De Phillippi. Photo: 'Gruppe C'/Land Motorsport

American Connor De Phillippi reaches title promised land in Europe

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For several years on the Mazda Road to Indy, Connor De Phillippi was among the star open-wheel prospects-in-waiting. The driver out of San Clemente, Calif. had the theoretical package of combining great talent, speed, marketability, partner relationships and looks in hand – similar to a Josef Newgarden, another past Team USA Scholarship recipient.

Sadly, all the theoretical ingredients and the fact De Phillippi was one of the top drivers who hadn’t won a MRTI title didn’t mean he had the budget to advance into Indy Lights once his Star Mazda career ended. And when that ended, it meant his open-wheel career did as well, so suddenly, he found himself at a crossroads.

De Phillippi had always been rated highly by American Porsche factory ace Patrick Long, the manufacturer’s lone American factory driver. A shift to sports cars would likely end the open-wheel dream but when the opportunity presents itself and you have a chance to follow that road, you take it.

De Phillippi made it to Porsche as a rare American driver selected for the prestigious Porsche Junior program – second only to Long in its history.

Some success followed in the Porsche Carrera Cup Deutschland and ultimately, the flagship of Porsche’s one-make series, Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup.

The 2013 season saw De Phillippi claim the Rookie of the Year honors in the series; the next year, in Porsche Carrera Cup Germany, he won twice and finished eighth overall. Once in Supercup, he scored a couple top-five finishes in the deep field.

For the Californian, moving to Germany required a full culture immersion. It meant getting to know Germany families, the language, the lifestyle, the food and the culture – all while also trying to learn the tracks and series he’d be competing in.

Photo: 'Gruppe C'/Land Motorsport
Photo: ‘Gruppe C’/Land Motorsport

However, once De Phillippi completed his three years as a Porsche Junior through 2015, the opportunity presented itself to switch to another manufacturer within the same VW Group – Audi – and Land Motorsport. And “CDP,” who’s 23 until Christmas Day, grabbed it with both hands.

A star drive at the Creventic 24H Series season opener, the 24 Hours of Dubai, was a breakthrough performance for De Phillippi on the world stage within FIA GT3-spec machinery, in the new Audi R8 LMS. And as he explained, that singular outing is what put the rest of his season together properly.

The result didn’t come by way of a late-race gearbox failure, but the car had built a several-lap lead prior to the retirement previously

“Obviously the news that I wouldn’t be continuing with Porsche was not really a shock,” De Phillippi told NBC Sports. “I had a tough season and I wasn’t in the position or environment to perform my best. The results weren’t there.

“Land and the Audi program was a fresh start for me. We have a really good sponsor that allows us to put together a proper program… we had the engineering… and we had the funding we needed to go testing. This is a situation I had never been in before. For me, that’s what allowed me to excel. I felt comfortable straightaway. There was no looking back.

“That race was truly the beginning of the whole GT Masters program. It was only supposed to be VLN and a few endurance races. It was a test drive to get along with Chris Mies and Marc Basseng. The Dubai performance went so well, and we didn’t expect to be as dominant as we had. That was the first kind of hint showing the potential we had, if we put a program together. We could later enter into GT Masters and the whole program was born from the result of being so strong in Dubai.”

Mies and De Phillippi. Photo: 'Gruppe C'/Land Motorsport
Mies and De Phillippi. Photo: ‘Gruppe C’/Land Motorsport

Mies and De Phillippi would share Montaplast by Land’s No. 29 Audi for the ADAC GT Masters championship. The series is a seven-weekend, 14-race championship that runs one-hour sprint races with a pit window to change drivers and tire pressures, and the level is pretty high caliber in terms of FIA GT3-spec cars and teams that compete here.

The biggest change other than the manufacturer and type of racing De Phillippi would adapt to for 2016 would be a shift back to living at home primarily in California first, then commuting to the races in Europe, rather than basing himself in Germany as he had the last few years.

With this change in mindset and being around family and friends on a more regular basis, it allowed De Phillippi to flourish.

“I’ve been living in a small town called Winterberg with a small family,” De Phillippi explained. “Most of the season I’ve been flying back and forth. It’s been why my performance has been higher. I’m in a happier place being with family and friends.

“It took a toll on me, and enjoying where you live, and seeing your family is really important. It really affects your performance. Luckily I have the time to go back to California. If I had 2-3 races in a row, I’d stay.

Having Mies, a GT3 veteran and Audi ace help his transition, didn’t hurt either. Mies helped raise both drivers’ game this year and De Phillippi was quick to extoll him.

“Finding a teammate you get on with on is a needle in a haystack,” he explained. “We had a special connection there. I’ve learned a lot from him this year, especially from the the technical side. He helped a lot with the development of it.

“Really, I’ve just listened a lot. I had to soak up as much information as I can. Also just with race craft and things like that, I’ve surprised myself a lot. From the beginning, we’ve been on the same pace level.

“Overall, when it comes to compromise in teammates, that’s the one great thing is finding a happy medium. We like the same car, driving styles so similar, you’d think it’s the same driver. It’s a unique situation to have so much more about the series. We’re a strong pair this year.”

