The SRT Viper American Le Mans Series team has impressed during the first two rounds of the 2013 championship. A stellar, foreshadowing run at the 12 Hours of Sebring was followed by the marque's first pole position and podium finish at Long Beach (ABOVE) since its return to the series in 2012, but the site of Round 3 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca will present the two-car team with its first real “heat check.”
For all of their size and power, the SRT Vipers have been fleet-footed at the bumpy Sebring airport circuit and the equally bumpy SoCal street course, but can the V10-powered beasts thrive on their debut at Monterey's smooth seaside track? Bill Riley, whose company built and runs the Nos. 91 and 93 cars, is confident they'll adapt to the different handling needs presented in NorCal.
“One of the main things we improved for this year was the handling on the SRT Vipers, and the dampers have been a big part of that,” says Riley. “I think we've shown how good the cars handle over the bumps – and we'll race at more bumpy tracks than smooth tracks this year – but the handling of the cars has been developed to adapt to every type of track. It really comes down to testing and trying new things. The good thing about the Laguna race weekend is that we have a lot of different sessions with some breaks between, so we'll be throwing a lot of things at both cars.”
Bringing the SRT Vipers to Monterey for the first time would appear to be a disadvantage, one where the veteran teams can draw from past setups to get a faster start to the weekend, but Riley isn't convinced the silver cars will be playing from behind. Monterey will mark the third consecutive debut event for the cars at each respective track, and with his experience in other forms of racing at the circuit, Riley hopes to bypass most of the growing pains the SRT Vipers might encounter.
“From our Daytona Prototype background, whether it was at Long Beach or Laguna, we look at the setups and see what those looked like and see what translates spring-wise, car-wise, see what we need to do distance-wise just to get it where we need it. That's the data we're going with.
“You know that you're always understeering,” Riley observes, “you always push at Laguna, so we're going to set up the car little bit looser than we normally would at Sebring or Long Beach. We're just going to try to stay with what we know and what's been working and see how it translates to Laguna.”
SRT Viper driver Kuno Wittmer (LEFT) is also confident the team will be able to dial both cars into the setup window at Monterey.
“For sure, the cars over the winter time have evolved and have gotten better,” says the French-Canadian. “Places like Sebring and Long Beach actually have quite similar setups for the bumps. But we raced the Viper at Road Atlanta last year and I think we could compare the surface and setups from that track to what we'll use at Laguna, because both are pretty smooth.
“Everything we do with the team from SRT and Riley Technologies is about trying to be the best wherever we race; I think people have been able to see how good the cars and team have been so far this year, and I believe that will continue at Laguna.”
Monterey has one feature that maddens the teams and drivers while adding to the smoothness of the 2.2-mile, 11-turn road course at the most inopportune times.
“We feel pretty confident that the SRT Vipers will do well even though the odd windstorm will come along or another car will go off and put 10 gallons of sand on the track,” Wittmer relates. “That's normal for Laguna. The sand around the track makes it so slick, but it's the same for everyone, so you just learn to deal with it.”
The Riley Technologies engineers won't be able to optimize their setups for sandy surface conditions, but Wittmer looks forward to digging in and keeping the momentum flowing.
“Going to Laguna, it's kind of an unknown for us, as we haven't driven there with the GTS-R at all,” he says. “So the first day is going to be crucial to figure out a proper direction to take the cars. We show up, we analyze and then we're going to get cracking at it.
“And if it wasn't for guys like Corvette, Ferrari, Porsche having all that experience at Laguna, it wouldn't be as fun. Now we can really compare ourselves against stiff competition, the leaders of the world. And that's when it's competitive and that's when you fight.”
As much as Wittmer and the rest of the SRT Viper team would like to attack the Monterey track and the rest of the ALMS GT field with complete abandon, there's a certain 24-hour race in France in June that requires both cars to be shipped in pristine condition less than two weeks after the checkered flag waves on May 11. Avoiding contact is the first order of business for the SRT drivers, as Riley details.
“I have all the confidence in the world in my drivers,” he says. “I don't say, ‘Please don't crash.' I say, ‘Please don't get hit!' We have to be clear on that. We'll have a little talk about it to make sure we don't set the car in too big a harm's way, because we have a pretty big month coming ahead of us after Laguna. And I think they'll get it; they've listened pretty well so far. We're all on the same team and I mean that. Literally, we're all pulling in the same direction.”
Riley will send a 40-foot container loaded with spares to France by sea before the race in Monterey (“You couldn't slip a business card in that container sideways, it's so full,” he says with a laugh), meaning the team will be without some of its usual comforts and redundancies. “We'll be without some wheels, some of the flooring and whatever else we figured we could live without at Laguna…it's so much cheaper to send things by boat than by air that it made the most sense to prioritize our needs for the next race and do without some things,” Riley notes.
“After Laguna, we then rush back to (Riley's shop in) North Carolina, do all of our servicing and prep work for Le Mans, then ship the cars and everything else by air on May 23. It's a compressed schedule that doesn't allow us much time if anything goes wrong.”
Avoiding the wrath of Riley is a good motivator for Wittmer and his fellow drivers to return their Vipers in one piece, but there's also a secondary goal to keep in mind.
“With Laguna being Round 3 of the ALMS championship, we're going there with the championship in mind,” says Wittmer. “We want to finish with both cars in the top five, possibly podium – that's our goal. At the same time, you have to remember that in June we're going to Le Mans. And the cars cannot be in a bad condition if we're going to achieve our goals in the ALMS or in France.
“So as a driver you definitely have to keep in mind that, yes, you're going that extra mile to get a fourth position or a third, but you're not going to be locking up brakes and sliding into people to get it. It's got to be calculated, it's got to be clean. We don't want our team to be working day in and day out to fix the cars before Le Mans. It's a big family affair with the SRT team and we all care for each other. We were all brought into this program together and we're all going to keep going together by sticking to the big goals we all have.”
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