It would be a reach to say the “L” in ALMS stands for Lazarus. But there's no denying a series many pronounced all but dead and buried after Audi, Porsche and Acura “re-allocated” their resources is on the rebound. Predictable finishes were more rare than Audi R15s in this year's ALMS. Indeed, the norm was fierce battles down to the wire in all four of the classes that make up the American Le Mans Series in 2010.
And not just on race days. The LMP, LMPC, GT and GTC driver, team and manufacturer titles were all decided at the season finale, a Petit Le Mans that attracted a very strong field including factory efforts from Audi and Peugeot, not to mention a genuine car of tomorrow – Porsche's 911 GT R hybrid.
While a surprisingly competitive LMP class may be the poster child of the rebound, a robust GT class is the bedrock of the series. With top-flight privateers and factory-supported Ferrari and Porsche teams already at one another's throats, BMW joined the fray in '09 and, in partnership with Rahal Letterman Racing, came on strong enough to challenge for the GT title in its sophomore season. Jaguar has a leg-up on emulating that model, partnering with Rocketsports Racing in a learning season with ambitions of a competitive 2011; ditto the new Extreme Speed team.
Additionally, a consolidation of GT1 and GT2 classes brought Corvette's hugely successful effort into competition with BMW, Ferrari, Ford and Jaguar. How tough is this reborn GT class? An organization that swept to eight ALMS GT1 titles in the past decade went to Petit Le Mans searching for its first win in 2010.
“There certainly would have been a lot of people in Vegas who'd have lost money betting on that one,” says Thomas Blam, strategist for a Flying Lizard team that battled Rahal Letterman to the wire for the class title. “And I'd have been one of 'em!
“This was the sort of season where, at the start, we felt we'd be pleased if we could find a way to win one race...the depth in GT is amazing. Some things have gone our way but, if you look at it, the Corvettes and BMWs are up front every weekend, Scott Sharp and his team [Extreme Speed] are starting to figure out GT. Looking at next year, it could be the kind of season where you do everything right and still wind up eighth.”
Certainly one of the series' biggest challenges in creating – and maintaining – a dynamic GT class is developing a rules package enabling machinery as disparate as front-engined sports sedans and mid-engined two-seaters to compete on a level playing field. (Last year, for example, BMW benefited from some aero tweaks that enabled its comparatively bulky M3 to compete with Ferrari F430s and Porsche RSRs. This season, by contrast, the M3 was slapped with a 25kg [55lb] minimum weight increase.)
HPD (née Acura), Peugeot, Porsche, Mazda and Lola-Judd stood atop the LMP podium in 2010 thanks in no small part to a similar brew of pragmatism and purism. On one level, the ALMS worked with the Automobile Club de l'Ouest to develop an arrangement in which Sebring and Petit Le Mans run under strict ACO prototype (and GT) rules, making the two headline events attractive to Peugeot and, in the case of Petit Le Mans, Audi.
Meanwhile, the interpretation and yes, manipulation, of specific rules such as minimum weight made the LMP2-based Acura, Porsche RS Spyder and Mazda-powered Lola competitive with the Lola-Judd and Lola-Aston Martin built to LMP1 specs. This in a year that started out looking to be pretty much a benefit for Patron Highcroft's works-assisted HPD.
“It's a very equal fight with Dyson and Highcroft,” says Cytosport's Klaus Graf. “You have to fight for every tenth of a second – on the racetrack, in the pits, everywhere. It's much tighter competition than I anticipated.”
That the LMP class went down to Road Atlanta with the Cytosport Porsche team mathematically in the championship hunt owed in part to a mechanical failure on the Highcroft HPD at Sebring but also to a weight break afforded the Porsche at midseason.
“We don't understand why the Porsche got the break it did,” Patron Highcroft's David Brabham said. “The data shows if they were behind, it wasn't by much. Certainly not to warrant a 25kg weight reduction. The Porsche has been as fast as our car for the last three years, so it makes our job even harder.”
