On the heels of its first pole position and podium finish at Long Beach, hopes were high for the SRT Motorsports squad heading into last weekend's American Le Mans Series race at Monterey, which saw the pair of Riley Technologies-built Viper GTS-Rs take to the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca circuit for the first time.
Despite the high level of preparation the manufacturer undertook, including analyzing previous track data and knowledge from its drivers and engineers, adapting the V10-powered beast to the 2.2-mile, 11-turn circuit proved to be a huge challenge. Yet by Saturday evening, Dominik Farnbacher and Marc Goossens, co-drivers of the No. 91 Viper, were celebrating their third consecutive top-five finish in GT ranks, following four hours of bumper-to-bumper, white-knuckle racing at one of America's most challenging road circuits.
Laguna is not only a challenge to drive; it's a challenge to master from a setup standpoint. Explains Farnbacher: “At the beginning of the weekend, we were struggling with front grip under power and on turn in; the car had a very, very nervous rear end. At first, we didn't know what to do. We changed the diff, we changed the springs, we changed the toe...The team kept busy trying everything for the right solution. This situation happens because, of course, this Viper is new to Laguna Seca. so we didn't have any reference from the past years. We were starting from scratch.”
With tricky track conditions, including sand drifts that contribute to the low-grip nature of the circuit, the Bill Riley-led crew had their work cut out for them following Thursday's test session. The Nos. 91 and 93 Vipers were nearly a half-second off the pace – an eternity in the ultra-competitive world of ALMS GT racing, but actually impressively close compared to the teams that have a vast amount of previous years' data to work from. The following day, Goossens and Kuno Wittmer qualified the Vipers eighth and 10th on the grid, respectively, at which point the SRT team decided to make a drastic change in the setup, in order to gain some much-needed traction.
“It was a risk, as we thought it would be good but didn't know it would be good,” says Farnbacher (RIGHT), “but there was nothing to lose. So we tried it out and it was a big, big improvement from before. As soon as I drove the first stint, I discovered I could keep up with the pack, where in practice sessions, I'd struggled.”
Game on! Suddenly the challenge was not about how to keep up with the competition but rather where and how to pass them. The battle for top honors – as often happens in the GT class – morphed into a freight train of cars, and as the vastly experienced Riley observes: “It was just too hard to pass without being a bowling ball and knocking people out of the way.” Riley says.
Instead, the Viper crew gained their advantage on pit lane, with quick pit work helping to elevate the No. 91 car.
"In a way, we keep turning corners with the program and at Laguna, we turned the corner with the crew and the pit stops,” Riley says. “We were having more and more stops that were on par with everybody else – if not a little bit better than everybody else. We never went head to head with Corvette Racing in a stint and I still think they're the benchmark in the pit lane. But we are making gains on all the others and we were making up positions in the pit lane, which is really good.”
The result was that Farnbacher and Goossens walked away with fourth-place points – a great accomplishment considering where it was at the beginning of the weekend. The race was more challenging for the No. 93 Viper of Wittmer and Jonathan Bomarito, which retired with gearbox failure after completing only a dozen laps. Wittmer lost second gear on the very first lap, with the crew taking the car behind the wall for repairs, only for it to develop a similar failure when it returned to the track some 45 minutes later.
"They tried to put a new cluster in and go back out and still had issues, so we decided to park it for the day,” explains Riley. “This was the first gearbox issue we've had but I'm not super concerned with it because the Le Mans specs and ratios inside the 'box are significantly different. We were just trying a real high ring and pinion that makes the first and second gears really low. When you run a very low gear, it's a fairly weak gear and that's what broke."
Despite the early end for the No. 93 car, there is still plenty of optimism leading up to SRT's highly anticipated return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans (LEFT) next month, which will see the Vipers take on some of top GT manufacturers in the world, including factory entries from Porsche, Ferrari, Aston Martin and domestic archrival, Corvette, in the GTE-Pro category.
"Everybody's excited,” Riley says. “The sea freight is already on its way; the cars get back Wednesday and we'll start the final prep and pack them for France. They'll be pretty well torn down and checked out before flying out on the 24th. We're definitely putting in a lot of effort. It's my biggest effort at Le Mans for sure."
While the squad will face some unknowns, just as it experienced with the car's first outing in Monterey last weekend, Farnbacher, a former podium finisher in the twice-around-the-clock French endurance classic, is reassured by what he's seen from the SRT Motorsports team.
“Of course we don't know how the car will be,” he says, “but we hope it will be strong and keep up with the others. Looking at the ALMS season so far, we're not too far off. We'll be the only new car at Le Mans and we won't have a setup with this car, so I don't want to expect too much. But our goal is to be competitive, and of course to win. Bill knows what he's doing and I have a lot of faith in him."
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