Tuesday, October 05, 2010

A Thousand Miles in A Thousand Words.

“Strange how the night moves,
with Autumn closing in…” -- Bob Seger

Braselton, GA

With a return to its rightful place as the season-ending Last Big Bash for the American Le Mans Series, this year’s Petit Le Mans powered by MAZDA 2 was a fantastic end to the 2010 sports car racing series.

One year ago, Petit Le Mans was a wash-out, quite literally. The anticipation of Audi vs. Peugeot taking on the hills, valleys, and twists of Road Atlanta had all of the excitement of Ali vs. Frazier on wheels. Of course, epic floods turned parts of the track into swimming holes and fishing camps, cutting short the action and delivering to Peugeot what could best be described as a split decision.

The sports car world didn’t get to see a proper rematch until the 24 Hours of Le Mans back in June, in which the Audi teams fielded a somewhat slower but much more reliable R15+ against the quicker and quirkier Peugeot 908 HDi FAP. For a couple of years now, it’s been no secret that Peugeot has the speed, but Audi has the experience and reliability down to basic math.

Still, with this year’s Le Mans 24 decided more by mechanical failure than by 86,400 seconds of racing, and with last year’s Petit cut short by floods, the stage was set for Ali vs. Frazier II. Peugeot was back. Audi was back. The fight of the year was expected.

This year’s Petit Le Mans lived up to all of the billing.

By now all of the results have been posted, the fan videos are all over YouTube, and it’s history in the books that Peugeot took a 1-2 finish while Audi scored a 3rd place podium finish. The results, however, skip several crucial points that a 15-second analysis on the Speed Report might have missed:

If anyone had any doubts before, Peugeot is for real. The 2009 Le Mans 24 was won arguably by as much luck as played into their loss at the same race this year, but last weekend’s Petit Le Mans showed that in heads-up competition with Audi, Peugeot have gotten the car sorted-out and dialed-in, and the entire team is focused.

Audi, for all of the rumors and hand-wringing over the future of their program in North America, still have the game to beat. Had Dindo Capello not been forced to slow for a lap and pit due to a wardrobe malfunction (the cushion in his helmet worked loose, nudging the fireproof balaclava over his eyes and obscuring his sight), it’s a safe bet that the race would have come down to a last-lap duel, and the win would’ve been anybody’s guess.

The series regulars in LMP2 and GT2 classes were fantastic battles. Faced with a competitive disadvantage for most of the 2010 season to tighten up the class, the Patron Highcroft Racing team scored its second straight series title. While last year was a true head to head fight against fellow Acura team of de Ferran Racing for the crown, this year saw intense competition from both the CytoSport Porsche RS as well as the Dyson Racing Mazda Lolas.

As is often the case in GT (or GT2 for Petit), the season-ending race provided fantastic action and an exciting finish worthy of a Jerry Bruckheimer flick – if Bruckheimer were to ever do a movie about real race cars. An endurance race decided by fuel mileage on the very last lap? Outstanding. While Risi Competizione’s Toni Vilander saw his great run turn into vapor on the last lap in the team’s last race with the Ferrari F430, Corvette Racing’s Oliver Gavin won by the racer’s classic definition of luck: Preparation at the point of opportunity. A thin margin of racer’s luck, too, as Gavin’s C6.R ran dry of E85 as he pulled into the pits after the race.

I haven’t seen the TV numbers, but attendance this year seemed stronger than ever. Entire families, and more young children running around in the infield and posing for pictures next to million-dollar race cars, were everywhere to be seen. Is it possible that while most other racing series in the US have been struggling in bad economic times with declining ticket sales, and TV ratings on a roller coaster, that the ALMS is still broadening its appeal and gathering more fans month by month and year by year?

This seems to be the case.

Spec racer series, where cars are differentiated more by decals than by bodywork, just don’t seem to pack ‘em in like they used to. Fans love variety, and when racing fans in the stands, on the paddock, or watching TV can see a curvaceous GT car that they might actually afford some day, the appeal is undeniable. And while Prototypes certainly aren’t street-going vehicles (outside of Long Beach, anyway), it’s still hard to confuse an R15+ with a 908 HDi, or the curves of a Lola, or a Porsche RS Spyder with a HPD ARX-01c. If variety is the spice of life, the American Le Mans Series brings everything from sage to saffron to habaneros, while some other series keep repackaging salt and pepper.

The American Le Mans Series has continued in 2010 to use the moniker “Global Leader in Green Racing,” and Petit Le Mans provided further validation for the series’ claim. The podium was all-diesel, the GT2 winners won with the last gasp of E85 petrol in the tank, Dyson Racing’s Mazda was highly competitive on Bio-Butanol, and we also saw the debut of Porsche’s much-anticipated 911 GT3 Hybrid. How’s that fuel injection research working out over in NASCAR?

Speaking with many of the fans in attendance, there was widespread agreement that new automotive technologies need to be proven on the race track – specifically in endurance racing – before being considered worthy of customers’ confidence (and money) on the street. While the 911 GT3 Hybrid was not scored by IMSA for the race, it ran great and finished well ahead of quite a few petrol-only entries.

Lastly, a tip of the hat to the American Le Mans Series for returning the season-ender to Road Atlanta, and to Road Atlanta’s staff for making racing’s Fall Classic such a must-be-there. Petit Le Mans has grown over the years into such a great race, it just seems a perfect book-end to match the season’s kick-off at Sebring. Make no mistake: Only Sebring will ever be Sebring, but as of 2010, only Petit Le Mans is Petit Le Mans.

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

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