Similar decisions in the spirit of “managed competition” contributed to the competitiveness of the Dyson Mazda and Drayson Lola-Judd. On the other hand, dealt a competitive hand, Chris Dyson recorded the drive of his life to keep Simon Pagenaud in Highcroft's HPD at bay in Mid-Ohio; likewise, Johnny Cocker never put a wheel wrong in tracking down and passing the Dyson, Highcroft and Cytosport cars in the final laps of a scintillating Road America event.
Still another dimension to the puzzle comes in the form of the larger air intake allowed the LMP Challenge cars at midseason. With the LMPC cars reaching comparable top speeds, some LMP cars opted for low-downforce setups to ensure they could pass the Chevy-powered Courages on the straights, despite being five or six seconds quicker on an overall lap – which in turn negated some of their braking and cornering advantage over the heavier LMP1-based cars.
Managed competition is a thorny challenge; one that can create disincentives for top-flight teams seeking a competitive advantage. In the case of the ALMS, the parameters are pretty black and white, with a consistent performance deficit of one half of one percent (roughly 0.6/0.7sec a lap) required to warrant help.
“A heavy-handed puppeteer is a turn-off,” says Eric Ingraham, Flying Lizard's team manager. “You run the risk of teams worrying how competitive they appear from the outside rather than putting a full effort into maximizing their performance. But if the rules are clear and they're applied in an even-handed manner, the result is everybody suspects they're a little bit slower than the other guys… And I think right now, it's at an appropriate balance.”
Of course, the very fact that the LMPC cars became an integral part of the ALMS fabric in 2010 is newsworthy. Initially regarded by some as a betrayal of the series' commitment to diverse, cutting-edge technology, the spec cars were introduced as an entry-level prototype class to serve as a breeding ground for the Dysons and Highcrofts of tomorrow.
The LMPC not only generated five or six cars a race, it produced another tight championship battle between Level 5 Motorsports and Green Earth Team Gunnar. And rather than a field of no-name pros mixed with journeyman drivers, LMPC has provided a platform for the likes of Andy Wallace, Elton Julian, Luis Diaz and Gunnar Jeannette, not to mention emerging teams like Level 5 and Green Earth which, by the way, ran the full 2010 schedule without an engine rebuild.
The GT Challenge is to GT, what the LMPC is to LMP. It debuted in mid 2009 as a means of boosting car counts and serving as a springboard and had a mildly controversial birth – one that saw the GTC cars some 12sec off the LMP pace at a Lime Rock where the prototypes lapped in the 47sec range. However, like the LMPC, the GTC has since become an integral part of the ALMS fabric, putting the likes of Andy Lally, Butch Leitzinger and Shane Lewis on track and producing a close championship battle between the Orbit/Paul Miller and Black Swan teams.
Clearly, ALMS supporters have much to be happy about. It's not, however, time to shift into neutral. Attendance has been inconsistent. There was a big crowd at Mosport and, in the eyes of some observers, as many people at Long Beach for the Saturday ALMS race as for the IZOD IndyCar Series race on Sunday. On the other hand, ALMS officials concede switching the Laguna Seca date from the fall to spring was a misstep (the race returns to October in 2011) and the series has given up on Miller Motorsports Park for the foreseeable future. Although TV ratings remain problematic, the innovative “docudrama” treatments of the Laguna and Mid-Ohio races were well received and are likely to continue.
For next season, the ALMS partners (for a third weekend) with IndyCar at the new Baltimore street race. It's a significant development given Baltimore's proximity to Washington, D.C. and the series' growing ties to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy through its Green Racing programs.
“Having a race so close to our nation's capital will enable those in government and the Washington, D.C. community to attend an American Le Mans Series race and see for themselves the progress we've made in this area,” says series boss Scott Atherton. “The timing of this event, in light of all that is happening involving the auto industry and government, couldn't be better.”
It would be a stretch to suggest the ALMS in 2010 “couldn't be better.” In order to survive, it's become a very different series than the one the likes of Atherton, series founder Don Panoz, its competitors and fans envisioned as recently as the summer of 2008. And to be clear, not everyone is entirely happy about the compromises that have been made. But it's also a far healthier ALMS than many of its detractors expected it would be as recently as the spring of 2010. Time will tell if the ALMS will continue to rebound in 2011.
