Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Good times, Bad times, you know I’ve had my share…

Sebring, FL –

Last week, while the rest of the country was no doubt busy arguing with itself over the future of health care, a small historic town in Central Florida was busy getting its race on.

Saturday’s running of the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring presented by Fresh from Florida is now in the books; a triumph for Team Peugeot Total, a continuation of turbo-diesel dominance in endurance racing, and a highlight reel that most of the teams featured would love to make disappear. On the way to the checkered flag at the storied 3.7-mile circuit, an abundance of weird calls, unprecedented mistakes, and flat out rotten luck defined the race.

It’s hard to point to any one item, but this year’s Sebring had a different groove to it – as if there was something missing. Something we had all grown accustomed to, something expected, something that makes sportscar racing great. It wasn’t just all the new LMP Challenge cars and GT Challenge Porsches; there was something new that just didn’t feel right:

In their first absence in many years, Audi helped shape Sebring for 2010.

After last year’s hard luck at the Le Mans 24 Hours and rain-shortened Petit Le Mans, Sebring seemed destined to be the point at which Audi would return to form and give relative upstart Peugeot a serious run. As it turned out, Audi was forced to skip Sebring because the R15 TDI racer had to undergo rhinoplasty to sort out its much-protested nose.

With Audi out of the picture, Team Peugeot was the odds-on favorite and they did not disappoint. In a run reminiscent of the last few years of Corvette Racing in the now-defunct GT1 class, Peugeot ran as if they had the class to themselves – working together to put the rest of the field behind them, and occasionally finding the chance to race against each other. Minus another Le Mans-winning turbo-diesel entry in the field, it was Peugeot’s race to lose, and they did a superb job not losing it.

Not to say that Peugeot was the only entry in P1 worth a look – the stunning Aston Martin Racing Lola, done up in traditional Gulf livery (though with Lowe’s as a primary sponsor, which looked a bit odd on the car) was fast throughout the race. All that kept the Aston from running up front, it seemed, was a diesel mill.

While Peugeot merely needed to show up and avoid trouble to effectively guarantee a win in P1, the highly competitive GT2 class (under ACO rules for Sebring and Petit Le Mans this year) was anybody’s guess. Prior to the race, expectations were high for a late-race re-match between Corvette Racing and the Flying Lizard Porsche team – the rival groups had fought like Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns in the latter part of 2009, culminating in a finish-line crash in the season-ender at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca between the Lizards’ Joerg Bergmeister and Corvette Ace Jan Magnussen that sent the latter hard into the outside wall -- but last Saturday, between a renegade wheel from another Porsche taking out Bergmeister’s Flying Lizard, and a first-time ever disastrous miscue in the pits for Corvette racing, both teams were out of contention before the sun retreated into the Western sky.

If the laser-guided attack tire wasn’t enough to ruin the day for the #45 Porsche, driver Joerg Bergmeister was forced to wait for approximately six years before the pits opened, making it all but certain that the second half of the race would be left to the BMW entries from Rahal Letterman Racing to chase down the perennially-fast Risi Competizione Ferrari.

Corvette’s pit-lane shunt between the #3 and #4 car was something nobody had ever seen -- much less dreamed a possibility. It is also something, we can all be certain, that we will never see again from the multiple-championship winning group.

Marc Lieb brought the #45 Flying Lizard Porsche to the finish a mere one lap down from the podium-sitting BMWs, and just two laps off the class-winning Ferrari. The Corvettes, which lost much time due to mechanical and crash issues, still worked out a finish barely 10 laps off the class leader.

Drivers from both teams claim there’s no bad blood between the two, lingering from last year. We’ll see how nicely they get along over the remaining 9 races in 2010.

This year, the American Le Mans Series is sporting a new look, having signed Tequila Patron as Series Sponsor. Patron’s involvement in ALMS over the last several years has been building in size and scope, and they’re an excellent fit. Patron’s name and colors adorn all ALMS banners, as well as a number of entries in the field.

One such entry, the newly minted Extreme Speed Motorsports Ferrari 430 GT, was more notable for its frightening Car-B-Que adventure late in the race. Driver/Owner Scott Speed escaped injury, but the 150 MPH inferno down the Ulmann Straight into the Sunset Bend, destroyed the car and ended any hopes of Speed continuing the success he enjoyed while driving the Patron-sponsored Highcroft Racing prototype in years past.

Highcroft themselves had an early lead, this year going back to their former class in P2. Drivers David Brabham, Simon Pagenaud, and hired endurance ace Marino Franchitti – all once former competitors for Acura, now make up the lone entry for Honda Performance Development. While Honda reps at the track spoke briefly of the name change from Acura to HPD as being done for “marketing concerns,” it seems obvious that with the demise of the Acura NSX, there isn’t anything in the Acura lineup to correlate to motorsports – hence the HPD moniker.

That said, Highcroft’s strong run early in the race was marred by electrical problems which set the team back more laps than they could recover, and the Cytosport Porsche RS Spyder driven by Sascha Maassen, Klaus Graf, and American driver Greg Pickett wasted no time in nabbing the team’s first class win.

The isobutanol/ethanol powered Mazda/Lola of Dyson Racing was fast, but suffered mechanical glitches and was out of contention in the daylight hours. The BP-sponsored Mazda is one of the latest in a number of alternative-fueled entries that are keeping the American Le Mans Series both vital and relevant when it comes to proving new technologies on the track, in the heat of battle. While other series are just recently divorced from leaded gasoline – and now considering the giant leap of getting rid of carburetors in favor of the modern idea of fuel injection, the ALMS is now several years into showcasing a Battle of the Propulsion Technologies with diesel, cellulosic ethanol, and isobutanol all competing with conventional petroleum-derived fuel to help shape how our vehicles will be powered in the near future. Not “some day,” but now and just around the corner.

Casting aside debates between the Gores and the Limbaughs, a few realities have made themselves abundantly clear in the last few years. Chief among these: That petroleum-based fuel carries too many liabilities (be they environmental, political, or both), and that the internal-combustion engine is not going to wither and die off, to be replaced by expensive and environmentally unfriendly batteries.

Want to see where we’re headed for tomorrow’s fuel? Go to an ALMS race.

Joining Patron among the new changes to the American Le Mans Series, we now have two spec-racer Challenge series for 2010: LMP Challenge and GT Challenge. Both are designed, if we’re honest, to increase the car count and keep the grid from looking like the Indy F1 race in 2005. With economic times still dire, the cost of racing at the top-shelf level aren’t exactly in retreat. The two Challenge classes certain did add to the action and excitement, as well as the number of full-course cautions.

I can’t mention caution periods without a comment on how they were handled. When it takes three laps and spare change under caution before the safety car takes to the circuit, something’s not working right. Bergmeister was forced to spend enough time waiting at the entrance to pit road, he could’ve watched Truth in 24 from beginning to end. In this age of gigahertz electronics and instant-everything, it makes no sense that the pits are closed for so long as to directly affect the outcome of the race itself. Safety is and should be the paramount concern of those calling the shots. Providing racers with the opportunity to race and win, should at least be in the top five of those concerns.

Lastly: “You know why there’s no Toyotas here, right? Because you need brakes if you’re gonna’ survive the hairpin…” -- overheard on the paddock.

That, my friends, is a sign of the times.

That’s it for now – I’ll see you at the next pit stop.

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