Detroit: Race Preview

From the quickest circuit to one of the slowest: that’s the theme this weekend as the American Le Mans Series rolls into the Motor City for the Detroit Sports Car Challenge presented by Bosch. The stars and cars are fresh from a North of the Border adventure at Mosport and now shift gears to go street racing for the third and final time this season.

The 2.096-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit plays host to the ninth round of the season. Located on Belle Isle, an island surrounded by the Detroit River, the stars and cars of the Series are treated to a scenic getaway, with the downtown skyline still in sight. In its second year, the Penske-promoted event has reestablished itself as a Labor Day Weekend mainstay.

Twenty-eight cars are entered for Saturday’s two-hour and 45-minute race, as there have been notable changes from last weekend’s grid at Mosport. Intersport Racing is here with only one car, as its No. 30 Lola B06/10 AER suffered serious damage in an accident last weekend. Team manager Brian Alder tells us they are hoping to get a second car back on the grid by Petit Le Mans, but it will likely be a new chassis or car altogether. Another LMP1 entry that was at Mosport is not here either. Autocon elected to skip the Detroit round and focus efforts for two season-ending races. This brings the P1 field back down to three cars for this weekend’s race.

photo by: John Thawley Of course, Audi will be once again tough to beat. Following its third consecutive overall 1-2 finish, the German marquee heads into the race as favorites for the overall win. Sure, the lighter and more nimble LMP2 cars have shown to be quick on the tight and twisty street circuits before. But both the diesel-powered machines have so far swept the street races this season, with overall wins at St. Petersburg and Long Beach. Much of this success could be attributed to Michelin’s new “street soft” tire, a fourth tire compound choice offered to prototype partner teams that provides extra grip on slower circuits. While both the Acura and Porsche P2 cars also have this tire option, it has seemed to best suit the Audi R10 TDIs in the previous two street races.

The LMP2 battle as of late has been downright fierce. And the pressure of the manufacturer’s championship has prompted one top team to make a late change to its driver line-up. Ryan Briscoe will team with Patrick Long this weekend in the No. 6 Penske Racing Porsche RS Spyder, replacing veteran Sascha Maassen. Briscoe, who won three races last season in the No. 6, has since moved to Penske’s IndyCar team and will thus be pulling double duty this weekend. Briscoe was put back in the car to prepare for the Petit Le Mans in October, which rewards 10 additional championship points (for a two-car team). Right now, Porsche leads Acura by only six points in the manufacturer’s standings. There’s no word on whether Maassen will be part of the driver line-up for October’s 1,000-mile enduro.

photo by: John Thawley Penske’s other car, the No. 7 of Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas, finished outside of the podium for the first time last weekend, when the crew made a rare mistake in the closing stages of the race. Dumas pitted with a handful of minutes remaining for a quick splash-and-go, but still ran out of fuel on the final lap, costing them crucial points in the drivers’ championship. Bernhard and Dumas sit only 10 points ahead of Patron Highcroft Racing’s David Brabham and Scott Sharp, who won at Mosport.

Both of Dyson Racing RS Spyders will run with Porsche’s DFI engine for the first time. Last weekend, only the No. 16 entry had it, but now the No. 20 machine of Marino Franchitti and Butch Leitzinger will take advantage of the fuel mileage and horsepower benefits the direct-fuel-injected technology has to offer.

Corvette Racing celebrates its 100th race this weekend, right in its own backyard. (See Corvette Racing: Behind the Scenes feature for more). Johnny O’Connell and Jan Magnussen will be looking to extend their class win record to eight on Saturday, but teammates Oliver Gavin and Olivier Beretta are charged up for revenge following two disappointing weekends.

photo by: John Thawley The main story in GT2 this weekend centers on the continued rivalry between the No. 45 Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 RSR of Jorg Bergmeister and Wolf Henzler and Tafel Racing’s No. 71 Ferrari of Jorg Muller and Dominik Farnbacher. Last weekend, the two cars rubbed fenders as they fought for the third place finishing position. The spot was decided after the race, when IMSA handed down a 30-second penalty to the Tafel duo for aggressive driver after both cars had previously been warned. This cost Muller and Farnbacher three points in the drivers’ championship, but they still hang in the chase, now 10 markers behind Bergmeister and Henzler.

The other big story this weekend is the absence of the Farnbacher-Loles Porsche of Dirk Werner and Richard Westbrook. The Connecticut-based team claimed its first Series win earlier this month at Road America and backed that up with a second place finish at Mosport. However, they have put all their resources to running this weekend’s Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series race at New Jersey Motorsports Park. This may cost them a chance of claiming third place in the ALMS GT2 team standings, as the team only trailed Risi Competizione by seven points heading into this weekend’s race.

It may also have an effect on the manufacturer’s standings, as Porsche leads Ferrari by only 12 points. But this fear may be combated this weekend by the No. 44 Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche, as Martin Ragginger has been drafted in to pair team regular Lonnie Pechnik, replacing Seth Neiman. The Austrian is a Porsche Junior factory driver and will be making his Series debut. Ragginger usually competes in the Porsche Carrera Cup Germany and Porsche Super Cup championships.

photo by: John Thawley After sitting out Mosport, Risi Competizione’s No. 61 Ferrari will be back in action, in the hands of Rob Bell and Harrison Brix. Bell, along with Audi’s Marcel Fassler, are fresh from competing in the streets of Bucharest, Romania last weekend in the FIA GT Championship. They both took class victories there and will be ready to tackle another street challenge, but in a totally different environment.

Twenty-eight cars in all are entered, with the Black Swan Racing Doran Ford GT-R returning after a tire test last week in Sebring. No track action is scheduled for today (Thursday), but drivers will get the opportunity to walk the circuit later tonight. Practice kicks off Friday morning, with qualifying set for the afternoon. The Detroit Sports Car Challenge presented by Bosch gets the green flag on Saturday at 2:35 p.m. ET.

News and Notes:

On Wednesday, Audi announced that it would be developing a GT3-spec version of its R8 road car. The car will be available to customers next fall, with test races in European racing series scheduled for the 2009 season. This is not very significant to North America, as there is currently no FIA-sanctioned GT3 championship here. However, it could play into factor once the new FIA/ACO GT regulations are finalized. GT3-spec cars may be able to be run in GT2 with some minor tweaking. This could lead to U.S.-based customers purchasing the R8 for use in the ALMS in the future.

photo by: Audi Motorsport“The R8 is the first production Audi bearing the name and genes of a successful racing sportscar and is therefore an excellent base from which to build up our first big customer sport programme,” explains Head of Audi Motorsport Dr Wolfgang Ullrich. “Ever since the R8 was unveiled we’ve been inundated with enquiries about a race version. With the Audi R8 we will offer customers a racing sportscar equipped with high-calibre technology and the typical Audi qualities, but which is nevertheless easy to handle.”

Acura has scheduled a press conference for Friday at 1:15 p.m., presumably to announce its 2009 ALMS program. Could this be the long awaited move to LMP1? If so, which teams will get the call? Hopefully, all of these questions will be answered tomorrow.

Another team announcement is also expected to come this weekend, which would see a boost in the car count for the Petit Le Mans. Stay tuned to all weekend long for the latest in on-and-off track news.

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