Triumph in Le Mans.
Le Mans. 24 hours in adverse conditions. Man and bike at the limit, twice around the clock. From 12:00 on Saturday to 12:00 on Sunday. The riders battle through the dark and the rain, the crew give it their all in the garage, always alert. And in the end: the top step of the podium beckons. Private BMW team GERT56 by GS YUASA claimed probably its greatest success so far at the famous “24 Heures Motos” in Le Mans – victory in the Superstock class of the FIM Endurance World Championship (FIM EWC). Stefan Kerschbaumer, Lucy Glöckner and Toni Finsterbusch alternated in the saddle of the #56 BMW S 1000 RR. In an interview with team principal Karsten Wolf, we look back on the triumph in Le Mans.
An interview with Karsten Wolf.
Karsten, how was that moment when the #56 BMW S 1000 RR crossed the finish line first in Le Mans?
Karsten Wolf: “The moment when the bike crosses the finish line always seems to end up with the team jumping onto the pit wall, while I stand behind them and take in the joy – and take the first photos. I don’t join them up there, as I am simply caught up in this moment. The last ten minutes before the finish are actually far more important. The tension in the garage, the hope that we have done enough: your head is spinning. And yet there is also relative calm. There is a lot of hustle and bustle at the finish itself, so the most emotional moment for me was the last ten minutes of the race. The last few years went through my head. If we are totally honest, we are in this sport for that one moment in Le Mans. You can win all the tennis tournaments you like, but if you don’t win Wimbledon, you don’t feel like you’ve really made it. You can win all the cycle races in the world, but if you haven’t won the yellow jersey at the Tour de France, you are not complete. That is how it is with us. You can win Le Castellet, as we did in 2018, and can do well in Malaysia and Oschersleben – but winning Le Mans is what you are really aiming for. After so, so many years, we have finally had that moment.”
The victory of all victories....
Wolf: “The victory of all victories – for me personally, this is worth more than winning a championship. It is the most iconic race, the classic. Together with the Bol d’Or that we won in 2018, the team has proven that it has what it takes to win both 24-hour races. That is a kind of grand slam in endurance racing. We have shown that we are at our best in the toughest conditions, like the monsoon rain in Malaysia. We probably don’t have the best equipment, but we seem to be so strong as a team that we are at our best in conditions like those we encountered in Le Mans, with unsettled weather and crashes all over the place.”
For me personally, this is worth more than winning a championship.“
The #56 BMW S 1000 RR
At what point in the race did you know that you were in with a chance of winning? It was not all plain sailing for you...
Wolf: “You don’t get that moment in a 24-hour race. We are not playing around here – that moment does not exist. The retirement of the works BMW with twelve minutes remaining showed once again how humbly you have to approach this challenge and when a race like this draws to a close. We have seen so many changes in the positions, particularly in the last two hours. That was the case again here. The fatigue on day two, the riders’ exhaustion, plus the weather shenanigans in the final hour of the race, plus the large field and all the lapped bikes.... You can start to believe you might win on the final lap. We went from pushing to managing the race when we took the lead in our class. That was our goal, and the crashes and mistakes made by the opposition meant we had a two and four-lap lead over our closest rivals. From that moment, we obviously changed our tactics –in terms of the risks the riders took, as well as tyre and fuel management. We took the safest option from that moment on.”
What were the keys to your success?
Wolf: “That is relatively easy to sum up with the victory in Le Mans. Only very few teams got through the race without crashing. Crashing in an endurance race means the bike has to be transported back to the garage, either by the rag-and-bone men or on the escape route, then you also have the repairs. This means you lose an awful lot of time. We did not have a crash this time. That was the key to our success: not crashing. The technical issues we had with the dashboard and the footrests are more or less routine for us. That no longer makes us so nervous. We can solve them in a few minutes. The second key to success was that we travelled to France with four riders. We did not arrive with three plus one – that is to say three regular drivers and one reserve. Instead, I knew that to challenge for the title or victory in Le Mans, then plan B would have to be just as good as plan A. That is why we signed up Toni Finsterbusch in the winter as an additional rider, and I really rate his quality in the rain. When I had to decide on the Friday afternoon which three of the four riders would race for us, I based my decision on a combination of the weather forecast, performance in the rain during the practice week, and management of the tyres for the Stock bike. I found it very difficult to send Pepijn Bijsterbosch home, and I would like to thank him again for his efforts. However, the race showed that Toni Finsterbusch was one of the keys to our success. Not crashing and Toni’s performance at the start and in the rain were important factors. Furthermore, when I send Lucy Glöckner out in the rain, we are also quids in. She is one of the best riders in the world in the rain. And I would also like to mention Stefan Kerschbaumer, who is better than anyone else at bringing a bike home in the final hour of the race. The team has a resting pulse rate when Stefan takes over on the bike. Confidence, experience, and absolute routine – they were the keys.”
