Sunday
Jul202008

Mid Ohio: Race Report

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Heading into this weekend’s American Le Mans Series race at Mid-Ohio, the LMP2 class Acuras and Porsches looked to be the favorites to take the overall win. With the light and nimble prototypes sweeping the first two rows in qualifying, the diesel-powered Audis didn’t appear to have the pace. But as seen in previous races this season, the Audis showed its muscle in the race, taking a dominant 1-2 overall finish Saturday in the Acura Sports Car Challenge.

The No. 2 Audi Sport North America R10 TDI of Marco Werner and Lucas Luhr stormed to checkered flag, finishing seven seconds ahead of the sister No. 1 machine of Emanuele Pirro and Dindo Capello. Werner started from the fifth position overall but worked his way up the leaderboard early in the two-hour and 45-minute race. The German passed pole sitter Gil de Ferran for the lead after only five laps, and the No. 2 car stayed out in front for the remainder of the afternoon.

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photo by: John Thawley
“We knew things were going to be close based on the qualifying times,” Werner said. “This is not really a circuit for us and that makes this (victory) a sweet one. The whole team was perfect. Over the off-season we did some good testing with Michelin and made some good steps. We were really good on the street circuits as well. The combination we have is on the top level - a good tire and a good car.”

Luhr took control of the car at the 50-minute mark during the first of three full course cautions. The car came in for a second stop with an hour and 10 minutes remaining – but it was for fuel-only. The strategy to double stint the car’s tires proved to be crucial as Luhr was able to retain the lead.

“The engineers saw the performance of the car under the first safety car and again how good it was after the second one,” Luhr explained. “He called over and said we were going to keep them (the tires). It really was the key for winning and a very good call.”

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photo by: John Thawley
It was Audi’s first overall win at Mid-Ohio since 2005, and the first for the diesel-powered R10 TDI at this track. The win also marked the team’s second one-two result of the season, after the rather surprising formation finish in the streets of Long Beach in April. Luhr and Werner were in a similar situation this weekend, as the Penske Racing Porsche RS Spyders and all four Acura ARX-01bs proved to be very quick in practice and qualifying. However, for one reason or another, none of the P2 cars were able to match the pace of the silver and red machines come race day.

“No one really expected us to win,” Luhr admitted. “It was like St. Petersburg and Long Beach. People thought we would be dominated by the Porsches and the Acuras. But we have made some progress on our car and with Michelin. Marco and I fit together well with our driving styles. Those are all keys. Everyone on the team is relaxed and we are going to a very good place next.”

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photo by: John Thawley
On top of the excellent call to double stint the tires on the No. 2 car, both Audis benefited from a lengthy caution that helped them complete the race on two stops. Luhr and teammate Pirro pitted under the yellow with one hour and seven minutes remaining, too much time on the clock to make it their last stop if it stayed green. However, the field circulated under the yellow for 30 minutes because of a pit fire. This left the diesel-fueled machines and gasoline-powered competitors conserving enough fuel under the caution to make it to the end of the race.

The scary pit lane fire was caused by the then fourth place overall running de Ferran Motorsports Acura ARX-01b of Simon Pagenaud. The Frenchman came in for fuel-only, but Pagenaud left the pits with the hose still attached to the car, causing it to break off and spill fuel throughout the pit box. This ignited a large fire, engulfing the refueler and car in flames. Pagenaud quickly jumped out of the car unhurt, but the crew member, Keith Jones, sustained serious burns. He was taken to Ohio State University Medical Center and remains in the intensive care unit in critical, but stable condition at the time of press. Jones was alert and awake following the incident and waved to his crew as he was put into the ambulance. Safety crews were quick to extinguish the blaze, but it took the latter part of a half hour to clean up pit road.

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photo by: John Thawley
The retirement of the de Ferran Motorsports Acura gave some breathing room to the No. 7 Penske Racing Porsche RS Spyder of Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas, who came under attack from Pagenaud prior to the fire. However, a very familiar Acura took Pagenaud’s place late in the race. Trying to make it two wins in two weeks, David Brabham in the No. 9 Patron Highcroft Racing entry slowly reeled in LMP2 class leader Dumas. Brabham got by the third-placed in class No. 6 Penske entry with 14 minutes remaining and set his sight on the Frenchman. However, Brabham was unable to make a late pass on Dumas, giving the class win to the Penske pairing.

“It was a big battle and very exciting today,” Dumas said. “It was not an overall victory but it was a very nice victory. All of our wins here have been very close and very tight. The track has been good for us and this is good for the championship…. In the end both Brabham and I were on the maximum. We won this time.”

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photo by: John Thawley
The defending Series class champions scored their fourth LMP2 win of the season, extending their lead in this year’s standings. It was the duo’s fourth consecutive win at Mid-Ohio, after winning the last two years overall and taking the GT2 class honors together in 2005.

