Wednesday
Jun112008

Stars and Stripes of the American Le Mans Series Set to Shine in France

Photo by Regis LefebureWhile many of the stars and cars of the American Le Mans Series take a well-deserved early summer break, some of the Series’ finest are out in full force on the other side of the Atlantic. The likes of Flying Lizard Motorsports, Corvette Racing and Risi Competizione are doing battle on the hallowed grounds of Circuit de La Sarthe, home to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. As seen in past years, can the stars and stripes of America once again conquer the twice-around-the-clock French classic?

Unlike past years, only five American-based teams (six including Audi) have made the trip for this year’s race. While it may be about quantity, it’s the teams’ quality and determination to succeed that has put these operations out in front, proven in last weekend’s official test day.

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photo by Regis Lefebure
Two privateer operations regularly seen in the ALMS have made the trip to France for the first time. Team Cytosport, which campaigned a Lola B06/10 AER in the Series in 2007, has purchased Charouz Racing System’s Lola B07/14 Judd to campaign in the race. The Greg Pickett-owned operation will be run under the Charouz banner, but Cytosport will mainly crew the entry. Pickett and Le Mans veterans Klaus Graf and 1988 winner Jan Lammers make up the line-up in the LMP1 machine.

Team Manager Jim Dunford realizes the challenges that Le Mans presents, especially for a relatively small privateer team. However, he takes a veteran approach to focusing the team on its main objective.

“The trick at Le Mans is to stay on the track, don’t lose laps, don’t spend excess time in the pits,” Dunford said. “Everyone knows that. But as a smaller privateer team, bringing two veterans and Greg Pickett, whose never run at Le Mans, we know that the trick for us is to finish the race. Our personal goal is to just run the whole race and still be running at the checkered flag. Where we land is where we’re intended to land. It’s just going to be a function of how smooth we are and how much pressure we impose on ourselves.”

Cytosport narrowly missed the top-10 in the test day, with Pickett, Graf and Lammers turning a best time of 3:39.584, ending the day 12th quickest overall. If they can keep a consistent pace like that in the race, though, the Muscle Milk-sponsored entry should reach its goal.

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photo by John Thawley
The other American-entered P1 comes from the Autocon stables. For years, Mike Lewis had wanted to power down the Mulsanne straight. His dream finally became a reality when his team was given an automatic invitation from the ACO for finishing second in the 2007 ALMS LMP1 teams’ standings.

“It’s certainly a dream for me,” Lewis said of going to Le Mans. “You just come to this because it’s a cool thing to do. I grew up the old fashioned way. My dad made me a big fan of motor racing. I remember reading about Le Mans when there was no live TV or no live TV of any racing. Certainly I’ve read the history. So it’s absolutely a religious experience for me. I’m really looking forward to it.”

While Lewis is a rookie to La Sarthe, his two co-drivers are not. Chris McMurry and Bryan Willman ran their first Le Mans five years ago in a Pilbeam MP91. That year, the car retired early because of engine problems. Unfortunately, that kind of luck coincidently transferred into Autocon’s assault in the test day. The team’s Creation CA07 Judd suffered an oil leak, preventing the car from setting competitive lap times.

With their engine woes hopefully behind them, Autocon will be hoping to get the car to the finish line in one piece, as they make the most of their opportunity. With the ever-increasing level of competition in the ALMS, Lewis feels like this could be a once in a lifetime shot at bringing his team to the Holy Grail.

“You never know when it’s going to happen again,” Lewis said. “You’ve seen the interest in Le Mans, and for a small team, and we are the epitome of a small team, you don’t know if it’s going to happen again. Sports car racing is defiantly on the rise. Manufacturers are going to fill up all those entries soon, so we really have to make this count.”

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photo by Regis Lefebure
A third P1 operation with American roots will most definitely be taking center stage come race day. Audi Sport has two R10 TDIs entered under its North American banner, joining a third Reinhold Joest-entered machine. While all three cars carry the German flag, Dave Maraj’s Champion Racing personnel will support the effort, creating another American connection within the premier prototype category.

