Tuesday
Aug052008

Road America: Race Preview

The summer swing is truly on. With three races in the next four weeks, it will be busy times for the American Le Mans Series. The first stop on the August tour is scenic Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin for the Generac 500 Presented by Time Warner Cable. Saturday’s race at Road America is the first of two four-hour events this season, awarding extra points than to the normal two-hour and 45-minute format races. This gives teams some added incentive for the championship.

If it’s not the points that have drivers and teams smiling this weekend, it’s most certainly the track. Road America is one of North America’s treasures, and a driver’s utopia. With high-speed straights and undulating corners, the 4.048-mile, 14-turn course is a dream to race on. It shares similar characteristics to classic European circuits such as Spa-Francorchamps or the Nurburgring Nordschleife.

“Road America is a great, fast track. It reminds me a lot of Europe,” says Tafel Racing’s Dominik Farnbacher. “It is a little like Spa and this is what I like. The biggest challenge is, of course, to stay out of trouble in the race and to score as many points as possible. But also a big challenge is to drive quickly. This track is a little like Mosport; quick and dangerous. The quick corners and hard braking zones will require a lot of courage.”

Spa 24 Hour Start (photo by: FIA GT/DPPI)Farnbacher and a contingent of Series regulars are actually fresh off competing in last weekend’s 24 Hours of Spa, a round of the FIA GT Championship. Defending GT2 drivers’ champions Mika Salo and Jamie Melo, as well as Farnbacher joined AF Corse’s Ferrari efforts, while Farnbacher’s regular ALMS co-driver Dirk Muller was aboard a CR Scuderia Prancing Horse. Flying Lizard Motorsports’ Wolf Henzler helped steer the Prospeed Competition Porsche, while Penske Racing’s Patrick Long was behind the wheel of IMSA Performance Matmut’s 997 GT3 RSR. While none of these aces were able to deliver a victory in GT2, Marc Basseng, another regular ALMS competitor, took top honors in the G3 category, driving a GT3-spec Porsche.

Marcel Fassler also took part in twice-around-the-clock marathon in Belgium, and will also be racing this weekend at Road America, aboard the No. 1 Audi Sport North America R10 TDI. Last week, Audi made the rather surprising announcement that the Swiss driving ace would be paired with Emanuele Pirro in the diesel-powered LMP1 machine. It’s currently a two-race contract, for here and Detroit, but could very well expand into something more in the future.

“We have the task of rejuvenating our sportscar driver line-up,” explains Head of Audi Motorsport Dr Wolfgang Ullrich. “We have already successfully integrated Lucas Luhr, Alexandre Prémat and Mike Rockenfeller in the sportscar project. We now continue this route with Marcel Fassler.”

photo by: FIA GT/DPPIFassler is no stranger to sports car racing, although most of his background has been in DTM. After making the move from the German touring cars in 2005, he jumped into the European-based Le Mans Series, driving for Swiss Spirit Racing in LMP1. Two seasons and three podium finishes later, he now competes in FIA GT, aboard a Phoenix Carsport Racing Corvette C6.R. Fassler caught Audi’s eye during a test last month and has given him the opportunity to have a go in America for the first time.

“It’s a great honor for me that I can drive the R10 TDI for Audi,” Fassler said. “The car is very impressive. What most impressed me during the tests was just how quiet the engine is from inside the cockpit. Because of this you don’t feel the true sensation of speed. I immediately realized the hi-tech level of this car.

“I was never in America and therefore also contest my first race on American soil. Anyway, I’ll be bombarded with a huge amount of new impressions: The circuits and the people in the team are all new to me, I’ll also have to familiarize myself with the procedures in the American Le Mans Series. I’m not putting myself under pressure, but of course I’d like to make as good an impression as possible and be quick.”

photo by: John Thawley The focus won’t just be on Fassler, though, as the Audis have been given a break in the rules starting this weekend. IMSA has increased the maximum capacity for LMP diesel cars from 81 liters to 85 liters. Gasolone-fueled LMPs will still compete with 90-liter tanks. However, the maximum height of the fuel rig for the diesel entries has been lowered to the standard height used by all teams. This adjustment may in fact make fueling longer because of a lower center of gravity. These rather minor changes could turn out to be a determining factor, if not in this race, but in ones to come.

