The opening round of the 15th and final season of the American Le Mans Series has produced plenty of storylines, on and off the track. Here's a recap, prior to Friday's qualifying:
CONTINENTAL PC TIRE IMPRESSES — With a late switch to Continental and lack of preseason testing with the new control tire, there was undoubtedly some uncertainty among Prototype Challenge team owners and drivers ahead of Saturday's season-opening Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. But most of those concerns were put to rest earlier this week, following encouraging initial reviews of the spec tire.
PC teams were given their first taste of the tire during Monday and Tuesday's track activity, with all seven of the ORECA FLM09 entries taking advantage of the Continental-sponsored test to learn the characteristics of the DP-I compound, most recently used on the Daytona Prototypes at Circuit of The Americas earlier this month.
"I think there was a lot of skepticism from a lot of people... but [the tire] is actually doing a really good job,” said PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports team owner Bobby Oergel. “There's more to be learned from our part and I think on Continental's end, I think they are very helpful. I guess I'll reserve the right to wait until after a 12-hour race to really say what we're up against here, but so far, so good."
The PR1/Mathiasen entry racked up more than 550 miles of testing on Monday alone, including an impressive 300-mile stint on a single set of tires. While teams have made setup adjustments, primarily with revised camber settings, the wear of the Conti tire has been comparable to the previous Michelin compounds, which had been used since the category's inception in 2010.
"It slides around a little differently than the Michelin did but you can still tell it's the fun PC car that it's always been,” CORE autosport driver Colin Braun explained. “We haven't had to throw everything up in the air and make a 180-degree change. We definitely have some things to still work on and figure out, but that's why we have a couple more days before the race to keep working on it."
Pace-wise, the Contis have been as fast, if not marginally quicker than its predecessor. And a quick poll from PC teams in the paddock indicate there may even be a slight chance to triple-stint the tires during the race, a feat unheard of on the heavier and more powerful DP car.
HPD P2 ENGINE ISSUES SOLVED — The week didn't start off on a good note for the HPD contingent in P2, with mapping issues on the new-for-2013 direct-injected V6 twin-turbo resulting in multiple engine failures for defending class champions Level 5 Motorsports, joined this weekend by prototype debutants, Extreme Speed Motorsports, also with ARX-03b machinery.
With a switch to the IndyCar-spec McLaren ECU, HPD engineers were forced to rewrite the mapping from scratch, which caused a glitch for the engine to accidentally over-rev, according to Level 5 chief engineer Jeff Braun.
To help solve the issue, Marino Franchitti was turned into a test pilot Tuesday morning, as the Scot tried out new map settings in his P2 contender.
"After we had our problems on Saturday, they wanted to make sure that they had it fixed,” Braun explained. “They didn't want four cars out there with a problem and lose four engines, so we tried it with one car and we slowly crept up on it until they could verify it."
Thanks to the diligent efforts of HPD, which also utilized a Sebring simulation on its dyno back at its California base to optimize the mapping, all four cars were back on track by Wednesday, with no apparent ECU-related issues since.
“We were full power, full usage with no problems at all,” Braun said. “We're now starting to implement some traction control strategies and things like that to bring the system up to where we were last year. Now we're going to start to see the benefits of the DI engine."
And after setting the pace in all three practice sessions Thursday, the HPD entries, particularly from Level 5, are favorites for the pole.
MUSCLE MILK REVERTS TO HPD ARX-03A — After clocking hundreds of miles in private testing with its new upgraded HPD, Muscle Milk Pickett Racing has elected to go back to the ARX-03a specification front tires and suspension for Saturday's season opener. The new ARX-03c evolution from Wirth Research features full-sized front tires, an element the defending P1 champions did not want to risk this early in its development.
"I think there were a lot of factors for the switch,” explained team manager Brandon Fry. “We already have a lot of experience with [the ARX-03a] package. I wouldn't say that the new package isn't any less reliable. But this is what we have the most time with. The drivers are more comfortable with the car in this configuration. We're more comfortable with where we're at it, in terms of setup and reliability.”
