Consider a box cutter. The gliding track on top has notches – each millimeter-width separation mirroring the length of the exposed blade poised to slice as directed. Then consider the GT field in the 2011 American Le Mans Series. Here, millimeters of separation can become hundredths of seconds, the typical gap from first through 11th on the grid. Of the usual contenders, the four Porsches, three Ferraris and twin pairs of BMWs and Corvettes often find themselves split by such microscopic gaps.
Back to our box cutter. There you are, slicing away as you've done hundreds of times before, when the box cutter suddenly slips out of your hand and injures you. You weren't doing anything differently, but in an instant it bit and sabotaged your continuum of success.
That, in a nutshell, tells the story of Flying Lizard Motorsports' season.
Flying Lizard and Porsche captured the drivers' titles from 2008 through 2010, and the team and manufacturer championships in 2008 and 2009. Jorg Bergmeister and Patrick Long (ABOVE) scored the last two drivers' championships.
In 2011, Flying Lizard didn't have so much as a win until the second-to-last race of the season at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. The overdue triumph came only after a wheel-to-wheel drag-out with both BMW and Ferrari. Title talk was already out of the question with only one other podium finish.
Still, take some dismal luck out of play and the story could be so different.
“Outside of tiny bits of bad luck, we'd have won four races,” says Flying Lizard team principal Seth Neiman, also a co-driver of one of his team's two 911 GT3 RSRs. “And that's even though the car really isn't competitive this year. Other teams have made some progress in terms of their efficiency, pit stops, and confidence in strategy. That's how close it is.”
The execution in 2011 was close, but in this year's GT field, a 97 or 98 percent return rate won't cut it. For Long, the only consistency in ALMS rounds has been a black cloud emerging when in contention to win.
Cases in point: he spun after contact with a Corvette at Sebring, locked up after passing a lapped Ferrari at Long Beach, hydroplaned off course (like many others) in the downpour at Mid-Ohio, and had an early driveline failure at Baltimore. For Long, Mid-Ohio was easily the toughest to swallow.
“I would say we were a little disappointed that it took them so long to call the yellow (at Mid-Ohio),” says Thomas Blam, Flying Lizard's chief strategist. “Cars flew off the track left and right. Patrick just hydroplaned off the straightaway into the gravel trap. We had everything going perfectly, we went to rain tires at the right time, but it was the most disappointed we've been.”
Neiman (LEFT) doesn't suggest Flying Lizard overachieved the past few years, but reckons the team's overall execution overcame a performance gap to the competition.
“Clearly, the last three years before 2011, at no point did we have the fastest car,” he says. “Some circuits and conditions suited us really well. We were winning through a combination of perfect execution and the ability to gain time in the pit stops.”
While the Lizards press on with the oldest car currently on the GT grid, their rivals have upped the ante with improvements on their own cars.
BMW – which secured the driver and team championships in Monterey – upgraded its M3 to full ACO spec and maximized the performance of its Dunlop tires in all conditions. Seven poles and three wins bear that out.
“This year, we've seen in qualifying that there is a dominant car from a pure speed standpoint,” Long says of the BMWs. “The good thing is, as of late, the quickest car hasn't always won. We're racers, and with that, when you aren't winning it just makes you dig deep.”
Flying Lizard's fellow Michelin competitors, Risi Competizione Ferrari and Corvette Racing, had one ALMS win apiece this year.
Corvette finely tuned its GT2-spec C6.R to a point of success, but it's still a couple tenths off BMW's outright pace in its second full season. Contrastingly, Risi has borne both inevitable first-year reliability issues and some tactical missteps with its new Ferrari 458 Italia, even as it's shown some speed.
And Flying Lizard presses on with its 911 – a car beyond five years in its cycle – yet one that still has won twice in Team Falken Tire's hands.
Without wholesale changes, the team has still remained competitive. Little tweaks in 2011 included some aero and suspension adjustments, and a weight reduction of 33lbs implemented before Baltimore.
“Performance-wise, we've done better than I actually expected,” Bergmeister says. “I would say even better than last year – we just never got the results!”
Bergmeister says the car adjustments and Michelin's tire development have improved the Lizards' setup. Blam views Michelin as still the tire of choice, but he acknowledges both Dunlop and Falken have made huge strides this season.
“For a long time it was, if you came close to Michelin, you were doing a good job,” Blam says. “But on the performance side in Europe and over here with BMW, Dunlop is neck and neck with them. There's almost no difference between them. Falken, for a one-car effort, has done a tremendous job. We obviously saw they have a great rain tire and their dry tire has done much better.”
Long and Bergmeister haven't forgotten how to wheel a Porsche, but almost victims of their own success, any minute mistakes have been magnified. Long's season has been a mix of ALMS, Intercontinental Le Mans Cup and Pirelli World Challenge starts in various models of Porsche 911s. The Porsche factory driver, who clinched the World Challenge GT title at Monterey, says more races improve his focus.
Porsche's new 911 premiered at the Frankfurt Auto Show but, given the necessary upgrades from the road-going model – which include an increased wheelbase, new engine and lower frontal area – a race version is unlikely to be homologated for competition until 2013.
The changing worldwide sports car landscape also looms large to the Lizards. Porsche's new P1 prototype, due in 2014, and the new World Endurance Championship both present intriguing options, but the team says it won't shift its priorities away from ALMS.
“I can't say we wouldn't consider those, and it's part about what Porsche wants to do,” Neiman says. “But it's not at the top of my list. In my mind, at this stage of the game, the ALMS is by far the best GT racing in the world.”
Regardless of its handicaps, the team expects to be in championship contention again in 2012.
“I always like to say, every weekend, there is somebody in the paddock doing something better than we are,” Neiman says. “That means there's more for us to do, and that's the way we take it.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the November 2011 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands. CLICK HERE to subscribe.