If I had to choose a phrase that describes Ralf Kelleners it would be undivided attention. Our conversation reflects his race craft in sportscars- cool and calculated. The experience and drive to obtain his personal best are two of the key ingredients helping building success for Rahal Letterman Racing in their first year in ALMS.
Mecca of Speed: Prior to your joining Rahal Letterman Racing, your experience spanned a variety of cars including Ferraris and Porsches. Was your wealth of experience a factor that attracted Rahal Letterman Racing to you for this season?
Ralf Kelleners: When Bobby started forming this part of his team (he also has the open wheel team) he approached Porsche for terms of what to do for this season in ALMS.
They spoke about drivers, and Porsche said “One guy you should probably talk to is Ralf because he has been with us in the past. He is not with us now because he has been racing Ferraris for a long time.”
My history with Porsche is from 1996 to 2000. However, they knew I always did a good job, so they told Bobby “if you need a good driver talk to Ralf”, and that is how it came about.
We also have Tom Milner who is driving with me, he is the youngster in the series. He is 21; I’m 39, which is quite a big difference. I think Bobby has always had a way with the youngsters, including his son Graham who is coming up now in Champ Cars.
I think Bobby really wants to pick up the young guys and help them build a career.
It was kind of like he decided to take someone who is young, maybe inexperienced, but quick and comes with a lot of credit. So he took Tom, who is a very good driver. Then there is me who also comes with a lot of credits and a lot of history of running Porsche in ALMS. He took an experienced driver and a young driver.
You asked me before this interview if I was mentoring Tom. I am not mentoring him because when you choose a driver to run in ALMS you have to choose a racecar driver that can do the job. Tom can do everything. Maybe with two drivers one does one thing a little better then the other, but still, by themselves, each driver has to be complete. I’m not giving any help to Tom, because Tom is already complete. He is going to get better and better over the years with experience, but he is already a complete race car driver.
Mecca of Speed: Are your driving styles similar?
Ralf Kelleners: Yes, they are similar. We like the same set up on the car, and we give the same feedback.
Mecca of Speed: When you race at Sebring or the Petite Le Mans which requires a third driver, is there a long orientation process or is it more get fitted to the car and go?
Ralf Kelleners: It’s just go to business. The only thing that you work on is seating position and driver changes. Otherwise, the driver just comes and most of the drivers that fill in the third driver position fit in automatically. There are no big egos or differences setting up the car.
The third driver is given a little time to get use to the car, new tires, etc. The main drivers mostly do the setup work so it doesn’t really change a lot.
Mecca of Speed: Each car has its own unique strength. You have switched from the mid-engine Ferrari to the rear engine Porsche. Where is the Porsche stronger then the Ferrari?
Ralf Kelleners: The Ferrari is quicker. So far they have been quicker everywhere. Up to this point they have been stronger everywhere, no matter if it is a short track, a long track, a power orientated track, or one that requires a nimble response from the car.
It seems like we are not really going to be able to turn it around this year. There has been some success by the Flying Lizard Team; they have won two races, but each time the Ferraris made mistakes.
If you talk about strengths, the Porsche drivers are calmer and the Ferrari drives are a bit more Italian-blooded.
There is also something about the Ferrari that probably doesn’t make it any easier. It has a little bit of a twitch and you could see that last year, there was a lot of wrecks. It seems like there are certain situations where the car just turns in the rear without giving a lot of feedback to the driver and you end up in the wall.
So far I haven’t experienced that in the Porsche. From the chassis side, that is the only advantage we have right now. We have always had a safe car. In the 430 (Ferrari) there is something in it that isn’t quite right yet in regards to excellence.
Mecca of Speed: A few years back you raced the Ferrari 333 SP in the top class of a multi-class field, now you are in the GT2 class. What do you find more enjoyable or challenging competing in the GT2 class?
Ralf Kelleners: In the faster cars it’s a better feeling because you are always overtaking other cars. Even if they are in a slower class it is still nice because it’s an emotion when you pass some one. It’s not based on race facts. It’s a fact that it’s more enjoyable to overtake cars, then be overtaken.
In GT2 it is a little bit more difficult to overtake then be overtaken. When you overtake, sometimes you have to take chances because you don’t want to lose the guy in front of you, so you have to drive a bit more aggressive.
It’s very rarely that I block an LMP because I don’t want to get in their way. They normally just blow by and it’s no big deal.
It is safer to get overtaken then to overtake because usually it’s the guy that does the overtaking that causes a problem because he didn’t time it perfectly.
Mecca of Speed: Looking back to Long Beach, the GT cars were carrying more speed thorough the final hairpin leading onto the front straightaway. Was this a multi class issues that was addressed in the drivers meeting, or was it more of an issue for each driver to handle as it presented its self?
Ralf Kelleners: The LMP car is a little longer then the GT cars. The positive points of the LMP cars, such as the down force, can not apply in slow corners, so the speeds are similar, but the marshals don’t know that.
They probably see it now and then, and probably wonder why that is, and when it happens it is discussed.
