You may have heard that lately it’s rained and rained in the state of Georgia. Following a few years of drought Atlanta and its environs were suddenly swamped by floods and, after a break of a day or two towards the end of last week, the rains returned on Saturday – race day for the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.
After a long period of drizzle through opening few hours torrential rain and lightning arrived, cutting the race short after less than five hours. It was, to say the least, a very unsatisfactory if necessary finish to the American Le Mans Series’ second jewel-in-the-crown event.
Broadly speaking, the result was a repeat of Le Mans, with the Peugeot team finishing one-two ahead of the pair of factory Audi R15s. Fifth place went to the lone Oreca-AIM, while the top ALMS regular was the Highcroft Acura ARX-02a, a brand new car built on Friday and Saturday at Road Atlanta which started the race from the back of the grid. The team’s usual car, driven by Scott Sharp, was completely destroyed in a collision with a GT2 Porsche during Friday practice. The car somersaulted three times and took out some 500ft of catch fencing, yet Sharp emerged from the wreckage unhurt.
The Peugeots qualified one-two, both lapping more than a second faster than the two Audis as well as Gil de Ferran/Simon Pagenaud in de Ferran’s Acura. From the start, however, the Audis hustled to the front with Allan McNish setting the pace. For a while McNish looked like dominating, but a series of incidents and extended full-course yellows scrambled the field and the Scot made a couple of rare mistakes, spinning on cold tyres under a yellow at one point. Team-mate Marco Werner also slid off the road in the drizzle, then got stuck in the sodden grass.
Just after 4pm, four and three-quarter hours into the race, a long bout of torrential rain arrived, resulting in a full-course yellow, then a red flag. Everyone hoped for a restart and a proper resolution to the day, but the extended downpour left the esses flooded. The grass verges were drowned and anyone who’s ever waded through the infamous red Georgia clay that turns to the most persistent of mud knows that such conditions are impossible. Unfortunately, it took ALMS and IMSA officials another four hours to decide that the race was over.
So the winners were Franck Montagny/Stéphane Sarrazin by two seconds over Nicolas Minassian/Pedro Lamy, with McNish/Ivan Capello another second and a half behind. Werner/Lucas Luhr were a lap down in fourth, while the Oreca driven by Olivier Panis/François Lapierre/Romain Dumas came home fifth another two laps behind.
The new Highcroft Acura driven by Sharp/David Brabham/Dario Franchitti enjoyed a trouble-free run to finish four laps behind the winners in sixth place. De Ferran’s Acura endured a couple of crashes – one in Gil’s hands, the other with Scott Dixon at the wheel – and finally made it home 48 laps down in 24th place. Jamie Melo/Pierre Kaffer/Mika Salo won the GT2 class aboard the Risi Ferrari F430, and Butch Leitzinger/Marino Franchitti/Ben Devlin took the LMP2 class in one of Rob Dyson’s Lola-Mazdas.
“It was more like a mini Le Mans than Petit Le Mans,” winner Montagny half-joked. “Because it had rained for most of the last week we never had a good chance to get the right car set-up. We had some trouble in the rain on wet tyres, but then on slicks we could go really fast and catch up with the Audis. I think if we’d had a full race we would have battled it out with the Audis.
“We travelled thousands of miles to race here, so sure, we’d have loved to run the whole race, but there was so much water that it was just too difficult and not safe. It’s not so much fun.”
Nor was it for the fans, most of whom left during the long delay looking for a nice, dry dinner or an early trip home. We can only hope for a gloriously sunny Petit Le Mans next year.