Jérôme Policand, accompanied by a dozen people from Akkodis ASP Team’s technical and logistics staff (engineers and mechanics), headed out for an incredible three-week journey so as to provide technical support to the SunEnergy1 Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3, the team of incredible Australian owner-driver Kenny Habul. It’s not a new collaboration, but this year it was quite a logistical challenge, as well as a technical one.
The magic of Daytona
The first stop of this half of a world tour, Florida, and the legendary circuit of Daytona, a veritable page in the history of world motorsport, where the best GT specialists, IndyCar stars and the fastest prototype drivers rub shoulders. The spectacle takes place as much on track as in the paddock. It’s truly 100% made in USA motorsport. In this 2023 edition of the 24 Hours, Kenny Habul had high flying team-mates in the #75. Fabian Schiller, Axcil Jefferies and Luca Stolz made the trek, the latter replacing Will Power (IndyCar champion 2014 and 2022) at the last minute, held back for family reasons.
The first challenge to overcome was to adapt to the IMSA regulations, with the packed week dedicated to testing. The goal was to conform the car with the rules of the IMSA championship, including the necessary adjustment of the gearbox.
The #75 was running a good pace and set a very good qualifying session time, by setting the second best lap time in its category (GTD). After the Team Winward car, which went quickest, was changed, their second best time turned into a pole position. On the starting grid, everything looked good.
After the traditional and unavoidable “Gentlemen… Start your engines”, the cars were released. The first several hours of racing were clear, the #75 navigating between second and fifth position in its category, following the rhythm of the pit stops. Kenny Habul gave his all, ultra-competitive, as quick as many of the Silver drivers. At 50 years of age, the Australian colossus was very impressive behind the wheel.
During the 6th hour, the car seized up. A leak from the radiator was detected. Simply replacing the water was not enough and the engine’s temperature rose steeply, forcing the Mercedes-AMG to stop. The repair took three hours, requiring a full purge of the whole system. The car headed back on track for a check-up, but, 80 laps down, reason prevailed. Sportively, there was no hope anymore of getting a good result, and as the Mercedes-AMG had to head to South Africa for the Kyalami event (23-25 February), the #75 headed back to the pits.
Despite a disappointing result, Jérôme Policand did not hide his pleasure about returning to this track, twenty years after having won in the GTS category of the 24 Hours as a driver, in a Mosler (Perspective Racing), with Michel Neugarten, Joao Barbosa and Andy Wallace: “It was a nice experience for Akkodis ASP Team, with completely different rules to those of the European championships and facing very competitive teams. We had to adapt quickly. Which didn’t spoil anything, the atmosphere in the paddock remains unique. In the Hospitality unit, passing by legends like Scott Dixon, Helio Castro Neves, the Andretti family, or Roger Penske, as well as the majority of the IndyCar drivers, is just, simply put, a great pleasure.”
There was no time to hang about in the Keys, the whole crew only had two days to get to Australia (via Orlando then Los Angeles-Sydney) and prepare the car that would take part in the 12 Hours of Bathurst. Having left from Germany, this brand new Mercedes-AMG needed a lot of preparation.
The 12 Hours of Bathurst…an exceptional race in an exceptional location
As Jérôme Policand likes to point out, the Bathurst track is a circuit with a tint of nostalgia: “It's the '70s style, out in the wild, on the open road with just the walls to stop you.”
In Australia, back in his country, the SunEnergy1 Racing Boss changed teammates. Adapting to a new car so quickly, sharing it with Luca Stolz and Jules Gounon, is already quite a challenge. But it would take more than that to destabilise Kenny Habul (reigning champion), who got right into the matter.
The practice sessions went by without a hitch. The car was qualified for the Superpole and finished the session 4th overall. As a reminder, the same ultra-fast crew won the 12 Hours in 2022 (with as 4th teammate Martin Konrad), but were classified in Pro-AM. This year, the pressure was on and it was a high stakes challenge in Pro. The crew, now classified as Pro, found themselves facing top level adversaries. For the team, the stakes were high: two consecutive victories in the face of fierce competition, and for Jules Gounon, the objective was to become the first driver to score three wins.
The circuit is atypical, and the format of the race is as well. The start of the 12 Hours is given in the dark, just before sunrise. The car was entered in the Pro category, however Kenny was a Bronze driver (but a very quick one!). The challenge was all the greater. Kenny ran quite early in the race, and the difficulty of juggling with the combined driver times, in the race and per stint, ended up being quite the brainteaser, very different from the GT World Challenge.
The #75, running third, got a drive through (for crossing the pit exit line) and fell out of the Top 10. Meanwhile, thanks to a well negotiated safety car session, a well-trained crew and efficient pit-stops, the SunEnergy1 car was propelled to the head of the race. After the mid-way point, only Jules Gounon and Luca Stolz still had to race, which led to a shift, either at the controls, or to P6 with one more stop to make. The choice was made to favour performance (by using less fuel) and the stints were shortened. The strategy paid off and the #75 was back in P3 with two hours to go. But at the last pit stop, the situation changed.
The Porsche stopped a lap early and decided to change its tyres, as did the Mercedes-AMG of Gruppe M, which also lost time to reconnect the (obligatory) SRO data logger. These events were of great benefit to SunEnergy1, who only refuelled with petrol. The #75 took the lead. Although the position was advantageous, Jules Gounon was on tyres that had already done 30 laps, against two fierce drivers on new tyres, Maro Engel and Matt Campbell. Jules kept his cool and didn't give in to the pressure but Engel, who was much faster, tried to pass and couldn't avoid contact. Jules Gounon did a 360° but went back on track. As for Maro Engel, he received a drive-through penalty. For the #75, there were 30 minutes to go. Against the Porsche, which had a better top speed, any return of Matt Campbell could prove disastrous.
Jules held strong and kept five or six lengths between him and his adversary, right up until the finish. It was a real relief as Maro Engel at the same time began a meteoric comeback. The leading trio crossed the finish line with a three second lead, with no safety car during the last five hours! SunEnergy1 achieved a great result by taking the overall victory with a Bronze driver (who ran two stints). Incredible at this level! No fewer than 13 pit stops against 9 for the other crews and a completely different strategy, the bet paid off.
SunEnergy1 doubled up with two consecutive overall wins, 2022 and 2023, while Jules Gounon reached another milestone by becoming the first driver to score three victories in the Australian classic (one week after winning the 24 Hours of Daytona in his class).
At the end of this winter trip, the final word goes to Jérôme Policand: “A new championship, new rules, a different organisation, the team learnt a lot during these three weeks. We had to think and work hard to be efficient. The effort paid off and this experience was especially rewarding.”
In a few weeks, the championships will start up again in France and in Europe. Akkodis ASP Team will be announcing their upcoming challenges soon.