Race Weekend Central

Indy Dontje on Racing in America, Mercedes & Renger van der Zande’s Advice

Indy Dontje is a sports car racer from the Netherlands that currently competes in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge for Winward Racing/HTP Motorsport. Up until a couple of years ago, he had never raced in the United States.

After helping out with the debut of the Mercedes-AMG GT4 in the US in 2017, Dontje is now racing full-time in the Michelin Pilot Challenge, while maintaining additional responsibilities in Europe. It makes for a rather busy schedule.

Just after winning the pole for the Tioga Downs 240 at the Glen, Dontje sat down with our own Phil Allaway at Watkins Glen International. Here, we discussed his season, his career and thoughts on racing in the United States.

Phil Allaway, Frontstretch: This is your second year in Michelin Pilot Challenge, but your first full year due to other commitments. What do you think of the racing here in Michelin Pilot Challenge?

Indy Dontje, No. 33 Mobil 1 Mercedes-AMG GT4: It’s great.  Last year was my debut here.  I was really excited to come here to race [and] everything turned out to be really good. I work well with the team, Winward Racing. The team was running very well. I think we had some pretty good results, me and Bryce [Ward].

This year, I changed to Russell [Ward as my teammate]. We had a bit of a setback in between Daytona and now because we made a wrong call at Mid-Ohio that cost us a podium, I think. We’re running really well here now, though.

I’m feeling really good when I’m in the States. I like the tracks. I like the people and I like the way that they treat the drivers in terms of racing. [The IMSA officials] let us really race and not lay us back with rules and unfair penalties, which I think is really good. I hope to make the next step up to the WeatherTech [SportsCar Championship] at some point.

Allaway: Are officials much more stringent in Europe when it comes to casual contact on-track?

Dontje: You can be hard on someone [here]. You don’t have to be a softie. In Europe, you’ll sometimes get a warning if you have a small touch where nobody was affected. I think that’s really good [that we can race here.]

Allaway: This year, we have Michelin tires as opposed to Continentals. Does that give you a different feel as compared to last year?

Dontje: Yeah, we definitely have different handling [characteristics]. On almost every circuit, we are quicker. We like the Michelins.  We are playing a bit around with setup within a window, which doesn’t help sometimes.

We’ve never had a flat tire, which is great. That means that we really don’t have to worry about them. There’s a bit more grip despite having the same overall characteristics as the Continentals.

Allaway: How did your deal to come race here in the United States come about?

Dontje: We had a race together here at [COTA]. We were doing some [Mercedes-AMG] GT4 development together with HTP Motorsport. They asked me to go over there with some HTP guys and race.

I didn’t know who was there [to drive with me]. They just said that they were two American guys. They turned out to be Bryce and Russell. We met and it really clicked between us, but only Russell would drive the next year.

Then, Bryce decided that he would race four meetings ([Watkins Glen], Daytona, Sebring and Road Atlanta). Daytona and Sebring went so well for us that [Bryce] decided to run the whole season.

The whole thing started because we had a great drive at COTA that led to Bryce wanting to race more.

Allaway: If I remember correctly, the 24H of COTA was the first actual race for the Mercedes-AMG GT4 back in 2017.

Dontje: We had a race at Spa, but the car didn’t go well. The first 24-hour race for the car was the COTA race, just to see what would happen with the car. It was really interesting as a driver because you always think as a driver that the car is prepared perfectly, but you never know what can happen. We had a lot of problems and a lot of setbacks, but I think it was good for the team to also learn the car directly.

Allaway: Do you have a lot of experience in those Creventic-run endurance races in addition to the 24H of COTA?  They seem to be popping up a lot lately with decent car count in Europe, but it’s a whole different experience.

Dontje: The whole Creventic [24H Series] is more based on amateur drivers and they’re really based on getting the most driving time possible for a driver. I think it’s really good.

The only race where I think the competition is really high is in Dubai. The rest of the season, you have good teams having a real gentleman in the car alongside pros. The mixture of the championship is really good. Also, it’s good for some teams to come there just to test their cars. I think it’s a good series, but not like IMSA where it’s really professional and you have high-level race teams and drivers.

Allaway: As noted, you’re sharing your car with Russell Ward this season. What’s it like having Russell as your teammate and how has he developed as a driver over the past year and change?

Dontje: He’s developing a lot as a race driver. In the beginning, when I first met him, he was driving with Damien Faulkner. He struggled a bit to come up on pace, but now when he gets in the car, Russell is really quick. I think he’s doing a really good job this year.

[At] Mid-Ohio, he was flawless. He gave the car [to me] in a perfect state. Now this weekend in practice, he’s quick. I’m really happy to drive with Russell. We are just not rewarded for our good driving.

We also drove together in [International] GT Open in Hockenheim. We did the Pro-Am class and won on Sunday together, which is really good. He was driving a really good race and I finished up P1. It was perfect for the team and perfect for him. I hope we can take this pole position from today and turn it into a good result for Saturday.

Allaway: Recently, you were at the Nordschliefe, racing at the Nurburgring. Our site is primarily a NASCAR website, so our fans may not know much about the course. Can you describe what it’s like to race there?

Dontje: It is a track that is 28 kilometers long and you can imagine what that involves. It is a long track that we drive laps on in eight minutes and 30 seconds on average. It’s also a race in that GT3 and GT4 cars can race against a Renault Clio, where the speed difference may be 50 kilometers an hour. This makes it very difficult [at times] and makes for funny situations on track.

