“Full space, full race” would be a good way to describe the mantra of the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patron as it heads into the third round of the 2012 season at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
While a full paddock was set up at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, the joint ALMS/FIA World Endurance Championship event tended to focus more on the one-off participants over the full-time ALMS crew. Last race at Long Beach, as normal at that track, the paddock was cramped into a smaller than normal size and coupled with already limited track time (rain on Friday nearly washed out the entire day), the cars barely competed with the exception of the shorter-than-normal two-hour race.
None of that is an issue at Monterey, where a six-hour race and the full Mazda Raceway paddock will greet the series in its first true “headliner” event of the season.
It hasn't been long since the last race at Monterey; the race shifts back from September last year to May this year. It also ran in May in 2010. Regardless of when the race runs, one of the biggest challenges is getting enough heat in the tires and maintaining it when the sun sets and the temperatures begin to fall off drastically.
A field of 37 cars is expected. Only the two full-time entries – Muscle Milk Pickett Racing and Dyson Racing with their HPD ARX-03a and Lola B12/60 Mazda – are entered in P1, and both have hit reliability issues in this race with their prior, more-developed cars the past two years.
Dyson's lone entry for this race will feature Guy Smith going for his third consecutive pole at the track, although one would guess he'd trade it for a win with co-driver Chris Dyson and new third driver Johnny Mowlem, if possible. The team had a very successful September race at its engine manufacturer's home track, as it wrapped up the P1 class title for 2011 with a double podium finish.
The P2 class adds two new cars for a total of five entries. Although Black Swan Racing will miss the race due to accident damage incurred at Long Beach, the class will feature new entrants from Project Libra and Dempsey Racing. The Libra Radical will premiere the Roush Yates EcoBoost engine, while the Dempsey crew built up its Lola B12/80 Judd at a rapid pace in hopes of making its debut.
As its P2 car debuts with Patrick Dempsey, Joe Foster and the newly announced Jonny Cocker, Dempsey will be one of the busiest squads in sports car racing this weekend. Besides that, its PC car continues with Duncan Ende (2011 GTC class winner here), Henri Richard and Ryan Lewis, and the other half of its program is active with its Mazda RX-8 cross-country in the Rolex Series' race at Millville, N.J.
Level 5 Motorsports, which has won both races in class this year, adds Franck Montagny – a Peugeot refugee who has prior Acura prototype experience (2008, with Andretti Green Racing in the Acura ARX-01b) – to its driving lineup aboard the new HPD ARX-03bs.
Conquest Racing has also come close to victory with the Martin Plowman/David Heinemeier Hansson lineup, and adds Brazilian ex-F1 and Champ Car racer Antonio Pizzonia as its third driver aboard the Morgan Nissan.
In GT, Flying Lizard Motorsports seeks its fourth straight win at Mazda Raceway, and the first for the new 2012-spec Porsche 911. The car will have a front splitter extension and rear wing height addition, plus a 0.4mm restrictor increase for this race per the latest IMSA "balance of performance" adjustment.
A fraught start to the season sees Patrick Long and Jorg Bergmeister having scored just nine points compared to points leaders Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller's 40. Long's late-race stints the last two years at Monterey have been particularly impressive, and Bergmeister was part of the memorable finish after colliding with Jan Magnussen en route to winning in 2009.
Sister Porsche squads Team Falken Tire and Paul Miller Racing have split being the highest finishing ALMS Porsche in the first two races of the season, Miller at Sebring and Falken at Long Beach. Each team seeks its first Mazda Raceway podium this weekend.
Another team seeking a repeat is Aston Martin Racing, although it won't be for the same class. Again, the European squad will bring its Vantage to the U.S., and with drivers Adrian Fernandez, Stefan Mucke and Darren Turner, the car's shown well so far in 2012. AMR won the race overall last year with its Lola Aston prototype, and drivers Fernandez, Mucke and Harold Primat. AMR is the only GT class entry to run a three-driver lineup as opposed to two.
Through two races this year, it's been Corvette, BMW and Ferrari that have been strongest. Corvette dominated at Long Beach with Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner; BMW scored at Sebring after Hand's late-race heroics. Ferrari has shown strongly with the Extreme Speed team, and Scott Sharp's squad might see Monterey as an ideal target for its first win. The team finished on the podium both this race last year and last race in Long Beach.
Whoever wins GT will have been the top GT car, which was not the case in 2011 as Porsche's 911 Hybrid placed highest of all the GT entrants.
Nine PC and GTC entrants apiece comprise the balance of the field. CORE autosport, PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports and Performance Tech will run with two drivers while the rest employ three. CORE adds Tom Kimber-Smith to the No. 06 car that has won the first two races with Alex Popow and a variety of co-drivers.
Alex Job and NGT will also run just two drivers in their GTC Porsches, while the rest of the class has three. Job and Green Hornet have split the wins so far in 2012; TRG has the biggest driver change with one of its usual drivers Spencer Pumpelly at New Jersey, and Mike Hedlund, Tracy Krohn and Nick Tandy slated for ALMS duty in the team's No. 66. Jeroen Bleekemolen runs with his Grand-Am co-driver Emilio di Guida in TRG's second car, new this race, as Black Swan is not present.
Hedlund ran for the team at this year's Rolex 24, while Krohn, who has instead focused his Krohn Racing efforts on the WEC, renews a partnership that saw him work with TRG in 2005 in Grand-Am. As the team's pro driver, Porsche Supercup ace Tandy will be a contender for pole if he qualifies the car.
• The American Le Mans Series Presented by Patron airs online on ESPN3.com live Saturday at 4:15 p.m. Eastern, and airs on ESPN2 Sunday at 5:00 p.m. Eastern.
• On Saturday morning, @RACERmag and @FalkenALMS are hosting a tweetup at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. You can register here.