It may be the bottom rung of the Audi Sport ladder but the TT Cup is slick and seriously quick, with some big names on the entry list – and us
We’re off to a bad start. ‘Three of you were late for this briefing. The first rule of being a professional racing driver is to be punctual. And some of you, your teamwear does not fit perfectly. Before the next round, you must visit a tailor.’
Welcome to the first day of a new term at Audi’s racing driver finishing school, where attention to detail is everything. It’s the opening round of the 2017 Audi Sport TT Cup at Hockenheim, and in a compact briefing room inside Audi’s hospitality mothership, championship manager Philipp Mondelaers is addressing the class: four rows of youthful drivers in identical Audi Sport clothing, and an apprehensive one in civvies. That would be me.
Now in its third season, the Audi Sport TT Cup is Audi’s proving ground for young driving talent: an ultra-competitive championship played out in identical cars over 14 races at seven circuits in three countries, on the same bill as the hugely popular DTM German touring car championship.
There are no individual teams; the cars are all prepared and run by Audi from its own pop-up pitlane within the DTM paddock. Think of it as the ultimate in arrive-and-drive racing. Testing is strictly limited, and other than tyre pressures and anti-roll bar swaps, no set-up changes are allowed – it’s all about the driver.
At each round Audi invites two guest drivers to take part, usually one journalist (which is how I’ve wound up here, intermittently pinching myself to make sure I really am) and one pro. So, in a surreal tableau, the name above the next garage to mine is Benoit Treluyer, three-time Le Mans winner in Audi’s all-conquering World Endurance Championship programme – brought to a close last year as the wider VW Group tightened its purse strings.
‘The TT Cup exists not to make money, but to find the next generation of drivers,’ says Chris Reinke, head of Audi Sport customer racing. ‘We are growing our next generation of customers within the brand.’ At the end of the season Audi will award a six-figure prize fund to the championship winner, intended to be spent progressing into the upper echelons of its customer racing programme.
But that doesn’t mean entry into the TT Cup is cheap.
The cost for each driver is €120,000 for the season, plus a €10,000 deposit for damage. Despite the steep asking price, Audi had no fewer than 165 applicants for this season, whittled down to 16 drivers from all over the world, each aged between 16 and 24. Think of it as a sort of X Factor for racing drivers. ‘It was like applying for a job,’ explains British driver Philip Ellis. ‘You had to show Audi why you would be the right person for the TT Cup.’ He’s one of two returning competitors from the previous season; the other is Poland’s Gosia Rdest, one of three female drivers on the grid.
‘We were taken on a six-day fitness training course, where Audi’s team doctor gave us nutrition lessons, and even took blood tests,’ Jack Manchester, another Brit, tells me. ‘Then a pre-season practice day here at Hockenheim, to get familiar with the cars and practise the start procedure, which gave us all a chance to get to know each other.’ They’ve all bonded well, it seems; there’s plenty of good-natured joshing and comparing of notes. Young they might be (six of the drivers were born in 2000) but they’re used to racing at a high level. Ellis bypassed karts and went straight to cars, climbing to Formula 3 before switching to tin-tops, while Drew Ridge was Australian karting champion and raced in Formula BMW Malaysia before moving to Munich to make a serious go of becoming a career driver. Milan Dontje was second in the Dutch GT championship and has raced LMP3 sports cars; 17-year-old Scot Finlay Hutchison is combining his TT Cup season with a GT campaign in a McLaren 570 GT4; and 18-year- old German Fabian Vettel is relatively new to cars, but his older brother has done quite a bit of racing. (You might have heard of him; his name’s Sebastian.)