The pairing won only once, race two at the Nürburgring, but used consistency throughout the year to win the title by nine points. De Phillippi explained that drive there.

“I would say my best drive was race two at the Nürburgring during GT Masters,” he said. “After the pit stop circulation we were in third, and I kind of drove like a mad dog! I passed for second and the lead… that was our one and only win this year.

“We were extremely consistent and always on the podium,” he added. “We haven’t had the strongest Balance of Performance… but we knew we had to extract the most out of it. We saw it, because if you look at the next closest Audi, it’s further down. We did well with what we had.”

Title clinched. Photo: 'Gruppe C'/Land Motorsport
Title clinched. Photo: ‘Gruppe C’/Land Motorsport

They added another Nürburgring victory – this time at the VLN Endurance Championship season finale – last weekend for good measure (more on this from Audi and The Drive).

De Phillippi is hopeful of continuing with a return to GT Masters and VLN with Land and Audi in 2017, with sporadic U.S. appearances in the endurance races highly likely at this stage.

For the moment though, he’s just enjoying the run of having achieved a title after four years of pursuing his dream in sports car racing.

“Racing in Germany is where I started in Europe and it’s become my home over here. As far as level of competition in a single country, Germany is the highest,” he said.

“As far as the level of this series goes, it’s overlooked – even I did at the start of the year. The level has stepped up. We saw that when a team like Zakspeed ran in the Blancpain Endurance race at Nürburgring and ran top-six, top-seven straightaway.

“To see a team can go into BES – and we all know the level of BES – and to be top-five straightaway, really shows the level and caliber we are competing against.”

INDYCAR: What Drivers Said after Friday’s two practices at Barber

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Here’s what drivers had to say after Friday’s two practice sessions for Sunday’s Honda Grand Prix of Alabama (there’s one final practice plus qualifying on Saturday):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, 2017 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama winner, 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series champion): “It’s great…home track for me. It wins the war between this place and Indianapolis (Motor Speedway) because it’s an hour closer, so I think that’s why I call it the home track. Unfortunately, we don’t race in Nashville anymore. But I’ve always loved Barber. It is a special place for me. It’s the place I got my first win with CFH (Racing) back in the day, and it’s a place I won my first race for Team Penske. It’s had a couple firsts for me, so it’s been good for that. Good memories. I love this racetrack. I think it’s one of the best that we get to drive at from sort of a style standpoint. It’s very technical, but it’s got a lot of flow to it. It feels kind of like a roller coaster to me is the best way to describe the style of it. I have a lot of fun here. I think it’s great. We’re going to try and have a good weekend. We had a pretty good start for the most part. We had some issues in the first session. Just kind of been dealing with a couple things that I think we got sorted out for the second session there, but we seem like we’ve got some speed. I think our other cars got some speed, as well. Simon (Pagenaud) looked like he suffered from maybe a similar problem, and I don’t think Will (Power) had a very good lap, so I think those guys will be right there with us. Team Penske I think is going to be strong tomorrow, I’m sure.

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “We’re struggling with understeer in mid-corner, so we need more rotation in the car. If we can fix the mid-corner understeer, we’re going to have a fast car tomorrow. We’ll keep working on it, and hopefully we’ll have a great weekend.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “We learned a lot today. We tried to come test here a few weeks ago, but unfortunately Mother Nature had a different plan, so we didn’t get a lot of running in. We came into this weekend with a bit of an evolution from what we tested, still were a little bit off, and over lunch, the Arrow Electronics guys made a couple of great changes. It doesn’t look great on the time sheets because our fast lap was when that red flag came out, so they took it away from us. I think we’re decently inside the top 10, which is a big jump from this morning.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “We lost water pressure somewhere in the Lucas Oil car, so we’re playing it safe. No water pressure means no water circulation to the engine, then it overheats and blows up. We’re taking the precautions to keep the engine alive, but unfortunately, we stopped after a couple of laps. It’s an hour free practice and we only did two competitive laps, so we’re just watching everyone else improve their cars and we aren’t able to right now. It’s pretty disappointing.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “We’re in the ballpark at the front, which is a good start for the No. 9 PNC Bank team. The Penske cars are up front and I think that’s a result of them doing some additional testing here. We kind of expected that to start. We did a qualifying run and the car was just too loose for some reason. And then we were fighting understeer this morning, so we’ve seen both sides of it. Now it’s up to us to get it right for qualifying tomorrow.”