Corvette Racing is another successful American outfit hoping to take home another win at Le Mans. The two-car Pratt & Miller program is locked and loaded to rebound from its loss here one year ago against the Prodrive Aston Martin. The team has won the GT1 category for five of the last eight years. Being at Le Mans is not just about winning through; it’s also about showcasing the Corvette on a worldwide platform.

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photo by Regis Lefebure
“It’s well worth the effort to be on the global stage against all the best manufacturers in the world,” said Steve Wesoloski, GM road racing group manager. “The audience at the event and on television rivals any other race in the world, and it’s about being relevant to the consumer. That’s why we’re racing the Corvettes, again this is our opportunity to be around the world.”

This year’s showcase will be similar to 2007’s, as the same driving strength returns. Johnny O’Connell, Jan Magnussen and Ron Fellows will pilot the No. 63 Corvette C6.R while Olivier Beretta, Oliver Gavin and Max Papis will steer No. 64. In the soggy test day, both Corvettes were on the pace, setting the third and fourth quickest times in class. But as always, the team was not concerned about setting the quickest time. Instead, it was about making the cars reliable for the long haul ahead.

“The drivers are very satisfied with the development work we’ve done,” said Corvette program manager Doug Fehan. “When we briefly had a dry track [in the] morning, the cars were very stable. I think this is probably the best start we’ve had at Le Mans from the standpoint of having cars that are really good out of the box, and everyone is very encouraged by that.”
 
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photo by Regis Lefebure
Flying Lizard Motorsports and Risi Competizione have been the two flagship teams of the Series’ GT2 category. Now, for the second year running, the rivalry will heat up once again at Le Mans.   

The Lizards have brought back its same driver lineup as last year – Jorg Bergmeister, Johannes van Overbeek and Seth Neiman aboard the No. 80 Porsche 911 GT3 RSR. But what’s new is the car itself, and the amount of developments made during the off-season. Strides have been made to narrow the gap in performance to the all-conquering Ferrari F430 GTs. But you just don’t need speed to win the race. Instead, it’s a combination of factors that could make or break a team’s run.

“The focus is always the same for us in an endurance race,” said team manager Eric Ingraham. “It’s quick and clean driver changes, fast pit stops, minimizing the fuel time. Those things at Le Mans, with a long race especially, with around 23 pit stops, all the time you save in that is time saved in the race.”

Thomas Blam, the team’s chief strategist is often the mastermind behind race winning moves. While the focus is the same, different challenges do present itself at Le Mans.

“[Thomas] always has certain things in mind and he’s very focused,” Ingraham said. “His sole focus is really on maximizing our pit work, maximizing the driver changes, the fueling, tire changes, brake pad changes, everything you could do strategically to succeed. The approach is different.”

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photo by Regis Lefebure
The Lizards were runner-up in the test day, second quickest only to the “Rosso Red” Ferrari of Risi Competizione. The prancing horse of Mika Salo, Jamie Melo and Gianmaria Bruni set the quickest time of the day, a 4:05.561.

“We have had a good day and we were able to do everything we wanted to within the parameters of the conditions, which obviously affected everyone else as well, Team Principal Giuseppe Risi said. “I’m happy with the progress made during our time out there on the track.”

But it wasn’t a perfect day for the Houston-based team as the sister Krohn Racing Ferrari in the hands of Tracy Krohn crashed heavily, damaging the car and sending the tall Texan to the hospital. Luckily, both car and driver are fine and will race on Saturday. Nic Jonsson and Eric van de Poele will join Krohn behind the wheel of the green machine.

The 76th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans gets underway on Saturday, June 14 at 3:00 p.m. local time (9:00 a.m. ET). Trackbytes.com will provide post-race analysis of the American entrants after the conclusion of the twice-around-the-clock marathon.

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