Gordon Kirby – The US Scene
Fighting fit in the ALMS
As spec-car racing has swept across America and the world, infecting every corner of the sport, the American Le Mans Series stands out as a breath of fresh air. The ALMS has been bold enough to go against the tide, offering a package of equivalency formulas and different classes that produce an interesting variety of cars with a whiff of innovation. The series is comprised almost entirely of factory-backed teams from Audi, Porsche, Acura and Mazda, and even though there are rarely more than a dozen competitive LMP1 and LMP2 cars with a spread of GT1 and GT2 cars making up the field, the mixture of different machinery with a wide range in performance seems to have served the ALMS well.
Most ALMS races attract pretty good crowds and the series is much more popular both at the gate and on television than the rival Grand-Am series. In fact, the ALMS has become America’s most successful road racing series, anchored by the classic Sebring 12 Hours, America’s oldest road race. There’s also the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta in October and the series draws well in its appearances at other fine North American road courses such as Elkhart Lake, Mosport, Laguna Seca, Mid-Ohio and Lime Rock. In recent years, the ALMS has been added to the card at established street races such as Long Beach, St Petersburg and Belle Isle in Detroit, so there are quite a few good venues and many good drivers, but no big names or superstars. The ALMS is all about the cars and the manufacturers who fuel, fund and market the series.
The big difference between the ALMS and Grand-Am is that the former embraces a more open rulebook and manufacturer-backed teams engaged in ongoing technical development, whereas Grand-Am is aimed at private teams competing in a NASCAR-owned and operated environment of strictly-defined, similar-looking cars.
For quite a few years Audi dominated the ALMS, providing the series’ primary draw with its twin-turbo R8 LMP1 Le Mans sports cars. Over six straight years from 2000-05 Audi swept the ALMS championship with its R8 before switching in 2006 to its ground-breaking turbo diesel R10. The new car brought Audi two more ALMS titles but a serious challenger finally arrived two years ago in the shape of the Penske/Porsche RS Spyder LMP2 cars. Smaller, lighter and less powerful than the Audis, the Penske/Porsches soon proved capable of racing fender-to-fender with the R10s, particularly on the street circuits and shorter, tighter tracks that predominate in America.
Honda also entered the ALMS last year with its Acura brand, running three cars in the LMP2 category with three different teams – Andretti-Green, Fernández Racing and Highcroft Racing. A fourth Acura team, run by owner/driver Gil de Ferran, joins the party this year and a twin-turbo V8 LMP1 car is being built by Honda Performance Development in California. Nick Wirth is the designer of the new Acura LMP1 car which will race next year. Expect Acura to race at Le Mans eventually depending, of course, on how the ACO’s rules shake out over the next few years.
The Penske/Porsches really came on strong last year using their lighter weight, better fuel mileage and sometimes better pit strategy to win no fewer than eight races. This year the Penske operation is joined by Rob Dyson’s pair of RS Spyders so that Porsche has four strong car and driver combinations. Indeed, the new season couldn’t have started much better as one of the Penske Porsches driven by Romain Dumas/Timo Bernhard/Emmanuel Collard won the 12 Hours with one of Dyson’s Porsches taking second after Adrian Fernández’s Acura LMP2 car was disqualified for failing its airbox leak test. Sebring was billed as a preview of Le Mans with an epic battle expected between the Audi R10s and a single Peugeot 908, but both Audis and the Peugeot ran into unexpected troubles on the rough, old airport circuit, allowing the Penske/Porsche to score a faultless win.
Audi’s factory team will focus on racing in Europe this year to combat the challenge from Peugeot so that the Florida-based Champion Racing team will again shoulder Audi’s American effort in the ALMS. It will be interesting to see if the Champion team will be able to contend with the Penske Porsches. Audi’s Allan McNish will race rarely in America this year, but he sees a serious threat from the Penske Spyders.
“We saw Penske and Porsche step up last year and raise the bar, and Acura had to follow,” McNish says. “Porsche have improved their downforce from last year and between that and their fuel advantage, they will be very hard to beat. The Porsches are good in every situation.
“We already had the bar at a pretty high level and now the last shake of the dice is about pitstops and strategy. It’s not so much about how quick the car is, but on everybody thinking at the right time, getting their focus right and doing the job one hundred per cent. You can’t leave anything unturned.
“The Porsches are a little slower than us in qualifying but their race pace is very similar to ours,” McNish adds. “Also, the LMP2 cars’ fuel capacity mean they can run longer than us on a tank of fuel which can add up to three pitstops less over the course of a 12-hour race. So that’s a definite advantage.”
This year’s Sebring victory was the first in 20 years for Porsche at the Florida airfield track. It also marked Roger Penske’s first Sebring win and the first time any team owner has won both the Daytona 500 NASCAR classic and Sebring, let alone doing it in the same year. After winning eight races last year, the Penske/Porsche combination has replaced Audi as the ALMS’s new pace-setter.
NASCAR converts struggle for form
Life in NASCAR is proving rough for the flock of former open-wheel racers who recently made the move to the lucrative Sprint Cup series. Juan Pablo Montoya led the charge last year and continues to be the best newcomer, but his progress seems to have stalled. Juan Pablo has become a regular top 20 runner but not much more.
Rookies Sam Hornish, Dario Franchitti (pictured crashing), and Patrick Carpentier are simply struggling to qualify. Hornish was still in the top 35 in the points after five races, thereby assuring himself a place in the starting field for the rest of the year, but Franchitti and Carpentier have in consequence dropped out of that group.
They now face the same problem as A J Allmendinger in 2007. To make a race they’ve got to qualify in the top 10. Like A J, who has been replaced by veteran Mike Skinner, Dario and Patrick face a kind of stock car oblivion they hadn’t anticipated.
Historic rahal win boosts unified IRL
Nobody in the IRL could have dreamed of a better result. In a difficult wet-to-dry race, Graham Rahal scored an excellent victory on his Indycar series debut at St Petersburg. At 19 years and three months Bobby’s son becomes the youngest driver in history to win an Indycar race, joining Marco Andretti as the only teenager to do so. To have a young American with an established name emerge as a leading star is a great shot in the arm for the unified but struggling IRL.
Graham is a mature young man with a big future. Two years ago he finished a fighting second in the Atlantic series, before stepping up to Champ Car last season. He was teamed with Sébastien Bourdais at Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, where Justin Wilson is now the team leader.
Most of the ex-Champ Car teams were much more competitive on St Pete’s street circuit than at the season-opener on the Homestead-Miami oval. Five of the top 10 qualifiers were ex-Champ Car drivers, and Wilson led the race for a time. In the closing laps Rahal looked like a veteran, pulling away from Hélio Castroneves. An articulate, confident home-brewed new star has emerged, and that’s great for the IRL.