Sunday, March 18, 2007

Sebring 2007 notes, Final

It's now 12:01 AM, Sunday, March 18, and the 12 Hours is history.

I can't start this without talking about the finish -- specifically, the GT2 finish. It was a foregone conclusion that P1 and GT1 were going to be the same old boring deal all year, as there is no real competition for Audi and Chevy Corvette in those two classes, respectively. On the other hand, P2 and GT2 were positively on fire all day, into the night.

The race-end duel between Jorg Bergmeister and winner Jaime Melo might not have been foreseen in the earlier hours, when Melo did an outstanding job of bringing his Risi Ferrari out of a turn 17 spin that by all rights should have ended up in a tire wall. Melo recovered without a scratch, and drove on. Late in the race, with Melo in the lead, Flying Lizard Jorg Bergmeister turned up the volume on his Porsche 997, carved his way through the field, and challenged for the lead in the final minutes. On the very last lap, heading under the bridge in turn 17, Bergmeister briefly edged ahead. Melo drove Bergmeister nearly to the left-side wall, on the way to making the pass and taking the checkered flag. While the pass was certainly controversial (and no doubt Porsche likely has a protest underway as this is being written), the finish was among the most exciting of any class in any ALMS race I've seen.

The newly-minted Andretti Green Racing entry with the open wheel aces Bryan Herta, Dario Franchitti, and Tony Kanaan at the wheel spent much of the race on the lead lap, keeping the ever-dominating Audi R10 lead car on the run. At times, the split for overall lead between P1 and P2 cars was under 1 second.

AGR wouldn't have kept heat on the Audi all day, without having already dealt with formidable opponents from Penske and Highcroft.

I've never been a Honda/Acura fan at all (save for the NSX), but they're rapidly gaining my respect as a very real racing enterprise. First race, outta' the box, and they put away not just Penske, but Intersport Lola as well. Astounding.

If there's one thing that was glaringly apparent this time around, it's that ALMS has a huge task on its hands in terms of getting the classes sorted out. Lack of competition in P1 and GT1 is damnable offense - those are supposed to be the top-flight classes showcasing the finest in Prototype and GT racing, and instead all of the action is in the lower-level "2" rungs. That's not a knock at any of the teams competing in P2 of GT2 - if anything, those guys put on one of the greatest shows I've seen, ever. The racing in the two '2' series made me wonder why there really needs to be four distinct classes anyway - at least now, when the two top-flight classes are effectively high-speed parade laps for Audi and Corvette. I'm quite sure the Wolfgang Ulrich and Doug Fehan (managers for Audi and Corvette, respectively) would much rather have bragging rights to having beaten a real opponent on race day, rather than just having to settle for what amounts to an automatic win for showing up.

Peter's comment that, with no real competition in GT1, ALMS should allow the Corvettes to run wide-open with no air restrictors, is an idea whose time is now. The Corvettes are without a doubt THE biggest fan-favorite out on the track, and if they can't have any competition in their own class, why not let 'em chase down some unrestricted Audis? To hell with class designations, let's see some knock-down drag-out racing at its finest.

On the advancing-technology front, ALMS announced last week that it will phase-in use of ethanol across all classes, starting this year and increasing as time goes on. In addition, various alternative fuels are being examined for use in the cars - including bio-diesel for the Audi TDI entries (and any other teams coming into the series running diesels, which would certainly be welcomed). As diverse as the cars are in ALMS, we may soon see competition among fuels powering those cars, as well.

Racing has always been about innovation and using the track as a rolling test-bed for what we see on the street later. That hasn't been the case so much in recent years, but that backwards trend is set to change. Be it ethanol, bio-diesel, hydrogen, or Mr. Fusion, in 2007 we're seeing something we've needed for a very long time: Auto racing as a leader in developing new technologies that will find their way into mainstream use. Peter is all about it with the Hydrogen Electric Racing Federation, open-wheel racing is going all-ethanol now, and the American Le Mans Series is going big with it now, too.

I got the sense, listening to Scott Atherton speak about the emerging technologies for fueling the cars in ALMS, that the series is developing both a vision and a message. It has its ties to the ACO with the Le Mans 24 Hours, but now the ALMS has its raison d'etre.

That's it for now, see you at the next pit stop.

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