For as long as sports car racing in North America has existed, so too has the presence of gentlemen drivers – businessmen whose passion for racing can only be a part-time hobby, financed by their revenues from their weekly 9-to-5 jobs. In recent years, the proliferation of them within both Grand-Am and the American Le Mans Series has helped keep the car counts up, and also provided some opportunities for pro drivers sans funding who'd otherwise be sidelined.
It's at this point we bring Peter LeSaffre into the mix. By all accounts a decent person, well meaning in his efforts to get a car on the grid and a crew employed, LeSaffre's day job is working as president/CEO of Fusion Trade, being in charge of all global sales and business operations and with extensive supply chain experience. On the weekends, he's team principal and co-driver at Green Hornet Racing (with his shorter Irish pro co-driver Damien Faulkner, LEFT), a team that in 2012 has been at the epicenter of several accidents and has not capitalized on Faulkner's pace with solid results.
A tire blowout at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, getting drilled at Mosport, contacted at Mid-Ohio and hit again at VIR has seen wins and podiums have go begging. Then this past week happened at Road Atlanta and suddenly the otherwise under-the-radar green No. 34 Porsche became the poster boy for GT-to-prototype and amateur-to-pro driver contact, and earned LeSaffre and crew plenty of grief and blame from onlookers. Really, though, is that entirely deserved?
The drama started on Wednesday, when LeSaffre ran a few inches wide off the exit at Turn 10, the right-hander, slight-uphill run just before the intense drop, downhill plunge and double-apex right-hander leading onto the front straight. The ordinary line, if there wasn't another car alongside, would be to merge slightly from left to right, into the center of the track for the drop, slight release back left and then apex to the hard right for the final corner.
The catch, of course, was that Gunnar Jeannette came to LeSaffre's inside in the radical Nissan DeltaWing, in an attempt to pass. Jeannette was clearly alongside judging from the on-board camera from Martin Plowman's car (RIGHT), although given the narrow width at the front, perhaps when LeSaffre made his natural apex he didn't see Jeannette. Inevitably, the two collided, and Jeannette tipped over and got to quote Ricky Bobby's infamous “Yep, I'm flying through the air!” line from Talladega Nights.
Both teams put videos together. Nissan's, unsurprisingly, went viral and nearly hit one million views while lowly Green Hornet's barely topped 1,000 on YouTube as of this writing. Anyway, the two exchanged hand gestures and LeSaffre became the villain in the paddock, even if opinions on who was truly at fault differed. Have a look for yourself at Nissan's and Green Hornet's respective videos if you haven't done so already.
Then, come race day, LeSaffre was smack dab in the middle of another contretemps, this time with Lucas Luhr and the Muscle Milk HPD. In an almost identical situation, except this time going up the hill into Turn 3, LeSaffre made his natural apex from left to right, but again missed the faster prototype coming alongside. Luhr, sensing a chance and an opportunity to pass the slower Porsche, went for it on the inside, getting on the grass and getting more than halfway alongside.
Once Luhr was past, he attested he got clipped in a classic right front (the Porsche) to left rear (HPD) collision that pitched Luhr into the barriers. Again, opinions differed – some thought Luhr was overly aggressive, particularly only an hour into the race, while others said LeSaffre had committed strike two of the week.
Both accidents required a further evaluation rather than the snap rush-to-judgment that inevitably happened from both camps, and from my perspective, I'm certainly not as harsh on LeSaffre now as I was in the immediate moment of both accidents. It just stems from a stigma that exists within the sports car community at the moment where when a prototype and GT collide, particularly when an amateur driver is in the GT car, the amateur driver is often immediately deemed at fault.
The DeltaWing accident first. From LeSaffre's on-board (LEFT), you can see he washed slightly off road on exit, corrected back left on the wheel, and no sooner than he did that, Jeannette was already alongside. LeSaffre may not have seen him properly, and in the midst of running what would be his normal line, turned in and pitched the DeltaWing in what you might deem a racing incident.
Put this way – from Plowman's car, trailing both, it looked like the DeltaWing was entirely alongside, but given the narrow width of the front of the car, and it being a black car right before the shadows of the bridge, it wasn't as clear cut from the Porsche's perspective.
With it being practice, it begs the question whether either party might have been better served backing off earlier to let the other go. Could LeSaffre have stayed off line through the corner and allowed Jeannette through before the dive to allow both drivers the natural line? Or could Jeannette, wanting to keep the car upright and in one piece before the race, have simply dialed it back for two or three seconds, make it through the downhill and then pass him on the straight? We'll never know but to quote former NBA star Allen Iverson, “We just talkin' bout practice, man!”
