There's several key storylines that are set to unfold at this weekend's Petit Le Mans. Here's a look at some of the most intriguing ones:
NISSAN DELTAWING, TAKE TWO – For the second time in three years, a major technological innovation makes its U.S. race debut at Petit Le Mans. Two years ago it was Porsche's 911 Hybrid; this year, it's the Nissan DeltaWing.
Like the 911 before it, the DeltaWing already has a race under its belt, but not a full one. Its debut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans was truncated after contact between one of the leading Toyota TS030 Hybrid LMP1s, not even one-third of the way into the race.
Two official days of testing have seen the DeltaWing down to a 1:13.462, in the hands of new drivers Gunnar Jeannette and Lucas Ordonez this race. That time was not even half a second off the P2 pacesetters from Level 5 Motorsports, a 1:13.025.
Ordonez, who's competed in P2 for two seasons prior to this opportunity, compared the respective driving styles given the noticeable gap in front tire size.
“(The Le Mans drivers) all told me I would be really impressed with how it turns, the downforce the car generates and its top speed,” he said. “The first time I drove it was a fantastic feeling. The steering was very sensitive and very precise. The cars I like are very sensitive like that and are ones where you can feel the steering wheel working.
“It was definitely different though,” he admitted. “I did have to change my driving style, how I brake and when to be on the throttle through the corners. In LMP2 cars you can brake deeper into the apex of the corner. With DeltaWing, you have to brake a little earlier but with the same speed and be on the throttle before reaching the apex. That's how to make the car a lot faster.”
Jeannette – one of ALMS' most experienced drivers, also one of its most versatile – also had the chance to race against the DeltaWing at Le Mans, except in a GT Ferrari 458 rather than in a car of similar pace (Ordonez's P2 Zytek Nissan).
“I remember coming out of Tertre Rouge, accelerated up to sixth gear and saw some lights in my mirror which I didn't recognize,” he explained. “It was a bit like a UFO experience – I couldn't quite work it out. It wasn't until it was alongside me and went flying by that I realized it was the DeltaWing. It was a pretty unique moment for me because there definitely hasn't been car like this in a long while.”
After driving the car, Jeannette extolled its wet-weather ability if that comes into play on Saturday.
"The testing early this week has given me the chance to try the car in traffic for the first time which has been very beneficial,” he said. "We made a lot of improvements to the car on Sunday and Monday and I was incredibly impressed with the car in wet conditions – probably the best car I have ever driven in the wet. If it actually rained on race day, I really wouldn't be too upset.”
While finishing is the first target, the car should be able to properly stretch its legs running unclassified and as a proving ground for further appearances in 2013, which ALMS founder Dr. Don Panoz has already hinted at.
MOVING AND SHAKING UP THE POINTS – Already, the GT, PC and GTC class drivers' and GT manufacturers title have been decided. But that's not to say there isn't plenty to fight for in the final race of the year.
Both the P1 (Klaus Graf, Lucas Luhr) and P2 (Scott Tucker, Christophe Bouchut, LEFT) drivers' titles will be secured as soon as either and/or both of the HPDs hit the 70 percent mark in the race to be classified for points. That may alter their strategies at the outset in that they'll be focused on hitting that target first, rather than pushing too hard and risking a reliability pitfall.
In GT, best of the rest is firmly up for grabs. Three full driver pairings, plus a fourth member of a fourth manufacturer, could take second in the drivers' standings. And only three points separate the seven drivers.
Going in, Corvette's Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia are on 101 points, having used a consistent first half of the year (four podiums in the first five races) to position themselves to secure a Corvette 1-2 up top. The problem has been a fraught second half, with three finishes of sixth or worse in the last four races, which has allowed the competition to close.
Standing two points back are two pairs – Flying Lizard Porsche's Jorg Bergmeister and Patrick Long (RIGHT), and Extreme Speed Ferrari's Scott Sharp and Johannes van Overbeek. Each has a win this year – ESM's coming at Flying Lizard's expense after it was disqualified at Mosport – and each has four podium finishes. Each brings in a factory third driver to assist in the quest, Patrick Pilet at Porsche and Toni Vilander at Ferrari. While a title was the ultimate, runner-up considering a rough start to the year (Lizards) and the competition level (ESM) would be decent.
Lastly, BMW could take it with Dirk Mueller – who's driven with both Joey Hand and Jonathan Summerton this year. Mueller's lone win came at Sebring and at three points back, he too could vault into the runner-up position. Still, he's the lone ace in the BMW Team RLL No. 56 M3 – Summerton is inexperienced and Uwe Alzen not as quick as he used to be. But knowing the ability of RLL strategy and the team's success in endurance races, don't count them out.