Sunday
Jul132008

Lime Rock: Race Report

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David Brabham only led two laps, but it was the most important two that bagged him the win in Saturday’s Northeast Grand Prix. The veteran Australian racer made yet another late-race move on Penske Racing’s Timo Bernhard for the win, but this time scoring hometown heroes Patron Highcroft Racing and Acura their first overall victory in the American Le Mans Series.

The thrilling down-to-the-wire battle on the tight and slick Lime Rock Park “Optional” circuit was decided only in the final 90 seconds when Brabham muscled his way around Bernhard’s No. 7 Porsche RS Spyder. On a near empty tank of fuel, Brabham gained momentum on Bernhard on the front straight and rocketed around him on the outside, diving into the first corner and taking over the top spot.

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photo by: John Thawley
“I’m so exhausted. I really had to work hard out there,” Brabham said after the race. “The team told me to keep pushing and the [Intersport] car was limping around badly and let me get a good run on Timo. He juked left and went right, and I kept left and ran him down the straight in a big drag race. And then I drove really hard in and broke hard to get him. The team kept telling me to save fuel and I thought ‘you clearly don’t know what’s going on!’”

During the battle for the lead, Bernhard ended up spinning as the German drove his car too deep into the corner in hopes of defending his position. He quickly recovered and finished 18 seconds behind the Highcroft Acura in second.

“I had a few car lengths ahead and caught traffic at Turn 7,” a disappointed Bernhard explained. “The GT2 cars were really struggling with grip. I went to the inside and he went to the outside but he had momentum. He beat me into the corner and went around the outside. I tried to keep the car on the inside, but he braked late and may have chopped me a little. But I tried to turn and brake at the same time and I just lost the car.”

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photo by: John Thawley
On Friday, Brabham secured the pole position, giving Sharp the number one starting spot. However, the former Trans-Am and IndyCar driver had a rough start, getting hit by the Simon Pagenaud in the de Ferran Motorsports Acura early on and dropping down the field. The contact damaged the rear dive planes of the Acura ARX-01b and put Sharp one lap down. A long and rather unexpected early green flag run ended one hour into the race, and the team brought the car in to make repairs to the rear bodywork.

“I felt like a bowling pin at the beginning just getting pushed around,” said Sharp, who became the first American overall winner in the Series since 2005. “Our strategy was just incredible to get our lap back and make some repairs and David did a great job making the pass and getting the win. It was strange how long it took for the first yellow to come out. We thought it was going to be yellow to yellow to yellow. But we got a long one there and it really helped out.”

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photo by: John Thawley
Once in the car, Brabham began making up lost ground, getting back on the lead lap and reeling in the leaders. However, the team’s gamble on fuel mileage took another turn when the telemetry stopped working in the closing minutes. Brabham’s long one-hour and 26-minute final stint would pay off though as the car made it to the finish line, only to run out of fuel on the cool-down lap.

“The telemetry was down and we were having trouble getting all of the information,” team owner Duncan Dayton said. “We had stopwatches in the pits trying to calculate what we should run to shorten the race by one lap. But crossing the line with 3 seconds to go, we knew we’d have that one last lap around. We told David to slow down coming down the hill and he kept looking in his mirrors trying to find out where everyone went. He didn’t know that Timo had spun.”

The win marked the local Danbury, Conn.-based team’s second LMP2 class win of the season, but first overall. Brabham and co-driver Scott Sharp scored victory in Long Beach in April but ran into trouble in the last round at Miller Motorsports Park. The duo rebounded from those disappointments by putting on an impressive performance all weekend long.

“The competition is very fierce and everyone is pushing real hard,” Brabham added. “We’ve had some updates from the last race to this one, and it really paid off. We have some more changes and bits coming so it’s really going to be interesting. We had some changes from the end of last year to the beginning of this year, probably not as much as what the drivers were expecting, but throughout the year it’s really come along. The HPD team has been spending a lot of time getting things together and really creating a great race car.”

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photo by: John Thawley
While Bernhard and co-driver Romain Dumas finished second overall and in class, the battle for the final step of the podium was also decided in the closing minutes. Butch Leitzinger piloting the No. 20 Dyson Racing Porsche RS Spyder was in third until he got turned around by the No. 6 Penske machine of Sascha Maassen with four minutes remaining. Leitzinger’ recovered from his trip into the second chicane tire barrier, but the effects of the incident were seen seconds later. While back up to speed, Leitzinger’s car suffered an apparent tire puncture, sending the Dyson car hard into the inside pit wall and ending his day.

Maassen received a stop-and-go-penalty for avoidable contact with the No. 20 car, but despite the late-race visit to pit road, the No. 6 Porsche still finished third overall, but over one-minute behind the race winners.

