Interview with Mike Hedlund - Porsche driver in European Le Mans Series

Mike Hedlund is one of the many American drivers competing this year in the European Le Mans Series. A true Porsche GT specialist in North American sportscar racing, Mike Hedlund is driving a Proton Competition run Porsche 911 RSR in the highly competitive GTE class of the ELMS.

Ahead of the fourth round of the season at the Paul Ricard, we had a chat with Mike Hedlund about his 2016 season in European Le Mans Series and more.

You are having a great 2016 in European Le Mans Series, tell us more about your season so far.

It’s been an eye opening season that’s for sure! First time driving a GTE class car, first time at all the tracks except for Spa and my first time visiting most of the countries on the schedule. After a frankly, embarrassing, debut at Silverstone I’ve put a tremendous amount of time and effort into my driving. My co-drivers and the entire Proton team deserved better than I was able to deliver that weekend and it won’t happen again. I haven’t focused this much on my driving since my first year of racing cars back in 2011. The 2 seasons in GT3 spec cars made me lazy and my technique ended up paying the price. Since that opening weekend I’ve put a lot of hours on my Porsche 991 Cup car at home and it’s had a huge effect on my driving and overall confidence. Even at the 2nd round of the Championship at Imola I had already made some big improvements. While I didn’t get a chance to show it in the race since we finished under the safety car, I was quick enough in the few practice laps I had to give our engineer Erich Kolb the flexibility of putting me in at any point in the race. After my poor performance at Silverstone, it was a big turning point for me on a personal level, even if nobody else knew it!

Our 3rd round of the Championship at Red Bull Ring was disappointing. We had some bad luck with our strategy and full-course cautions that we weren’t able to take advantage of which cost us a bunch of time to the eventual podium finishers. It’s frustrating when all the drivers do their job, no penalties, no contact, very strong average pace, fast pit stops, no mistakes and you still finish well off the podium. But, that’s racing! We lost a potential for a good points weekend in Austria, but if we can finish out the season strong we definitely have the chance to recover.

You are sharing the #77 Porsche 911 RSR with Wolf Henzler and Marco Seefried, how is the work split between the three of you during race weekends?

Luckily for me both Wolf and Marco have a bunch of laps at all the tracks on the schedule and since Proton knows the Porsche 991 RSR inside and out we’ve been lucky enough to roll off the trailer with a great car every weekend. That leaves me plenty of time in the first 2 practice sessions to learn the track and also study their data to improve myself. At the most recent round in Austria there was a surprise “Bronze” 30 minute test session which, for me as a Bronze and having never been to the track, was brilliant! I hope the series is able continue that at the rest of the rounds. The three of us all tend to like the same thing from the car in terms of balance, so if Wolf and Marco are happy with it, all I have to worry about is driving fast! Proton also does an excellent job of sharing data and setup information across both cars on the team — it ends up making both cars faster which is all you can ask for as a driver.

I actually met Wolf for the first time at the end of 2011 when he was driving a Porsche at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. Jerry Woods Enterprises who was running the car for the 25 Hour race were also supporting my 997.2 Porsche Cup at the same time. It was like meeting a rock star! I started running into him again in 2013 when I did my first complete ALMS season in the GTC class. He was always nice and would say Hi to me, which for a newbie racer in awe of almost everyone in the series, was pretty awesome. The last time I saw him before he agreed to drive with us for the ELMS race at Silverstone was at the IMSA race at Circuit of the Americas in 2015 where he gave me the old 1-finger-salute going down the back straight!!! I was driving an LMPC car and was stuck in the GTLM traffic on old tires after some pit stop rotation and a restart. We had a good laugh about it in Silverstone!

While I hadn’t driven with or against Marco at the time, when I decided to do the season with Proton in the Porsche RSR, Marco was my first choice as our 3rd driver. I was actually texting Patrick Long at the time and tossed Marco’s name out there and asked if he knew how I could get in touch with him -- turned out they were having dinner together at Daytona while I was texting him! Racing is a small world.

It’s a bummer that my friend and overall wicked fast guy Renger van der Zande wasn’t able to do the season with us. He had a few conflicting events and when it turned out that Wolf would be able to make them all and have a shot at the Championship with me, we decided to make the change. Hopefully Renger and I will get to share a car again soon, it’s always good fun racing with him and watching him work his magic.

How competitive is the GTE field in the European Le Mans Series?

