What do the 24 Hours at Daytona, Spa, the Nürburgring, and Le Mans have in common? If you’re René Rast, you’ve notched up class wins in each of these legendary endurance races … every one, that is, except for Le Mans. And that, René says, is set to change come 4PM on June 19.

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It’s a long ride from speedy Le Mans to sleepy Minden, a provincial town in northern Germany that has slumbered through much of the last millennium. René Rast recalls being six or seven when his dad first brought him here to the local kart track. A spark was fired on that seldom-used kart track that day, both in the mini-motor and the mind of the small boy; soon enough, those initial “laps for fun” turned into laps for wins.

Karting was René’s first but not only love; anything with a motor existed to be thrashed and conquered on those breezy summer days of youth, and he flirted seriously with motorcross until Mrs. Rast assembled father and son one evening and laid down some new rules: if young René was to continue racing, it was on four wheels or none at all.

From there racing evolved organically as it has for aspiring, talented kids in Europe for generations; young René began winning locally—dad bought a kart—then nationally—dad bought a trailer—then internationally—dad bought a motorhome that criss-crossed Europe fueled by his savings and René’s dreams. That well-travelled road led to 2001 when 15-year-old René entered the most important championship of his life, the European ICA Junior Series.

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This was a serious test of René’s aspirations. It ended in defeat. René lost out to a 17-year-old fellow German wunderkidfrom Heppenheim. A setback, but René’s ambitions were made of enduring stuff. He regrouped and came back to win the 2002 ADAC – ICA Junior Championship. That was a launch-pad into the cut-throat lower formulas where reputations are hard-earned and fragile dreams shatter as fast as egos and chassis. René muscled his way into a seat in the Formula BMW ADAC championship, a feeder series that molds future champions. Through the cold spring and hot summer of 2004, René fought and lost all the way to the season-ending round on a damp day in October in Hockenheim. But there was little he, or the likes of future F1 driver Sébastien Buemi, could do about that young German wunderkidfrom Heppenheim who went on to dominate the series like no-one before, or since, taking an improbable 18 wins from 20 races.

“I raced against many great drivers as a kid,” René recalls, “many of the current F1 drivers were my rivals back in karting and the early days. But Sebastian Vettel, he was always outstanding, even in karting and in the lower formulas, he was the guy to beat, I can count on my fingers the number of times I beat him. Always outstanding, always the driver on top, you could beat him only when he as having a bad day, and that was hardly ever.”

René learnt a lot about motorsport that year when Sebastian Vettel was anointed as the next heir in an unbroken line of German champions tracing back to the early 1900s.
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“It’s the package,” René says, “and not just pure speed—speed is important, but being smart on the track, knowing how to work with marketing, how to manage your career, that’s also crucial. There are many drivers who are really fast, but in the end being fast is not the most important thing—it’s important, of course, because you have to be fast—but you also have to be a ‘full’ race driver, the whole package; managing racing the right way, managing tyres and fuel, being nice to your team, finding compromise with your team mate, it’s a whole package that makes a pro’ different to a non-pro’, you need to raise your level on all aspects.”

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René entered the VW Cup in 2005 on the back of a pair of middling seasons in open wheelers. In the VW touring car, he discovered both his form and his calling, storming to the championship, and following it up with a second place in the 2006 SEAT Leon Supercopa. A career-path in motorsport had presented itself, and it led to the Porsche Supercup, where he debuted in 2007. In 2010, he took his first professional championship.

“I thought the first victory, and then the first championship, would change everything, but that’s not what happened,” René says. “When I won the first championship, I thought, ‘Okay, now I go to DTM, or something very high,’ but that was just a dream, no-one comes to you saying, ‘Okay, now that you won, you become DTM driver, or F1 driver’. Everyone has that dream, but it didn’t happen, so I continued in the Porsche Supercup for another two years, and then, after my third championship in a row, I got involved with Audi.”

When Audi came calling with a works driver contract in early 2011, 23-year-old René—15 years on from those first laps in what was now an abandoned kart track in Minden—knew everything had finally changed.
“Before that,” René says, “when I earned money from racing, it was just prize money. Now, with the contract, I got a salary for the first time in my career, a good salary. I got my first proper contract, and from that point on I started to really see motor-racing as a career; before, my career could have ended in a year. As a young kid or as a young man, I didn’t have a lot of money or budget, so I always had to fight for my future, for my seat, but when I was contracted—it was for two or three years—it was something serious, for the future.”

