Tuesday
Jul152008

Lime Rock Review / Mid-Ohio Preview

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With the American Le Mans Series in the midst of back-to-back races, there’s no time for rest for Series competitors. After the conclusion of last Saturday’s Northeast Grand Prix, teams began their trek west to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for this weekend’s Acura Sports Car Challenge. Before action heats up in the Buckeye State on Thursday, let’s take a look back at the drivers’ final thoughts about the newly resurfaced Lime Rock Park.

The 1.51-mile, 10-turn “Optional” circuit layout at Lime Rock Park received mixed opinions from drivers and teams alike throughout the weekend. A 31-day overhaul of the facility resulted in little room for error, and while the fresh asphalt held up remarkably well, it was the revised layout that had drivers talking. Two new chicanes were added, which some felt were too narrow for their cars. During Friday’s practice and qualifying sessions, a few even referenced them to be go-kart-like. But how did they feel at the end of two hours and 45 minutes of racing around the Connecticut bullring?

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photo by: John Thawley
“First of all, I really like the new pavement,” LMP1 class winner Lucas Luhr said after the race. “Even for fast prototypes, it’s a little bit low grip, but it’s much, much better than it was in years past. It’s less bumpy and really nice and smooth, but there are a couple of [issues]. The West Bend corner was one of the best corners in the American Le Mans Series, and they took it away - excuse me - for a stupid chicane. I don’t get the point. Then you put everything full of gravel. After one hour of the race, you arrive at the chicane thinking ‘Am I on the race track right now or is this dirt track racing?’ because everything is covered with sand and mud.”

Johnny O’Connell, who has been adamant over the years about the circuit’s safety, was also not too pleased with how things turned out. The veteran Corvette driver saw more of the same Saturday, with no less than four cars suffering race-ending accidents. Luckily, nobody was injured, but that doesn’t guarantee it won’t happen in the future unless more measures are taken.

“If you don’t speak up, nothing gets done,” O’Connell said. “Every year we come here, over a million dollars of race cars are crashed. Everybody loves the fans, and it’s a beautiful venue, but if you’re going to spend $5 million fixing up a race track, why the heck don’t you hire somebody that has actually driven a car in the last 30 years or competed in the American Le Mans Series to help do the geometry?

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photo by: John Thawley
“To me, it’s simple math. If I’m going to build a race car, I’m not going to get a guy that engineered the 1963 split-window Corvette. I’m going to get one of the guys who did the C6 Corvette. With minor tweaking, this [circuit] could have been great. If you ask all the drivers, and Jan [Magnussen and Lucas Luhr] referenced West Bend. You took what was the most fun corner on the racetrack and took it away? I think just the geometry of the first chicane could have been improved. And straighten out the back straightaway. You could go on.”

O’Connell, a Poughkeepsie, New York-native, grew up at this historic circuit, watching racing legends tame the tight and fast bullring. However, speeds back in the 70s were significantly slower than today, creating a rather safe and fun racing environment. While without the chicanes, cars this weekend would have been going even quicker because of the newly laid surface – creating more of a safety danger. O’Connell believes track officials have to rethink the layout before the Series returns in the future. 

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photo by: John Thawley
“I think if you ask every single driver if there was one race that you’d be OK losing on our schedule, it’d be this one. It’s only because it’s dangerous. I grew up 45 minutes from here. The first race I ever saw was here in 1968. But in 1968, this place might have been safe because the cars were going 40 mph slower. If you look at the Audi, you look at the Corvette, you look at these cars, they are so bloody athletic. I would love to take the [track] owners or somebody for a ride around this racetrack that could actually change it… I think there’s potential here, but the track’s involvement with the sanctioning body and teams is lacking.”

Luhr agrees: “Like what Johnny said before, if they change something, they should get the opinions of the drivers and teams first. They should take a guy from the prototypes or the GTs, or maybe both, and say ‘hey, this is what we want to do.’ And they get their opinion. But if you don’t do that, you will never make it better. And that’s what happened here. For sure, they had the mind to make the race track better, but in my opinion, they made it all worse.”

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photo by: John Thawley
Overall race winners Patron Highcroft Racing celebrated their second class victory of the season and first overall triumph. After the race, David Brabham noted other areas of improvement that could be made. And like Luhr and O’Connell, he too agreed to bring back West Bend.

“It’s easy to be negative about the changes to the track, but on a positive note, they’ve done a fantastic job,” Brabham said. “I think it’s a massive improvement from what they did last year. Obviously it was a big rush to get it done. There was quite of dirt on the side of the grass, which caused everyone a lot of problems. It’s very narrow here and some of the straights could be a little straighter to enable us to get past them a bit easier. And bring back the old West Bend. I think that would be better for us.”

