Racing driver, talent scout, and Porsche Motorsport coach Sascha Maassen had been traveling for six weeks straight when I reached him via Skype. He was speaking from the Red Bull Ring in Austria, fresh off a flight from Japan where he had been at Fuji Speedway attending Round 3 of the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia. In Austria, he was waiting for three of his students to arrive. It’s a week before the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where Porsche will be defending champions, but Maassen won’t be there: He’s earned a break.
Besides, Maassen has been there before. Of the nine times he’s raced Le Mans with Porsche, he placed second in his class three times, and won twice: in 2003, with teammates Emmanuel Collard and Lucas Luhr, and a year later, with Patrick Long and Jörg Bergmeister. Stateside, he won his class at the American Le Mans series four times, including three GT-class victories at the grueling 12 Hours of Sebring, across scarred airfield pavement. In 2002, right in the midst of that winning streak, he and Luhr won seven out of the 10 races. Finally, in 2012, at 43, Maassen paused factory driving to begin a career as a talent scout.
Maassen specializes in training drivers for the Carrera Cup in Germany and the Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup, which supports all European F1 races. Both are one-make race series in brand-new Porsche 911 GT3 Cup race cars, all identical with 485 horsepower, sequential gearboxes, and built on the same assembly line as any other 911. Since 1998, according to Porsche, more than 2,600 Cup cars have been built. These cars are the vehicles by which young drivers get the chance to become pros. So Maassen travels from track to track, around the world, meets new faces, watches them drive, and maybe, just maybe, invites them to join the family.
“I’m covering those races where the young talents get to try Porsche for the full time,” he said, “and of course where they can learn the most. Once they go up the ladder, they will be more on their own.”
Most of these drivers are between 18 and 25, and will have developed their skills in karting at a young age. Some of them might have experience in a Formula series, or a lower-class GT or Touring Car series. And at some youthfully exuberant point in their life, maybe after a hard-fought victory or during a driver’s meeting, the scales will tip from expensive hobby to genuine skill, and a question will cross their mind: Could I do this for a living?
For the ones who answer yes, Porsche has a straightforward (albeit difficult) route to becoming a racing pro. The Porsche Junior program, launched in 1999, is where Maassen recruits. Anyone with racing experience between the ages of 18 to 25 is eligible.
“Everybody in the world who thinks they would be the perfect thing can apply,” Maassen told me. “But also we go around and look for talents. We go actively and search and motivate the right people for us.” That would explain the travel schedule — Maassen is currently coaching three Junior drivers (who hail from Australia, Norway, and Austria), while also supporting two drivers in Asia and keeping an eye on six more.
For at least a year, selectees take part in intense fitness regimens, heart-rate monitoring, stress management, classroom workshops on topics like vehicle dynamics and suspension setup, customer meet-and-greets, and media training.
Then, they actually have to drive the cars. Maassen coaches them through every step. If you set the fastest time, you get 150,000 Euros, up to three years of training, and support in the Carrera Cup Germany. And if you’re fast there, you get entry into the Mobil 1 Supercup, an FIA-supported series that tags along with Formula One across Europe and around the world (this year, it’s Mexico).
Even with Porsche’s support, it can take a driver up to three years to hone their skills and comfort level. And then, a reevaluation: Will you get better from here, will you feel comfortable in a GT or even Le Mans Prototype car, or is this the finish line? Maassen says it depends. “We had one driver who is driving the LMP1 car in Le Mans, he was already at 95% and we didn’t have to teach him a lot; it was more discussing with him, exchanging thoughts. He was just very, very mature and professional already. There are other drivers we see after three years of coaching that we have to decide if it makes sense or not.”
And sometimes the coaching process is quicker. Another driver with just two years of experience, “had such natural talent that we chose him, and now he’s a paid driver in the Porsche family,” said Maassen. “His performance shows that he has a very high potential to be very good.” That driver, Matteo Cairoli from Italy, joined the Porsche Junior program in 2015 at the age of 18, when he won the Carrera Cup Italia. Next week, he’ll be driving at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The potential Maassen searches for is both innate and teachable. “We’re looking for the whole package. They have to have everything. But, everything can be learned: If you don’t speak English, we can teach that. If they’re not fit enough, we can train them. But if they don’t have natural speed, it’s very difficult to get them to be fast. Also, their mindset has to be correct from the beginning.” Meaning what, exactly? “You have to be really willing to win, wanting to sacrifice everything else for this matter,” he said.
The proof is in the pudding for Maassen’s work: Four of his students, including Cairoli, competed at Le Mans this year. Last year, his three students in the Porsche Supercup placed first, second, and third in the championship: a “very, very satisfying experience,” Maassen said.
There are surely thousands, if not millions, around the world with similar dreamy aspirations: Drivers who grew up following Formula One, staying up to watch Sebring or Le Mans, maybe even advancing in shifter karts. For these potential racers, Maassen advises them to seek out as much expertise as they can — find trustworthy professionals, and listen to them.
He also warns against making “beginner’s mistakes” which can lead to losing interest: One such mistake is starting too early in higher and faster classes, instead of becoming successful in entry-level classes before making the step up. It’s a thin line between striving for the next victory and giving it all up and going back to the office — the self-doubt is always looming.
And even though Maassen has hung up his own helmet, he’s now in a position to live vicariously. “In the end, I’m still a racer,” he said. “Instead of trying to win races by myself I’m competing through my students.”
Blake Z. Rong is a writer, journalist, and photographer who’s wasted much of his life so far writing about cars and motorcycles. He has contributed to Jalopnik, Road & Track, and Autoweek, among other fine publication. He lives in Austin, Texas.