The drivers for the Muscle Milk American Le Mans Series team have joined RACER's blogging crew for 2011. First up: Team leader Greg Pickett relates the ups an downs of the team's season-opening Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. -Ed.
For my first RACER blog, I was really hoping we would have something different to talk about than our first DNF in the American Le Mans Series.
Since we started this adventure in 2009, we've had podium finishes in every single race we took part in. But I guess, like in any sport, you can't always be batting 1000. When you think about it, maybe we were due for something like this to happen. Still, this isn't something we are use to on our team.
Despite the adversity we faced in the latter part of the week, things did start off well for us. We checked off everything we wanted to do in the test days on Monday and Tuesday and we were right where we thought we would be on the timing sheets behind the diesel-powered cars.
I spent a lot of time in the car on Monday along with my co-driver Klaus Graf. Lucas Luhr then joined us on Tuesday and did the majority of the driving on that day because he had not driven the car since the Winter Test in February. Lucas was again in the car on Thursday morning for the first official practice session of the season and everything was going really well. He had posted a time that placed us fourth overall and ahead of the two factory Peugeots.
I got in the Aston Martin at the end of the session and a few corners after having taken the checkered flag, I smelled a hint of fuel and then smoke. I called in to the crew on the radio that the car was on fire and immediately pulled the car off in turn 10 where I knew there would be corner workers.
Everything happened quickly but there was no panic and in no time I was out of the car and had activated the on board fire extinguisher, which put out the flames immediately. Honestly if it hadn't been for that great system on the Aston Martin the damage would have been far, far worse, so compliments to them for that safety feature.
I also want to take advantage of this blog to thank the corner workers who don't always get the appreciation they should for their work. They were quickly on the scene and were ensuring that all the flames were out and that I was OK.
I was distraught by the damage caused to the car, but I felt terrible for our Muscle Milk crew, who now had a much busier day ahead of them than they could ever have anticipated. Initially, we never thought that we could get everything fixed in time to be out for the end of night practice. We were even looking at getting parts flown in from overseas and maybe only getting back on track for qualifying the next day.
But once the guys had assessed the damage more thoroughly, they had their minds set on making at least the last half hour of night practice so that all three of us drivers could complete our required minimum of three laps in the dark. It seemed pretty ambitious at the time but when I went back to the transporter later in the afternoon, I was amazed by the progress the team had made. And then with less than 50 minutes to go in the session we were back on track.
The work that our crew did was nothing short of heroic – few teams in the paddock could have accomplished what my guys did. On top of that, we came out and did a really good lap time that placed us ahead of Highcroft and behind the Audis and Peugeots. I couldn't have asked for more.
Unfortunately, the fire wasn't the only adversity we faced at Sebring.
While our Thursday morning incident forced us to miss some practice time, I was thrilled, once again by Klaus's performance in qualifying (that's Greg with Klaus, RIGHT). Klaus has really made a name for himself since our return in the ALMS and he continues to impress. He put in another fantastic qualifying run to place us sixth on the grid, behind the diesel-powered cars, which was where we expected to be.
But then came race day. I was fortunate enough to have a good couple of stints but then when Klaus got in the car, the car wouldn't start when he was ready to leave the pit box because of a faulty battery. He finally got the car going but the same thing happened a couple of stops later and the crew had to change it. So, we lost some laps there and then when Lucas was aboard the Aston Martin, a GT car hit him. Initially, he was able to continue, but the hit had damaged the cooling system, which consequently caused the gearbox to overheat.
Once again, our crew was put to the test. They worked hard to make the necessary repairs but the time we were losing under the tent was costly. We got to a point where we knew that even if the team could get us back on track it wouldn't be worth it because we wouldn't complete the required 70% to score points.
We had to call it a day. To say it was disappointing is an understatement. As mentioned earlier, we're not use to this. But the adversity the team faced will only make us stronger. We did show our speed, running lap times as fast as the factory cars, and that is encouraging for our upcoming races.
The week at Sebring was overall a tough one for Muscle Milk Aston Martin Racing but, on a personal note, it felt really good to get back in a racecar since my accident at Mid-Ohio last August. My first time back was at the Winter Test in February, but it's one thing testing with a few cars on track and another racing with 56 cars and tons of traffic.
I'll admit that I was a little apprehensive. You always have little fears and wonders in the back of your mind but all the practice time I had in the Aston Martin leading up to the race weekend was good preparation for me.
I was happy with my race stints. I had a nice battle with Chris Dyson, which was really fun. It was going along really well even with all the cars out there. I enjoy the traffic, it's a challenge but it's part of the deal in this type of racing. Everybody was pretty heads up but you still had to be a little cautious.
I like driving the Aston Martin, I feel very comfortable in the car and I'm really happy that I was able to get back on track. I think I performed OK. My teammates were happy with me and my team was happy with me and, honestly, that's all I care about from a driving standpoint.
That said, right now, from a team point of view we need to give it the best opportunity to make up some ground. The fact that we didn't collect any points at Sebring becomes a little harder to digest, because this was one of the two biggest points-paying races of the season, the other being Petit Le Mans. It puts us in a big hole to start the season and that really hurts.
In order for us to put our best foot forward, I've asked Lucas to join Klaus in the car for Long Beach, where I will just take on the owner's role. As much as I like driving the car, I also really enjoy sitting back and watching them go for it. I'm looking forward to our next race and seeing how Klaus and Lucas will do in Long Beach.
Before I sign off on this first blog, I want to mention what a great job Mark Bullitt did in his first races in the IMSA GT3 Challenge races last week at Sebring. We added this GT3 program over the off-season because we've been looking to expand our presence in motorsports but also to keep a relationship going with Porsche, and I must day I couldn't be more proud of what Mark has done so far.
Until next time,