Talk about Customer Service! Mercedes Has It with Winward Racing

By John Oreovicz

IMSA Wire Service

Mercedes-AMG is on a four-race win streak in Grand Touring (GT) class competition in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. And Winward Racing has been the star performer for the three-pointed star in that stretch.

Winward’s current heater started at the Battle on the Bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last September in the penultimate round of the 2023 season, when Russell Ward and Philip Ellis took Grand Touring Daytona (GTD) class honors in the No. 57 Mercedes-AMG GT3. Joined by Indy Dontje, Ward and Ellis opened the ’24 GTD campaign with consecutive IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup victories in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Cadillac.

The successful four-race run for the Mercedes-AMG GT3 actually includes five class wins, because the No. 79 WeatherTech Racing Mercedes was the Grand Touring Daytona Pro (GTD PRO) winner at both Indianapolis and the ’23 season-ending Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

“Of course, we are delighted that Winward Racing has made such a successful start into the 2024 season,” said Stefan Wendl, head of Mercedes-AMG Customer Racing. “Over the years, a very good relationship and a very respectful and professional partnership has developed with the team. When we both use the full potential of each organization and cooperate on the best possible way, the more successful we are.

“With the current Mercedes-AMG GT3, we still offer our customer racing teams a great base to be successful at different tracks and under special conditions. We prove this again and again, both in IMSA and in other racing series around the world.”

From Lemons to Petit Le Mans

Co-owned by Ward and his father, Bryce, Winward Racing has always been a family affair.

“We were into cars and anything with an engine, really, from jet skis to four-wheelers to tractors,” related Russell Ward, who recently celebrated his 32nd birthday. “Whatever it was, we were on a daily basis messing with this stuff.

“We always watched IMSA and really loved the endurance racing,” Russell continued. “Just for fun, we put together a car for the 24 Hours of Lemons grassroots series, a Nissan 300ZX with a ‘Back to the Future’ theme we called ‘Back to the Past.’ We did our best to make it as reliable as possible, and that’s where we started doing any form of racing, really. Just really enjoyed that and put our heart and soul into optimizing every component of it.”

Whatever they did worked, because the Wards won six races in the “Back to the Past” ZX. For Russell, the next step was turning pro in 2017 with CJ Wilson Racing in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge, followed by the opportunity to form a team with his father that would be the first to field the GT4 version of the Mercedes-AMG GT in the Michelin Pilot Challenge.

Winward Racing found its feet in the WeatherTech Championship in 2021, running the endurance races at Daytona and Michelin Raceway. It operates a satellite team in Europe that provides the American arm with considerable engineering support.

“It slowly evolved into what it is now, never with the intent,” Ward said. “When we’d watch IMSA on TV, we always thought, ‘Aw, those guys are too good. We’ll never be near them, we’re hobby focused.’ As we got in there, we realized that we may be lacking experience, but we have the same tool set that the rest of these guys have – good reaction times, passion and a little bit of funding behind us to get it done. It’s just our drive to do better and optimize more and go faster and compete with the bigger competition and bigger teams, and five years later, here we are.”

Forgiving Car, Flawless Support

Neither of Winward’s 2024 victories have been simple or straightforward. They lined up 17th on the GTD grid at Daytona and 20th at Sebring (the latter the result of a technical infraction that negated a Motul Pole Award-winning lap from Ellis). But the No. 57 car came out on top both times, controlling the second half of both races.

“I always knew we had the pace, especially in the endurance races,” Ward said. “It’s awesome to feel it all come together. There’s a lot of people involved that work days and nights to get that race car out there and prep it perfectly. Plus, just the hunger of the guys on the engineering stand. We’re taking risks when we need to with strategy and we’re playing it safe when we need to. It’s hats off to those guys because they’ve pretty much performed flawlessly. We just kind of just need to do our jobs as drivers and bring it home in a clean fashion.”

For Wendl, Winward’s success is the product of a customer service philosophy that Mercedes-AMG has worked hard to perfect over the last decade. Introduced in 2016, the Mercedes-AMG GT3 received an Evo upgrade in 2019 and has quietly become one of the strongest cars in the GT classes. In addition to Winward, Korthoff/Preston Motorsports is operating a full-season Mercedes program in GTD this season and Lone Star Racing is competing in the IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup races.

“This makes us very happy and confirms that we have lived up to our claim and have developed an absolutely brilliant vehicle in technical terms,” Wendl stated. “In my opinion, it’s the combination of a 360-degree approach service package, starting with a competitive great car which has its strength in performance potential, drivability, user-friendliness and durability. Add established and well-experienced technical support at each race allocation paired with worldwide spare parts support on demand.

“Another deciding fact is the Winward team itself, which has a fantastic run so far,” he added. “In the past years, they invested a lot in infrastructure and developed their own staff enormously, which finally results in the successes we all saw in last races.”

Winward is in the process of finalizing its move into a new 40,000-square-foot base in Houston later this year.

Putting It All Together

Ellis, 31, of Swiss and English descent, has been a key part of Winward Racing’s growth and success. The Mercedes-AMG factory driver has been associated with Winward since 2020.

Winward’s hot start to 2024 is the culmination of learning and maturity, including on the part of Ellis himself. He admitted that he is approaching the new season with a renewed and reinvigorated approach.

“I think it’s just maturing in racing, gathering more experience; especially in IMSA itself, which is quite different to run compared to other series in Europe,” Ellis related. “I would say we always had the pace to run up front but couldn’t always nail that result for various reasons. We changed the approach a little and it just feels that the team and drivers have matured over the years. We sat down over the winter and looked at what was going wrong and why, and tried to change what we could change.

“I think the main reason they are so successful is they just enjoy being at the racetrack,” he added. “Everyone works to the same goal and they’re all hard workers. Mistakes happen, of course, but they just put down their heads and work toward the next one.”

Opening the season with back-to-back wins has put the Winward drivers in a comfortable position in terms of the GTD standings. But Ward and Ellis are slightly wary heading to the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 20, accepting that the Mercedes-AMG GT3 is at its best on fast, flowing road courses rather than the stop-start Long Beach street course, where a tight hairpin leads into a long straight.

“We all really enjoy Long Beach, but it’s never been the track for the Mercedes,” Ellis acknowledged, although the manufacturer did score a GTD victory there in 2017. “I think it’s the shortest race on the calendar and also one of the most challenging for gaining track position. It’s just such a high-risk track to make a big move because there’s no margin for errors.

“Thankfully, we can go into the event quite relaxed and just see what we have to try to get through the event scrape-free.”

The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach is a 100-minute sprint race that features the GTD and Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) classes. USA Network and Peacock will carry flag-to-flag live coverage from 4:30-6:30 p.m. ET Saturday, April 20.