Petit Le Mans: Race Report

Photo by John Thawley Allan McNish had one of his worse nightmares come true Saturday morning. As the Scot took to the 2.54-mile Road Atlanta circuit on a reconnaissance lap, he lost control of his Audi R10 TDI, making heavy contact in the Esses. Who would have thought that 10 hours later, McNish and co-drivers Dindo Capello and Emanuele Pirro would be standing on the top step of the podium?

The 11th annual Petit Le Mans powered by the Totally New MAZDA6 was an absolute thriller, capped off by McNish’s stunning late-race drive to keep Audi undefeated in the American Le Mans Series’ cornerstone event.

“Crashing on the way to the grid is not the way you want to start the Petit Le Mans,” McNish said. “To get 16-17 people from both crews on that and get it repaired when I thought we were out, they did something I didn’t think was possible.”

photo by John Thawley

The Brad Kettler-led Audi Sport North America crew feverishly worked to get the car on the grid, but missed the start by two laps. That put McNish, Capello and Pirro at an immediate disadvantage, but the trio worked away at the leaders throughout the 1,000-mile marathon, with clever pit strategy playing a key role in the end.

“It was more than a good race,” Pirro said. “Allan would not have been happy with a normal win. He had to crash the car to make it extraordinary! With team strategy and the yellows, we were able to bring the car back. It was a real treat and I was pleased to share the car on this day.”

Audi vs. Peugeot: the much-hyped face-off between the two powerhouse diesel teams indeed went right down to the wire. The No. 07 Peugeot 908 HDi-FAP of Christian Klien, Nic Minassian and Stephane Sarrazin clearly had the speed advantage, but Audi once again capitalized on strategy, pitting McNish for fuel and tires during the last round of stops where the French Lion only fuel-only. The extra grip, coupled with a fire-breathing Scott, made all the difference in the final 30 laps.

“No one on the team does the work to finish second,” McNish said. “There’s no question in my mind that when we got in the position at the end that I was going to do everything I could to win the race.”

photo by John Thawley

The thrilling final lap shootout was reminiscent of June’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, when McNish and Capello’s Audi overhauled the faster Peugeot in the changing weather conditions. While the duo’s European season didn’t go exactly to plan, redemption came at the three big endurance races of the year: Sebring, Le Mans and Petit Le Mans.

“Sometimes you need luck,” Capello said. “We didn’t get much luck in the Le Mans Series but we had luck at Le Mans and Silverstone. It was a great season for us even though we didn’t get the chance to show our real potential.”

It was in fact McNish and Capello’s third straight Petit Le Mans win, and ninth consecutive for the German brand. The team used its knowledge of the series to its advantage, gaining the two laps back from cautions despite not having the edge in the speed department until the very end.

photo by John Thawley Peugeot had to settle for second, but a very fine runner-up it was. Klien, Minassian and Sarrazin drove a near-flawless race, coming only 4.5 seconds away from victory. What’s more remarkable about their run was the reliability of the Peugeot 908 HDi-FAP, which ran like clockwork. In the eyes of the French Lion, it was mission accomplished, but certainly some disappointment for coming so close.

“We came to Road Atlanta to work on our approach to race strategy, gain pit-stop experience and push the car’s reliability, and that’s exactly what we achieved,” said team director Michel Barge. “Events like this confirm our belief that we need to race and gain extra experience as we prepare for 2009.

“We gave it our very best effort all the way to the flag and crossed the line just 4 seconds behind our rival which has gone unbeaten round this highly specific track for many years. We only had one 908 HDi FAP here but we didn’t have a single technical problem and the team rose magnificently to the challenge of taking on the high level, battle-hardened competition we knew we would face this weekend.”

photos by John Thawley

Penske Racing celebrated a historic race, claiming a 1-2-3 finish in the LMP2 category. The No. 5 Porsche RS Spyder of IndyCar stars Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe pulled through to take the victory, finishing 42 seconds behind the winning Audi, on the lead lap.

The victory couldn’t come at a more fitting time for Castroneves, who’s had a rough week off the track. On Thursday, the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and “Dancing With the Stars” celebrity was charged with tax evasion. He pleaded not guilty in a Miami courthouse on Friday, was released on bail and returned to the cockpit of the RS Spyder for Saturday’s race.

photo by John Thawley “It has been a rough week but this is the place to be for me,” Castroneves said. “I have to thank Roger and Tim [Cindric] for letting me be in the car. These guys did an incredible job. Timo and Romain did a great job, and Ryan was awesome. This is a very challenging track and very difficult. It turned out to be a great race for all three cars.”

Castroneves’ IndyCar stable mate, Briscoe, also drove a brilliant race, capturing his fourth Series victory and first endurance race. “It was a great opportunity given to us for Penske and Porsche,” Briscoe said. “We’ve been really working closely together. Hopefully that will carry over to next year [in Indycar]. It was a great result and great for the whole team.”

Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas sealed the P2 drivers’ championship by finishing second. The Penske Porsche duo had no intentions of walking away with the title after this race, as Patron Highcroft Racing’s David Brabham and Scott Sharp trailed them by only four points. However, Sharp crashed his Acura ARX-01b, forcing an early retirement and zero points.

“We couldn’t expect to clinch the championship coming into the race,” Bernhard said. “When I saw the No. 9 car under the bridge, there was no relief. I felt bad for them but it was only one hour into the race. There was a long race ahead of us and the same could happen to us. With the traffic here, sometimes you need some luck. I really wanted to try to stay focused and bring this home.”

photo by John Thawley

The misfortunes from the three other Acura teams helped give Sascha Maassen, Patrick Long and Emmanuel Collard a third place result. The No. 26 Andretti Green Racing Acura posed the strongest threat near the end but was taken out in a multi-car pileup late in the race. Lowe’s Fernandez Racing also showed promise but also crashed out. The tides certainly seem to have changed considering Acura’s dominance this summer.

“A lot of people were thinking before this race, ‘What is happening with Penske?’” Dumas said. “We worked very hard during the month to increase the level of the car. The car this weekend was the quickest with a sweep in qualifying and the race.”

Highcroft Racing believes Penske’s revival could have been down to the fuel the RS Spyders were allegedly using this weekend. The Duncan Dayton-owned team has filed a protest against the Porsche P2 teams for allegedly using an additive in its fuel. IMSA has said samples have been taken and the results will remain provisional pending the findings of the test. If the fuel is indeed deemed illegal, the fifth-place finishing de Ferran Motorsports Acura could walk away with the class victory.

photo by John Thawley

Johnny O’Connell, Jan Magnussen and Ron Fellows took home top GT1 honors, steering their No. 3 Corvette Racing C6.R to a six-lap victory over the sister machine of Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta and Max Papis. The No. 4 crew suffered a setback midway through the race when a throttle linkage cable broke.

The win gave season-long drivers O’Connell and Magnussen the drivers’ championship. “My goal this season was to win the championship,” O’Connell said. “I was excited to go into this year with Jan and improve on what we’d built in 2007. To share this win with Ron is very special. We’ve shared cars for eight years, and to win Petit Le Mans together is great.”

The Pratt & Miller organization also took home top GT honors in the inaugural Green Challenge. The cellulosic E85-fueled Corvette earned a score of 20.391, complied from a formula based on performance, fuel efficiency and environmental impact. The No. 6 Penske Racing Porsche won the prototype division with a score of 30.690. But with the lower number being the most efficient, Corvette Racing could be said to have won the challenge overall.

photo by John Thawley

Ever since the launch of the Green Challenge, Corvette Racing worked diligently with its partners to optimize its two Corvette C6.Rs in quest of winning the competition. Reducing wheel bearing friction and aerodynamic drag on top of the E85R fuel all played a key role in the victory.

“Going into the second half of the season, Corvette Racing’s goal was to win the first Green Challenge,” said Steve Wesoloski, GM Racing Road Racing Group manager. “Winning the Green Challenge with the best score among both GT cars and Prototypes was a team effort that combined the expertise of GM Powertrain, our engine supplier Katech, and Pratt & Miller Engineering.”

In GT2, a champion was crowned, but the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari F430 GT won the race. Jamie Melo and Mika Salo battled back from an early problem to take the class victory, their second this season.

A piece of metal from a drink tube fell under the throttle pedal early in the race, forcing the team to make two additional stops to diagnose and repair the fluke issue. Once fixed, the duo stormed back up the leader board, battling for the lead and finally taking it away in the closing hours.


photo by John Thawley

“It was a very difficult race,” Melo noted. “We had to move to the back of the field at one point and we had to push hard to get back on top. The car was working very well and comfortable to drive. It made it easier for us to do it. We need to say thank you to the team and Michelin has been great all season.”

Salo and Melo became interlocked in a battle for the lead with the No. 45 Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 RSR of Jorg Bergmeister, Wolf Henzler and Marc Lieb. The two teams have had a history of duels in the past, most notably the fender-banging finish at Sebring two years ago.

“We knew since the first day how quick they were,” Salo said. “Our car worked very well and we had to work hard. It was a really nice fight. We can still be in the same room so it must be professional! I’m more scared passing other guys than them.”

With their runner-up finish, Bergmeister and Henzler clinched the class drivers’ championship and team title for Flying Lizard.

photo by John Thawley “The team was really ready to win the championship,” Bergmeister said. “To have it both the team and driver makes it doubly special. We always finished on the podium other than St. Petersburg. The competition was the strongest this year with the Ferraris. Porsche did a great job over the winter developing the car and providing upgrades. They made this happen.”

Tafel Racing’s Dirk Muller and Dominik Farnbacher, the Lizard’s only title rivals, finished third, eliminating themselves from the championship top honors.

After a thrilling Petit Le Mans, the Series heads to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for a four-hour season finale in two weeks’ time. While Peugeot will not make the trip, the lighter and more nimble P2 machines will surely once again put up a fight to the diesel-powered Audis in what’s shaping up to be a fitting end to an action-packed American Le Mans Series season.

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