Tuesday
Jul082008

Lime Rock: Race Preview

Photo by John Thawley The stars and cars of the American Le Mans Series kick into high gear this weekend, racing their way to Connecticut for the Northeast Grand Prix. The picturesque Lime Rock Park plays host to round five of the 11-race season. After an eight-week break for teams competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, all of America’s finest are back together, starting a long summer stretch that will take them to five races over the next eight weeks.

But instead of looking ahead, teams are focused on the first task at hand: conquering Lime Rock Park. This year, though, there’s a new challenge as the short and bumpy circuit has received a significant facelift in time for Saturday’s two-hour and 45-minute race. A brand-new “Optional” circuit layout has been constructed, part of a $5 million dollar upgrade and repaving project that only got underway last month. The 31-day overhaul of the facility was christened on the 4th of July by racing legend Sam Posey, who took to the new layout in his vintage Formula Ford.

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Photo by: Paul Johnson/Lime Rock Park
“There is no question that the new corners will lead to passing opportunities,” Posey said.  “There definitely will be a lot of gearing than what the ALMS drivers are used to doing at Lime Rock. The new corners create a much different situation in which probably all the gears will be used within a single lap.  The curbing proved interesting and because it was still slippery from the previous night’s rain I was not able to get a good feel for its potential. And I will say, this project is a great leap forward for Lime Rock Park.”

The circuit expands to now offer 10 turns, but decreasing in length to 1.51 miles. With the new pavement and slightly shorter length, track officials predict new lap records will be achieved across the board. With teams unable to test on the new layout, a lot of questions left to be answered until Friday, when practice gets underway.

“The track is the question,” says Rick Mayer, Risi Competizione’s technical manager.  “It has been fully repaved and some track configuration [has] changed.  The complete extent won’t be known until we get there and take a drive around the track.  It’s still a short 1.51-mile track that GT2s will do in low 50-second laps.  It will still be all rights with one left, so it’s a right-hand oval for us.”

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Lime Rock’s “Optional” Circuit in Blue
Mayer thinks the circuit will still hold a lot of its old characteristics, but the limited track time will give all teams a challenge in optimizing car setups.

“The chicane curbs were significant previously, but the new configuration is not known; I expect this to still be an important setup area,” Mayer added.  “The bumpy nature should be gone and the grip level a bit of an unknown as we’ll be the first real race on the new surface.  Turn 1 will still be the biggest passing opportunity, and the down hill leading onto the front straight will still be important in order to set up a good run onto the straight.”

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photo by: John Thawley
On top of the revised track layout, there have been a number of team and driver shakeups since the last round. Dindo Capello has been named Emanuele Pirro’s co-driver in the No. 1 Audi Sport North America R10 TDI, replacing Frank Biela, who only had a three-race ALMS contract with the team. Capello is slated to drive in the next two races, with his Series future uncertain after that point. The two-time defending Series co-champion is fresh off victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Allan McNish and Tom Kristensen. McNish, who was originally rumored to take the empty seat alongside Pirro, said at Le Mans that he has previous commitments ruling him out of the next few races. Whether the Scot makes his return to the ALMS later this year is yet to be determined.

No matter the driver line-up in the No. 1 car, it doesn’t look like anyone in LMP1 will be able to catch Audi’s No. 2 pairing of Marco Werner and Lucas Luhr. The German duo are undefeated in class victories, holding a 37-point lead over the second placed Intersport Racing Lola of Jon and Clint Field. After missing the season-opening Twelve Hours of Sebring, Biela sits in third, seven points further adrift. With only three P1s once again entered for Saturday’s race, it will be tough for either team to make up points unless the No. 2 car fails to finish.

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photo by: John Thawley
In LMP2, Penske Racing’s Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas have picked up three class victories; two of them overall triumphs in the opening four races. The No. 7 Porsche RS Spyder is the car everyone wants to catch – prompting a major change in one team’s driver line-up. Andretti Green Racing has released Bryan Herta and Christian Fittipaldi, replacing the duo with Franck Montagny and Marco Andretti for Lime Rock. Since the start of the season, Herta and Fittipaldi have struggled to match the pace of the other Acuras, recording a best finish of fourth in Long Beach and sitting sixth in the standings. The radical change came rather shockingly, though; a change appeared to be made to turn around the team’s season.

“Making a change in the middle of the season isn’t something you enjoy, and I think it’s even tougher in this case because we’re talking about Bryan and Christian,” Team co-owner Michael Andretti said. “Bryan has done everything we’ve ever asked him to do since he joined Andretti Green in 2003, including helping us win the 12 Hours of Sebring in our first American Le Mans Series start last year. Christian joined us this year and wanted to win as badly as we did. We will always appreciate the effort that both Bryan and Christian gave to the team.”