There are also 160 entries on track. It’s a great race, but a very difficult race. I drove the Ferrari 488 GT3. It was a completely new car for me. It was a last-minute call on Wednesday from Rinaldi [Racing]. It turned out to be really good. We finished 13th, fifth in class in Pro-Am. The team boss was happy, so that was good.

Allaway: You got the call the day before qualifying?

Dontje: Yes. On Thursday, we had to directly qualify. I got the call Wednesday at one o’clock. Luckily, the Nurburgring from my house is only a three hours’ drive, so I was able to come down, do the equipment checks and go through the lessons on all the buttons in car because there are much more buttons in the Ferrari as compared to the Mercedes.

Also, I had to get used to a different type of GT3 car. All through my career in GT racing, I’ve been racing with Mercedes. I had tested an Audi and a BMW Z4 previously, but that was a long time ago.

My driving style is really based on a Mercedes, so I had to adapt. With an eight-minute and 30-second lap, a normal outing in practice is only two laps. Before the 24-hour race, I had only done six laps in the car, so I only got into my rhythm during the race.

I could see during the race that I was pretty quick. I have to say that there were some guys out there that took a lot of risks overtaking slow cars, but it was good.

Allaway: The Nordschiefe’s pretty narrow in places. What’s the worst place there to catch slower traffic?

Dontje: There are a few corners where you’re in fifth gear, lift just a little, then get back on power. If you [catch] one there and there’s another GT3 car behind you, it makes for some nervous action on track because he’s pushing from behind while you have to pass the slow car.

Also, there are times where you pass a car in a fourth or fifth gear corner, but you’re slow because of a bad [corner] exit.  Catching slow cars in faster corners is a [bad] time.

It’s a shame when you have a car in front of you and there’s a crash. For incidents on-track, we have special flags for that, the Code 60 and the 120 Zone.

Allaway: What does the 120 Zone look like?

Dontje: We can’t throw safety cars or red flags because it would take too long to get all the cars together. It’s just not possible. What [the officials] do is make the section 120 kilometers an hour or 60 kilometers an hour based on the situation. They always pre-warn you with a yellow, then a 120 sign, or the Code 60 flag.

We just drive 60 kilometers an hour on the pit speed limiter. When you’re past the crash, you can go back on full power again.  However, sometimes you can have a slower car just looking at the crash for some reason and he’s going 30 kilometers an hour. If you have a big gap behind you, that can close up really easily.

Allaway: Is there a penalty for going too slowly in a Code 60?

Dontje: No. It’s only for too quick and they’re really strict on it. You can even get points on your special Nordschliefe license. They can even take it away from you, so you have to watch out for that.

Allaway: At the Nurburgring, Mercedes unveiled the new AMG-GT3 for 2020. Do you have any thoughts on the new car?

Dontje: I think it’s really good. [Mercedes] listened to all of the teams in regards to all the problems they were having. We actually gave them some tips and [Mercedes] looked at the tips and made the car better.

They didn’t make it better in handling because the car is already good there. They made it better in terms of replacement of parts and other smaller things. The AMG-GT3 is already a good car. Now, it looks even more like a “Mean Machine.”

I think it’s a really great upgrade and already next week, they have the first race at Portimao, a 24-hour Creventic race. They are just testing it there with five drivers.

Allaway: Are Mercedes going to do some VLN races like Porsche did with their current 911 GT3 R?

Dontje: Oh yes, they will run VLN in the SPX class, which is a special class for things like that. They can see what the car is doing and hopefully we’ll have a great drive for 2020.

Allaway: This team is technically a joint venture between Winward Racing and HTP Motorsport. What kind of role does HTP actually play with the team?

Dontje: HTP is helping out the guys here in America on the engineering side. We have really good engineers working in Germany, as well as here.

At the beginning of last year, HTP also brought some mechanics because they had experience with the Mercedes and we helped the Americans out. Now, the team is running by itself really well. The guys here in the States are doing a great job. We just have the engineers here and sometimes we bring one mechanic if we have a longer race, like this weekend.

Allaway: For many sports car racers, they compete in more than just one series. You’re full-time here in Michelin Pilot Challenge, but you’re based in the Netherlands. What other series are you involved in?

Dontje: I race in ADAC GT Masters, which is the German GT3 championship. I drive for Mann Filter Team HTP. We’re currently P4 in the championship and paired with Maximilian Gotz. We’re running really well there.

I have a challenge in my schedule. On Sunday, I have to fly back to Europe for the Spa test (Note: This was a test session in preparation for the Total 24 Hours of Spa, which ran last weekend), then come back Wednesday for CTMP.  I will do the Spa 24 maybe. Sometimes, I do International GT Open.

Allaway: Like a number of sports car racers, you were originally an open-wheel racer who transitioned to sports car racing. How did that change ultimately come about?

Dontje:  Until 2014, I ran formula cars, Formula 4 and Formula 3. Then, I got a real good tip from a good friend who is well known in racing here in the United States, Renger van der Zande.  He gave me the tip, “Indy, maybe you should look at GT racing instead of Formula racing. You need a lot of budget for Formula racing.”  I took his advice and now I’m here where I am now and I’m really happy where I am now in my position.

About the author

Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.

Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.

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