Audi didn’t have high hopes of matching the pace of the lighter and more nimble P2s this weekend on the tight and slippery 1.51-mile bullring. However, both diesel-powered R10 TDIs preformed better than expected in the race. The No. 1 machine of Emanuele Pirro led for over 50 laps and looked to be in position for the overall win but the car crashed in the hand of co-driver Dindo Capello at the one-hour mark.

Capello turned up on the Bell Motorsports Aston Martin DBR9 of Terry Borcheller, creating a lengthy caution. While the Aston Martin was retired, the Audi Sport North America mechanics repaired Capello’s car and it rejoined, but over 40 minutes behind. Nonetheless, Capello redeemed himself by setting the fastest lap of the race and finishing 21st overall, third in class.

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photo by: John Thawley
The team’s sister No. 2 entry of championship leaders Marco Werner and Lucas Luhr were also quick, but suffered its share of setbacks. An early spin by Luhr followed by a pit lane infraction put the car one lap down. A late-race splash and dash for fuel also put the car out of contention for the overall win, but Werner brought it home fourth overall, first in class.

“This race belonged to Audi,” Werner said. “In two respects: The No. 1 car was well in front at the beginning, and we would also have had it in our hands, if … we would not have got the 25-second penalty and not to refuel again shortly before the end of the race. We really had a good chance to win this race. Now it’s a class victory and we have to be content with this. Virtually we came back from nowhere. But it’s clear we had more in our hands.”

It was the duo’s fourth class victory of the year, but Werner admitted he could have challenged for the overall win if there was just one more late yellow. 

“We had the speed to achieve much more today because we had the fastest car in the field,” Luhr said. “But if you don’t have the necessary luck than you cannot win. This happened to us today. We lost a lap due to the penalty in the pits. The team did a great job afterwards and Marco was really flying so we were able to get the lap back. Unfortunately there was no caution period at the right time.”

For the second consecutive race, the Intersport Racing trio of Jon and Clint Field and Richard Berry benefited from a wreaked Audi to pocket a runner-up finish in class. The team’s Lola B06/10 AER came home 10th overall.

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photo by: John Thawley
In the GT1 category, Corvette Racing’s Johnny O’Connell and Jan Magnussen scored their fourth win of the year after a thrilling side-by-side duel with the sister No. 4 Corvette C6.R of Oliver Gavin and Olivier Beretta. O’Connell made a late race pit stop for fuel only and returned to the track neck-and-neck with Beretta, with Georgian getting the upper hand by Turn 1.

“We were in communication and there was a time at the first caution where we got caught out behind the pace car,” O’Connell explained. “But then situations arose where we could get a splash at the end and get close again. It was a fun and exciting moment. I knew people think we aren’t racing anyone, but we are really going hard. We are definitely pushing as hard as we can. Things just went our way this weekend.”

After getting passed for the lead, Beretta came to the pits with gearbox problems, forcing the No. 4 car out of the race. While the 2007 season saw O’Connell and Magnussen encounter misfortunes, the bad luck seems to have turned to the way of the Beretta and Gavin machine. The No. 3 car now holds a 12-point lead over the defending class champions.

Jorg Bergmeister and Wolf Henzler stormed to their third GT2 class win of the season and second straight. The No. 45 Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 RSR finished two laps ahead of the second-place, and pole sitting, No. 87 Farnbacher Loles Porsche of Richard Westrbook and Dirk Werner.

“When we had a one-lap lead, there wasn’t much more for me to do except cruise around and bring the car back home,” Henzler said. “The key was at the beginning when we showed the car was very good. When we lost the position and I gained it back, the main objective was to bring the car home. It’s always important to be very, very careful.”

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photo by: John Thawley
Bergmeister was in prime position to attack early on, passing Westbrook for the lead 35 minutes into the race. The sister No. 46 Flying Lizard Porsche of Johannes van Overbeek was on top with 40 minutes remaining.  However, Van Overbeek suffered right front radiator damage from an incident with Werner, taking the No. 46 car out of the race. This once again opened the door for the No. 45 entry to cruise to the checkered flag.

Bergmeister and Henzler extend their lead in the drivers’ championship to 11 points over the No. 71 Tafel Racing Ferrari F430 GT duo of Dirk Muller and Dominik Farnbacher, which finished fourth in class. Bergmeister was pleased with his run, especially after starting from the fourth position.

“Not starting up front is not an easy task,” Bergmeister said. “I tried to stay out of trouble and not make mistakes. Once I got the lead, I tried to control it. There were some strong cars that made it difficult to keep the gap to the 46 car. We had a really good race car. I have tried to stay out of trouble the last two years and Wolf did it this year. I think we are the only car that didn’t have a mark.”

Fresh off victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Risi Competizione’s Mika Salo and Jamie Melo finally scored their first Series podium of the season, coming home third in their No. 62 Ferrari.

With the fifth round of the American Le Mans Series season now in the books, teams pack up and head west to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for the Acura Sports Car Challenge next Saturday. After yet another exciting battle to the wire, the fight in the Buckeye State is shaping up to be a barnburner.

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