The 2011 rendition of Petit Le Mans draws the curtain on the 2011 American Le Mans Series season and may end several other eras as well. As it's also the penultimate round of the 2011 Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, an oversubscribed field will see a vastly different sports car race than any other on U.S. soil this year.
For starters, there are six classes rather than the usual four or five. As in Sebring, there will be full LMP1, LMP2, GT (GTE Pro in Europe) and GTE Am classes, and all such full-season entrants are “locked in” to the field.
Then there are the Challenge classes. Neither LMPC nor GTC will have all its entrants compete in the race, with full-season entrants gaining priority over part-timers. Still, GTC entrants Magnus Racing made the best of the awkward situation with a tongue-in-cheek headline on its press release, “Magnus Racing is Proud to Announce, That, Potentially, it Might Race at Petit Le Mans, Maybe…” A humorous but entirely accurate take on it by the Salt Lake City-based squad …
The popularity of the event means 57 entries have been accepted to participate in practice and qualifying, before the number is trimmed to 53 for the race. LMPC teams have the option of adding a fourth driver for this race if they so choose. Those cars in the Challenge classes that are “locked in” will race provided they achieve a satisfactory time in qualifying.
And yet it breaks down further than that. The P1 class features the prominent diesel entries from Audi and Peugeot versus all the gasoline-powered prototypes elsewhere in the category.
Balance of performance adjustments have reduced the air restrictor sizes on full-season ALMS P1 entrants Muscle Milk AMR and Dyson Racing, whose Lola Aston Martin and Lola Mazda coupes will each have less power to compete. The Aston's two restrictors sized at 31.5 mm goes down by 0.8mm to 30.7mm, while the Mazda's single 44.7mm restrictor drops by 1.1mm.
Early testing this week has shown anywhere from a 2.5 to 3-plus second gap between the different fuel types, with the Audis and Peugeots likely to lap all competitors at even a quicker rate than last year at the 2.5-mile Road Atlanta circuit.
In GT, BMW has also been given its restrictor break per the ACO regulations to its level set before its reduction. Its two restrictors will run at 29.8mm as opposed to 29.4mm, which was enforced before Mid-Ohio.
The final rules-related adjustment sees those ALMS cars which conflict with full-season ILMC entrants will have an added "0" in front as in Sebring, instead of all ALMS cars adding a "0." Only three such conflicts occur.
After a moment to exhale, and realizing the rules only help to set the background for the race, it's time to look at the field of competitors itself. Both the P1 and GT class championships in ALMS were wrapped at Monterey, although the Challenge classes are yet to be settled.
Audi's two new R18 TDIs make their North American debut. Audi hasn't won at Petit since 2008 when Allan McNish's legendary two-lap comeback occurred; the plucky Scot co-drives with Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello perhaps for the final time, and are no doubt primed to send the Italian off with a win.
Peugeot has three cars, two of its new 908s and Team ORECA Matmut's grandfathered, previous generation 908 HDi FAP. The lead factory entry features the flying Frenchmen Simon Pagenaud and Sebastien Bourdais (ABOVE) with Anthony Davidson back behind the wheel. That car should have the measure of its teammate and the older car on pure pace, but as ORECA took the spoils at Sebring, they could still spring a surprise if trouble strikes.
The gasoline sub-category should see the ILMC cars ahead of the ALMS ones in a race of their own. Aston Martin Racing looks to secure “best of the rest” after its outright win at Mazda Raceway, while Muscle Milk looks to upend the factory team with Klaus Graf, Lucas Luhr and a late addition in team principal Greg Pickett. Any of Dyson's two Lola Mazdas, OAK's two Oak Pescarolo Judds, Rebellion's Lola Toyota and Autocon's Lola AER are frankly over matched on pace in the deep category, but figure to score a result on reliability and keeping their noses clean.
P2 is slightly more wide open. United Autosports debuts its Oak Pescarolo Judd (OAK Racing's fourth entry at the 24 Hours of Le Mans) and coupled with the Signatech Oreca 03 Nissan should have the pace in class. Signatech adds 2010 Indy Lights champion JK Vernay to its driver rostrum for his ALMS debut; United Autosports' lineup of Zak Brown, Stefan Johansson and Mark Patterson features some significant long-distance experienced. OAK's P2 car features an all-gentlemen lineup and will podium if others drop out, while either of Level 5's new cost-capped HPD ARX-01g cars has yet to go through a race of this length – even if on paper their driver lineup is strongest.
In GT, regardless of whatever restrictor it ran, BMW has starred in ALMS with seven poles from eight races. The only one it didn't win was at Sebring, when Gianmaria Bruni captured the pole in an ILMC-entered AF Corse Ferrari F430 GT.
It's hard to handicap the field even though BMW should have a purely pace advantage. The team's pair of M3s run under the BMW Motorsport banner this race for ILMC purposes. But beyond the “bimmers,” four of the six Ferrari F458s should play a major role (AF Corse's new one, Luxury Racing's No. 59, and ALMS entrants from Risi and Extreme Speed's No. 01) based on driver and crew lineups.
Corvette, of course, won this class last year after Risi ran out of fuel. And Porsche, with two Flying Lizard bullets, Team Falken Tire in what should be its most competitive endurance showing, and the underrated Paul Miller Racing (Bryce Miller, Sascha Maassen and Emmanuel Collard are far from pushovers in the driver's seat), can never be discounted.
The only entries that are unlikely to figure into the equation are the two ILMC-entered Lotus Evoras, the Robertson Racing Doran Ford GT-R in potentially its last race, and the pair of Jaguars that have made little progress since the start of the season.
GTE Am features six cars, the most noteworthy of which is AF Corse's 430 with Rob Kauffman, Rui Aguas and Justin Bell on board the No. 61 car. While the former two drivers make their ALMS debut, Bell returns to the seat for the first time in years.
Both Challenge classes have tight title battles. Eric Lux (Genoa) holds a slim lead over Gunnar Jeannette and Ricardo Gonzalez (CORE) in LMPC. CORE's strength should come with having two cars in the race with Genoa only one.
GTC sees Tim Pappas (Black Swan Racing) ahead of TRG's Spencer Pumpelly and Duncan Ende, who've already had a fraught start to the week. Again, the trailing car has the edge of a second “locked-in” entry with TRG's No. 68 (ABOVE) having competed in every event while the second BSR/Green Hornet No. 34 has only done a partial season. Not having Damien Faulkner join an already talented driving squad of the brothers Jeroen and Sebastiaan Bleekemolen along with Pappas would be BSR's loss.
• The American Le Mans Series Petit Le Mans Powered by Mazda airs on ABC Sunday at 4 p.m. EST, and is also available live via web-based ESPN3 on Saturday, starting at 11:15 a.m. EST.