” His Father and he joined friends on a trip to the local kart track, and young Dirk “drove around and really loved it.” The track hosted a local karting club which hosted slaloms (autocross) and races. Werner joined the club and in his first two years there won the local championships twice. At this point, he and his dad “got more excited” and his Dad bought him his first race kart. Altogether, Werner raced karts for 7 years, and he considers this time great “for learning the basics.” And learn the basics he did, making the move to formula cars.
“I was lucky to make the move into formula cars,” says Werner, delving into the story. “I participated in [the ADAC] formula school. They had two groups at the school, and one driver out of every group [was eligible to] win a full season in a Formula BMW car. I won, so I was able to race for free in the first year. So that was easy…” easy? Perhaps for someone with Werner’s talent!
However, the road through the European formulas – usually the grooming grounds for Formula 1 drivers, was challenging even for Dirk. “It got more difficult,” Werner tells us. “I moved into another formula series and had sponsors in the first year, but it is really difficult to find sponsors, so my Dad supported me a little bit.” In his second year, he placed 2nd and considered moving into a higher class (like Formula Renault). The series was popular, but it was also too expensive for Werner. “You needed about 200,000 Euros for a seat,” said Werner.
Although young Dirk “wasn’t really a fan of a driver [in particular],I really had respect for all the good drivers because even though I couldn’t imagine driving an F1 car, I understood driving a fast car at a high level required really good abilities.” When asked if he ever dreamed of becoming a Formula 1 driver, Werner replies, “as a kid I definitely had a dream of being an F1 driver. I think everybody who starts in racing has this dream! Once you recognize that you can’t move on in the formula series, then you know [this particular] dream is over.”
After the Formula Renault Series proved too expensive, Werner transitioned to the Ford Puma Cup. Werner knew the team already, but found it very competitive. “It was a very different type of driving, but it was very competitive,” he affirms, adding, “the teams do not consist of a lot of young drivers that make the move into these classes. There are older, more seasoned drivers that really stay with their series…they are really good in their car, so I was able to learn a lot.”
The fact that this was a spec series meant Werner – who was only able to make only minor adjustments to the car—had to rely exclusively on his skill set. “Everyone was going to the max,” smiles Werner, adding, “and you couldn’t do a whole lot to the cars.” The primarily German series raced in several big tracks, including the Nürburgring Nordschleife, and Hockenheim.
Werner's Experience at the Nürburgring
Upon mention of the venerable Nürburgring, we ask Dirk to tell us about his experiences at the ‘Ring'. He has completed the 24 hours of the Nürburgring most recently this year, where he and his teammates came in third overall. At the helm of a BMW M3 , “It was pretty good,” smiles Werner, adding, “it was the best result for me so far.” Before this year, Werner had participated in the race piloting “smaller cars (like the Ford Fiesta). The whole experience is different because if you are in a slower car you have to watch your mirrors constantly!” Laughs Werner, “you can never really drive your line, and you always have to let people pass.”
Werner recalls the Nurburgring fondly, adding, “you have to overtake a whole lot of cars in one lap, and you have to be really aggressive because it is easy to lose a lot of time in traffic, and if you are too careful other drivers will drive away.” And in the middle of all this, you have to keep the car clean: “All this without hitting anybody! And if you have watched the races in the Nordschleife, at every race a car crashes!”
The oddest car Werner has driven on the Nürburgring? His own Volkswagen. “I learned the track in my VW Polo,” smiles Dirk, adding, “it was too hard for the car…all the doors were shaking and material was getting loose because I took the curves hard. It was not good! It was ten years old…” It has since been replaced with Dirk’s current daily driver, a VW Golf [now updated to a Porsche GT3 as a result of his recent award from Porsche].
Dirk Werner Joins Porsche
So, after participating in two spec series, how did Werner come to drive a Porsche? “I tested with Horst Farnbacher [in Germany],” says Werner, “and joined his SuperCup team in 2003. For 2004, I was brought in to drive the SuperCup with him. Horst had a 3-car team: Wolf [Henzler], who was winning the championship, and Dominik and I. I guess this was the perfect consolation for me!” Werner speaks highly of Henzler: “I learned lots from him. He was established already – 6 seasons I think – in a Porsche, [both] in the SuperCup and Carrera Cup, so he really knew everything about the car.” Another added bonus of the partnership? “Being able to compare data with him – I talked to him and he was one of the few drivers who was really honest and told me the truth about where to break, etc. So that was really important for me.”
Henzler and Werner’s friendship endures, and it is evident Werner holds Henzler in extremely high regard. “I am really confident in my co-drivers this year. In the ALMS, Wolf is a really good co-driver! He analyzes everything after practice, qualifying and race, and he works with the data perfectly.” Smiles Dirk, “If you manage to be close to or faster than Wolf, you know you’ve done a good job!”
