At the penultimate round of the 2011 American Le Mans Series season, both of the marquee class title chases ended. Dyson Racing and BMW Team RLL confirmed championships they led from the opening round of the campaign, if not in the style they might have liked.
Dyson Racing's P1 title was unofficially confirmed when Muscle Milk Aston Martin Racing went behind the wall after three and a half hours to replace a fuel pump. Though the team resumed on track, it was too far back to make up any ground on their Dyson rivals — thus leaving Chris Dyson (ABOVE) and Guy Smith in a position where they didn't need to win the race to secure the class championship. Dyson and Smith entered with a 24-point lead over Muscle Milk's Klaus Graf.
The race itself looked set to go Dyson's way with their two Lola Mazda coupes and the Mazda MZR-R engine holding up well on its home track at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, but Stefan Mucke in the factory Aston Martin Racing passed Dyson's third driver Jay Cochran with 50 minutes remaining. Knowing the title was in hand and the factory AMR entry wouldn't score points anyway, there was no need for Cochran to defend vigorously with Dyson still on pace to secure full points.
There was one final bit of drama, because Cochran's fraught last stint also included a puncture and spin at the Corkscrew. That dropped him to third behind the team's sister car driven by Steven Kane, Humaid al Masaood and Butch Leitzinger. That car, with Kane behind the wheel in its final stint, made several unscheduled pit stops to shift the positions.
“The goal coming into this weekend was to put the championship to bed,” Chris Dyson said. “We did what we had to do to accomplish that. I'm grateful for Humaid and the Oryx guys for cooperating and making that happen.”
Overall, Mucke's win was a needed breath of fresh air for the factory AMR squad in what has been an undoubtedly challenging 2011 season. Having temporarily abandoned their AMR-ONE open-top prototype program after niggling engine issues and a double retirement with the car's debut at Le Mans, the team reverted back to their original Lola Aston Martin coupe for the balance of the season.
“The car was really good when I went in for the last 1.5 stints,” Mucke said. “I was surprised the temperature helped us a little bit. It was the key thing. The car started to suddenly work. We had an advantage passing other cars, not getting a lot of pickup. But the temperature and conditions really suited the car and made it really fast.”
To boot, the win is co-driver Adrian Fernandez's first overall victory in ALMS — the popular Mexican won eight races in the P2 class in 2009 en route to a championship with his own Fernandez Racing squad. Mucke, Fernandez and Harold Primat wheeled the No. 007 to the overall win Saturday afternoon.
The two Aston Martins actually got into a tiff in the second hour, when Lucas Luhr in the Muscle Milk AMR was assessed a stop-and-hold penalty for avoidable contact with Mucke at the Corkscrew. Muscle Milk argued their case to no avail.
“We struggled a little with our tires and I lost some places in the traffic,” Mucke explained. “Lucas made quite a move and turned me around. Luckily we didn't get in the gravel. Then we got in another skirmish but each time we didn't have any troubles and were able to just keep pushing all through the race. It was a good fighting for sure.”
But within the hour, Luhr had regained the lap he lost, and a fortuitously timed caution flag provided the car with a wave-around to gain the minute he lost on the penalty.
The Kane/al Masaood/Leitzinger entry wound up third ahead of the ailing Muscle Milk entry and the retired Autocon car. Untroubled until the final round of stops, Leitzinger pulled off one of the race's most stellar maneuvers with a three-wide pass on the outside of Turn 10, leaving Mucke on the inside line and Damien Faulkner's Green Hornet/Black Swan car left wondering where that move came from.
“Even I didn't think it would stick,” Leitzinger admitted post-race.
Another car turning in a trouble-free drive was Level 5 Motorsports' new HPD ARX-01g. The Scott Tucker/Christophe Bouchut/Luis Diaz-driven cost-capped P2 car ran the full distance to fourth place overall after only a brief shakedown at Infineon Raceway to gain any prior mileage.
Genoa Racing's Elton Julian and Eric Lux put in a stellar effort of their own to capture the LMP Challenge class win. Their third driver Michael Guasch twisted his ankle hopping over the pit wall getting into the car, and returned to the pits after one lap too uncomfortable to continue.
Julian and title archrival Gunnar Jeannette engaged in a titanic scrap for the lead, with the battle particularly important as Lux entered the race just one point behind Jeannette and Ricardo Gonzalez for the class title.
While Jeannette had passed Julian at one stage, Julian got him back with 35 minutes remaining and that was enough to confirm the victory after the final round of pit stops. Lux leaves Monterey with an unofficial three-point lead over Jeannette and Gonzalez, who still finished second with Rudy Junco as third driver.
In GT, both Dunlop-shod BMWs were locked in fierce competition with three Michelin entries, Flying Lizard's No. 45 Porsche, Corvette's No. 4 C6.R and Risi's No. 62 Ferrari for most of the race. In fact the tail end of the race looked like a carbon copy of last year with Patrick Long in the Lizard Porsche doing everything humanly possible to fend off Joey Hand in the RLL BMW, before Hand made it through at Turn 3 when trailing Oliver Gavin in the Corvette. That was the net lead as both Gavin and Toni Vilander in the Risi Ferrari were due for pit stops.
Vilander was able to leapfrog the BMW pair of Hand in the No. 56 and Bill Auberlen in the sister No. 55 by making his last stop earliest. The win went begging once teammate Jaime Melo took over.