The level of competition in the ELMS GTE class is one of the biggest surprises for me this year. I wasn’t expecting it to be a push over, but I generally consider myself one of the stronger Bronzes around, regardless of what class or series. However, I’ve had a serious ego-check this season driving in Europe! I think it helps that the budget for a season in the ELMS is drastically lower than anything in the WEC or IMSA so it results in some really strong drivers who might not have the funds available for either of those amazing series. I can’t think of a time when I raced in a class where any car entered has a very realistic shot at victory each weekend. Normally there’s 1 or 2 strong entries, the rest also-rans and 1 or 2 that will never get on the podium unless everyone else crashes or breaks. That’s not the case in the ELMS GTE class — every car entered this year can win. And win on outright performance, not by luck. All the teams and driver combinations are top notch and it’s showing in the results and small number of problems being caused in the races by GTE cars. It’s an honor to be sharing the track, and if things work out, the podium, with all the teams and drivers in the ELMS GTE class. If you can win in the GTE class this year, you know the entire team did a tremendous job.

More and more American teams and drivers are competing in European sportscar racing, how different is it compared to the North American one?

Everyone in America follows sports car racing in Europe, so I think it’s safe to say that all of us would love to have the chance to race here if the chance presents itself! What you’re seeing now is a direct effect of the budget increases in North American sports car racing. As it stands now there’s simply very few people who can manage a full season in IMSA, and it’s only getting more expensive in 2017. For those of us who don’t have those sorts of resources, the natural move is to spend a little more time traveling and head to the most famous tracks in the world! I never thought I’d get a chance to drive at a place like Imola and it’s almost dreamlike when I think back to the race weekend. Not because we had a good result, but because I grew up watching and hearing about races there and to experience it myself… WOW!

There’s only two major differences in racing in Europe and in North America as far as I can tell: first is the FCY/code-60 type situations which have a much bigger effect on race strategy and make your slower driver in the ProAm classes critical to the success of the team. In North America with all the safety cars the primary goal of the “slow guy” is to not go a lap down. If you can do that, you basically have the same shot of winning at the end as anyone else. That’s frustrating when your the slow guy, but put in sooo much work to be as fast as possible. In the European races, the odds of being able to make up the time a “slow guy” loses is almost zero. I’m not sure if that makes for better racing, but as someone who just wants to go fast and keep improving, I like it that way! The 2nd difference is pit lanes: in North America all pit crew is separated from the pit lane by a wall. When the car stops everyone jumps over the wall and does their thing. In Europe, there are no walls! The first time I drove into the pits and everyone was just standing there, I was a little worried about them…. didn’t they know I was driving and not Wolf or Marco?!? Now I’m used to it, but those first few stops were a little nerve-wracking! I still have to remind myself not to do a burnout when leaving the pit box, that was one of my favorite things of race weekends in North America — big giant smokey burnouts. I miss those!

Lastly, the fan interaction at the European races has been amazing! Maybe it’s just because I’m an unknown American? Everyone has been super nice and they always want to know how we’re doing and what I think of racing in Europe or my thoughts on their home track. They make the events really fun and while I always enjoy the autograph sessions, I've been catching myself especially looking forward to them at the European events. I feel like an idiot when kids want to talk to me in German or Italian and all I can do is smile and say “I’m sorry I don’t understand!”, but it’s a lot of fun!

What about a move to FIA World Endurance Championship's GTE-Am with Proton Competition and Porsche?

My dream would be to do the full World Endurance Championship in a GTE Porsche! However, I still need to improve my pace before I could justify that sort of budget number to anyone, let alone myself. Guys like David Heinemeier Hansson, Khaled Al Qubaisi, Christian Ried and Chris Cumming have seriously raised the bar in terms of what it means to be a fast ProAm driver.  Personally, if they’d let me compete, I’d have no reservations about entering the GTE-Pro class too! I always compare myself against whoever is fastest and don’t concern myself with trophies. It’s probably not a very popular position and I wouldn’t recommend it from a series growth perspective, but it’s my own personal opinion. One interesting note for me would be the travel — I don’t think it'd be much longer than traveling to Europe from California for every race weekend!

What is your favourite racing circuit?

At the moment I’d have to say Spa Franchorchamps. I had the privilege of getting my butt seriously kicked there in a Porsche Supercup race in 2012 and have been trying to get back ever since! I can’t wait for our European Le Mans Series to take us there in September. Since the moment I signed on to do the ELMS season I’ve been day dreaming about taking Eau Rouge flatout in the Porsche RSR… And Blanchimont in 6th gear in the rain…. it’s gunna be crazy!

Photos: ELMS / Adrenal Media