SCi Interview: Bill Auberlen 

Bill Auberlen’s name will forever be associated with BMW. He passed his 250th race start in a BMW-powered car earlier this season and has been adding to it with drives this season in the BMW Rahal Letterman Racing M3 in ALMS, as well as in Grand Am Rolex GT and Continental Challenge with Turner Motorsport. Auberlen has been one of the fastest drivers in sports car racing for fifteen years and has raced just about every type of car, from street stock BMWs in World Challenge and Continental Challenge to Grand Am Daytona Prototypes and cutting edge GT cars. He’s also driven the BMW V12 LMR prototype and has raced at Le Mans in the McLaren F1 GTR. Along the way, he’s won six championships (four of them in BMWs). We caught up with Bill before and after the Lime Rock ALMS race.

Haueter: Is ALMS GT this year the most competitive racing you’ve ever experienced?

Auberlen: Yes, absolutely. The ALMS has always had manufacturers involved, but the lap times have never been down to the second and third digit past the decimal. That makes it very competitive, and you see the driver lineups and they’re all ex-champions. The series has gotten the cars to be very close and the tire manufacturers each have their own strong suits, but ultimately on the lap times we’re all very close together.

Haueter: Does it take more effort outside of the cockpit to compete at this level?

Auberlen: BMW Rahal Letterman Racing is different than other teams I’ve raced for. After every race, we get an Excel spreadsheet that’s usually around ten pages of data showing how you compare to every other car out there –how fast you were compared to every car in the field for the first ten laps, how fast you were out of the pits, how fast you were for a twenty lap run, where you were quickest in the turns… . you need to take it all in and figure out where you need to improve.

Haueter: Have you been happy with the effort Dunlop has been making this year with the tires?

Auberlen: The amount of work that they’ve done is very, very impressive. It’s a much better tire than what it was last year, and I’m much more confident in them as a driver this season. They’re always trying new constructions and working with different compounds. They brought six different compounds to Lime Rock, just for that race. Everybody always talks about Michelin, but Dunlop is catching up. We’ve had races where we had better tires than the Michelin teams. We just need to work together on making that happen more of the time.

Haueter: Were you able to tell from the driver’s seat that the M3 was making more downforce at Lime Rock, with the new aero package? (the BMW M3 had revised bodywork starting at Lime Rock, which creates more downforce)

Auberlen: I felt more downforce on the lower speed corners, and we could tell we were making more downforce on the high-speed stuff because we were running more rear wing than ever before and the car was still pretty well balanced. We just don’t have the balance worked out perfectly, so the engineers are going to look at the data and go to work working on a better setup for Mid-Ohio.

Haueter: You and Joey Hand were having a great battle at the end of the race at Lime Rock. Was it hard to hold him off? (watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PyEPspdAphQ&feature=player_embedded)

Auberlen: Once someone catches you in traffic, you go into a different mode at Lime Rock – you just need to make sure you get your corner exits right. I actually was backing off when coming up on slower cars on the downhill so I wouldn’t get bogged down and have him get a run on me down the front straight. When I got clear laps, our lap times were very similar. I’m leading him in the points, so I’m not going to just let him by. It was good, tight racing.

Haueter: How does the M3 you’re racing this year compare to other M3’s you’ve driven in the past?

Auberlen: This M3 is cutting edge. It’s almost like they made a work of art and then decided to turn it into a race car. Nothing is compromised with the car. It makes more downforce than I’ve ever felt before in a GT car, and that was with the older bodywork. The motor is beautiful and runs like a champion. We’ve run it hard every single race and it’s been very reliable. You just want so badly to do a good job and do what the car is capable of.

Haueter: Do you like the car set up a certain way?

Auberlen: I always drive faster with some understeer in the car. Your right foot is connected to that understeer – you can always put your foot down and adjust the balance of the car when it’s set up that way. People think that when they have a car set up on a knife edge that they’re doing well, but you’re always more hesitant to drive a car that is set up that way, more hesitant to just slam the throttle down and power through corners. I like a little understeer so I can ultimately have more control over the car.

Haueter: Does co-driver Tommy Milner like it that way too?

Auberlen: Tommy likes it any way you like it. He can drive it either way.

Haueter: Do you ever think it’s strange to be driving with Tommy now, when you had him hanging around BMW Team PTG when he was growing up? (for those that don’t know, Tommy Milner’s Dad is Tom Milner, who ran BMW Team PTG very successfully as the BMW NA-supported racing team from 1995-2006. Bill drove for the team from 1996-2006)

Auberlen: Yeah, I watched him grow up. He grew up in a racing environment and was around it for years before he really started driving. I grew up that same way – I was 14 or 15 and going with my Dad to the circuits with his Porsche that he raced. Tommy is the real deal.

Haueter: The ALMS M3 and the tube-framed M6 you drive in Grand Am Rolex GT are both front-engine race cars with BMW V8 motors, but are they similar at all to drive?

