The penultimate round of the 2011 American Le Mans Series season sees a return to Monterey in the fall, after it moved to May last year. Once again, the six-hour test will provide a bevy of challenges for the teams and drivers in the five classes. There are more points up for grabs, too; an additional five points go to class winners with the longer distance.
Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca has always been a tough track for teams to get and keep their tires up to the proper temperatures. A return to its normal spot on the calendar in September will provide a baseline setup from years past, even as this should be one of the coldest races of the year – ambient temperatures should only range between 55 and 65 degrees, with the track temps not much warmer. Both the overall and GT winners last year double-stinted their final set of tires.
“Normally you put on the soft tires toward the end and get them up to temps quickly,” said Flying Lizard's Jorg Bergmeister, who won in GT last year with Patrick Long. “I like the long races, and since we have short pit stops it always provides a nice advantage to gain positions in the pits. Again, it's all about staying out of trouble for the first five hours before the last hour.”
Two returning cars are expected to steal the spotlight from the championship contenders. Aston Martin Racing makes its first ALMS appearance since Long Beach 2010 with its Lola Aston Martin coupe, joining Muscle Milk AMR with a second V12 screamer on the grid. Adrian Fernandez, Harold Primat and Stefan Mucke will be aboard the factory effort, in a car which finished ninth last weekend at Silverstone in the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup.
The second of note is Porsche's 911 GT3 R Hybrid, in its second ALMS race (2010 Petit Le Mans), driven by Porsche factory pilots Romain Dumas and Richard Lietz. Further developments to the flywheel-based car have seen its pace improve even more in its second full season of competition. Bergmeister estimated on pure pace, the hybrid could eclipse most of the GT field.
“It's just a rocket ship,” Flying Lizard's chief strategist Thomas Blam said of the hybrid. “We were behind it coming out of Turn 7 at Road Atlanta in practice last year. From the in-car camera you could barely see it by the end of the back straightaway.”
Of the usual contenders, Dyson Racing enters Monterey after its first win with its No. 20 car at Baltimore, an impressive effort delivered by series rookies Steven Kane and Humaid Al Masaood. Their chances of a second straight win increase with underrated ace Butch Leitzinger, a 15-year Dyson veteran, returning to the team for the first time since 2009. Leitzinger won his only prototype start of 2011 in the LMP Challenge class at Road America.
Dyson's primary effort, Guy Smith and Chris Dyson, enter with a 24-point lead over Klaus Graf in the Muscle Milk AMR Lola. Smith took the pole in a Mazda at Mazda's home track a year ago. Jay Cochran joins those two as the No. 16's third driver.
Graf co-drives with Lucas Luhr again after he missed Baltimore. The team produced an incredible effort to even start at Baltimore after the electrical wiring loom was replaced, led by the team's data acquisition engineer Lee Szczypski.
In GT, BMW hasn't won since Lime Rock in July, but still holds comfortable leads of 25 points or more in each of the driver, team and manufacturer standings.
Four teams have won the last five races, and the only repeat winner among them is Team Falken Tire – which has victories in both wet and dry conditions.
Proof positive that even if the championships seem out of reach, it's not easy picking a GT winner from BMW, Corvette, Risi Ferrari and either Falken or Flying Lizard Porsche. Long delivered the win for the Lizards this race last year after a dynamite late-race pass on Joey Hand in one of the BMWs; Long and Bergmeister hope to get the Lizards on the board this weekend.
Perhaps more important than the primary class battles this weekend are the ones in the Challenge classes of LMPC and GTC. There's no guarantee every entrant in the two classes will start at Petit Le Mans due to a lack of paddock and pit space with ILMC entrants gaining priority for the joint ILMC/ALMS race. It makes this event that much more vital.
CORE autosport could have had the LMPC crown wrapped up by now if not for a streak of poor luck plaguing class championship leaders Gunnar Jeannette and Ricardo Gonzalez. They lead Genoa Racing's Eric Lux by just one point. CORE hopes to boost its chances with third driver additions Andy Wallace and Rudy Junco this weekend, and should beat Genoa's third driver Michael Guasch on pure speed.
The hottest team in class is Intersport Racing, which has won two of the last three races with Kyle Marcelli and Tomy Drissi. However, the strongest two drivers in Intersport's camp are split between the team's two entries this weekend.
Meanwhile, three of the last five GTC races have been decided on the final lap. That wasn't the case in Baltimore as Black Swan Racing laid down an authoritative flag-to-flag victory with Jeroen Bleekemolen and Tim Pappas; Pappas enters Monterey with a 25-point lead on Duncan Ende and Spencer Pumpelly of TRG.
In an effort to put their second cars up front, BSR adds Irish ace Damien Faulkner to its second Green Hornet/BSR car while TRG team principal Kevin Buckler makes a welcome return to the cockpit alongside Dion von Moltke and Emilio di Guida in its second effort.
“Laguna's my home track, and I haven't driven in a while,” Buckler said. “I'm just being there for the team, and I just come in as a relief pitcher.”
Five additional GTC entrants, including series debutants Competition Motorsports with a trio of Los Angeles-based drivers and lead driver Cort Wagner, bolster the field.
Five LMP1, one LMP2 (Level 5 Motorsports returns with its new HPD ARX-01g) 13 GT (Robertson Racing's Fords are withdrawn again), the Porsche Hybrid, seven LMPC and nine GTC make up the 36-car field for the six-hour race at Mazda Raceway.
• The American Le Mans Series ModSpace ALMS Monterey airs on ESPN2 Sunday at 1 p.m. EST, and is also available live via web-based ESPN3 on Saturday, starting at 4:15 p.m. EST.