Gordon Kirby

Chasing new highs

Duncan Dayton’s Highcroft team won last year’s American Le Mans Series with an Acura ARX-02a LMP1 driven by David Brabham and Scott Sharp, with Dario Franchitti joining them for the longer races. This year Dayton’s team is expected to repeat its championship success in a depleted field of prototypes. The demise of Acura’s P1 programme means that few, if any, LMP1 cars will contest the full ALMS schedule.

Highcroft is running an updated 2008 ARX-01c LMP2 car (above) called an HPD (Honda Performance Development), and the only competition it will face on a regular basis is a pair of P2 cars – Rob Dyson’s lone Lola-Mazda coupé and Greg Pickett’s Porsche RS Spyder.

The ALMS is trying to focus fans and the media’s attention on the GT2 class with factory-supported teams from Corvette, Porsche, Ferrari, BMW and Jaguar. The competition is fierce in GT2 and the cars are good-looking and well prepared by first-class teams. Practically, the ALMS is well-served to push GT2 as much as possible this year. The factory Corvettes, Risi Ferrari and Paul Gentilozzi’s Jaguar GT2 will also race at the Le Mans 24 Hours, and Dayton’s Highcroft team will join them with its P2 car. Former historic racer Dayton has long harboured an ambition to run a team at La Sarthe and, with the help of sponsor Patron, he will realise the first stage of that dream this year.

“There’s a lot for us to learn and understand about doing Le Mans,” Dayton acknowledges. “We’re going this year with a P2 car and we think that’s a good first step for us, but ultimately the goal is to go with a P1 car and win outright. It’s probably more appropriate in some ways that we go as a P2 entrant in our first year to learn the ropes.

“Obviously, it’s a big learning curve for us. We’ve never done a flyaway race and some of our guys have never been out of the country, so there will be a bit of a culture shock for some of them, let alone taking in the spectacular scope and duration of the event. It’ll be a unique experience for a bunch of them but everybody is totally excited about it. It’s a huge logistical excursion. I think we’re shipping over seven and a half tons of equipment. We feel well prepared and hopefully we’ll be able to perform well.”

Wirth Research has developed a low-drag, long tail for the ARX-01c specifically for Le Mans. “This car’s biggest impediment in the past has been straightline speed,” says Dayton. “It gets to terminal velocity and begins to stall. We’ve always been a couple of miles per hour down on the Porsche Spyders and even Dyson’s car.”

Simon Pagenaud has replaced Sharp this year as Brabham’s regular co-driver, with Marino Franchitti taking over from brother Dario as the team’s regular third driver in the longer races. Pagenaud will drive for Peugeot at Le Mans, however, so Dayton has hired Audi veteran Marco Werner to partner Brabham and Franchitti in the 24 Hours.

Dayton is one of the ALMS’s biggest supporters. With Scott Sharp’s help he’s persuaded Patron to become the series’ presenting sponsor. Patron operates an active marketing and promotion campaign around its racing programme and is a big help to the ALMS in these times of reduced manufacturer support in the prototype categories.

“I remain extremely optimistic about the future of the American Le Mans Series,” says Dayton. “It’s the only series in the world that manufacturers can legitimately support and invest in because it has an open rule book and a place where they can showcase their technology. I believe there will be new manufacturers coming in. I think more and more manufacturers are getting the message. Certainly 2008 was a high water mark in the last 20 years for sports car racing in America, and I think as the economy comes back we’re going to see it again.”