Three Dog Night once suggested one was the loneliest number, and two nearly as bad. On the surface, the prospect of only two full-season LMP1 prototypes battling for the main class championship in the 2011 American Le Mans Series could have foreshadowed a lonely season – if one car fell out, the other won purely by default.
It's a credit, then, to Dyson Racing and Muscle Milk Aston Martin Racing that no such lamentations needed to be sung when describing their 2011 battle for supremacy. The season-long struggle ended with Poughkeepsie, N.Y.-based Dyson securing its first ALMS title.
“That made it even sweeter – the fact we had monumental races at every event,” team principal Rob Dyson says.
“In some respects, it was like a heavyweight boxing match,” adds Chris Dyson, co-driver of the No. 16 car and the team's sporting director. “We faced a very formidable adversary. Many years in the ALMS, it comes down to two protagonists. That's what happened this year.”
Chris Dyson and Guy Smith won only once compared to the series leading four victories claimed by Muscle Milk's Klaus Graf and Lucas Luhr. However, Dyson took a 30-point lead from the outset at Sebring, a deficit that proved insurmountable for Muscle Milk following its failure to finish at the opening 12-hour event.
With that gap, Dyson could afford to finish second every race the rest of the season. But a single failure to finish would drop the gap to single digits.
“Guy and I spoke about it after Long Beach with the [nearly three-month] gap in the schedule,” Chris Dyson explains. “We had to come out the second half driving as aggressively as possible. We knew they'd be fast every race, but we said, ‘We're one reliability problem away from this going to nothing.' If we couldn't win, we made sure we kept it close. That was the secret of our success.”
The third race of 2011, Dyson's home race at Lime Rock, proved pivotal. The team introduced a second car for Humaid Al Masaood and Steven Kane, and sought to avenge its 2010 defeat at that venue. Dyson and Smith duly won from pole.
“It was massive for us; we had a lot of unfinished business,” Dyson says. “We had the extra pressure of friends and family to rally us on. We didn't want to send them home disappointed. From our standpoint, that was the season-defining victory at a critical point. It really set the tone that we'd be playing hard all the way.”
Muscle Milk reeled off three straight wins afterward, but three straight runner-ups meant Dyson and Smith lost just 12 points. The highlight was a battle at Road America where, despite a huge difference in powerplants (normally aspirated V12 Aston Martin vs. a 2-liter turbocharged, 4-cylinder AER-built Mazda), Smith and Graf engaged in a titanic bout for the last hour-plus of the four-hour race.
“That was absolutely great racing between Guy and myself,” Graf says. “We went nuts for the last half hour. It goes to prove that it doesn't take too many cars to make a good race.”
Further runner-up finishes to their Oryx-backed teammates at Baltimore and the factory Aston Martin Racing effort at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca consolidated the lead of Smith and Dyson, and the latter result clinched them the title.
Dyson's championship-winning Lola B09/86 Mazda MZR-R prototype has thoroughly evolved in its three-year lifespan because of several regulation and class changes. In 2009, the car was homologated to P2 class spec, then merged into a combined LMP class for 2010, and shifted into P1 for 2011. New 2011 worldwide prototype regulations saw P1 running smaller displacement engines closer to the former P2, while the restructured P2 entered a new cost-capped era of even smaller powerplants.
Changes to the car included a much narrower rear wing, the use of isobutanol fuel full time from 2010, various tweaks to the configurations of suspension, aero package and chassis and also adjustments to the fuel management system. Engine reliability improved from 2010, with the team not suffering a single in-race failure. Smith also cites the team's switch from Michelin to Dunlop tires at the outset of 2010 as a “calculated risk.”
“I think it's proven a smart choice even though it looked risky at the time,” he says. “They were good last year but this year they were outstanding. We're still running the P2 tires, so we had a smaller tire [than the Muscle Milk car]. That was one of our challenges this year. We had the pace in qualifying, but in a race, the tires had to do quite a lot more work compared to our rival, so our tire wear was slightly higher.”
And so, job done, it's time to look ahead to what will be a banner year for sports car racing globally – the Rolex 24 at Daytona celebrates its 50th anniversary and the new FIA World Endurance Championship has as its centerpiece the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in its 80th running. So could Dyson Racing embark on an ambitious worldwide sports car campaign in 2012?
Daytona is the first major off-season decision. The team has run there only sporadically since the Grand-Am Daytona Prototype era began in 2003. If it were solely a decision of the heart, however, Rob Dyson would return in a beat.
“We've been discussing it, but the problem is, the rules are changing so much, and with brand-new cars coming out, I think the issue will be having the right car and right combinations,” he hints. “We'd have to test and get the cars perfected. But, of course, I'd love to do it; I've done 18 and would love to say I did 20.”
Rob's enthusiasm is tempered by the reality of cost versus return on investment, as Chris Dyson explains.
“We worked very hard to get a car at the Rolex 24 this year, and we got close but not close enough,” Chris admits. “We don't want to spread too thin in other forms of motorsport. Time is very often shorter than you think.”
In contrast, winning the ALMS title has earned Dyson its first-ever invitation to Le Mans. On the surface, it makes sense to act on it, but it's a bigger challenge than just saying, “Yes, please.”
“We've consistently focused on the domestic championship, primarily because it's a lot of effort just to do that,” Rob admits. “Doing Le Mans is a big bite. It's an incredible logistical effort and a fairly substantial financial investment. That's what has prevented us; it's hard
to move everything as a small team. I'm not saying we'll never do it. We continually examine it.”
And it's not just an issue of finance, either, but also potential reward. How competitive can a gasoline-powered car be there? An ACO bulletin issued after Petit Le Mans should force a power reduction of around seven percent for diesels in 2012. However, previous performance balancing adjustments have proven largely futile and oil-burners have maintained a pure pace advantage at Le Mans since 2006.
So performance, not just finance, plays a large part in the Dysons' decisions regarding the world famous enduro.
“It depends on how we can make our car fit under the ACO rules,” says Chris. “Le Mans remains a long-stated goal, but only under the right circumstances. We would have to have a chance per the rules to compete for overall victory.”
And so defending a hard-won ALMS title is the team's primary objective for 2012. Dyson looks to maintain its current two-car status and could potentially add a third, provided the right funding and opportunity present themselves – much as they did for Al Masaood and Kane in 2011. The rookies' perfomances impressed most observers and leaves Rob with an ALMS-based dream.
“In an ideal situation, next year's final race would see our two cars running against each other for the championship!”
And, after this last season, who would bet against that?
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the December 2011 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands. CLICK HERE to subscribe.