Laguna Seca: Race Preview

It’s hard to imagine the end of the American Le Mans Series season is in sight. After 10 action-packed races, the stars and cars end their 2008 journey at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for Saturday’s Monterey Sports Car Championships. While the drivers and teams’ championships are all accounted for, the four-hour enduro into the California darkness will still surely spark up some excitement.

The battle for top LMP1 honors have already gone in the way of Marco Werner and Lucas Luhr and their Audi Sport North America team. But a number of other contenders would like to end their season on a high note as well.

One of Werner and Luhr’s main contenders will come from the team’s sister Audi R10 TDI of Petit Le Mans winner Emanuele Pirro and newcomer Christijan Albers. The former Formula One and DTM star will make his first start at the wheel of the German turbo diesel prototype.

photo by: Audi Motorsport“After having raced an Audi in the 2008 DTM up till now, I’m delighted to have been given this chance by Audi,” Albers said. “I consider it a special treat to be able to compete in an Audi R10 TDI at Laguna Seca. Together with Emanuele Pirro I hope to be able to achieve the targets Audi sets us at the season finale in America.”

It will mark Albers’ first start in sports car racing, but the Dutch driver is hopeful for success. Albers is the second young gun to be given a chance in the R10 TDI this year, after Swiss ace Marcel Fassler paired with Pirro at Road America and Detroit.

“We are faced with the task of rejuvenating our sportscar driving squad for the future,” explains Head of Audi Motorsport Dr Wolfgang Ullrich. “Christijan (Albers) has impressed us in the DTM and certainly has the potential to be successful in sportscars. He gets his first opportunity for this purpose at Laguna Seca.”

The seven-strong field in P1 has been boosted by the debut of another diesel-powered prototype, this one coming from across the pond. After a number of no-shows this season in both Europe and the U.S., ECO Racing will finally run its bio-diesel-powered Radical SR10 for the first time. Indy Lights driver Andrew Prendeville and Japanese sports car ace Hideki Noda will pilot the very unique prototype.

photo by: ECO Racing“After testing successfully over the past two months in the UK, I am delighted that ECO Racing will be at Laguna Seca, one of the great race tracks and a real challenge for our car in its debut event,” team principal Ian Dawson said.  “The team and our partners, Radical and AER, have worked very hard to create the best possible baseline for us to begin our journey into 2009.  I am also very pleased that we have a very strong driver lineup in Hideki and Andrew. We have a great mix of experience and speed.”

In addition to the Corsa Motorsports Zytek 07S, which may run on hybrid power for the first time, Creation Autosportif will also make its second Series P1 start of the year. After suffering damage at Petit Le Mans to one of its cars, the British-based squad will only enter one of its Creation CA07 AIMs for drivers Jamie Campbell-Walter, Stephen Simpson and Liz Halliday.

Speaking of wrecked racecars, Intersport Racing will once again field only one Lola after its second new chassis of the year was totaled at Road Atlanta. Ryan Lewis, who is usually seen behind the wheel of the No. 30 machine, jumps ship to the sole remaining No. 37 entry, replacing team owner Clint Field behind the wheel. Lewis will pair with Jon Field and Richard Berry in the AER-powered Lola B06/10 entry.

photo by: John Thawley “Clint was gracious enough to give me his seat for this weekend as the brand new car the team had procured for the remainder of the year was damaged beyond repair at Petit Le Mans,” Lewis said. “I hope we can finish the year on a high note and that I can maybe pick up a few things from the boss during the last weekend. Laguna is a great place to be finishing the year. I tested Champcar Atlantic there at the beginning of 2007 and I’ve been itching to go back ever since.”

The only other P1 Lola in the field comes from Autocon Motorsports, with Chris McMurry and Tony Burgess handling driving duties in the ex-Chamberlain Synergy Racing machine.

The LMP2 category could once again feature a dogfight of a race, with the Petit Le Mans-winning No. 5 Penske Racing Porsche RS Spyder returning for a final go. IndyCar teammates Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe will be aiming for two-for-two in what could be Penske’s final race with the RS Spyder. The team’s three-car attack is rounded out by recently crowned champions Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas and Green Challenge winners Patrick Long and Sascha Maassen.

photo by: John Thawley After losing out big time to the Porsche boys at Road Atlanta, Acura will be back with vengeance, hoping to pick up the pieces it lost in the difficult 10-hour marathon. Only one of the Acura ARX-01bs finished at Petit, resulting in minimal points scored in the manufacturers’ championship. Porsche now holds an eight-point margin in that title race, and Acura will be hoping to snatch it away in the final race.

After a championship-ending race two weeks ago, Patron Highcroft Racing will be looking to return to victory lane. The Duncan Dayton-led team has withdrawn its protest filed against the Porsche entries for allegedly using illegal fuel at the Petit Le Mans, and is now fully focused on the race at hand.

“Our team has grown tremendously this year,” Dayton said. “The effort put forth to build a car from scratch overnight in Atlanta in time for qualifying was amazing. It’s been a great season and our experiences this year have made this team stronger and more determined then ever, especially when it comes to ending our P2 campaign on a high note.”

photo by: John Thawley B-K Motorsports has also gone through its fare share of rebuilds over the last few weeks. The Wisconsin-based team has worked around the clock repairing its brand-new Lola B08/86 Mazda MZR-R coupe following an incident in the warm-up at Road Atlanta. That accident came just days after an incident in testing that cost them more valuable track time. Fingers are crossed for Ben Devlin and Gerardo Bobilla to make a successful race debut of the new car this weekend.

“Everyone at B-K Motorsports is looking forward to Mazda Raceway with a focus stronger than at any point this year,” Bonilla said. “Our pace in the new Lola coupe at Road Atlanta was exceeding expectations leading up to the race. We’ve had such an outpouring of support from our partners at BP, Mazda, Dunlop, AER, Lola, and the many Mazda fans who come every race to see us. We’re going to make them all proud this weekend.”

In GT1, the two Corvette Racing C6.Rs stand alone once again following the withdrawal of the Bell Motorsports Aston Martin DBR9.

photo by: John Thawley

It’s quite the contrary in GT2, as 15 cars are entered to do battle. Newly crowned champions Jorg Bergmeister and Wolf Henzler will lead the charge in the No. 45 Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 RSR, but a number of serious other entries could be in serious contention for the win.

Never count out Tafel Racing’s Dirk Muller and Dominik Farnbacher, or Petit winners Risi Competizione with drivers Mika Salo and Jamie Melo. Both Ferrari teams should put up a fight to end of the season with a win.

photo by: John Thawley Farnbacher Loles could be another contender with its Porsche for Dirk Werner and Bryce Miller, and Pierre Kaffer and Ben Aucott could pose as another darkhorse in their JMB Racing Ferrari.

A two-hour test session kicks off activities on Thursday afternoon, with practice and qualifying on tap for Friday. The four-hour race into the darkness gets the green flag at 2:45 p.m. PST on Saturday. 

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