DON'T BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
ALMS president has no fear of manufacturers' potential
While every form of motorsport is subject to economic ebbs and flows, those that most benefit from auto manufacturer participation in good times suffer disproportionately when the wolf is at the door. The American Le Mans Series had to weather both the recession and the resulting departure of Audi, Porsche and, to a degree, Acura from a prototype class once awash in manufacturers.
Privateers (some with varying levels of continued support from Acura, Mazda and Porsche) have been the salvation of the ALMS prototype class. The $64k questions are, how does the ALMS re-attract the manufacturers and, assuming the automakers do return, how to balance their needs with those of the independents who made for such a lively 2010?
“The ALMS has established itself as the most relevant, most manufacturer-connected form of motorsports, certainly in North America, if not the world,” says series president and CEO Scott Atherton [at left, ABOVE, with Bobby Rahal]. “You add to that a very high-profile domestic and international television package, the best road courses and important business markets in North America with the street circuits…even if you are out there racing without a significant competitor, a manufacturer can easily justify participating because of the impact it makes on the brand and the activation opportunities it delivers.
“The new [ACO] technical rules for 2011 are attractive to manufacturers. You've already seen a significant commitment from Aston Martin. Audi and Peugeot are already committed, and I think you will soon start seeing announcements from others.”
Balancing the needs of those fickle manufacturers with those of its loyal privateers? Atherton says it's what ALMS does best.
“We've got 12 years of experience and a proven track record of being able to do just that. With very few exceptions, our privateers don't expect to be able to compete toe to toe with a factory-backed Audi. On the other hand, they do expect to be relatively competitive.
“I'm not suggesting they're happy to lose, but there's a reality check that's always existed. They have to manage their expectations – just as IMSA has to manage the cars' capabilities.
“It's a difficult balancing act but when it's done correctly it produces tremendously exciting racing, across a broad spectrum of platforms. I'm not losing any sleep over whether we're going to be able to manage that aspect.”
MANAGING TO MIX IT UP
A varied cast of prototypes have taken the ALMS spoils in 2010
To start 2010, French raider Peugeot grabbed its first Sebring win, before the Patron-backed HPD team locked out the two races leading up to the series' break for the Le Mans 24 Hours.
Post Le Mans, variety was the spice of life. Porsche's venerable RS Spyder, along with Mazda- and Judd-powered Lolas, joined the HPD in Victory Lane, thanks to “managed competition” leveling the playing field and – crucially – smaller teams raising their games in the post-manufacturer prototype arena.
The 2010 finale, Petit Le Mans, was round two of the ACO's new Intercontinental Le Mans Cup. RACER went to press before the Oct. 2 race. But, with Peugeot and Audi entered, our less-than-bold assumption is that one of the Euro diesels would win at Road Atlanta.
Round 1 12 Hours of Sebring, Fla. March 20*
Winner Alex Wurz/Marc Gene/Anthony Davidson – Peugeot 908 HDI FAP (P1)
Top “regular” Greg Pickett/Klaus Graf – Porsche RS Spyder (P2)
Round 2 Long Beach, Calif. April 17
Winner David Brabham/Simon Pagenaud – HPD ARX-01c
Round 3 Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca,
Calif. May 22
Winner David Brabham/Simon Pagenaud/Marino Franchitti – HPD ARX-01c
Round 4 Miller Motorsports Park, Utah. July 11
Winner David Brabham/Simon Pagenaud – HPD ARX-01c
Round 5 Lime Rock Park, Conn. July 24
Winner Greg Pickett/Klaus Graf – Porsche RS Spyder
Round 6 Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course,
Ohio. Aug. 7
Winner Guy Smith/Chris Dyson – Lola-Mazda B09/86
Round 7 Road America, Wis. Aug. 22
Winner Paul Drayson/Jonny Cocker – Lola-Judd B09/60
Round 8 Mosport Raceway, Ont. Aug. 29
Winner Romain Dumas/Klaus Graf – Porsche RS Spyder