When GT specialist Nicky Catsburg got the chance to drive for Lada in the World Touring Car Championship back in 2015, he received plenty of advice not to do it. The naysayers reckoned racing a front-wheel-drive tin-top would take the edge off his sportscar exploits.
Six years on, with victories in the Spa and Nürburgring 24-hour sports car classics to his name and a smattering of wins in the WTCC, he reckons it only made him a better driver. Becoming an all-rounder has paid dividends for the Dutchman.
“People like to make out that switching from rear-wheel-drive to front-wheel-drive and back is more difficult than it is,” says 33-year-old Catsburg, a factory BMW driver since 2016 and now part of the Corvette Racing set-up with which he will make his third start at the Le Mans 24 Hours in August.
“What has been beneficial for me is that I learned tons doing something different. You get to work with different teams and drivers in a new environment. I worked with people like Gabriele Tarquini and Yvan Muller, and those guys have such a deep technical understanding that you can’t help but learn.
“There’s a lot more set-up worked involved in touring cars, partly because with front-wheel-drive a qualifying set-up is very different to what you need for the race. There was never a time when I didn’t make a change between sessions, which is not always the case in GT racing.”
Catsburg learnt valuable lessons about looking after his tyres during his time in the WTCC with the factory Lada Sport and Polestar Volvo squads, and subsequently with the BRC and Engstler Hyundai teams after the series adopted TCR regulations and morphed into the World Touring Car Cup.
“Racing a car that drives and steers through the same axle magnifies the importance of how you look after the front tyres,” he explains. “I’m definitely better at preserving my tyres these days.”
Catsburg was best described as a GT3 specialist when he got picked up by Lada for the WTCC, but since 2018 he’s also had outings in GTE machinery, first with BMW during a full World Endurance Championship campaign through the 2018/19 ‘superseason’ and, since last year, Chevrolet. That has also proved beneficial.
“The braking is the big difference when you jump between GT3 and GTE,” he explains. “I really believe that if you only drive GT3, you somehow lose a little bit of your braking skills.
“You have anti-lock brakes [in GT3], but I believe that the best way of braking is just to stay outside the ABS. Racing a GTE car, especially at somewhere like Sebring where it’s all about not locking up on the bumps, helps you stop relying too much on the ABS when you get back into a GT3.”
Catsburg has even swapped back and forth from a front-drive tin-top to a rear-drive GT3 car over the course of the same meeting, on the daunting Nürburgring-Nordschleife no less. He contested the touring car event run in support of the Nürburgring 24 Hours on three occasions, while also taking part in the German enduro.
“I saw it more of a plus than a minus,” he explains. “I got more track time, which is always important at the Nordschleife and I got more laps out on circuit to judge the conditions. That’s also crucial at that place.”
It’s worth pointing out that Catsburg won the main race at the ‘Ring in 2017 in his Polestar Volvo and finished second in the 24 Hours driving for the Rowe Racing BMW squad.
Catsburg reckons that the world’s major manufacturers are now beginning to understand the benefits of allowing their contracted drivers some away-days at the wheel of someone else’s machinery.
“You are seeing the manufacturers give their drivers a lot more freedom to do other things,” he explains. “They now understand that they are going to come back as better drivers when they jump into their car again.”