Tuesday
May132008

Utah: Race Preview

Photo Credit: John ThawleyAfter two thrilling races in the streets of St. Petersburg and Long Beach, the American Le Mans Series heads back to a natural terrain road course this weekend at Miller Motorsports Park. The Larry H. Miller Dealerships Utah Grand Prix presented by the Grand and Little America Hotels is shaping up to provide a new set of challenges to teams and drivers, as the outer course layout of the facility will be used for the first time.


The 3.048-mile, 15-turn perimeter circuit replaces the 4.5-mile, 24-turn layout that was used in the first two ALMS races at Miller. It eliminates the tight and twisty bits starting at the Turn 7 complex (Demon, Devil and Diablo), and cuts straight through to Turn 16 (First Attitude). A number of teams have run laps on the new layout, including all four Acuras, as well as Penske Racing and B-K Motorsports. And some drivers believe the new layout could make it the fastest track on the Series’ calendar.
 
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Image credit: Miller Motorsports Park
“For sure, it’s very, very fast,” Lowe’s Fernandez Racing driver/co-owner Adrian Fernandez said of the Utah circuit. “There really aren’t that many corners but they are very high-speed. There are lots of fourth, fifth and sixth-gear corners. The G loads that we produce around there are significant. They are even higher than Road America. I think it will be one of the tracks that will be a favorite of both drivers and fans because they like the speed.”

The B-K Motorsports duo of Gerardo Bonilla and Ben Devlin both think Mosport will remain as the quickest circuit of the season but the high physical demands of the new layout will still provide challenges, especially after coming from two tight and twisty street races.

“It is defiantly quick and very hard on the body,” Devlin said. “The Gs are very hard on the neck. It was a shock on the test day since raced on two street courses and jumped straight into something like this. A street course doesn’t get the G load on your body for a sustained time as Miller.”

Penske Racing’s Patrick Long got his first taste of the layout last month. The Porsche RS Spyder driver isn’t sure what kind of speeds will be produced but feels at home with the circuit.

“From a driver’s standpoint, the flow of the track has been preserved or even increased,” Long said. “It’s still Miller Motorsports Park and still has the impression of a fast track. Some of the tighter sections where it might have been tougher to get by a slower car have been eliminated.”

The difficulties of navigating through traffic could be alleviated with the removal of the infield portion of the circuit. This couldn’t have come at a better time as 30 cars are entered for Sunday’s two-hour, 45-minute race, the largest field since the opening round at Sebring.

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Photo by: American Le Mans Series
The debut of the de Ferran Motorsports Acura ARX-01b headlines the new arrivals. Former Indianapolis 500 winner and two-time CART Champion Gil de Ferran returns to the driver’s seat, joined by Frenchman Simon Pagenaud in the LMP2 contender. The Indianapolis-based team has tested both at Sebring and Miller and hopes to make favorable impressions this season.

The car will sport the No. 66, a number close to de Ferran’s heart. Connected with Jim Hall and Chapparal, number 66 was also used by Roger Penske when he competed as a driver. In 2001, de Ferran drove in the Indy 500 in the No. 66 Penske entry.

“It is a number I have several connections with,” de Ferran said.  “For me, I wouldn’t be where I am today without Jim and Roger so it is an honor to use this number.  I am forever thankful to both of those guys for the role they played in my career.”

De Ferran will now have Penske as a competitor, as “The Captain” has successfully made a name for himself in the Series. After claming the overall victory at Sebring and taking LMP2 class honors at St. Petersburg, the No. 7 Penske Porsche RS Spyder of Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas came up short in Long Beach, losing the race in the closing minutes to the Patron Highcroft Racing Acura duo of David Brabham and Scott Sharp. It marked the first win for Acura in over a year, and the first-ever victory for the Duncan Dayton-owned effort. The win also elevated Brabham and Sharp to second in the drivers’ standings, only 10 points behind Bernhard and Dumas.

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photo by: John Thawley
Audi has rebounded from its rather-disastrous run at Sebring to pocket two overall victories at St. Petersburg and Long Beach. Marco Werner and Lucas Luhr are solidly in control of the LMP1 drivers’ championship, a full 33 points ahead of the second-placed Intersport Racing duo of Jon and Clint Field. Like last year, the diesel-fueled R10 TDIs’ main rival has come from P2 cars, most notably the Penske RS Spyders. The question on everyone’s mind this weekend is how fast can the Audis go on the outer course layout? Penske may have taken the overall victory here last year, but it could be Audi’s race to lose.

