Falken Tyre Europe GmbH is the European subsidiary of Japanese tyre manufacturer Sumitomo Rubber Industries Ltd. The Falken brand was born in 1983 and five years later the company’s European headquarters was established in Offenbach am Main, Germany. A similar operation followed in 1991 in the USA. A fast expanding tyre manufacturer in Europe, Falken now is perhaps best known for the striking green/blue liveried Falken Porsches, but their motorsport history is an interesting one.
It wasn’t until 1999 that Falken started racing in Europe when Team Falken first competed in the ADAC 24h-Race at the Nürburgring. The team raced at first with the Falken Nissan Skyline, where one of the famous drivers in the early days was Roland Asch. After a break from racing in 2006, the team returned with a Nissan 350Z in 2007, but it was only in 2011 that Team Falken became a regular with a Porsche 911 in the VLN series and the Nürburgring 24 Hours.
When asked why the company chose motor racing through which to show their products, Falken Motorsports Manager Stefanie Olbertz said, “It is really good for our marketing, because the Nürburgring Nordschleife is known as a very difficult track and an exciting place to race. Also, with long-distance racing, everyone knows that it requires more commitment than a 30-minute race, and so this really fits well with what Falken is doing. Falken also wants to demonstrate the performance of its tyres in very difficult weather conditions and in all kinds of weather conditions, and that is why we chose the Nürburgring.”
When the brand was developed, it was aimed at the European market with the target and core market being Germany. “We have the autobahn in Germany, so the image of cars in Germany is of much higher value to the people than in other countries, and so that is why Japan decided to have Germany as the main market for Europe. It is a premium market, which is where Falken is moving towards,” Olbertz reasoned.
Taking the above argument into account, Porsche is just one of the top German brands, and Falken could have gone with any of the big four when they made a commitment to go with a European brand in 2011. “Actually, it was also a result of our American sister company already having raced with Porsche. When we started, the GT segment was also just starting to grow and Porsche was perhaps the first manufacturer who had a proper customer car that customers could buy without having to extensively modify one, or maybe having to build a car yourself,” Olbertz explained.
Racing in Europe
The Nürburgring Nordschleife is a legendary race track. On this 25.3-km circuit, over the years, careers have been built and some sadly lost, but one thing remains and that is the allure of the famed track, for teams, drivers and spectators alike.
Located in the region of the Eifel Mountains on the western edge of Germany, weather conditions can be not only unpredictable, but also constantly changeable. Added to this is that with the circuit being as long as it is, racing drivers can experience dry conditions on one section of the track while heavy rain can fall in another. This plays havoc with team strategies and tyre management, but it all adds to the uncertainty of the race on the day.
Aware of these challenges, Falken Tyres decided some years back to enter into endurance racing as a way of testing and proving their tyres in the European market.
Falken’s first Porsche 911 GT3 R was purchased in 2010 and it competed in the last VLN race in October that year. However, the car was not in Falken colours at that stage, so the team’s official start with Porsche was in 2011. The Falken team replace their Porsche whenever there is a new model on the market. Outside of this logical process, the only other time they have had to depart from this was when their car was badly damaged in 2015, and so it was decided to exchange the car because it was not possible to repair the old one.
“We started with the 997, then we had the 991 model and now it is the 991 generation 2. And so, the first year that we competed with our current car was in 2016, and we used it for 2016, 2017 and 2018, and this year we will purchase a new one which we will have for the 2019 season. Our Porsche is maintained by Schnabl Engineering, they are also located close to Frankfurt, they were recommended to us by Porsche and the Team around Sven Schnabl still proves to be the perfect choice after so many years,” Olbertz pointed out.
Significant results for Team Falken certainly include their class victory and fifth place overall achieved in the 2005 Nürburgring 24-hour race. But Falken’s best result in the 24-hour race was their third place overall with the Porsche in the 2015 Nürburgring event where Peter Dumbreck, Wolf Henzler, Martin Ragginger and Alexandre Imperatori shared driving duties.
