Things were looking positive for R.Ferri Motorsport at the beginning of 2017. They had a fast Ferrari factory driver in Alex Riberas, landed on the pole and podium in the second round at St. Petersburg and appeared to be a real contender for the Pirelli World Challenge GT championship.
Then it all went wrong at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Canada, as a destroyed Ferrari 488 GT3 put a promising season in shambles.
For 2018, R.Ferri upped the ante, bringing another Ferrari ace on board, this time in Toni Vilander. The Finnish racer’s credentials include two 24 Hours of Le Mans wins and the 2014 FIA World Endurance Championship title in LMGTE Pro, and a win at the Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour, all with Ferrari. For the past couple of seasons he has been racing in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with Risi Competizione partnering with Giancarlo Fisichella. Moving from endurance racing to sprint racing has posed some challenges for Vilander, but, as he proved with a pole and a podium at St. Pete and two SprintX wins at Circuit of The Americas with Miguel Molina (below), fast is fast. Above all, he’s happy to be racing in America and happy to be reunited with Remo Ferri.
“My request the last few years is to race in America,” Vilander says. “I have some results in Europe already, so I want to keep racing in the U.S. I like the style here, I like the weather, I like the tracks and I like the way people handle the race weekends. It suits me really well – a lot of old-school stuff, more serious racing.
“It’s a funny coincidence that the first time I came to the U.S. in ’06, it was the Risi team but a Remo [Ferri]-owned car at Lime Rock. Long history there. Remo has wanted me to race for him for many years, and for certain reasons it hasn’t been possible, but I’m really happy with the current situation.”
Vilander landed the pole for the first race at St. Petersburg and finished second to Scott Hargrove in the Pfaff Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3R – not bad for a track he hadn’t seen before. In the second race, though, a slight miscalculation put him in the wall, ending his day. He bounced back at COTA, though, as he and Molina managed both victories in what looked to be smooth sailing. There were some interesting things going on beneath the surface, however.
“What was quite funny that you don’t see outside is every session we had quite a different set-up – qualifying, Race 1 and Race 2,” he explains. “It was not a test session, but we took bigger changes than we normally do just to gather the information and prepare us even better for the future. It might look outside like everything is under control, but it’s always a hard fight.”
To change set-ups without a big change in weather conditions – after winning one race – takes some pretty hefty confidence that everyone knows what they’re doing. It also speaks to the commitment to attack the championship as a whole, and not just go after race wins. To do that, Vilander still has some adjustments to make.
“The sprint races get the driver to a different mindset for the starts and every opportunity there is,” he says. “You can see guys being quite aggressive on overtaking. Tracks like [COTA] where they’re really wide, 12-14 meters wide going to the hairpin and you can just dive in…it’s a lot about track position. I think in a modern GT3 car, it’s quite difficult to make a big difference when you’re in the queue.”
Track position is especially critical at a track like Long Beach where the series races this weekend, where the narrow concrete canyons make overtaking opportunities rare, and the race often spends a lot of time under caution. But Vilander has raced at Long Beach before, and from here on out – with the exception of Portland where few of his competitors have raced – has familiarity with all the tracks on the schedule.
That, and the start he’s had so far, has Vilander feeling positive about the season.