RACER web editor Tony DiZinno looks at the field for this year's Petit Le Mans, starting with the prototype classes.
P1 – The situation in P1 is easily the most altered from a year ago. This year's Petit marks the first without Audi since the second running of the race in 1999, and the first without its rival Peugeot since 2007. You can't sugarcoat it; the international flavor of the plethora of P1 prototypes is gone. On the flip side, that gives the remaining competitors a shot at overall glory for the first time in a dozen years.
Going in, the P1 title is still yet to be decided. While Muscle Milk Pickett Racing has been the faster and more successful team this year – six class wins to Dyson Racing's three – they will need to complete 70 percent of the race distance to score points and ensure the 13-point lead is not erased.
The last two years have been fraught with disappointment for Greg Pickett's squad at Petit. The team ran nearly the entire 2010 race, the last for the venerable Porsche RS Spyder, down on power, while an early retirement after just 63 laps took the Lola Aston Martin out a year ago. Hitting that magic mark and staying out of trouble are the two main goals for the HPD ARX-03a, driven by full-season pilots Klaus Graf and Lucas Luhr with Romain Dumas back for his third drive with the team.
The No. 16 Dyson Lola Mazda took the class win at Sebring following a fuel buckeye failure on the HPD in the final hour, and employs the same trio this race with Guy Smith, Chris Dyson and the ultra-quick Irishman Steven Kane adding an extra dash of speed to the lineup. With nothing to lose, the Dysons can push harder, and can take its second straight title if Muscle Milk hits issues. The team's older second car, driven by Tony Burgess, Mark Patterson and Chris McMurry, is unlikely to challenge on pace.
Rebellion Racing brings the lone wild card entry with its spare, rebuilt third chassis brought to the U.S. in-between rounds of the FIA World Endurance Championship. The goal is simple for the Swiss squad – winning overall with the factory heavyweights out of the way. The team finished fifth a year ago with Andrea Belicchi, Neel Jani and Nicolas Prost, and the trio is back in the new Lola B12/60 Toyota to go four better in 2012.
NISSAN DELTAWING – It's take two for the Nissan DeltaWing, which more than impressed in its 24 Hours of Le Mans debut and now makes its first American race appearance at Petit. Without performance standards enforced by the ACO, this could be the chance for the DeltaWing to show its outright pace. At this track, it should be close to if not at the top end of the P2 times.
Gunnar Jeannette is a stellar addition to the driver lineup and it's a great opportunity for Spaniard Lucas Ordonez, the GT Academy racer-turned-driver now finishing his second year of full-time racing. He won't match Jeannette on pace but provided he can keep the car in one piece, will go a long way to ensuring the car finishes.
P2 – Bolstered by four additional European Le Mans Series entrants, P2 might be the hardest class to predict going into the race. Eight total P2 cars is not a huge number but certainly a substantial one where any of them could win.
The ALMS title situation first – back-to-back wins for Level 5's lead pair of Scott Tucker and Christophe Bouchut have netted them a 16-point gap over the Conquest Endurance duo of Martin Plowman and David Heinemeier Hansson. As in P1, all Level 5 will realistically need to do to clinch is to hit the 70 percent mark and score points. Luis Diaz moves over from the No. 95 to the No. 055 to bolster the efforts for the championship contenders.
The all-star second car for Level 5 features the Franchitti brothers driving alongside each other, Dario and Marino each available after earlier conflicts this season. As defending class winners, the race is Level 5's to lose with either of its two HPD ARX-03bs.
Conquest's is not the sole Morgan Nissan – its European partner OAK Racing has an extra chassis on hand and is one of the four ELMS cars to make the trip. Team principal Jacques Nicolet will make his third straight Petit start alongside IndyCar refugee Bertrand Baguette in his first, and Olivier Pla who is back to OAK's P2 Morgan Nissan after running in the team's P1 car at Petit a year ago.
The lone Lola is Dempsey Racing's Lola Judd, back for the first time since Road America, with Patrick Dempsey, Joe Foster and the young but experienced Dane Cameron as third driver. This race puts a cap on one of the more ambitious campaigns of the year, as Dempsey's squad has been active in ALMS (P2 and PC) and Grand-Am (Mazda RX-8 GT) for the full season.
The three other ELMS P2 cars break down to two ORECA 03 Nissans, from Thiriet by TDS Racing and Murphy Prototypes, and the Greaves Zytek Nissan. Greaves has Tom Kimber-Smith at its disposal alongside Alexs Brundle and Buncombe, while Thiriet starred at Le Mans with second place in the 20-car class (keep an eye on Mathias Beche, a young Swiss driver) and Murphy (LEFT) has potential in the form of its driver lineup, ex-Red Bull driver Brendon Hartley with veterans Warren Hughes and Jody Firth alongside.
PC – The road to class wins in PC goes through CORE autosport, but this was a race the team didn't win in its debut season. The No. 06 rallied to tie for the class championship after incidents and mechanical issues throughout the day, while the No. 05 was tapped into a late spin that cost it a podium position.
The No. 06 has two full pro drivers in Ryan Dalziel and Mark Wilkins alongside perhaps the year's top Am-rated driver Alex Popow. Still, the No. 05 can't be discounted with Colin Braun, team principal Jon Bennett and PC class veteran Ricardo Gonzalez. With nothing to lose, CORE can go full out to book-end the season with endurance race victories.
Defending class winners PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports might be hard-pressed to do likewise. Elton Julian joins Ken Dobson and Rudy Junco in the team's No. 52 entry; although the team won last year with Dobson and Henri Richard, also two Ams, it's doubtful Julian will have the same impact as Ryan Lewis did as the car's sole pro driver. Racing with two Ams in WEC (Gonzalez and Christian Zugel), Julian has been unable to record a victory.
Lewis adds a punch to Dempsey's PC entry – the Englishman's got the speed to match his dry, sarcastic wit – and after a season that has only featured two podiums, this could be the race the team scores its first class victory. All three (Lewis, Richard and Duncan Ende are prior Petit winners in either PC or GTC, or in Richard's case, both) and Ende is a marked upgrade from Dobson.
RSR could figure in the equation, as well. Bruno Junqueira's been one of the year's fastest drivers, which hasn't been surprising, but has rarely got the car in a contending position. Usual co-driver Tomy Drissi is alongside and the team is taking a flier on Puerto Rican rookie Ricardo Vera, a former IMSA Prototype Lites champion who hasn't had a great opportunity to prove himself in PC machinery.
Kyle Marcelli will again provide Merchant Services' best chance at success, the team's lone pro driver alongside Matt Downs and Chapman Ducote. The team withdrew its second car; Performance Tech Motorsports also withdrew its planned entry.
• Coming up tomorrow: a look a the GT classes.