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.
Michelin needs only to have one of its technical partner team cars finish 70 percent to clinch its 13th straight GT tire manufacturer's championship. Meanwhile, there's a four-way fight for the GT title of the MICHELIN GREEN X Challenge. The No. 3 Corvette (Magnussen, Garcia) leads the No. 55 BMW Team RLL M3 by one point, the No. 4 Corvette by five, and the No. 01 Extreme Speed Ferrari by 13.
“The top four GT cars in the MICHELIN GREEN X Challenge GT championship all use the second-generation E85R fuel, so their Clean scores will likely be very close. Any advantage in race speed, efficiency or even the amount of fuel taken on the last pit stops may well determine the championship,” said Silvia Mammone, Michelin motorsports manager.
A WIN WOULD BE NICE – There's a handful of teams this year where a class win would come as a welcome, needed tonic for all-too-frustrating seasons.
Silicon Tech/Dempsey Racing would be the first group. All of its drivers, Duncan Ende, Henri Richard and Ryan Lewis, are prior Petit Le Mans winners – but in the stacked PC class field, the best the team has been able to record has been third on two occasions. There have been far too many mistakes throughout the season and in a class this tight, where three different teams and five driving combinations have won races, any errors are magnified.
A similar story takes place at Merchant Services Racing, which rose from the ashes of the Intersport Racing group, led by team manager Brian Alder. Kyle Marcelli has been unable to showcase his talent, with the biggest obstacle a revolving door of co-drivers – it's undoubtedly challenging to build chemistry when you're pushing double digits in number of different people you have to share the car with. Marcelli is one of the class's quickest drivers but has rarely gotten the car in a position to do anything with it.
Down in GTC, the Green Hornet Racing team has been bitten by bad luck in nearly every race, as a magnet for accidents rarely of its own doing. Despite five poles by Damien Faulkner, the team only has one win. According to team principal and co-driver Peter LeSaffre, “We should have been sponsored by Target – we seem to have had one on our backs all year.”
Perhaps it falls to the old racing curse of a green car being unlucky, but with one of GTC's better lineups in those two and Brian Wong, victory would be sweet this weekend.
JET LAG CREW – The American Le Mans Series has been off for more than a month, but that hasn't meant the world of sports car racing has been quiet. Far from it, in fact.
Petit Le Mans falls in the middle of two FIA World Endurance Championship events on the other side of the world – last week's race in Fuji, Japan and next week the series concludes its season in Shanghai, China. There's nine drivers who are racing in all three.
Rebellion's trio this race of Neel Jani, Nicolas Prost and Andrea Belicchi are split into two cars in the WEC events. Ryan Dalziel, part of Starworks Motorsport's P2 World Championship-winning team, is back with CORE autosport in PC this race.
Ricardo Gonzalez, too, returns to CORE after winning the championship for the team last year, but his main role in 2012 has been in the WEC with P2's Greaves Motorsport, a car he shares with Elton Julian. Julian makes an ALMS return as well with PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports, also in the PC class.
Lastly, OAK Racing's trio this race of Jacques Nicolet, Bertrand Baguette and Olivier Pla complete the group of jetsetters. Baguette's raced in both the team's P1 and P2 class entries this year.
Several journalists and PR reps, as well, have embarked on the world tour and will no doubt be relieved when the trips are over – even if their frequent flier mile numbers have increased substantially.
WELCOME TO THE SHOW – Last month's Grand-Am season finale at Lime Rock offered some ALMS personnel a chance to dip their feet in the water and see how a typical weekend there operates. This weekend, the tables are turned as some Grand-Am officials will be making a voyage down to Atlanta to see the life and times of an ALMS show. One of the off-track elements they will see is the 2013 ALMS schedule, which is expected to be released.
This race closes the book on domestic sports car racing for 2012, but discussions will continue into the coming months as details of the single sports car championship continue to evolve.