Grand glory for Porsche

A ferocious last stint by Juan Pablo Montoya made for an enthralling final two hours to this year’s Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. After a magnificent duel Montoya’s Lexus-powered Riley Daytona Prototype was beaten by David Donohue’s similar car, whose more powerful Porsche engine enabled the 42-year-old veteran to score the biggest win of his career.

Donohue is the son of the great Mark Donohue, who won the Daytona enduro 40 years ago aboard a Penske Racing Lola-Chevrolet. David is lead driver of the two-car Brumos Porsche team based in nearby Jacksonville, which had not won the famous race for 30 years prior to its success in late January.

Donohue’s co-drivers were Buddy Rice, Darren Law and Antonio García, while Montoya was sharing one of Chip Ganassi’s two Riley-Lexus with defending Grand-Am champions Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas. Just five seconds further back in third place was the second Brumos Porsche-Riley driven by Hurley Haywood/J C France/João Barbosa/Terry Borcheller, while Wayne Taylor’s Ford-Dallara driven by Taylor/Max Angelelli/Brian Friselle/Pedro Lamy took fourth, also on the lead lap.

Victory came as a great boost to the Brumos operation, run by veteran crew chief Mike Colluci, and it stood despite the winning car being found to be more than 12lbs underweight at the post-race inspection. Five championship points were docked from the team, its drivers and the manufacturer by way of punishment, in addition to a $5000 fine for Brumos, leaving Ganassi, Montoya, Pruett and Rojas to head the standings.

Brumos has been on an uphill climb in recent years and victory at Daytona showed that its Porsches will be serious title contenders in 2009. The team has been helped in its quest, of course, by Grand-Am’s desire to see a Porsche in the winner’s circle, which has led to the manufacturer getting a break this year over its Lexus, Ford and Pontiac rivals.

Grand-Am champions in 2007 and ’08, Pruett and Alex Gurney were particularly vocal about the situation at Daytona. The pair have been lobbying officials to level the playing field for the rest of the season, but neither had much hope that Grand-Am will grant them any breaks. With Porsche pulling out of the rival American Le Mans Series and Penske Racing joining Brumos in Grand-Am with Porsche-powered cars, series bosses hope to pull the manufacturer into focusing its American sports car efforts on the Daytona Prototype series.

Such will be the case for this year and possibly 2010 too, but Porsche is expected to return to the ALMS in 2011 with an LMP1 car powered by a 2-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged engine. Grand-Am will enjoy Porsche and Penske’s participation, and the series hopes to take advantage of the ALMS’s weakened state to establish a stronger footing for itself in America in the next year or two.

Penske’s Porsche-Riley, driven by Timo Bernhard/Romain Dumas/Ryan Briscoe, qualified second at Daytona. The car was in the thick of the battle for the lead until fuel feed problems and a CV joint failure dropped it down the field. Bernhard/Dumas/Briscoe eventually finished sixth, 18 laps behind the winner.

It will be interesting to see how the season unfolds. Grand-Am passes through a three-month hiatus before resuming at Virginia International Raceway at the end of April. Will the Brumos and Penske Riley-Porsches continue to be the cars to beat? Or will the Ganassi, Wayne Taylor, Gainsco and Mike Shank teams bounce back into the spotlight, with or without Grand-Am’s help?

At Sebring the day after the Rolex 24 we were treated to the unveiling of Acura’s innovative new ARX-02a LMP1 car. It’s incredible to report that the Acura and Rob Dyson’s Lola-Mazda LMP2 are the only really new racing cars we’ll see in action in the United States this year! The great spec car plague in Indycars, Grand-Am and NASCAR has purged us of this pleasure and emphasised the point that the ALMS is one of the few places we can enjoy the sport as a crucible of new things.

Designed and constructed by Nick Wirth’s Wirth Research group in the UK and Honda Performance Development in California, the Acura is powered by a 4-litre, naturally-aspirated V8 producing around 620bhp. An intriguing feature of the car is that its 18-inch front wheels and Michelin tyres are the same dimension as the rears, requiring a complex power-steering system and producing close to a 50/50 front to rear weight distribution.

“The more rubber you get on the ground with a racing car, the faster it’s going to go,” said Wirth. “There were a number of factors conspiring against us to make this work. The first is that big front wheels are terrible for aerodynamics on any racing car, whether it’s a Formula 1 or an LMP1. When you put big front tyres on a sports car it tends to kill downforce, particularly front downforce. It’s certainly one of the most challenging and exciting projects I’ve ever been involved with in motor racing.”

The Acura has been testing since early December and will be raced this year by Gil de Ferran’s team and Duncan Dayton’s Highcroft Racing, making its debut at the season-opening Sebring 12 Hours in March. De Ferran is the lead driver of his team, partnered regularly by Simon Pagenaud, with IRL champion Scott Dixon joining them for Sebring and possibly Petit Le Mans in October. Highcroft’s regular drivers are David Brabham and Scott Sharp, with Dario Franchitti joining them as the team’s third driver at Sebring.

“One of the things that jumped out when I first drove the Acura is that it has a lot of grip in corners and under braking,” said de Ferran. “Our biggest challenge so far has been how to make the best use of the grip. Making the decision to have the same size tyres all round has unearthed a lot of engineering challenges and problems that didn’t previously exist.
“From a driver’s standpoint there’s a lot you need to adapt to. We’re trying to create what could arguably be called the best-handling sports cars ever made.”

Meanwhile Porsche’s withdrawal of its RS Spyders from the ALMS has resulted in Rob Dyson making a new start this year with a pair of Lola-Mazda LMP2 cars. The new Lola is a closed coupé and only one car ran at the Sebring test in January. But Dyson is enthusiastic about the project and the Lola certainly looks the part – small, nimble and seemingly capable of the occasional giant-killing act.

This year’s Sebring 12 Hours should be a fine race, with the new Audi R15 making its debut against a pair of Peugeots in preparation for the Le Mans 24 Hours. It’s unfortunate that this will be the only time this year that Audi and Peugeot will race against the new Acura. The Acura may compete with the Audi and Peugeot on speed, but the ARX-02a is a complicated car and is unlikely to run trouble-free in its first race, particularly on the punishing Sebring track.

Without any Audis or Penske or the Dyson Porsche Spyders, the rest of the season will surely prove challenging for the ALMS. To both the racing enthusiast and the wider world, Acura vs Mazda is not exactly Audi vs Porsche. Nor does there appear to be much depth to the slim field of ALMS prototypes, and series officials hope Porsche will return in 2010 or 2011 with its expected new car. Still, the ALMS is at least keeping the flame of innovation alive in the spec car-dominated world of American racing.