Mecca of Speed: Looking down the road, when you decide the time is right to retire from driving, do you have any interest to continue in motorsports as either a team owner or consultant?
Ralf Kelleners: I think so. Maybe not as a team owner because you need to have business head and be able to pull the right people together and deal with all the finances of running a team, and I’m not that kind of person.
I do think it would make sense to stay close to the sport because I probably don’t always see it, but I must have tons of experience. I’ve been a racecar driver for over 20 years and if my experience was tapped in the right way I could make something out of it. I don’t know if it would be simply coaching, or what type of consultant position would work for me, but I think I should stay in racing.
Mecca of Speed: Your father was a racer and helped you get started in racing. Were there any pearls of wisdom he passed on to you, that looking back now you see how they helped you progress as a driver?
Ralf Kelleners: Mainly general racing strategy, like remember to block the first lap and close the door so no one over takes you. Make sure you look in your mirrors before you brake and turn in the first corner. Stuff like that.
Also, there were times throughout the day, maybe before the start of the race, or qualifying he would remind me of something that he thought would be useful.
Mecca of Speed: In Europe you have class wins at Le Mans, one of the last true road circuits. How would you describe Le Mans?
Ralf Kelleners: It’s very similar to the American circuits, it is very natural. All the other circuits in Europe have no emotion. They are flat, have curbs, and lots of run off. The spectators can’t really see the cars or what the drivers are doing because they are so far away.
Le Mans is very similar to the American circuits in their style and set-up. It’s the best circuit you could imagine.
Mecca of Speed: Would you consider it your favorite circuit?
Ralf Kelleners: Oh yeah it is, but the old Nurburgring is still better. It’s just crazy, it’s up and down, it’s so long, and there is so much to do on that track. Le Mans is close behind the Nurburgring.
The old Nurburgring is the Track.
Mecca of Speed: Do you ever go out in your street car and drive the old Nurburgring?
Ralf Kelleners: They still race there! There is one series that is doing ten races there a year, it’s called VLN (Veranstaltergemeinschaft Langstreckenpokal Nürburgring) and they have the 24 hours Nurburgring.
The 24 hours Nurburgring is still booming, there are 220 cars at the start.
Mecca of Speed: What quality does someone needed, who is considering starting a racing career?
Ralf Kelleners: I think the most important thing is to have natural speed. You either have it, or you don’t, you can’t help it. After that it’s probably consistency. When I started racing I was quick right away and everything went perfect, and then I had a few years where everything went downhill, really bad.
Somehow I still managed to stay in the sport and never give up. It was early enough when I realized there is not only Formula One, there are a lot of ways to earn money and stay in the sport. I was frustrated because I thought there was only one way I could go, or should go, but you have to widen your view.
I would have never thought it, when I started racing at the age of 18, that there was a possibility to be a GT racer. There was only Formula, Formula, Formula. That was something I learned early enough that I was able to adapt and look for the right drives with the right people instead of getting stuck in a dead end.
Mecca of Speed: Rahal Letterman Racing has progressed through the year with podium finishes and set some fast laps. Does the team have any specific goals, like finishing top five in points by the end of the season?
Ralf Kelleners: No, if we were racing for a long time as a team and you finished second in the championship, you could then set a goal to finish higher. For us it’s like, every race lets see what happens in the race. We are constantly learning and go from race to race trying to finish as good as we can and learn as much as we can as a team.
There is our goal, apart from trying to finish as high as possible.
Mecca of Speed: Is this team looking to stay a one-car operation for 2008?
Ralf Kelleners: I think Bobby is thinking about what he wants to do. He knows he wants to stay with Porsche, in which way or form has yet to be decided.
Mecca of Speed: What do you see as the difference in the approach to racing between Europe and the United States, either sports cars or open wheel?
Ralf Kelleners: There is a difference, but it is only because of the mentality of the people. The American approach is a little more open; I think they can still see the fun in racing more then the Europeans.
The Europeans are very focused, but I think in the end you achieve the same outcome.
Mecca of Speed: In closing, what are you looking to achieve in the remainder of the 2007 season?
Ralf Kelleners: I hope that we can constantly get better and better. That will mean we have learned all season, and we have learned more then the others. Obviously the others are still learning and getting better. The other teams have been around for a long time but they are still going testing and are making their car quicker. We have to make bigger jumps then they are.
If, at the end of the season, we look at all of the time and results and say at the last race we were the most competitive that we have achieved our goal.
Mecca of Speed: This team looks to be heading in the right direction. You have the right approach and work ethic to be a success.
Ralf Kelleners: Yes, Bobby knows what he is doing. His heart is in GT racing. He has the knowledge and finances to do it the right way, and he does it the right way.
Mecca of Speed: Does Bobby ever have that look in his eye that he would like to take the car out himself?
Ralf Kelleners: No he doesn’t want to drive, he is fine with where he is in his life.
Mecca of Speed: Thank you for your time.
Ralf Kelleners: You’re welcome.
Content credit Ralf Kelleners and John Vatne. Photo credit Scott Rohloff and John Vatne.