At the end of the race, Melo led Long before it all went south for Risi. Between a block on the front straight, contact with the No. 56 BMW and running out of fuel — as they did at the 2010 Petit Le Mans — Risi's race ended absolutely miserably. Adding insult to injury, the team received a 90-second penalty post-race for avoidable contact, and fell from third to sixth.
Long and Bergmeister, who didn't take the race on outright pace, scored their elusive first win of 2011. It's the pair's third straight at Mazda Raceway.
“I didn't believe in luck in racing until this year,” Long said. “Now I know we make a our own luck. Laguna is usually good to us, and so is Petit, so we're going to start coming out swinging and be ready for next year.
While Long appreciated his battle with Hand in the middle stint, he wasn't as complimentary about his time racing the Ferrari.
“The strategy was just to protect the car and not get into the barnburning racing that the GT class has progressed to,” Long said. “We tried to stay out of it, and hope the officials would tone it down. I'm pretty upset with how it went at the end. I'm hoping we can get back to racing at Road Atlanta.
“The middle stint fighting Joey for two stints and Bill for the other was really fun and difficult. I think Joey raced me really clean and fair and fun. We were hoping to get that with the 62. Joey was racing for a championship so knew what to do.”
Hand, for his role, admitted a fair fight and nothing that would compromise his and Dirk Mueller's championship charge.
“We would have been second anyway because Dirk got Jaime at the line,” Hand said. “I was getting an aero push fighting Patrick there. Plus I didn't want to make any mistakes for any of the championships.”
Almost forgotten with a quiet, consistent and outright successful second appearance on U.S. soil was Porsche's 911 GT3 R Hybrid, which actually finished ahead of all the other GT competitors. Romain Dumas and Richard Lietz completed the race on just four pit stops and set the fastest GT lap of 1:23.681, ahead of Hand's BMW. The flywheel-based entry came home 10th overall, running unclassified, one spot ahead of the Long/Bergmeister car.
TRG's Spencer Pumpelly, Duncan Ende and Peter Ludwig kept their GTC class championship chances alive with their third class win of the season. Pumpelly and Ende closed four points on Tim Pappas of Black Swan Racing. Pappas finished second with the Dutch brothers, Jeroen and Sebastiaan Bleekemolen.
With the P1 and GT class titles decided, the penultimate round of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup takes center stage at the last ALMS race of 2011, Petit Le Mans in two weeks' time.
Results - 248 laps:
Pos Cl Drivers Team/Car Time/Gap
1. P1 Fernandez/Primat/Mucke AMR Lola-Aston 6h01m02.936s
2. P1 Dyson/Smith/Cochran Dyson Lola-Mazda + 3 laps
3. P1 Al Masaood/Kane/Leitzinger Dyson Lola-Mazda + 3 laps
4. P2 Tucker/Bouchut/Diaz Level 5 HPD + 7 laps
5. PC Lux/Julian/Guasch Genoa FLM + 7 laps
6. PC Jeannette/Gonzalez/Junco CORE Autosport FLM + 7 laps
7. PC Ducote/Ducote/Marcelli Intersport FLM + 9 laps
8. PC Bennett/Montecalvo/Wallace CORE Autosport FLM + 9 laps
9. PC Moro/Drissi/Vera Intersport FLM + 11 laps
10. UNC Dumas/Lietz Porsche Hybrid + 12 laps
11. GT Bergmeister/Long Flying Lizard Porsche + 12 laps
12. GT Muller/Hand RLL BMW + 12 laps
13. GT Sharp/van Overbeek Extreme Speed Ferrari + 12 laps
14. GT Auberlen/Werner RLL BMW + 12 laps
15. GT Gavin/Magnussen Corvette + 12 laps
16. GT Melo/Vilander Risi Ferrari + 12 laps
17. PC Nicolosi/Boon/Lueders Performance Tech FLM + 13 laps
18. GT Beretta/Milner Corvette + 13 laps
19. PC Dobson/Richard/Villeneuve PR1 Mathiasen FLM + 16 laps
20. GT Brown/Cosmo Extreme Speed Ferrari + 17 laps
21. GT Neiman/Holzer Flying Lizard Porsche + 18 laps
22. GT Miller/Maassen Miller Porsche + 24 laps
23. GTC Ende/Pumpelly/Ludwig TRG Porsche + 26 laps
24. GTC Pappas/Bleekemolen/Bleekemolen Black Swan Porsche + 26 laps
25. GTC LeSaffre/Faulkner Green Hornet Porsche + 27 laps
26. P1 Burgess/McMurry/Willman Autocon Lola-AER + 28 laps
27. GTC Sweedler/Wong/Lewis Alex Job Porsche + 28 laps
28. GTC Sofronas/Welch GMG Porsche + 28 laps
29. GTC von Moltke/Buckler/di Guida TRG Porsche + 32 laps
30. GTC Ragginger/Kauffmann/Cisneros NGT Porsche + 33 laps
31. GTC Ham/Thompson/Blackett JDX Porsche + 35 laps
32. P1 Luhr/Graf Muscle Milk Lola-Aston + 48 laps
GT Junqueira/Wilden RSR Jaguar 186 laps
GT Henzler/Sellers Falken Porsche 101 laps
GTC Avenatti/Faieta/Wagner Competition Porsche 96 laps
GT Jones/Moran RSR Jaguar 5 laps