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.
EXTREME SPEED FOR REAL – The Ferrari F458 Italia is considered by some in the paddock to be the top all-around car in GT, but it hasn't been fully maximized by Extreme Speed Motorsports this season. That was far from the case this week, where whenever you had a glance at the timing screens, there was a good chance the No. 01 and/or No. 02 were in the same positions – just without the “0” in front.
Adding Toni Vilander to the No. 01 alongside regulars Johannes van Overbeek and Scott Sharp was a major coup. Vilander, a Ferrari veteran who's done most of his racing worldwide outside of America this year, since Risi Competizione's demise in January, was back in his natural habitat and firmly entrenched at the top of the grid.
Vilander inherited pole after Guy Cosmo's disqualification in the second car and Sharp, who started the race, did well to lead the pack from the outset as the chargers from Corvette, BMW, Porsche and Viper were well within striking distance. It was a vital stint because there wasn't any time lost, and there was no need for recovery or repairs. Sharp expanded on his time up front.
“It was good to be able to lead a bit,” he said. “Toward the end of my run, (Oliver) Gavin got underneath me, I was just trying to hang on, it was getting looser and looser. We put some stickers on for Johannes and he was flying right away. It wasn't as much of an issue after that, or as bad as I thought it was going to be.”
At the end of the race, Vilander entered a near identical situation as two years ago at Petit. In 2010, with Risi in its last race with the older F430 GT, he pitted with a handful of minutes to go for a splash of fuel – returning in the lead, but then running out of fuel on the final lap in a move that not only cost them the race win, but the team and manufacturer their respective titles.
Fast forward to this year and Vilander was leading again, late, in a Ferrari, with the same Jan Magnussen co-driven Corvette running second (Magnussen's car, with Oliver Gavin, inherited the 2010 win), this time with Antonio Garcia driving. A win was not only the goal for redemption purposes, but it was also the difference for second in the GT class championship for Sharp and JVO, and determined whether Magnussen would go a whole season without a win. Vilander almost broke down personally as the car made it home on fumes to take the team's first on-track win and second this year.
“2010 was on my mind when we ran out of fuel in 10a,” he said. “My engineer Lee was on the radio most of my last stint. We were out with the fuel mileage, I did everything I could to save fuel, we were so relieved when I went by 10a and knew I had enough fuel. There was a lot of emotion. I've been traveling a lot this year, being away from the family. These are the moments we do it and we do this racing stuff.”
Cosmo, in the sister No. 02, continued his season of frustration and poor luck with co-drivers Ed Brown and Anthony Lazzaro. Not only did he lose the pole, but contact with an AF Corse GTE Am 2011-spec 458 meant Cosmo wound up in the middle of a Twitter spat with two of its drivers, Matt Griffin and Marco Cioci. The drivers agreed to disagree…
VIPER'S IMPROVEMENT – The changes going into Petit were fairly sizeable at SRT Motorsports. Both cars had been torn down, rebuilt and updated after their last run at Baltimore, and, for their fourth race, earned their first Balance of Performance adjustment from IMSA. A taller rear wing (75mm increase) and 20kg weight reduction made for a lighter car with increased downforce – coupled with other aero adjustments, the new Viper GTS-R was a player for the first time.
Marc Goossens qualified the No. 93 Viper sixth in class, within a half second of the pole for the first time, and that improved to a fifth-place starting position and four tenths after Extreme Speed's pole-sitting No. 02 Ferrari F458 Italia was disqualified for a ride height infringement.
In the race, the No. 91 led early with usual co-drivers Dominik Farnbacher and Kuno Wittmer, joined this week by IndyCar's Ryan Hunter-Reay. That car finished a respectable eighth, while the No. 93 fought through shifting issues and retired late in the race, not providing the result Goossens, Tommy Kendall or Jonathan Bomarito had hoped for. In any event, there was a good chance this race marked the first sign of a return to prominence for the Riley-built “Snakes” in the full season of 2013.
TWO OTHERS OF NOTE – Two Americans I really wanted to keep an eye on this week were Sean Johnston, the IMSA GT3 Challenge Platinum Cup champion in his ALMS debut for JDX Racing, and Jonathan Summerton, the former Formula Atlantic star who had a double run in the two BMW Team RLL M3s.
Johnston, who's gone from sim racing to GT3 in 18 months, led his first stint in the car during the race before a left-rear tire blowout on the backstraight. He did an incredible job to hang onto it and bring it back to the pits in one piece. He recapped the event and the experience, not only in ALMS but also in two GT3 races.
“The first stint was phenomenal; the second ran the gamut of different scenarios,” he explained. “I had had small contact with a PC car in Turn 3, and that cut the right front. The guys got me back out but later I had the throttle stick open in Turn 12! The car skated off but I was able to keep it off the wall. We broke the front splitter and lost a lap. I returned in a full-course yellow, and only a few laps later was when the left rear went down. It was a lot more excitement than I was looking for!”
Meanwhile, Summerton's cars finished third and fourth in GT but it never seemed the BMWs had the same pace as the leading Ferraris and Corvettes. Still, having the opportunity to race both was an incredible experience for the 24-year-old Floridian.
“I was honored to have the opportunity,” he said. “And throughout, the lineup changed on the fly! Basically, I rolled from one car into the other. I was between both cars, and I was about to get thrown from the 55 to the 56, but I couldn't because I was close to exceeding the four in six hours max drive time.”