The 2011 American Le Mans Series begins with a bang. A packed grid that should nudge the 60-car track maximum will take the start of the season-opening Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring this Saturday, March 19.
Peugeot has followed Audi's example by using the Sebring 12 Hours as preparation for the Le Mans 24 Hours. This year, Sebring is also the opening round of the new Intercontinental Le Mans Cup (see sidebar), a competition that links the series running to Le Mans rules around the world. Thus a big chunk of the grid will head back to Europe, not to return until October and the next ILMC round on U.S. asphalt, the ALMS's season-closing Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.
In between, it's left to the ALMS regulars to provide the entertainment, albeit with a reduced field of prototypes that may or may not include reigning champion team Highcroft Racing. Either way, the P1 and P2 entry for round two at Long Beach in April will be in single figures.
ALMS boss Scott Atherton insists there will “continue to be an entertaining prototype battle” in 2011 and that his primary focus now is remedying the lack of entries. To that effect, he's in “daily dialogue with manufacturers, engine suppliers and teams.” However, he points to the ultra-competitive GT field of factory or factory-backed teams from Chevrolet, Ferrari, Porsche, BMW and Jaguar. “With all respect to our LMP competitors, the show is in the GT category,” he says. “and for that we make no apologies.”
In fact, there are interesting questions to be asked of much of the ALMS field.
Will the Aston show some muscle?
You won't hear anyone at Muscle Milk Aston Martin Racing talk about winning the 2011 ALMS title, but that's the intent of the team formerly known as CytoSport.
The California-based organization won two races outright in 2010 with its Porsche RS Spyder and, with that car's career over, sought an alternative. A tie-up with Aston Martin Racing to use one of its LMP1 coupes proves the team has its sights set on winning races if not the championship.
Muscle Milk made a solid start to its 2011 campaign despite only getting its hands on the Lola-Aston in January. The car topped the times at the preseason ALMS test, though Dyson Racing was the only other P1 contender present.
“So far so good,” is how lead driver Klaus Graf describes the team's 2011 preparations. The ALMS regular shares with team owner Greg Pickett and, in the long races, Lucas Luhr. Better still for the team's chances is 64-year-old Pickett's liking for his new mount.
“It's a heavier car and more akin to what he's driven in the past,” says Graf. “He was pretty quick at the Sebring test and will only get quicker.”
High and goodbye?
As we went to press, Highcroft Racing was confirmed only for the season-opening Sebring 12 Hours, but its intent to defend its American Le Mans Series title is clear. It is not scheduled to go to the Le Mans Test Day at the end of April because that date is too close to the Long Beach ALMS round the week before.
Word is that team boss Duncan Dayton is working flat-out to get a full-season budget, following the loss of Tequila Patron sponsorship and its factory status with Honda Performance Development. Should Highcroft contest the full season, it would be favorite for the LMP1 title. It seems certain David Brabham and Simon Pagenaud would drive, with Marino Franchitti joining them in long-distance events. That driver lineup would give them an edge over rivals Muscle Milk and Dyson Racing.
Highcroft's car is last year's (P2-spec) ARX-01c but upgraded to LMP1 with bigger wheels and tires and a new aero package aimed at the Le Mans 24 Hours. In this ARX-01e format, its first test would be at Sebring the weekend before the race.
Can LMP2 lure more teams?
The new cost-controlled LMP2 category has resulted in a buoyant field in the ILMC and the Le Mans Series in Europe, but it has yet to produce the hoped for swath of new entrants here in the U.S. There are five P2s on the entry for Sebring but only three of them are likely to be seen regularly in the ALMS.
That's something that could change quickly through the season, according to Atherton. “We have dialogue with three teams with P2 programs,” he says.
The ambitious Level 5 Motorsports has done exactly what Atherton and the ALMS wanted when it allowed in the ORECA-built Formula Le Mans cars to create the one-make LMPC class at the start of last year. Level 5 won the drivers' title with team owner Scott Tucker and moved up a class for this season.
It fields a pair of HPD-engined Lola chassis, one open-top car and one coupe. It also has a second coupe, which will stay in Europe for the team's attack on the ILMC and the Le Mans 24 Hours. Tucker is expected to drive both, sharing one with Christophe Bouchut and one with former LMP2 frontrunner Luis Diaz.
Can old beat new in Ferrari fight?
Risi Competizione's Ferrari 430 GT was the fastest thing in class last year. So the bad news for the opposition is that it now has what should be an even quicker GT contender in the 458 Italia. How good the 458 is remains unclear. Risi drivers Jaime Melo and Toni Vilander had to make do with car-builder Michelotto's test hack at the Sebring test and progress was slowed by two gearbox failures.
Risi team manager Dave Sims is of the opinion that the 458 is definitely quicker than its predecessor. “It's got more power and the fuel consumption is better because it is a direct-injection engine.”
The gearbox issues at the test and the decision of the AF Corse team, an entrant in the ILMC, to run the old 430 suggests that there are reliability concerns with the 458. Risi is worried by a lack of mileage with its car, which wasn't due to run between a brief shakedown in Italy and a Sebring test the weekend before the race.
Risi has also lost the services of Gianmaria Bruni, arguably the best of Ferrari's roster of drivers. The Italian is focusing on his ILMC campaign with AF.
Will BMW depart in a blaze of glory?
Is this BMW's last chance to add the GT drivers' title to its 2010 manufacturers' and teams' crowns? The program is only confirmed for 2011 and it can be expected that BMW will spend next year preparing for the Grand-Am sanctioned U.S. series for DTM machinery in 2013.
Bobby Rahal's squad, now known as Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, has a revised version of the factory developed V8-engined M3 at its disposal. On the plus side, there's a new aero package; on the minus side, the 2011 car is forced by the rules to adopt the same rear suspension setup as the Schnitzer team used in Europe in 2010.
The priority for BMW is to make the M3 a consistent front-runner on all circuits and at all times. The combination of the M3 and its Dunlop tires all too often lost out on restarts last season.
Can the cats lick the cream?
The factory-backed RSR Jaguar team is back for its second full season with a heavily revised second-gen version of the XKR GT, a largely new driver lineup and an intent to make up for a torrid debut year in the American Le Mans Series.
After winter testing with an interim car, team owner Paul Gentilozzi says: “The results are encouraging. Every indication is that we are going to take a big step forward.”
Two former Champ Car stars Cristiano da Matta and Bruno Junqueira will drive the lead Jag. Neither has much sports car experience, but Gentilozzi insists, “A driver's ability is more important than the category they came from.”
This time there will be a second car. Versatile Belgian Marc Goossens, part of the RSR setup last year, will share with PJ Jones, winner of the Daytona 24 Hours nearly 20 years ago.
Gentilozzi knows that RSR has to deliver in 2011, which is why it has decided to skip the Le Mans 24 Hours, scene of arguably its biggest PR disaster of last season.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the April 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.