There was enough to come out of Petit Le Mans that merited discussion beyond the standard race report. Petit marked both the end of the American Le Mans Series season and beginning of a few other key talking points.
A RACE BIGGER THAN ALMS – A weird thing happened at this year's Petit Le Mans. For the first time in more than a dozen years, Audi wasn't present with its factory prototypes. And French giant Peugeot, too, having cut its program at the start of the year, was also absent from the proceedings. So naturally, you'd think there would be a drop-off in fans, in media coverage and in quality of competition throughout the field.
Far from it. While offering a generally laid-back atmosphere, especially compared to the at-times frantic nature of Daytona, Sebring, Le Mans or Petit in years past, this year's Petit didn't have a lesser stature or a lesser turnout in any way, shape or form. If anything, it seemed to mark the beginning of the future as a major North American endurance race featuring not only the ALMS, but also key officials from Grand-Am and the ACO, representing the FIA World Endurance Championship.
The annual ALMS State of the Series address played to a packed house, with people waiting in the hallways just to hear the first details begin to emerge about the combining of assets for 2014. Then, come race morning, the open pre-grid was completely packed. The mass expanse of fans wasn't limited to those just hoping for a passing glimpse of Patrick Dempsey or to ogle the Nissan DeltaWing (that sounds wrong, but you get the point), but very much active in campsites and in motor homes around the circuit.
From 2014, Road Atlanta's place on the schedule is going to be an interesting one to see. Next year's race will mark the end of it in its current role as the ALMS season finale and, with the track adding Grand-Am to its schedule in April, this opens another option for a date in the combined calendar. Without a direct link to Le Mans, the “Petit” moniker would be less fitting, but considering the optimism that exists at the moment between all key series officials, you'd have to think it stands a good chance of retaining its role as the season closer in October.
REBELLION'S EFFORTS – You don't have to tell Bart Hayden, Rebellion Racing team manager, how big this race was to the team. With literally nothing to gain from a points or logistics perspective, Rebellion made the decision to send its third car and its last set of spares to Atlanta in between rounds of the WEC with the sole purpose of winning. Hayden explained the process in making this all work.
“We have three cars, and while it looked quite hard to send the one while also having two for Japan and China, we made it work,” he said. “We have five sets of spares in total. We only had the one set here, and the knowledge that if anything went wrong we were in a world of hurt. So, the drivers received a stern talking to in advance of the week.
“The parts situation has been quite a challenge, but we persevered. We'll now be able to send some parts to Shanghai, directly from here, nothing critical but external parts like bodywork items.”
The win marked Rebellion's first as an organization, after capturing the privateers' championship in P1 in WEC. While the battle with Muscle Milk Pickett Racing ended after its first-hour accident with the Green Hornet GTC Porsche (see below), Rebellion still had to bring the car home in one piece, which they did.
GREEN HORNET'S STING – When you are involved in two accidents over the week, particularly when they're as high profile as both of Green Hornet's were with the Nissan DeltaWing in practice and later, the Muscle Milk Pickett Racing HPD in the race, you tend to enter the discussion for a lot of the wrong reasons.
Rather than rush to judgment (as I was probably guilty of during the week and during the race at Atlanta), I wanted to give each of these incidents involving Peter LeSaffre and the two cars he contacted a further evaluation before going into more details. Look for a piece in the coming days on RACER.com for more.
DELTAWING DOES ITS THING – The Nissan DeltaWing team's enthusiastic sum-up of its race can be found here, but suffice to say after its rebuild, then its qualifying and race pace, it was arguably the most impressive effort of the week. The ultimate fifth-place finish in the overall classification could have been even higher, had the car been included in wave-arounds under yellow. Kudos to all involved on the project, from designer Ben Bowlby, Nissan (European side, led by Darren Cox) to the Highcroft Racing organization, and of course drivers Gunnar Jeannette and Lucas Ordonez.
ALMS P2 STRENGTHS – Given the increased depth in P2 with four additional European Le Mans Series entries to double the class size for Petit, it was particularly stout by the ALMS quartet to not only hold their own but show their way within the class.
Once the checkered flag flew, three ALMS P2 cars (both Level 5s and Conquest Endurance) swept the podium before Conquest's later disqualification for exceeding the maximum drive time. Level 5 could have had a 1-2 finish in class on merit had it not been for two penalties.
It was unfortunate for the No. 055 car - which had Dario and Marino Franchitti sharing with Tucker. The car received a one-minute stop-and-hold during the race at the four-hour mark for avoidable contact, and later, a more substantial penalty at the seven hour, 45-minute mark when Tucker earned a two-minute, 30-second stop-and-hold penalty for an improper wave-by and passing under yellow. To that latter penalty, Dario Franchitti later tweeted, “Well, the ALMS officiating continues to baffle me….”
Conquest was on course for the class win and a second-place finish overall before it all went awry in the final half-hour for Martin Plowman. He pitted with more than a minute lead for tires after an off-course excursion caused by a puncture right at Turn 10; it got worse almost instantaneously when he was penalized for speeding in the pit lane on that occasion.
Then, the final nail in the coffin came when the car was excluded after series officials determined there was an excess in drive time, which was classified on rule 21.2 of the event's Supplementary Regulations as: “Seven hours total and no more than four in a six-hour period.”
Of the ELMS entries, Greaves hit early problems and never really contended, while Murphy Prototypes also fell afoul of penalties. That left it to Thiriet and OAK to uphold ELMS P2 honors, Thiriet ultimately getting the win. It spoke highly of the ALMS entrants that they didn't cede the honors to their European counterparts, many of whom made the 24 Hours of Le Mans the priority of their season.