Since joining Farnbacher, Dirk tells us, “I built a strong connection to the Porsche, and I really feel connected with the whole Porsche brand. I love the car. I am open to driving other cars too, but I would love to go on driving Porsches!”
Werner comes to the US
It was Horst Farnbacher who encouraged Werner to come to the U.S. in 2007. He had won the German Carrera Cup in 2006, just as Horst Farnbacher was planning to run an entire Grand-Am season joining forces in the U.S. as Farnbacher Loles. Says Werner, “He had won the 24 hour race in 2005 I think, and in 2006 he did it again. For 2007 I came to the 24 Hrs of Daytona and met with Bryce [Miller], and we decided that we would be a good combination to run the whole season. It really was the connection to Horst Farnbacher that helped me come over to the States and get to know this team.”
The over-achiever Werner managed to compete in both the European Le Mans series and in the Grand Am series at the same time in 2007. “I did most of the European Le Mans Series races--I just missed one,” adds Werner demurely. “We were driving a Porsche [in the European Le Mans Series]. I was driving with two gentleman drivers. So we didn’t really have a chance. I qualified the car most of the times, so we had good qualifiers and one pole and one podium, but it was difficult to compete against the cars that had two professionals.”
Still, says Werner, “it was good for me to learn to drive the RSR [Porsche] as preparation for the ALMS series. I did Sebring in 2008 for the first time, and only did one European Le Mans series at Silverstone that year.”
Spec Series Racing vs. Grand-Am
Since Werner participated in several spec series before coming to the U.S. for Grand-Am/ALMS, we asked him what he believes are the differences between racing in a spec series vs. racing in Grand-Am. “It is definitely more fun if you know that there are different makes involved and if you know that you can develop the car,” answers Werner excitedly. “In the spec series you can’t change the car, [whereas in the] series with different manufacturers every manufacturer brings their factory driver. [The spec circuits ] all [feature] really good drivers and close competition, but in Grand-Am the drivers are matched to their respective cars.” An added bonus to Grand-Am? The odds change “from track to track--which car is in the better position—[as does] the strategy if you know you can’t win because another car is better.” Then there is the added challenge: “sometimes you have to fight for 3rd as hard as you fight for the win on another track. While in the spec series there [can be] one driver or one team who dominates in ALMS or Grand-Am, the changes from track to track mean you still have a chance to win a race. [For example,] Porsches are good in Daytona every year, and Mazda is good at Laguna.”
Comparing Race Tracks in the US vs. Europe
As a driver who not only has driven tracks in both the USA and Europe, but has also driven the circuits simultaneously, we ask Dirk to compare the tracks/series/drivers for Porsche Purist.
Comparing the European Le Mans Series and ALMS, “I think the level of drivers is the same. Drivers easily go between series. The teams are on very high level – they are the same quality I would say.” Where Werner sees a difference is in the field. “In Europe they have a whole lot of LMP1 and LMP2 cars – this year there are 40 cars! – so the format is different, which probably makes it easier for gentleman drivers to enter the season. [There are] only 5 races, so you don’t need to travel so often and all year round.”
As far as the tracks are concerned, “[the European Series] have awesome tracks like Spa or the Nürburgring. [In Europe]a lot of the tracks are the modern F1 tracks, so you have a lot of runoff areas after asphalt. If you make a little mistake it doesn’t hurt the car immediately—you can just run wide. It is easier to find the limit. You know if you miss the turn you won’t trash the car. The American tracks are a little more different. Here it’s a little more like racing in the old times, track wise [i.e., more narrow, less room]. [But] I do like the tracks here – there are awesome tracks here, like Road America or VIR. And all tracks have their special character.”
Wants to Win Le Mans
Our conversation turns to racing itself. If there was one race Dirk Werner would want to win, which would it be? Werner considers the question for a little while and answers, “Le Mans is the biggest race. I don’t know if it is really the hardest – that is a personal feeling or whatever – [but] I think the race is still the biggest there is, so for a driver or a team it holds a lot of prestige.”
And, as far as pre-race preparation, Werner is a minimalist, but one focused on strategy. “I am not superstitious,” he tells us, adding “I just try to be focused and concentrated. I think it is important to take your time before you get in the car and think about the important things and probably talk to the driver at the driver change. Just being focused is the most important thing.” He elaborates, “[I] try to think about the situations: for [FarnbacherLoles car #87] it is important to get points in every race. There is no need to do a full attack from the beginning, or even in the end of the race. If you are 3rd or 4th and the guy in front of you is fighting really hard or blocking, there is not need to risk anything. All that is more important then wearing the same socks or whatever, I think!”
