With the joint WEC/ALMS round at Sebring in the books, the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patron has its chance to break out and showcase its 2012 product in full this weekend at Long Beach. A few things to watch going in:
MAXIMIZING THE MINIMAL TRACK TIME – Long Beach has always been a bit of an oddity from a schedule standpoint for ALMS. Essentially, the cars are “street sweepers” as they have the first official on-track session of the weekend, a two-hour practice from 7:15 to 9:15 a.m. Friday morning. As Conquest's Martin Plowman joked, “It used to be I was mad when the sports car guys went out early and woke us up. Now I'm one of them!”
Plowman's other point – and one that applies to the entirety of the 35-car field – is that for everyone involved, learning the track, dialing in setup and getting as much possible valuable track time as possible makes this one of the most important sessions of the season.
The reason, simply, is that it's the only session prior to qualifying – which then comes at 5:00 p.m., last of the day, and after five other series and types of rubber have been laid down. The temperatures are cooler in the morning, but are drastically different for qualifying late in the afternoon. It presents a fascinating struggle for the crews and engineers.
MAXIMIZING THE MINIMAL PADDOCK SPACE – Sensing a theme, here? Long Beach is also abnormal for the series as it has to load its cars in to a much smaller paddock space over a bridge, on the east side of turn 9. Teams are unable to build their entire paddock setup with a space estimated at one-third the size of the rest of its races. As a result, many of the cars are worked on in front of the transporters or in the mere gap in-between transporters.
The intimacy, though, is part of the allure of the race as it's a paddock that's seemingly always swarming with fans, and unlike IndyCar, completely free without needing a separate pass. The race is still one of the largest on the series' calendar from fan, media and sponsorship standpoints, even if its track time and space is smaller than normal.
PLAYING THE PIT STRATEGY – As the only two-hour race on the schedule, Long Beach also presents the possibility of teams being able to run the race on one stop. Choosing between one stop mid-race and two stops, one early and one to ensure a run to the finish, largely comes down to how the yellows fall.
Of note, in GT, all cars with the exception of the Aston Martin Vantage and Lotus Evora, which run on E10, all others run on E85 fuel and three of them (Porsche, Ferrari, BMW) have the same fuel tank inlet restrictor of 32mm. Corvette will have a 6mm increase to 38mm. The cars with E10 have a smaller fuel inlet restrictor of 28mm.
DYSON DOUBLES DOWN – As they did from Lime Rock last year, Dyson Racing again brings a second car into the fold for the balance of the championship in a quest to aid its success versus rivals from Muscle Milk Pickett Racing. At Sebring, Dyson's lead effort of Chris Dyson and Guy Smith won the ALMS P1 class, finished fourth among all P1 cars and eighth overall in its new Lola B12/60 Mazda.
The 2011 PC class champion Eric Lux joins up-and-comer Michael Marsal in the team's older Lola B09/86, now upgraded to a Lola B11/66, Mazda coupe. Neither are household names but, as Steven Kane and Humaid Al Masaood proved last year at Baltimore, a win is not out of the question at some stage this season.
CAN MUSCLE MILK DOUBLE UP? – Muscle Milk Pickett Racing seeks to become the first team to win overall at Long Beach in back-to-back years. Penske Porsche, Audi, de Ferran Acura, Highcroft HPD and Muscle Milk Aston Martin have captured the overall wins since the ALMS debuted at the track in 2007. While the win would be the second for Klaus Graf, it would be the third for co-driver Lucas Luhr, after his 2008 and 2011 wins.
GT PRIMER – BMW won last year, the Flying Lizard Porsche the two before that, and a Ferrari F430 the first two. Corvette's won here before, but in GT1 and not yet with its GT2-spec C6.R. All that means is that there's no clear favorite at Long Beach in the series' most competitive class.
Porsche should be extra motivated to win after its news that the designer of the original 911, Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, passed away last week. The No. 45 Flying Lizard car or No. 17 Team Falken Tire Porsche, both with strong street course setups, would be the possible contenders.
Of course, some focus also shifts to Aston Martin – with its Vantage GTE brought to the streets – and Lotus, assuming its new Evora in the hands of Alex Job Racing debuts. Aston has a better chance than does Lotus, not to mention it also has a rabid fan base cheering on one of its drivers – Adrian Fernandez in his adopted home race. The Fernandez/Darren Turner pairing should have the measure of the AJR duo of Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler, each of whom are capable but not yet battle-tested in the ALMS GT arena.
EXTREME SPEED NORMALITY – The ESM Ferrari squad was split differently at Sebring, with Guy Cosmo joining the Scott Sharp/Johannes van Overbeek pairing in the No. 01 Tequila Patron Ferrari F458 Italia. Not so at Long Beach, where Cosmo is back in his usual No. 02 car alongside Patron Spirits president and CEO Ed Brown. The No. 02 finished ahead at Sebring as the No. 01 had two broken alternator belts throughout the race. The team seeks its third podium finish overall, after last coming home third at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca last September with the No. 01 car.
THE PC/GTC BATTLES – Someone other than Gunnar Jeannette will be hoisting the PC class winner's trophy late Saturday evening for the simple reason that Jeannette won't be back at the Beach in search of a three-peat.
That's not to say his team won't. CORE autosport, which won its first ALMS race with Jeannette and Ricardo Gonzalez a year ago, has entrusted Ryan Dalziel – one of sports car racing's hottest properties at the moment – with the duties alongside Alex Popow in the No. 06 car that won at Sebring. Dalziel's addition for this race ensures the class's pro driver lineup remains stellar. Realistically, the class of nine cars is wide-open, with all bar the yet-to-be-determined lineup in the No. 7 Merchant Services entry a possible win contender.
In GTC, the herd has thinned after Sebring winners Bell and Sweedler moved up to GT and Dion von Moltke resumed his Audi R8 duties in the Rolex Series. Sebring runners-up, also from AJR, Leh Keen and Cooper MacNeil have a strong chance at going one spot higher, MacNeil realistically best of the number two drivers in class.
• The American Le Mans Series Tequila Patron ALMS at Long Beach airs live on ESPN2 Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Eastern, and also online on ESPN3.com live Saturday at 7:15 p.m. Eastern.