ED JONES (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “It was a difficult end to the day for us. I think after starting well this morning, we struggled in the afternoon. It could have been the heat that affected us, I’m not really sure. Tonight, we’ll have to look at the data and what we learned from the NTT DATA car, talk to Scott (Dixon) and look toward tomorrow. I’m optimistic because we have a good base setup and we just need a little bit more work to get it right.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I think once again the temperature of the track really makes it tough in these cars. It was very nice this morning and was easy to get lap times. And then all of a sudden this afternoon, even on reds (Firestone alternate tires), it’s very difficult to get the car right. We’re going to have to go back and have a good think about it.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “It’s a difficult day. We’re struggling a lot. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda): “Today was OK. I didn’t think that we were great there in the second practice, but if you’re off a little bit, it can make a five-, six-, seven-spot difference. It’s going to be really tight (on the time sheets) there tomorrow, so we’ve got to work on it and get it a little better.” (About whether qualifying performance is even more important if rain falls during the race:) “Qualifying will be important, but I think if it’s rainy, I think you will be able to make moves and you will see a lot of guys make mistakes.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team SealMaster Honda): “I am not quite sure what to think about the whole day. We are not super happy with the car, but in the meantime, it is decently fast. We made some gains and at least the car is doing one thing, so that’s the good thing. The SealMaster Honda No. 18 is in the ballpark. It seems like all we are doing right now is preparing for qualifying because it is definitely going to rain on Sunday. We are going to have to think very hard on what we are going to do in those conditions. We just have to keep working and see what we get tomorrow.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “We didn’t have a great morning aboard the No. 19 Paysafe car as we struggled a bit with the balance, but the second practice session was a lot better. We ended up P12, but had the potential for a lot more. When we went out on the Firestone red (alternate) tires near the end of the session, a red flag came out and that didn’t help us. I think we definitely could have been in the top 10, maybe even the top five. Overall, it’s encouraging heading into practice and qualifying tomorrow.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “This morning was really good and we made some good progress. For this afternoon’s session, we changed a couple of things to see if they helped. We’re keeping the tradition, though, of not getting a lap time on reds (Firestone alternate tires), between traffic and red flags and yellows. We are farther down than I think we should be. We should be quite a bit quicker, probably seven or eight tenths faster than what we were. We’re not a million miles away. We just need a few more small improvements to get me a bit more comfortable with the car.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “That was a really good session. It’s nice to end up at the front here at Barber. It’s one of my favorite tracks, I really enjoy it. The session was good right from the get-go on black (Firestone primary) tires. We were quite fast, then when we put the reds (Firestone alternate tires) on, the car just gained more grip. Sometimes when you put them on, it can really change the balance, but this time it felt really good. We were able to get a little more out of the car in pretty much every corner. I’m very happy with the Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevy so far, hopefully we can keep it up there.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “The car is really fast. It was a really good session to start. But unfortunately, we had a bit of a spin on the reds (Firestone alternate tires) trying a little too hard, I guess. That’s what you have to do before qualifying. You have to find the limits, but I’m very happy with the Menards car. I think we’ll be in great shape tomorrow.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Group One Thousand One Honda): “So far, it’s just been really nice to have experience at this track, which makes it a little easier coming in. We’ve been trying a lot of things today and I think we were a little stronger in the morning than this afternoon. We have a bit to go back and look at, but compared to where I was here last year, it’s night and day difference. I’m just happy to have the opportunity that we do, and we’re going to keep pushing forward.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 Kerauno / MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda, Verizon IndyCar Series points leader): “This morning was definitely a struggle for all of us. I think the No. 27 car was the most outside of the window, but we made a lot of improvements over lunch. We have something to be positive about going into this evening and looking forward to tomorrow. I think we need to take one or two steps in a similar direction, but if we can do that, I think the Kerauno car will be good enough for the Firestone Fast Six.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “I think we made steady progress through the day. We started out with the rear of the car way too exposed, too loose through most corners. We needed to bring it more into the window, which I think we did in the final session, considering we didn’t get a full run on new red tires due to a red flag. I think the DHL car has some good pace in it, so hopefully we can make the next step tomorrow.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “The second session was better. I think we made some good progress from the first one. The first session was a little bit of finding the right direction to go in and it seems we found one. Still, we have a little work to be done Saturday. Having said that, there was quite a few yellows and red flags that interrupted the session. I know everyone is in the same boat, but our best lap was like a rerun and we were never able to do a long run, so it’s a little gray on how we will be for Sunday (in the race). We lost some downforce compared to last year and the tires have quite a good drop-off, or degradation, so after you use them the first or second timed lap, the tires are losing a lot of grip. It’s not a huge amount, we’re talking about a small amount, but it’s enough to make a difference. We are trying a different kind of philosophy in terms of the mechanical setup, trying to match the balance and grip level of where we were last year, so that’s why everyone is trying different things. Some people struggle, some people find a happy place.”

RENE BINDER (No. 32 Binderholz tiptop timber Chevrolet): “I think that the practice went well in the beginning. We did find some improvement, so it went better and better. Then we put the red tires on and I tried to push hard and maybe a little too much. I then lost the car, it went straight into the wall. It was a little bit too late with my hands, taking them off the steering wheel, so my left hand hurts a little bit.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Tough day for us today. We had a mechanical issue towards the end of Practice 2, so it cut our time on track short. I know the Harding Racing guys are working hard to make sure everything will be good to go tomorrow for Practice 3 and qualifying. We’ll keep at it tonight to be ready to push tomorrow.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 Kerauno / Curb Honda): “The Kerauno car was decent today, and coming out of Friday in the top 10 is a good place to start the weekend. We have a few things we want to work on overnight that I think will help the car be even better, and that’s what we’re going to focus on. Hoping to make it into the Firestone Fast Six tomorrow and challenge for the pole.”