Although BMW Team RLL enters Long Beach as defending American Le Mans Series race champions, Team Falken Tire rode the hot hand on the two street courses last year and looks to follow its Baltimore win with its first victory at Long Beach.
The difference for the team this time around is its newly updated Porsche 911 GT3 RSR, fresh for all three teams campaigning the car in the 2012 season. The previous-spec 911 won twice on the streets of Long Beach, in back-to-back years with Flying Lizard Motorsports in 2009 and 2010.
The Falken Porsche, though, celebrates its third anniversary of its debut this weekend in its fourth season of competition. Bryan Sellers has been with the program since its inception, first driving with Dominic Cicero and the last three years with Porsche factory pilot Wolf Henzler.
Sellers (RIGHT, with engineer John Ward and team manager Derrick Walker) explained how this newer 911 should be able to handle the streets of Long Beach, which are smoother than normal for a temporary circuit.
“For a street circuit, it's actually not too terribly bumpy,” he said. “It does have an area of significant crowns in the roads, and there are some minor elevation changes. A wider car should help in some areas, like the backside of the crowns, and help provide an overall grip increase. There's also some longer duration stuff at Long Beach; there are several corners where you spend a decent amount of time. There could be a big gain from last year's car overall.
“In terms of car setup, things like the shocks and springs might not carry over as much as trends we learned at Sebring,” he added. “We know where we are after leaving Sebring and what we need to address.”
The team has shown well with a fourth-place finish in class this race last year, after a sixth-place result the year before. Key to success at Long Beach is rolling quick out of the box, where track time is limited to a two-hour practice session Friday morning before qualifying the last session of the day late in the afternoon.
With no grip and high dust levels out of the box, the first 30 or 45 minutes are largely void of useful setup data, and Sellers said the ability to fine-tune, rather than make wholesale changes, is particularly important.
The team has grown by leaps and bounds since its 2009 race debut, having added Derrick Walker as team manager prior to 2011 and winning its first two races last year.
“We've been able to build continuity and develop as a group, but more so than that, it's been so rewarding to see this program take shape,” Sellers said. “Had you asked three years ago where we were success-wise, I'm not sure how many people – or even ourselves – would have truly thought we'd have won two races as a group.
“Our overall success has been good, but you always want more,” he added. “I think we've exceeded expectations to this point, which is sometimes good, sometimes bad. Sometimes when you exceed false hopes, you might not know exactly where you are in development, and you have to keep pushing.”
Where the team certainly exceeded expectations was when the crew performed a minor miracle just to make the grid for the 12 Hours of Sebring.
Sellers was driving in the Sebring morning warm-up when he heard something amiss in the engine. Proving the crew had as much speed in the paddock as the drivers did on track, the team changed the engine and made the grid within an hour and a half, as Henzler made it to pit lane for the final warm-up lap.
“What they did was absolutely incredible,” Sellers related. “Having been in the car, my first thought was, ‘I can't believe we're starting the season and not being able to start the race.' In my mind, it was done. There was no shot. But they got it done. They always step up, but this was a somewhat different attitude.”
Merely making the grid seemed a victory, regardless of the ultimate result (11th for all GT cars, eighth among ALMS GT ones), which was a thought Sellers and third driver Martin Ragginger shared on the pit box.
“I think we thought that,” he said. “‘Raggi' and I sat at the top of the pit box, we looked at each other, and it was just one of those moments. We had another chance, and sometimes that's all you need.”
The crew had been at the track until 2:00 a.m. anyway, having needed to adjust some things on the car, and returned at 6:00 a.m. – so the repair was done on four hours of sleep.
The team seeks a shift from the “sleepless at Sebring” story to a “living large at Long Beach” one if the Falken Porsche can take down its GT class rivals including its fellow Porsche runners, and also BMW, Corvette, Ferrari, Aston Martin and Lotus.