2017 saw Falken employ a second vehicle for the first time, when they added a BMW M6 GT3 to the stable. More recently, regular top results have been coming Falken’s way with the team’s first ever VLN win in 2017, although this was not with Porsche but rather the BMW (Stef Dusseldorp/Jörg Müller). In 2018, the team notched up their first 1-2 finish in a VLN race with the Porsche and the BMW, which also gave the Falken Porsche its first win. As a tyre manufacturer, Falken needs to be seen to support different manufacturers, which is why they have taken the decision to run the BMW as well.
Falken’s longest serving driver is Peter Dumbreck, having started almost two decades ago with Sumitomo Rubber in Japan, “Loyalty in motorsport is quite rare, but I have been with the overall company for quite a long time now, actually it is 18 years already, so I am very proud to be associated with them and to drive their cars.”
The team has been fortunate enough to attract some highly-experienced endurance racers over the years. Martin Ragginger, a Porsche test driver, has been driving for Falken since 2011. Wolf Henzler and Sebastian Asch (son of Roland Asch who drove the Nissan Skyline for us in the earlier years of Falken Motorsport) also started with Falken in 2011, although Asch has now been replaced by Alexandre Imperatori. In 2018 Klaus Bachler joined the team while Sven Müller and Dirk Werner, all Porsche works drivers, strengthened the line-up.
Olbertz elaborates, “Porsche is very supportive, providing really good drivers for our team which is very helpful. In 2017, we had three factory drivers but this also worked against us a little because all three were running in the same programme in America, so when one was not available it meant all three were out. As a result, we put another driver on our payroll, and that was Klaus Bachler. We will soon announce our line-up for 2019.”
So, as far as 24-hour races go, does the Falken Team only participate at the Nürburgring? “Yes, only the Nürburgring, and that is because most of the other 24-hour races, except Le Mans, have a contracted tyre manufacturer binding them, so for Falken it is not possible to compete in other series.
“Quite often, we might try out some new tyres and that means that our race strategy is usually not the perfect strategy with which to win the VLN races. We definitely do a proper race strategy for the 24-hour race, but in the VLN races, we might not always do this because we are not only running in the series for the results,” Olbertz explains.
The Falken Team will probably only participate in six or seven of the VLN series in any one season.
Peter Dumbreck and the Falken Team
“My connection with Falken came through Dunlop tyres because in Asia, Dunlop is a sister company to Sumitomo Rubber. At the time, I was a contracted Dunlop driver and I was racing in Super GTs with Dunlop tyres. The boss of Dunlop knew my history and he knew that I had raced at the Nürburgring, and he said they were going to go back, did I want to be involved. We did one VLN race first and then we went straight into the 24 hours, but that was back at a time when the competition wasn’t so strong, there weren’t GT3 cars so to speak. We had one of the slowest cars in the category (with the 350Z), which meant that our target was a top ten finish,” Dumbreck explained.
Falken did the Nürburgring 24 Hour in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 with the 350Z, and although Dumbreck liked the 350 Z, he said that it didn’t have the pace to win. “Then things started to get a bit more serious, and Falken as a company grew in Europe, and it grew in Germany,” he recalled. With increased sales and growing corporate interest in motorsport, they were able to bring more dealers along to the track.
“The whole program shifted up a gear,” Dumbreck continued, “and the whole driver line-up changed, it became a German team that ran it rather than a Japanese team. I am the only one that has stayed from the Nissan days but then Raggi, Wolf and Sebastian Asch came in. This has now been our most successful year (2018), and even though we had that third place in 2015, the elusive 24-hour win is still not there. 2019 will be my thirteenth 24-hour race with Falken, and it will be my fifteenth in total at the Nürburgring.”
Peter Dumbreck has driven at a lot of different tracks over the years, and for many different teams, and the atmosphere can be ‘very clinical’ in some teams. At Falken the atmosphere is friendlier and more laid back, explained Dumbreck, “You work together for the results, and that is one of the reasons why I think I have lasted there so long, because I thrive under that kind of atmosphere.”
