Laguna Seca: Race Report

Qualifying doesn’t win races, and in typical Audi fashion, Marco Werner and Lucas Luhr proved that once again Saturday at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. The German duo came from behind to take the overall victory in the Monterey Sports Car Championships, the season-ending round of the American Le Mans Series. The LMP1 drivers’ champions led home an Audi Sport North America 1-2 finish, in a caution-filled race that will be also remembered for a nail-biting finish in LMP2.

Luhr started his No. 2 Audi R10 TDI from the 10th position overall, one spot behind class pole sitter, and teammate, Christijan Albers. The second-year Audi driver was out front overall by lap 37, but different pit strategies jumbled up the running order for the first half of the four-hour race.

photo by: John Thawley

“For me it was exciting, every time I would overtake someone, the very next lap the team manager said, full course caution,” Luhr said. “I thought am I going to get some racing laps here, but I could take advantage of the restarts… We just kept moving our way back to the front.”

A record 12 full-course cautions slowed the field for nearly a third of the race, mostly due to off-course excursions by a number of competitors. That in turn kicked up sand and dirt, providing more challenges for drivers on top of not being able to keep heat in their tires while parading behind the safety car.

“It’s not so easy here,” Werner said. “There was a lot of sand on the track and it gave us a hard time. Not every lap had the same conditions. We saw a lot of GT cars cutting the curbs and bringing the dirt on the track. With the prototype you have a lot of down force and grip and then it just goes away and you snap your rear and lose the car.”

After losing a lap early on because of a green-flag pit stop, Luhr rebounded and worked his way back up the leader board before handing the diesel-powered machine over to Werner. On the final restart with 26 minutes remaining, Werner powered by race leader, and teammate, Emanuele Pirro to take the top spot and the win by 1.941 seconds.

photo by: John Thawley “It was kind of emotional for me to overtake EP in his last race,” Werner said. “I had the opportunity and I knew I had to take it but it was hard. I had a good time in traffic and pulled out with a good gap. It was a good race and great day.”

Pirro and Albers finished second in what was the Italian’s swansong for Audi in a prototype. A veteran of 15 years, Pirro looked to be on his way to an emotional final win for the German brand, but instead faltered on the final restart.

“Unfortunately I was in second gear at the last restart instead of first,” Pirro said. “After so many good restarts in my career I was sleeping this time. But all in all it has been a positive race.”

While the focus once again was on Luhr and Werner, who took home their sixth overall win of the year, many eyes were turned to the epic battle for LMP2 honors. Moments after the final restart, which saw a change in the overall lead, Tony Kanaan and Simon Pagenaud were locked into their own battle for the class win. The duo, piloting similarly prepared Acura ARX-01bs, swapped the lead twice in a 15-minute span, with the Andretti Green Racing entry coming out on top, but by just 0.054 seconds.

photo by: John Thawley

“The battle with Simon was as good as anything I have done in Indy Car racing,” said Kanaan, who shared the wheel of the winning Acura with Franck Montagny. “He raced clean and we swapped positions several times. I love driving these prototype cars. Winning today was a thrill for me.”

Kanaan and Montagny both scored their second career Series victories, as the IndyCar ace was part of AGR’s debut win in 2007 at Sebring. For Montagny, it’s his second win of the season after taking top overall honors at Detroit with co-driver James Rossiter.

“This a great way to finish the season,” Montagny said. “Without the late problem at Petit, we could have won the last three races. Driving in the American Le Mans Series has been great fun for me. The series is so competitive and the cars are great. It was fun to drive with Tony, too. He is a professional and he did a great job today at the end of the race. This is exciting for me.”

photo by: John Thawley Pagenaud and co-driver Gil de Ferran gave Acura another 1-2 finish, in what was one of the closest finishes in Series history. The de Ferran Motorsports team, though, completes its rookie season without a victory, something that’s eluded them on a number of occasions this season.

“Wow, Tony and I had a quite a race today,” Pagenaud said. “I know we were wheel-to-wheel lap after lap. And we raced cleanly. No dirty driving at all. We had a car to win today and it took a great drive by Tony to beat us. I feel good about our race and I hope the fans enjoyed the battle too.”

Class champions Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas came home third, helping give Porsche the manufacturers’ crown in P2, but only by one point. Acura needed to sweep the podium in order to steal the title away from the German brand, but its two other ARX-01bs suffered mid-race misfortunes.

photo by: John Thawley First, the Patron Highcroft Racing entry of Scott Sharp and David Brabham ran into power steering issues while the Lowe’s Fernandez Racing machine of Adrian Fernandez and Luis Diaz had a dead battery, costing them a lap in the pits. Both cars proved to be contenders for the win early on, and Fernandez even recorded the fastest race lap in P2.

Oliver Gavin and Olivier Beretta broke through to claim GT1 honors, taking their third win of the season. The duo drove to a 13-second victory over the sister Corvette Racing C6.R of champions Johnny O’Connell and Jan Magnussen.

The day was especially memorable for Beretta, who claimed his 40th Series victory, becoming the first driver in ALMS history to reach this historic mark.

photo by: John Thawley “With all the victories I have, I was lucky to drive for a good team and to have very good teammates. I was not alone,” Beretta said. “I was thinking about the restart on cold tires and driving like I was in the wet. I put the power down and everything went okay.”

After losing out on the championship two weeks ago, Tafel Racing rebounded to claim victory in GT2. The No. 71 Ferrari F430 GT edged out Risi Competizione’s Mika Salo and Jaime Melo by six seconds, giving the Tony Dowe-led organization its fourth win of the season.

photo by: John Thawley “Winning the last race is sweet,” Muller said. “I would say we had one hand on the championship trophy all year. I am proud of our team. Dom did a great job. The team, the Michelin tires, the Ferrari, we had the right package to win the chase. We didn’t get the luck but we showed everyone how strong we are. To be the only guys with four victories is very sweet.”

The duo stayed out front for the majority of the race, as they watched newly crowned champions, Jorg Bergmeister and Wolf Henzler, fall behind with suspension damage sustained in an early race incident. The Flying Lizard Motorsports pair finished ninth in class.

The No. 87 Farnbacher Loles Porsche 911 GT3 RSR of Dirk Werner and Bryce Miller crossed the line in third, but the car was later excluded because of a ride-height infraction. This promoted Tommy Milner and Joey Hand in the Panoz Team PTG Esperante to a season-best podium result.

With the sun set on the 2008 American Le Mans Series season, the focus has now been turned to next year. Many questions remain over what the grid will look like in 2009, but it will likely not disappoint.

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