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Photo by: John Dagys
Montagny has been named the team’s new lead driver and will be in the car for the remainder of the season. A rotating crop of co-drivers is expected, with Andretti pulling double duty this weekend between this event and the IndyCar race in Nashville Saturday night. The 21-year-old is also on the entry list for the Mid-Ohio ALMS round in two weeks’ time. The Frenchman is fresh off a podium finish in the 24 Hours of Le Mans piloting a Peugeot 908 HDi-FAP (pictured left).

“I’m very excited to join Andretti Green Racing and the XM Acura program,” Montagny said. “I am looking forward to working with the team in the very near future and hoping to get off to a good start at Lime Rock. I know how competitive the American Le Mans Series is and know how challenging this will be, but I believe I am ready for it. I am eager to get started.”

One P2 entry will be sporting a new, but very familiar livery this weekend. In commemoration of Dyson Racing’s 25th anniversary in racing, the No. 16 Porsche RS Spyder will be painted up in the same paint scheme as the team’s original 1985 Porsche 962. To make it even more special, Rob Dyson will pilot that Porsche 962 alongside son Chris in the current RS Spyder in a parade lap before the race.

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Image by: Dyson Racing
“Two number 16s, 23 years apart, father and son driving – this is such a fitting way to celebrate our silver anniversary and to thank the fans at Lime Rock who have been dedicated followers of their home team,” Chris Dyson said. “We have many firsts at Lime Rock including Rob’s first professional race 25 years ago in a 1983 Firebird and that memorable first win with the 962 that put us on the map in American sports car racing.”

The Poughkeepsie, New York-based squad has achieved a lot over its quarter century in motorsports. Dyson and company have racked up 61 wins, 165 podiums and 17 championships over the 25 years, making it something to celebrate about.

“This is unique in American Le Mans Series history,” Dyson added. “The nostalgic livery on the RS Spyder is a visual marker of what our team h as accomplished over the years. There is an incredibly hard-working group of guys behind all of our wins and championships. This historic run is dedicated to them and to all of our fans that have supported us over the years.”

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photo by: John Thawley
While some teams in P1 and P2 have reshuffled its driver line-ups, the GT1 category sees the return of the Bell Motorsports Aston Martin DBR9. The Terry Borcheller and Chapman Ducote-driven machine has undergone repairs since its crash at St. Petersburg in April that put the team on the sidelines ever since. Borcheller and Ducote will be hoping to inch the British Racing Green DBR9 closer to the two factory Corvette Racing C6.Rs, the only other entries in the category.

The battle for the GT2 crown is heating up, as the No. 45 Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche of Jorg Bergmeister and Wolf Henzler sit just one point ahead of the No. 71 Tafel Racing Ferrari duo of Dirk Muller and Dominik Farnbacher. Two wins by each team this season has put the rivals in a neck-and-neck race that will likely continue well into the summer.

Twelve other GT2s entered in this weekend’s race will be looking to topple the dominance set by these two cars this season. Black Swan Racing, the Series’ newest team, probably won’t be shooting for a podium, though. The Tim Pappas-owned squad is expected to make to debut its Doran-built Ford GT-R, joining Robertson Racing as teams carrying the blue oval. Pappas will be joined behind the wheel by Anthony Lazzaro, who helped capture Risi Competizione’s maiden GT2 win at Lime Rock in 2004.

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photo by: John Thawley
While one car joins the fray, three regular GT2 competitors have dropped out. VICI Racing, which campaigned two Porsches for the first time at Miller Motorsports Park, has withdrawn its entries for Lime Rock, instead focusing on continued development with tire partner Kumho. The team will return for the next round at Mid-Ohio, hoping recent tests have made strides to bridge the gap to the front.

“While we’re disappointed to not be running in front of our supporters at Lime Rock, we have made a lot of progress during the summer break and it makes the most sense for us to concentrate full on these improvements and look to raise our game further at Mid Ohio when they will be fully in place,” said Ron C. Meixner, VICI Racing team president. “The tire test went very well and as a result Kumho are working on new compounds for us. We have always regarded this year as being primarily focused on development and so we expect to be closer to the GT2 pace at Mid Ohio.”

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photo by: John Thawley
The situation at LG Motorsports isn’t as encouraging. The Lou Gigliotti-owned team has withdrawn from Lime Rock, with a return to the Series unknown at this point. The team’s Riley Technologies-built Corvette C6 struggled in the opening three races, but showed reason for optimism at Miller Motorsports Park when it ran as high as fourth in the race. Gigliotti is most likely returning the car back to Riley in hopes of further developments being made. The team, meanwhile, are evaluating its options, including the possibility of running a Porsche or Ferrari in the future.

The upgraded Lime Rock Park facility opens for business on Friday, with two one-hour practice sessions before qualifying in the afternoon. The Northeast Grand Prix is scheduled to get the green flag at 2:05 p.m. ET on Saturday. Be sure to stay tuned to Trackbytes.com, as we’ll be on-site, providing the latest in reports and photos.

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