As for the Muscle Milk-Green Hornet contact, I will admit my initial reaction was, like many who saw it live, “(Expletive) Green Hornet again!!” and I tweeted as much. But, again, if LeSaffre didn't see Luhr as quickly as Luhr approached, it's hard to put the full weight of the blame on him for turning in at his natural apex point. It's only when you look at Luhr's take that he had made it past LeSaffre on the grass, and then got pitched by contact, that you'd put a more substantial percentage of the blame on LeSaffre.
The question of aggression is another matter entirely. The mantra established by Ayrton Senna is that “if you see a gap and you don't go for it, you're no longer a racing driver.” For all his brilliance, Senna wasn't an endurance racer, and in this line of racing you probably could alter that to, “If the gap isn't big enough, and the race is early, it's not worth going for just at that moment.” Luhr went for it, but like Allan McNish at the 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans, it was at such an early point in the race he might have been better served by backing off.
What both incidents should serve to do – since, mercifully, the Muscle Milk Pickett Racing team did a heroic rebuild effort to get the car back out and complete the 70 percent of the race needed to score points and thus secure the championship – is provide a wake-up call to both prototype and GT drivers alike that more respect needs to be taken when it comes to overtaking slower traffic.
Prototype drivers, by their nature, have to be aggressive. They have to make somewhat risky moves at dangerous points on the track to get past GT traffic – yet at the same time, they also need to be more respectful of the GT race going on at that point to not alter their complexion. If, by going for it too soon, it benefits you but screws the GT driver, you should perhaps hold back.
Two perfect examples of this came earlier this year when drivers of the same PC class car from CORE autosport – Tom Kimber-Smith and Alex Popow – pushed way too hard at a moment they didn't need to and wound up taking out other GT cars in successive races.
At Lime Rock, on the downhill run to the front straight, Kimber-Smith went through Turn 7 at full blast, on the inside and edged Guy Cosmo off the road and hard into the tire barriers. Cosmo (RIGHT), merely minding his own business and running fourth, got taken out through no fault of his own – while Kimber-Smith made it home for a class podium and without penalty.
The next race, at Mosport, Popow tried an overly ambitious three-wide maneuver that knocked Ken Dobson in another PC class car from PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports and, you guessed it, LeSaffre, out of the race. For that, Popow was put on probation.
In general, the GTC class cars are started by the gentlemen drivers, so that should be cause for the prototype drivers to be more careful than normal in going to overtake them at the outset of the race when they come up to overtake them. It's easy to forget since GTC is probably the most ridiculed class in ALMS, but, since it exists, there should at least be a standard baseline respect level.
I've lost count of how many prototype drivers have bitched to me about GT traffic, and vice versa this year, but the bottom line is that a certain point, the drivers need to be self-policing in when and how they overtake, knowing who is in what car and what tendencies they have to offer behind the wheel.
The respect between prototype and GT drivers is something that needs to be both established and enforced depending on how the classes work themselves out for the 2014 ALMS/Grand-Am merger. That means GT drivers need to know and have the qualifications to properly get out of the way when a prototype is overtaking, and prototype drivers need to use better discretion in some overtaking opportunities, based on each situation.
That's not to let the gentlemen drivers in either category off the hook – there are some out there who really shouldn't be, despite their wallet and ego sizes, both of which should be checked at the door before receiving a racing license. Those ones, in particular, should be more closely monitored to not make sure they cause hazardous conditions or multiple red flags in an on-track session.
When you're nine to 11 seconds off the pace of your pro co-driver in a spec class, for instance, you have no business being on track. There are two drivers in particular I've watched this year who I could mention in this context (in fact, if you follow me on Twitter, you know I already have...).
The unfortunate matter for LeSaffre in all this is that, while he's no world-beater, he's far from the worst out there, and by no means deserving of the avalanche of entire criticism he's earned. It puts all gentlemen drivers in a bad light and make the ones are out there to improve and hone their craft (which is all of them) and the ones who are almost pro level in terms of pace in the same category. Save for his Mosport accident, Popow's been one of the drivers of the year in sports car racing because of his blindingly quick pace and usually safe race craft.
Was LeSaffre's relative inexperience on his part a factor in the two accidents? Absolutely. But it certainly wasn't the only reason for both high-profile moments of impact. The accidents should serve as a catalyst to both series' officiating for 2013, and for the combined series in 2014, that driving standards for gentlemen drivers should be monitored and so too should respect levels of both prototype and GT drivers to avoid potentially catastrophic accidents in the future.