The #56 BMW S 1000 RR
What makes the BMW S 1000 RR so strong in endurance racing?
Wolf: “That is very easy to explain. We have run the K46 for the entire GERT56 era since 2016. One of the main strengths of the K46 was the incredible ease of repair with regard to changing wheels, as well as the removal and installation of, access to and durability of the parts. Plus, if we do experience a crash, it is so robust that we only have to change a few components. The rest, such as a stable fork stem and stable swing arm, complete the outstanding package. And the production version of the engine, which we must use in the Superstock class, is so powerful that even we, with the production engine, are able to keep up with the works teams in the Superbike class. We showed this in Le Mans in 2019, when Julian Puffe set the fastest time in practice. So, it is a combination of ease of repair, which may sound strange in layman’s terms but is of vital importance to anyone involved in endurance racing because of the sheer length of the races, the ease with which parts can be replaced, and utterly stable technology in terms of the engine and periphery. An ideal, stable endurance bike.”
My thing is to do our best privately and in a family atmosphere, and to convert this fun into performance.“
Another strength of your team: It is a tight-knit community, which goes far beyond the actual racing. Is it like one big family?
Wolf: “Yes, it is all about how you approach the sport. Endurance racing is characterised by a big team, very long times spent at the racetrack – we are always at the circuit for more than a week – and high stress factors, as we have up to 20 people in the garage. For that to work when people are tired, stressed and on top of each other, you need a very, very deep human basis. If you are working with mercenaries, a shoulder barge can escalate into an explosion. We don’t have that problem. The basic understanding of each other and the respect for other people’s work are so deeply entrenched in our culture. It has always been important to me that I never have an employment relationship with the team members. Then you forget to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. As we have no financial interest, as a private team, the way we work together is obviously totally different. You have to ask somebody to do something for you, and then you thank them for doing it. That is the difference. Somebody once told me that it is not professional, and that I have to employ people, then I can tell them what to do. And that is precisely what I have never done. That would no longer be my sport. My thing is to do our best privately and in a family atmosphere, and to convert this fun into performance. I am happy that this concept seems to be working. It might not work in MotoGP, Moto3 or the Superbike World Championship. But in endurance racing, with a large team, I am pleased to say that my principle is working.”
You have been part of the BMW family since 2010. How important is the support you receive from BMW?
Wolf: “The clue is in the question. We have been riding the BMW S 1000 RR since 2010. We have been involved from the word go, when BMW supported us in the German Endurance Cup. We have run the BMW S 1000 RR with my first team, Jost Motorsport, with rs speedbikes, and now with GERT56. If the product had problems, we would not stick with it for such a long time. I believe the BMW S 1000 RR is the best sports bike and the most affordable way to be involved in motorsport. That may sound a bit strange at first, given the sale price, but it has always included everything. It is one of the few motorcycles with Race-ABS and has traction control. BMW offers customers the control unit with the race calibration kit for little money, while kit parts are available from their partner alpha racing. This allows even amateurs to adapt their bike for the racetrack relatively quickly. The BMW S 1000 RR costs the least money to convert it from a production bike to a racing bike. A reliable racing bike. That has led to so many amateur racers, hobby racers and professionals opting for this package – just as we have done. We are governed by the Superstock regulations, which means that we use production engines, production brakes, production frames, production electronics – and the fact that we can compete with the world’s best Superbikes on a production bike like this, both in terms of lap times and results: I don’t think you need to do any advertising – just look at the results.”