Mid-Ohio Preview

This weekend, the Series heads to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for Saturday’s Acura Sports Car Challenge. The 13-turn, 2.258-mile circuit received a face-lift of its own a few years back, which was well received by drivers. So it’s unlikely we will see any issues with this classic sports car circuit for the sixth round of the Series.

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photo by: John Thawley
Mid-Ohio has been a fan and driver favorite for years, as the fast and flowing circuit provides a great mix of corners and daring passing opportunities. It’s quite a contrast to Lime Rock, but has some similarities in the way how drivers analyze it.

“There’s a lot to like at this circuit because it’s a more of a technical one,” B-K Motorsports’ Gerardo Bonilla explains. “It’s a real thinking track, a lot like what Lime Rock has now become with the new chicanes. But Mid-Ohio has even more variety. It’s a technical track, but you have to be very precise with your steering and with your throttle inputs. You can find time by making very small adjustments to your driving. That rewards drivers that think and take a lot of notes. It has a great variety of corners too. Some are slow, some are medium and others are really fast with some good straightaway distance.”

The big news in the LMP1 class is the addition of two more cars, bringing the category count up to five. Intersport Racing debuts its second Lola B06/10 AER for drivers Ryan Lewis and John Faulkner, while Autocon Motorsports returns to the Series after tackling the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Autocon is expected to have its Creation CA06-H Judd back, with the team leaving the CA07 tub it used at Le Mans in Europe. Chris McMurry and Bryan Willman will handle the driving duties.

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photo by: John Thawley
Intersport, meanwhile, will be hoping to continue its streak of second place finishes in class. The nearby Dublin, Ohio-based squad will be swapping things around a bit, with the new, ex-Cytosport chassis going to the driving trio of Clint and Jon Field and Richard Berry. Newcomers Lewis and Faulkner will pilot the No. 30 car, which used to the No. 37 car.

After pulling double-duty between the IndyCar Series race in Nashville and the Lime Rock event last Saturday, Marco Andretti will not be behind the wheel of the team’s No. 26 Acura ARX-01b this weekend. While the IndyCars are sharing the track with the American Le Mans Series, there’s too many on and off-track conflicts that would prevent a driver from doing both races. Thus, the team has drafted in their Indy Lites driver Raphael Matos to partner Franck Montagny. Ironically, Matos boasts more experience in the Series than lead driver Montagny, as the Brazilian has been B-K Motorsports’ third driver in endurance races over the past two seasons.

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photo by: John Thawley
The GT1 category once again is down to two entries after the Bell Motorsports Aston Martin DBR9 was severely damaged at Lime Rock. The team has suffered cruel luck as last weekend marked the return of the Prodrive-built machine after being repaired from a crash at St. Petersburg in April.

As expected, VICI Racing returns to competition this weekend, but only with one of its Porsche 911 GT3 RSRs. Dutch brothers Nicky and Francesco Pastorelli will pilot the No. 18 Kumho-shod entry, hoping that extensive early summer testing and added crew members will help turn the team’s season around.

“I’m looking forward to Mid Ohio,” Nicky Pastorelli said. “I’ve heard a lot about its particular requirements but I haven’t driven on it yet. In fact although I have done a season of ChampCar, the only track on the ALMS schedule I know is Road America so I’m learning a lot of new circuits this year. Getting into the program at Utah was great; we had a solid weekend with the new car and everything started to gel very quickly, while I know how fast my brother is. The team is very professional and tightly focused; we have a lot of work to do, but we know what we have to achieve and we will push hard. I was pleasantly surprised but the Kumhos in Utah so I expect that they will have new compounds to try at Mid Ohio.”

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photo by: John Thawley
Two Ford GT-Rs are expected to take the green flag for the first time this season, as Robertson Racing’s silver bullet should be repaired for Saturday’s two-hour and 45-minute race. David Murry suffered a weekend-ending crash in last Friday’s practice session at Lime Rock, forcing team owner/drivers David and Andrea Robertson to watch the race from the sidelines. But the car should be rebuilt in time for round six.

The other Doran-built GT-R of Black Swan Racing ran a consistent debut race in Lime Rock, finishing eighth in class in the hands of team owner/driver Tim Pappas and Anthony Lazzaro. The Falken-shod entry didn’t even turn a lap before hitting the track last week, and the team used the Lime Rock weekend as a test. With that in mind, this program certainly looks promising.

A two-hour test session on Thursday kicks off activities, followed by practice and qualifying Friday afternoon before the Acura Sports Car Challenge, set for a 2:10 p.m. ET start on Saturday. There’s no rest for the weary, and Trackbytes.com will be there to cover every minute of the action.

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