Drivers Klaus Graf and Lucas Luhr began the week with the 03c package, prior to the conversion on Tuesday, which required swapping out the front suspension and bodywork that accommodated the wider Michelin tires. A few off-season developments, such as a brushless power steering system, have remained, resulting in the car competing in a so-called “hybrid” form this weekend.
"We've qualified as the fastest gasoline car the last two years and one of those years we took away no points and last year we didn't finish the race,” Fry said. “So our number one priority is to finish the race, even if that means giving up a little bit of performance. We came prepared to do what we did. Now the big thing for us is just making sure we get everything sorted for spares.”
The change saw an initial slight drop-off in pace, but a 1:46.648 lap time set by Luhr Thursday morning put the Muscle Milk entry go quicker than earlier this week prior to the switch. Fry said a decision has not yet been made if the car will go back to full 03c specification later this year.
DELTAWING UPDATE — It's been a challenging week for the much-publicized DeltaWing, which makes its Sebring debut, but with a revised package and new team since its fifth-place overall finish at Petit Le Mans last year. The now Elan-powered, Bridgestone-shod P1 car, running under the command of Don Panoz, has battled teething issues with the Mazda-based turbo since its initial rollout last week at Road Atlanta.
While arriving this week with less than 150 miles under its belt, the revised DeltaWing has since completed nearly 100 laps in the testing and practice sessions combined at Sebring. And with a brand-new team, comprised mainly of ex-Krohn, Dempsey and Robertson Racing crew, assembled within the last six weeks, it's been an uphill battle just to make it to the track.
"We didn't have a race team. We didn't have race equipment. We didn't have anything. But we're here and not looking too bad,” said team manager Dave Price. "I think we need to try and finish and not to embarrass ourselves. We need to be consistent and fast enough.
"We're not racing against anybody, only ourselves. The objective is to prove the point of it working, and the engine working as well.”
A RACE WITHOUT BERGMEISTER, LONG — With Porsche discontinuing its factory 997 development program for 2013, it's resulted in Jorg Bergmeister and Patrick Long, two of the most successful drivers in series history, missing their first ALMS round in years. In fact, you have to go back to the 2001 Petit Le Mans as the last race neither had taken part in.
Five-time ALMS champ Bergmeister, who is currently tied for second in all-time series starts, has shifted focus to the FIA World Endurance Championship this year as part of the new Porsche 991 GTE factory program. Long, meanwhile, plans to rejoin the ALMS as early as the third round of the season at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca with CORE autosport's GT class Porsche entry.
"I'm excited to see Sebring from a different perspective,” said Long, who is here in support of CORE autosport. “I don't know if I'll ever get a chance to see it from this side again. It is a little tough when people come up and ask me what I'm driving this weekend. I'm like, 'We're not racing this weekend but we'll be racing soon.' Now that I have CORE colors on, there are fewer questions."
NOTES FROM THE PADDOCK:
* After suffering an accident in opening practice on Thursday, the No. 2 Audi R18 e-tron quattro of Allan McNish returned to the track later that afternoon and ended the night session on the top of the time charts.
* Andy Meyrick became the first person to drive both the Aston Martin AMR-One and DeltaWing, which utilizes the monocoque of the troubled British LMP1 car from 2011.
* FIA WEC championship-winning team owner Peter Baron of Starworks Motorsport has been recruited to help call race strategy for SRT Motorsports this weekend. Baron and Ryan Dalziel, one of SRT's latest driver additions, won Sebring in P2 last year.
* Audi's Tom Kristensen, who is seeking his record seventh overall Sebring victory this weekend, arrived late Wednesday following the passing of his father, Carl-Erik, a former Danish Rallycross champion, last weekend.
* With the arrival of Continental in PC and the addition of Bridgestone, which now supplies rubber for the DeltaWing, there are six different tire suppliers this weekend, Michelin, Yokohama, Falken and Dunlop being the others.
*Speaking of tires, Bridgestone has made available 25 hard compound sets, 15 soft compound sets and 6 sets of rain tires for the DeltaWing to choose from.
* Heading to Sebring or planning to watch it on TV? Be sure to download and print Andy Blackmore's Spotter's Guide to keep up with the new cars, teams and liveries for 2013: http://www.spotterguides.com/2013-alms/