He continued, “With sport in general, you have got to be in the right place with your mind. We are all fit and we’re all active but at the end of the day, it comes down to your state of mind. You can see people when they get their first breakthrough win, how they go on and win more and more, and it is generally because they have got their head in the right place. My best race in a Porsche has to be the third place in 2015 (at the Nürburgring) because we had run in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014, and that was the fifth year with the Porsche,” Dumbreck said.
The problem though for the team was that they were just not qualifying high enough up the order, which resulted in them losing time at the start. “Previously, we didn’t have a tyre that was mega for one lap and generally the others do. This year we were knocking on pole position with the car and made good progress. We have a car that is good and we have a tyre that, as the track rubbers in, we gain pace so we can match the leading cars,” he admitted.
Driving the Nürburgring
Peter Dumbreck admits that the Nürburgring is the most challenging circuit he has driven because it is so long and because it has its own little climate. “You can fly into Frankfurt where it is 30°C when you get off the plane, and as you drive to the Nürburgring gradually you see the temperature drop, and by the time you get there, it is down in the mid-teens. When you get up in the next morning and open the blinds, all you see is white fog,” he explained.
“To survive the Nürburgring, first of all you need to survive until the morning, that is your first target, because you have still got a long way to go in the race,” Dumbreck advised. A driver can theoretically drive quicker in the night than in the day because it is cooler, but instinctively you tend to leave yourself more margin for error, plus you have to factor in the wide range of experience on track. “Inevitably you come across someone who’s driving down the middle-of-the-road and of course their eyes are out on stalks because they are really driving at the edge of their ability. Still, you have to get by them as cleanly as possible to continue your lap times and not lose pace, so yes, it is a very entertaining race to drive in.
“The cornering speeds we are doing now, are 15 km/h faster than three years or four years back. That is because of downforce, tyres and car development. But I think the downside of that is, as we go faster, the governing bodies trying to slow us down, so they will maybe take some aero off us and your straight-line speed is actually well down and you’re thinking to yourself, come on go faster. But then you get to the corners and you take a deep breath because it is properly quick,” he revealed.
Race history of Falken Motorsport in Nürburgring 24 hour
|2011||911 GT3 R (997)||Wolf Henzler, Sebastian Asch, Peter Dumbreck, Martin Ragginger||48||15|
|2012||911 GT3 R (997)||Wolf Henzler, Sebastian Asch, Peter Dumbreck, Martin Ragginger||DNF||DNF|
|2013||911 GT3 R (997)||Wolf Henzler, Sebastian Asch, Peter Dumbreck, Martin Ragginger||20||16|
|2014||911 GT3 R (997)||Wolf Henzler, Peter Dumbreck, Martin Ragginger, Alexandre Imperatori||4*||4*|
|2015||911 GT3 R (997)||Wolf Henzler, Peter Dumbreck, Martin Ragginger, Alexandre Imperatori||3**||3**|
|2016||911 GT3 R (991)||Wolf Henzler, Peter Dumbreck, Martin Ragginger, Alexandre Imperatori||9*||9*|
|2017||911 GT3 R (991)||Martin Ragginger, Jörg Bergmeister, Dirk Werner, Laurens Vanthoor||DNF||DNF|
|2018||911 GT3 R (991)||Martin Ragginger, Dirk Werner, Klaus Bachler, Sven Müller||9||9|
*Best Porsche overall
**Best result for Falken Motorsports at 24h race, best Porsche overall
Key successes by Falken Motorsport in the USA
|Baltimore Grand Prix||1st|
|2012||Baltimore Grand Prix||1st|
|2013||12-Hours of Sebring||3rd|
|Monterey Grand Prix||2nd|
|Petit Le Mans||1st|
|2014||Oak Tree Grand Prix VIR||2nd|
|Petit Le Mans||1st|
|2015||Watkins Glen 6-Hour||1st|
What do you do with your old cars? “Normally we sell them to other racing teams. It depends who wants to have it, but in the past, it always has been other racing teams,” Stefanie Olbertz explained. That’s a relief, because it means that these great race cars never die, they just keep on going.
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Falken Motorsport & as credited