Friday
Aug012008

Mid-Season Review

With six races now in the books, the American Le Mans Series crosses the halfway point of the 2008 season. The 11-race coast-to-coast battle began at Sebring in March, providing drama from the get-go. Throw in a few street race surprises in the spring, a desert dream win, and two back-to-back duels in July, and there couldn’t have been a more exciting time for the Series.

However, before the stars and cars race through the dog days of summer, we’re taking a quick glimpse back to the first half of the season. With just under 24 hours of race time remaining in the next five events, anything can happen, as proven in the first six.

photo by: John Thawley In the LMP1 category, Audi has taken a clear lead in the championship standings, but this doesn’t come unexpected. The new-for-2008 pairing of Marco Werner and Lucas Luhr have a streak of five straight class wins – including three overall victories. However, the German duo’s overall triumphs came at places that didn’t necessarily suit the diesel-powered R10 TDIs. Wins in the streets of St. Petersburg and Long Beach and Mid-Ohio all came rather surprising. But losing out at places like Sebring, or Miller Motorsports Park for that matter, were surprising – and very disappointing for them as well.

Audi Sport North America’s sister car has had a shuffling deck of drivers, with Emanuele Pirro piloting the No. 1 machine for the bulk of the season. The Italian had Frank Biela as co-driver for three rounds, and shared the wheel with countryman Dindo Capello for the last two. But preventable accidents at Miller Motorsports Park and Lime Rock Park may have caused the team to reevaluate its focus for the rest of the year. With no feasible way of catching teammates Werner and Luhr in the championship, the No. 1 car will continue with its rotating door of co-drivers. For the next round at Road America, Pirro will be partnered with a brand-new face to the Audi family, Marcel Fassler. The Swiss driver who regularly competes in the FIA GT Championship will race alongside Pirro for the four-hour August enduro, as well as the Detroit Belle Isle round. The pressure for the No. 1 car to perform could have certainly influenced these changes.

photo by: John Thawley Much of that pressure has come from the crop of LMP2 teams that have been contenders race in and race out. In fact, the lighter and more nimble prototypes have scored three overall wins so far this season, including the season-opening Twelve Hours of Sebring. Penske Racing’s Porsche RS Spyder of Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas and Emmanuel Collard outlasted the Audis and guest-appearing Peugeot in the once-around-the-clock enduro to break the German marque’s stranglehold on the March classic. P2 cars swept the first two finishing positions, with the best Audi settling for third overall. Bernhard and Dumas would go on to beat the Audis yet again at Miller Motorsports Park, scoring their second overall victory of the season.

While the Penske duo picked up four class wins in six races and currently lead the championship standings, the story of the first half of the season had to be the rising performance of Patron Highcroft Racing. In its second year as Acura’s development team, the Duncan Dayton-led outfit came through with a class victory in Long Beach, followed up by a stunning overall triumph in their home race at Lime Rock. Series veteran David Brabham has been able to push the Acura ARX-01b to its limits, especially in the closing stages of a race. But co-driver Scott Sharp shouldn’t be discounted either, as the former IndyCar ace and Trans-Am champion has continued to improve his pace throughout his debut ALMS season. The duo sit 28 points behind Bernhard and Dumas, second in the standings. It’s a margin that could be made up if the Penske boys run into trouble.

photo by: John Thawley While Patron Highcroft Racing flies the banner for Acura, the manufacturer’s three other teams have shown moments of brilliance as well. With a reshuffled driver lineup for 2008, Andretti Green Racing looked to be one of the teams to beat this season. However, after disappointing results in the first four races, Bryan Herta and Christian Fittipaldi were let go, making room for Franck Montagny and a rotating crop of co-drivers for the remainder of the season. The rather surprising change delivered an instant performance boost, with Montagny lapping very quickly around Lime Rock and Mid-Ohio. But the results didn’t show for themselves in those races, and the team still sits well back in the standings.

De Ferran Motorsports, like Highcroft, have made a lasting impression on the competition. The Gil de Ferran-owned operation debuted at Miller Motorsports Park, scoring a podium finish overall. De Ferran and co-driver Simon Pagenaud have been quick anywhere they’ve gone, but electrical problems at Lime Rock and a pit fire in Mid-Ohio have produced some early setbacks. The fourth Acura team, Lowe’s Fernandez Racing, crossed the line second overall at Sebring, only to be disqualified for an air intake violation. Drivers Adrian Fernandez and Luis Diaz haven’t really bounded back from the season-opening disappointment, but the duo is fresh off a podium finish in class at Mid-Ohio.

photo by: John Thawley

Like Penske, Dyson Racing fields two Porsche RS Spyders, but hasn’t enjoyed the same success as the yellow No. 7 car. The Poughkeepsie, New York-based squad had a great start to the season, with a double podium finish at Sebring, but has since not shown stellar results. Much of that could be due to Acura’s increased performance, as the bar keeps on getting raised in the highly competitive LMP2 division. The same could be said for B-K Motorsports, as its Mazda-powered Lola B07/46 has shown consistent pace throughout the season, only to finish at the bottom end of the top-10. However, the Wisconsin-based team showed reason for optimism last time out at Mid-Ohio when it ran race pace-matching times in the race.

Intersport Racing is another Series stalwart that’s enjoyed moments of brilliance in the first half of the season. Two consecutive second place finishes in the LMP1 class has helped boost the Ohio-based team into fielding a second Lola B06/10 AER for the remainder of the season. With the rumor of more P1 entries on the way, the premier prototype category is shaping up very nicely for the final races.

photo by: John Thawley In GT1, it’s been a two-horse race for much of the first half, with the Corvette Racing C6.Rs battling alone. Johnny O’Connell and Jan Magnussen have picked up five of the six class victories, and hold a 16-point margin over teammates Oliver Gavin and Olivier Beretta. The inter-team rivalry heated up last round at Mid-Ohio, when both cars were held in pit lane for over seven minutes because of aggressive driving tactics. The exciting family feud between the two cars will be something to watch in coming races. The third and only other GT1 that has made starts this season has been the Bell Motorsports Aston Martin DBR9. The Terry Borcheller and Chapman Ducote-driven machine was seen in only three races so far due to accident damage from two separate events.

photo by: John Thawley In contract to GT1, the GT2 category has had plenty of competition, among a variety of manufacturers. But as expected, it’s come down to a two-horse race between Porsche and Ferrari. Flying Lizard Motorsport’s Porsche 911 GT3 RSR of Jorg Bergmeister and Johannes van Overbeek hold a slim four-point lead over the Tafel Racing Ferrari F430 GT of Dirk Muller and Dominik Farnbacher. These two cars have swept all wins so far this season, and we could be in store for more of the same as the season rolls along.

A third team expected to be in the thick of things was Risi Competizione. However, the defending Series class champions have faced bad luck, despite scoring a class win at Le Mans. The Houston-based effort of drivers Mika Salo and Jamie Melo has a best finish of third to their record, but are well out of the championship hunt.

Out of the four class battles, the GT2 category is the most closely fought, but don’t count out seeing a surge to tighten up the races in LMP2 and GT1 as well. With new entries on the horizon, the second half of the American Le Mans Series will be one not to miss.

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