“Our crew worked so well and we overtook the No. 9 car in the pits,” Bernhard said. “When you see a team work that professionally, that’s how you win races. This track is very technical and it has been excellent for Porsche. We are trying to keep that reputation up.”

Brabham was trying to make a repeat move on the Penske machine as he did one week ago in Lime Rock and also at Long Beach in April. Both late-minute passes gave the Patron Highcroft Racing team class wins – also the overall victory in Connecticut. But this time, the veteran Australian racer wound up 0.609 seconds away from lucky number three for he and co-driver Scott Sharp.

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photo by: John Thawley
“I got close to taking another class win,” Brabham said. “I certainly had the quicker car but it was a question of finding a lucky move and, although the car kept getting better and better, Romain used the traffic well. We would have liked to have made it two wins in a row but we will be determined to make amends at Road America.”

The No. 15 Lowe’s Fernandez Racing Acura of Adrian Fernandez and Luis Diaz finished fifth overall, completing the P2 podium. Sascha Maassen and Patrick Long in the No. 6 Penske Porsche was sixth, ahead of the two Dyson Racing RS Spyders in seventh and eighth respectively.

Corvette Racing bagged another expected 1-2 finish in GT1, but it was anything but an average race for the two Pratt & Miller-built C6.Rs. After running nose-to-tail in the opening two hours of the race, both cars pitted at the same time for service while under yellow. Johnny O’Connell in the No. 3 entry and Olivier Beretta aboard No. 4 exited side-by-side, bumping into each other and passing through a red flag at the exit of pit lane.

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photo by: John Thawley
Both cars were then brought in for a two-minute and 40-second penalty for running through the red flag. However, as they exited the penalty boxes, the cars rubbed fenders again, almost hitting a pit road official. IMSA then awarded the two cars an additional five-minute stop-and-hold penalty for unjustifiable risk exiting the pits. After seven minutes and 40 seconds of delays, O’Connell was out in front, taking the checkers in 21st overall. Beretta finished right behind the Georgia in 22nd.

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photo by: John Thawley
“A lot of people might think that we are not a competitive group,” O’Connell said. “That was a situation that came out of the long yellow. It was two guys arguing for the same area of road. I thought it should have been mine and he thought it was his. It wasn’t hitting that hard. It was just like two buddies punching each on the arm.”

O’Connell and co-driver Jan Magnussen celebreated their fifth victory of the season, extending their lead in the championship to 16 points over teammates Beretta and Oliver Gavin.

“We are here to win and our main competitors are our only competitors,” Magnussen said. “We have to do our very best to beat them and make no mistakes. Sometimes it gets to this level. We are not parading around the track. The penalty was pretty pointless because it was on both cars.”

While the battle for GT2 honors may have not been as physical as the GT1 scrap, it did provide moments of excitement early in the running. Dirk Muller and Dominik Farnbacher picked up their third victory of the season, steering their No. 71 Tafel Racing Ferrari F430 GT to a one-minute plus win over the No. 46 Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 RSR of Johannes van Overbeek and Patrick Pilet.

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photo by: John Thawley
Farnbacher started from the fourth position and ran in a GT2 freight train for much of his opening stint. He handed over to Muller during the first yellow, gaining almost a lap on the field while still under the safety car. The strategy by Tony Dowe put the car in the lead. From there, Muller held control of the race, cruising the checkers.

“Usually the pit stop is a big opportunity to gain positions,” Farnbacher said. “It’s very hard for us to overtake. All the drivers are very professional and it’s hard to fight for positions. We have good luck all the time as well as good mechanics and pit strategy. If everything works together, then there is a chance for victory. That is what happened today.”

While having the speed to run up front, Muller and Farnbacher also benefited from others misfortunes. Air jack problems cost the No. 87 Farnbacher Loles Porsche of Richard Westbrook and Dirk Werner valuable time in the pits, after Westbrook had the car in an early race lead. Championship leaders Jorg Bergmeister and Wolf Henzler in the No. 45 Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche encountered clutch trouble, dropping them to fifth midway through the race, but rebounding to a third place finish. The No. 87 car also fought back, finishing fourth in class.

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photo by: John Thawley
“The strategy was great,” Muller said. “There were two teams that were making mistakes with their strategy and we were right on with our strategy. At the end I just controlled it. I had a lap lead and I never pushed the car towards the end. We knew that we could double stint the Michelin tires, so we didn’t change them on the last stop. I am really, really happy.”

With Bergmeister and Henzler finishing third, the Tafel duo gained back a few points in the drivers’ championship, moving within four points of the lead with five races remaining.

With the hectic back-to-back weekends at Lime Rock and Mid-Ohio now complete, the cars and stars of the American Le Mans Series take a well-deserved two-week break before getting back to the action at Road America for a four-hour enduro on August 7-9.

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