Don’t count out other contenders as well, including the Andretti Green Racing Acura of Bryan Herta and Christian Fittipaldi, nor the Lowe’s Fernandez Racing machine of Adrian Fernandez and Luis Diaz. Dyson Racing will also be hoping to repeat its strong run at Sebring with both of its Porsche RS Spyders.

For the second consecutive race, Corvette Racing will be the lone team competing in the GT1 category, as the Bell Motorsports Aston Martin is still undergoing repairs following its accident at St. Petersburg. It’s expected the green DBR9 will rejoin the Series at the next round at Lime Rock Park in July. So it will once again be an inter-team battle between Jan Magnussen/Johnny O’Connell in the No. 3 Corvette C6.R and Oliver Gavin/Olivier Beretta in No. 4. And it will be the final test for the Pratt & Miller team before heading to Le Mans, where they will face fierce European competition.

“We have Le Mans shortly after so to be on a long circuit with longer, sweeping corners is going to be great,” O’Connell said. “We love whatever the Series throws at us (and) Miller Motorsports Park is one of the coolest race tracks we have in this country. So to go back there and use it as preparation for Le Mans is great.”

GT2 features a category-high 16 entries for this weekend, with two notable additions. Brothers Nicky and Francisco Pastorelli will team with Ruben Carrapatoso in the No. 18 VICI Racing Porsche 911 GT3 RSR, while Craig Stanton and Nathan Swartzbaugh will remain in the sister No. 5 entry.

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photo by: John Thawley
Tafel Racing also adds a second car to its arsenal, with team owner Jim Tafel welcoming ex-Champ Car driver Alex Figge to the No. 73 Ferrari F430 GT. Tafel teamed with Allan Simonsen and Pierre Ehret at Sebring, but the team elected to concentrate on only one car for the street races. That strategy proved to work well as Dirk Muller and Dominik Farnbacher drove the No. 71 entry to back-to-back wins.

“You don’t really realize how much you miss it as a driver until you aren’t in the race,” Tafel said of sitting out of the driver’s seat for the last two races. “The only thing that got me through was concentrating on the efforts to win the last two races with the Bell Micro number 71. Being back as a driver I am really looking forward to starting off on the right foot with Alex and getting the results we want for the rest of the season.”

Muller and Farnbacher now are eyeing their third win in a row but will face strong challenges from the three-car Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche squad and Risi Competitizone’s two Ferraris.

“We expect to see the competition between Ferrari and Porsche continue to heat up at this race,” said Flying Lizard chief strategist Thomas Blam. “Tafel Racing is coming off of two strong wins at St. Pete and Long Beach and is adding a second car at this race. This is the Corsa Motorsports Ferrari team’s home track so we expect them to be a presence, and of course, Risi Competizione will be pushing to come back from a challenging start this season. It’s a tight championship race right now between the No. 71 Tafel Ferrari and the No. 45 and No. 46 Lizard Porsches - but it’s still early in the season and anything can happen at this point.”

As Blam mentioned, don’t count out the small, but mighty Corsa Motorsports team, which is coming off two consecutive fourth-place finishes with its Dunlop-shod Ferrari. Drivers Gunnar Jeannatte and Johnny Mowlem will be hoping to give the locally based team something to cheer about this weekend.

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photo by: John Thawley
A number of GT2 cars will receive weight breaks starting this weekend. A competitor’s bulletin issued by IMSA on May 2 says the Aston Martin Vantage, Doran Ford GT, Panoz Esperante GTLM and Riley Chevrolet Corvette C6 may remove 25kg from the minimum weight. This competition adjustment should help make these entries more competitive in their quest to catch the front-running Ferraris and Porsches.

A few of those teams will be making other changes this weekend. LG Motorsports will use Dunlop tires on its Riley Corvette C6, and a guest driver is expected to join team owner/driver Lou Gigliotti behind the wheel. Meanwhile, Primetime Race Group has inked a deal with Hankook as its new tire partner, switching from the club-spec Michelins it ran in the opening races on its Dodge Viper Competition Coupe.

Track action begins on Friday with a promoter test session, followed by practice and qualifying on Saturday. The Larry H. Miller Dealerships Utah Grand Prix presented by the Grand and Little America Hotels, round four of the American Le Mans Series, gets the green flag on Sunday at 1:05 p.m. MDT. Trackbytes will be on-site all weekend long, providing the latest in reports and photos from the track.

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