Auberlen: No, not even close. The Rolex GT M6 is one of the highest performing cars in the field, but it’s also one of the heaviest, so it has a very heavy feel to it. Once you get that car pointed straight and step on it though, that BMW M5 V8 motor gets going and the car just takes off like a rocket. The thing about that car is you can be in a gear too high and the car will still pull strong, it has so much torque. It would pull a tree right out of the ground. The ALMS M3 is perfection – everything is right on target. It has the perfect balance of power, braking and handling. Everything just feels in perfect proportion.

Haueter: The M3 you race in the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge is obviously much closer to a stock M3 than the ALMS car. Do you have to change your driving style when you get in that car?

Auberlen: The brakes are the biggest issue with the Continental Challenge M3. That car is very fast and has pretty good grip with the Continental race tires. It was hitting 170mph at Daytona, but then you get into stopping the car and you’re dealing with brakes that are the stock size, so you can get the brakes extremely hot. You’re always managing the power and balancing how hard you can stop with the amount of grip you have.

Haueter: Are you flat-out through the esses at Watkins Glen with the Continental Challenge M3?

Auberlen: Oh yeah. You do it because you have to. You’re right on the edge of traction through there with the car moving around, but it’s the best way to pass. You stick to somebody going up through there and then go bombing down the back straight and pass them before the chicane.

Haueter: What’s the best race car you’ve ever driven?

Auberlen: There have been some good ones. The prototype car I drove for Gabriele Rafanelli had a ton of power. It had a BMW V8 motor that initially revved to like 11,000rpm, but the motor was temperamental. We kept dropping the revs to make it reliable, but then it didn’t have that great power. The BMW V12 LMR prototype was a great one. That car had crazy power – it car would be going close to 200mph on the straights and still be pulling strong. The thing with the LMR was that it was so quiet that you couldn’t even hear it; you had to drive with the shift lights.

Haueter: I assume you were able to hear the engine in the McLaren F1 GTR that you raced at Le Mans in 1998.

Auberlen: Yeah, you really heard that car, because the restrictors were right over your head. That was a car you felt proud to drive and was very cool. When you were barreling down the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans at night at 200mph and hit the brakes, you’d see the reflection off the guardrails from the brake rotors lighting up. You’d downshift through the gears and hear that motor sing. It was a beautiful car to drive.

Haueter: What’s your favorite track in North America?

Auberlen: I’d have to say Sebring, as I have great memories there. My Dad won his class in the 12 Hour there in 1985 and then I won there ten years later in 1995 (in a Porsche 911 entered by Alex Job Racing), then again in 1997 and 1998 (in BMW M3’s with Team PTG). I love Road America too. When you start talking about tracks like Sebring, Road America, Watkins Glen, Mosport, they’re all different but all spectacular in their own way.

Haueter: How are things going with your boats?

Auberlen: I’ve started up a company called XPowerDrive (www.xpowerdrive.com) and we’re always trying to come up with new technologies. There was a place in the market where people were putting superchargers on these big V8 boat motors, but there aren’t any outdrives that are really designed for that much power. I went to an F1 engineering company and we rewrote how those parts all work together on the back of the boat. It went faster, consumed less, and we’ve had boats make 1,600hp with no failures.

Haueter: How do you balance your boat business with racing?

Auberlen: Boating has been a passion for a long time now. Back when I started racing cars in my RX-7 days, I used to do my own engineering and develop my own engines in-house. We couldn’t afford to do it any other way. When you join a good racing team you don’t get to touch the car much any more, and I have a real desire to always develop and come up with new stuff, so the boats let me do all that.

Haueter: How do you feel about the last four ALMS races coming up, with the aero changes to the M3 and the continuing development Dunlop has been making?

Auberlen: I think Road America and Road Atlanta will really suit our car very well. I think we’ll be very fast there and will be fighting for victory. Mid-Ohio is a little on the fence. We were fast last year in the race there, but I’m anxious to see how the car will be there this year. We’re usually very good at Mosport too. Those faster race tracks suit the M3 very well.

Haueter: Will the new aero package on the M3 be a detriment on tracks with long straights, like Road America?

Auberlen: I keep thinking about that. Downforce doesn’t come for free, as it creates more drag and could slow the car down. Whether the engineers can negate that disadvantage remains to be seen.

Haueter: Are you still thinking championship at this point in the season, or is the priority now to win a race?

Auberlen: My first priority is to win a championship. I would be fine finishing second all year and winning a championship because at the end of the season I’d be holding the big trophy. We’ve made big gains since last year and are always fast, but we have to start winning races.

Haueter: How long do you want to race?

Auberlen: I’ve been racing since I was 17 and started racing motorcycles when I was around 5, but I’m still always smiling when I’m heading to the track. The worst part is that I have to leave my wife. She comes to some of the races, but gets tired of all the traveling. So what was the question, how long would I race for? I would say as long as I’m physically able to.

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