The Importance of Qualifying Well
Indeed, Dirk Werner has proven to be a very strong qualifier. Qualifying well requires the ability to “turn it on” right away, as there is often very little time to land in a top spot. Werner feels that he sharpened those skills whilst working with Farnbacher in Europe. “When we did the SuperCup it was really important to have a really good quali spot, because the races were 30-35 minutes. You knew that if you were 8th or 7th you would never drive to the podium because all the drivers were close [in ability]. It was very difficult to overtake. So when we tested, we practiced qualifying too.” Werner feels that a key issue in qualifying well is tire management: “you kind of develop a feeling of how you can raise up the speed with new tires. But you have to have a feeling, because you normally have only one lap to get a good quali lap, so you can’t practice or raise up the speed over a few laps. You have to have the feeling that you can give more with new tires”. Tires and, of course, the car itself. “It is also really important that the car is good. Most of the times we have a really good car, and the guys that work on the cars do a really good job. This is the most important thing: that the car is really fast. You can’t drive off the wheels if the car is not fast! And then to be focused in the one lap; you can’t make any mistakes or the lap is done.”
While racing, Werner studied mechanical engineering. We ask him if he believes his degree in any way helps him communicate with the mechanics at Farnbacher Loles. “Well, the job of the driver is to tell the engineers how the feels, but I definitely think knowing how the car works is important. If you have oversteer it can be influenced by different things – springs, rollbar, whatever…my engineering background helps me understand how different parts of the car work together.” But Werner does not believe his knowledge of mechanical engineering makes him more adept at communicating. “All the top drivers know how cars work,” he says, “all the [Porsche] factory drivers know how to set up a car, because they do it for a long time and work with some of the best engineers.” What is more crucial for on-track success is “a good engineer who knows what he is doing, and we have good engineers in both series – both of whom drove in earlier times, which I think helps.”
Since completing his mechanical engineering degree last year, Dirk Werner finds himself with a little more time on his hands, which almost sounds comedic when one considers just how hard this driver works. “Right now I am in a pretty good situation I think,” he smiles, assessing his current year. “I still do a lot of racing; I have a lot of races in the States and I do a few races in Germany. I did the 24 hrs of the ‘Ring last weekend, and next weekend I have anther race on the ’Ring. But in between races I still have time to meet up with friends or spend time with my girlfriend. Last year I was still going to school, and every time I came back from the races I had to go to school immediately, and that was pretty tough by the end. This year I am not feeling stressed. Traveling doesn’t bother me anymore!”
Werner Remains Balanced
It is clear that Werner manages to live a very full life maintaining good balance in and out of the Porsche. Indeed, he sounds all-around content and positive. When it comes to exercise, he tells us he runs but he doesn’t do weights. “I do so many races that I feel like in between …I just need time to relax. The racing itself is good training. Cardio is important because if you have to drive two hours it is important to keep the concentration, and that’s easy if you are in good shape. But you don’t need big muscles to drive these cars. It is good to be light, too, and the driver’s weight adds to the car’s weight. There are some drivers that are 100 lbs more than I am, and that is pretty good for me!”
When we ask him about the music he likes, tells us his iPod was recently stolen. “I really like a lot of music. It depends on the situation. If I go out, I like dance music or slow rock. I listen to rap sometimes. I don’t play an instrument – I would like to because I think it’s really fun to be able to play an instrument and make music, but I am really just too lazy I guess! It is too hard for me.” Lazy is the last word that comes to mind when we think of Dirk Werner.
After having enjoyed a half-hour talking with Dirk Werner, we wish him and co-driver Leh Keen good luck in the following day’s Grand-Am race at MidOhio. He then goes on to win this race and eventually Acxiom GT the driver's championship, earning yet another notch in his stellar career to date.
One of the best things about publishing FlatSixes.com is the opportunity to meet and interact with some of the great Porsche pilots we all love to watch race. While Dirk Werner has moved on from Porsche, after the fall of Farnbacher Loles, he played a huge roll for Porsche in last year's Grand-Am GT Class and will be sorely missed. For 2010 Dirk will be racing as a BMW factory driver in Europe. Our only consolation is that he should arrive to most of those races in his 2010 911 GT3, courtesy of Porsche, for being the most successful private Porsche pilot of the 2009 season. 🙂
Be sure to come back later in the week for our interview with last year's Daytona winner, David Donohue, and be on the look-out for our interview with ALMS rising star Melanie Snow.
Interview by / Story by Valerie Roedenbeck