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A year into the contract, in a Porsche 997 GT3, René clinched the first major endurance win of his career—class victory at the Daytona 24 Hours for Magnus Racing. He followed that up by winning the Spa 24 Hours for Audi Sport Performance Team, and then added the juiciest prize in endurance racing outside of Le Mans, the 2014 24 Hours at the Nürburgring, both in the Audi R8 LMS Ultra.

“All those wins were special,” René says of capturing the three biggest 24-hour races in the world. “Every victory is special, but the ’Ring win was a big one for me.’ He pauses, and adds, ‘but Daytona was also big, though, and so was Spa. Every race win is outstanding, every race has its own character, and every win its own story.”

Every win has its own story. Like when he won at Daytona for the second time, on a cool day in January this year. René’s co-drivers were John Potter, Marco Seefried, and 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie of the year, Andy Lally. René, driving the final stint, was being chased down hard by the Lamborghini Huracan GT3 driven by Fabio Babini. With only seven minutes left of the 24 hour race, René got the call over the radio that no driver wants to hear.

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“You’re low on fuel, let the Lamborghini through.”

Helpless, René put up no fight as Babini passed into the lead of the race. The voices in his headset assured René the Lamborghini didn’t have enough fuel to make the checkers. In the cockpit, René could do little but conserve fuel and hope. With less than four minutes remaining, Babini stuttered into the pits for a splash-and-dash. René nursed his failing car on, his pits now updating him on the status of the Porsche behind until finally the Audi R8 LMS GT3 stumbled over the finish line a mere three seconds ahead after 24 hours of racing … and promptly ran out of fuel.

“We were the little engine that could today,” René’s co-driver Andy Lally told Autoweek. “We had superstars that were driving this thing who were my teammates.”

Assessing his trio of wins, René believes that, “The Nürburgring 24 Hour is the hardest race on earth. I’ve done many races, Daytona, Spa, Le Mans, but the Nürburgring is by far the most difficult. It’s a crazy race, and you need luck to win it because so many things can happen. Actually, racing the ’Ring at night is not a problem, it’s when it’s rained and then cleared up at night, that’s a real challenge because it’s very hard to see where the dry line is, and it dries very slowly, there’s no track temperature, so you go out on slicks but there’s only one line, and it’s really slippery everywhere else, and then you have to overtake offline: The fog and rain and one dry line in slicks, it’s the most interesting thing on earth actually!”

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The ability not so much to manage fear as to harness it on demand—to willingly ‘switch’ on primitive parts of the brain in order to overwhelm more advanced brain functions such as self-preservation (or, you know, sanity)—that may well be what makes the racing driver ‘different’. The amygdala, two almond-shaped groups of nuclei in the brain, react to primal stimuli such as fear; it is the coccyx of the brain, ancient and mostly inoperative for the purposes of modern life. Once the amygdala kicks in, though, adrenal glands begin to pump out chemicals like adrenaline, churning hot blood to brain and muscles. The body begins to produce more testosterone as well, a chemical that boils aggression. A driver, at this point, becomes overwhelmed by primeval desires and passions. The ability to overcome the saner and modern parts of the brain in order to activate this primal fear, that’s where a driver earns his keep: The courage to ignore the impulse that demands the right foot to get off the throttle in order to scare the brain into a ‘primitive mode’ of pumping adrenaline, elevated heartbeat, and rushing blood, this is what makes racing drivers a special breed. And what, when it all goes wrong in a dusty spiral of debris and broken bits of carbon, is often referred to as the ‘red mist’. Does René ever question his choice of career in moments such as this, when the sane option is to take a confidence lift, to slow rather than diving into a gap on a greasy wet track at 3AM while the rest of the world sleeps cozily in their beds?

“Sometimes I question myself­—‘what am I doing right now, why are you doing that, that’s crazy!’—but it depends on the situation,’ says René. “If you’re in the lead, if you have a lot of time to think, you try not to take any risks because you’re not going 100%, only 95%, and the last 5% allows your brain the capacity to think, so you think what can go wrong, what can I do for the next lap? But when you’re pushing to close a gap and you’re at 110%, you have no capacity to think at all, you just go for gaps, and it’s only afterwards when you think, ‘F–k, what did I do?!’ So it depends on the situation.”

René will be in action at the Circuit de la Sarthe tomorrow, Wednesday, June 15, as he qualifies the number 26 Jota Sport-run G-Drive ORECA LMP2 coupe for the 86th running the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Check back for the second part of the interview with Rene—including how he is using Project CARS to train and prepare for the 86th running of Le Mans—this Friday.


Photos courtesy of  Audi

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