There will also be a new face to the Series in LMP2, as Andretti Green Racing has brought in James Rossiter to partner lead driver Franck Montagny in the team’s No. 26 Acura ARX-01b. The 24-year-old former Super Aguri and Honda F1 test driver will partner Montagny in the next two races. Rossiter has a background mainly in open-wheel machinery, and this weekend’s race will mark his first start in a sports car.

photo by: John Thawley “I’m really looking forward to driving the XM Acura for Andretti Green Racing in the ALMS and in the United States,” the Englishman said. “I’m looking forward to the new challenge as well as racing with Franck. I really just want to enter into this with the goal of learning as much as possible. AGR has a great history as a great team, so hopefully we can do some great things together.”

Team co-owner Michael Andretti added: “We feel very good about adding James to our lineup for at least these next two events. He’s a promising, young talent and we’re looking forward to seeing what he can do here. During the past couple of events, the XM Acura has shown the necessary speed to contend for the podium and we just need a couple breaks to go our way.”

Acura’s chief rival in LMP2, Porsche, claimed the class win last time out at Mid-Ohio. Now, the German manufacturer has revealed that the Penske RS Spyders ran the race with brand-new direct fuel injected engines. Building off the successful 3.4-litre V8 powerplant, Porsche’s new DFI engine produces improved energy efficiency, while also getting a boost in performance. The new engine boasts 30 more horsepower than its predecessor, a remarkable improvement considering there’s no reduction in fuel consumption.

“Competition in the LMP2 class is at an extremely high level and it gets tougher race by race,” says Hartmut Kristen, Head of Motorsport at Porsche. “Therefore now is exactly the right time to race the new engine.”

photo by: Porsche AGThe DFI engine can also run very lean during caution phases of races, which will reduce the fuel consumption even more. This was not possible with the old intake manifold fuel injection powerplant.

“We had already recognized the advantages of this technology at the start of the RS Spyder project and adapted them to the very special requirements of motorsport, always in close consultation with our colleagues in the standard development department,” says Thomas Laudenbach, Head of Motorsport Development/Power Train for Porsche Motorsport. “The methods and insights we obtained from our co-operation are of considerable value for future development projects involving DFI technology.”

Both Penske RS Spyders will race with the DFI engine at Road America, with the ultimate hope of transitioning this technology into customer RS Spyders in the near future.

The GT1 class should see the return of the Bell Motorsports Aston Martin DBR9 to the grid, after the Prodrive-built machine missed the last round at Mid-Ohio because of accident damage suffered at Lime Rock. The Jim Bell-run operation needs a turnaround of luck, and hopefully it can come this weekend. Terry Borcheller and Chapman Ducote are once again slated to drive.

photo by: John Thawley There are once again 14 entries vying for the GT2 win, with a few adjustments to the driver roster for this round. Marc Basseng has been added to VICI Racing’s line-up in the team’s No. 18 Porsche. The German joins brothers Nicky and Francesco Pastorelli in the Kumho-shod entry.

“It’s great to be joining VICI Racing and I’m relishing the chance to actively contribute to the tire development program,” Basseng said. “The team has impressed me from what I have seen of them in the ALMS this year, they’re coming on race by race, and I know that Ron Meixner is very focused on winning. I’m also looking forward to working with Technical Director Roland Wall, he is one of the best guys in the business and very good at getting the most out of a car. Now I can’t wait to get on track at Road America and contribute to the team’s progress.”

Basseng, who drove for Farnbacher Loles in first four races of the season, missed the last two at Lime Rock and Mid-Ohio because the team opted to put Richard Westbrook behind the wheel. It’s expected that Basseng will rejoin the Danbury, Connecticut-based operation for Mosport, as Westbrook will have another racing conflict.

photo by: John Thawley Over in Farnbacher Loles, Bryce Miller will join Westbrook and full-season co-driver Dirk Werner in the No. 87 Porsche, while Joey Hand is listed to join Tommy Milner and Tom Sutherland in PTG Team Panoz’s Esperante.

On a final note, de Ferran Motorsports crew member Keith Jones was injured following a fire in the pit lane at Mid-Ohio two weeks ago. Jones remains in the hospital, now transferred to the Richard M. Fairbanks Burn Center at Wishard in Indianapolis. Jones suffered severe burns when the team’s Acura pulled away from the pits with the fuel hose still attached, igniting a 14-second long flash fire.

In the wake of this accident, IMSA has taken charge and has now mandated that every team’s fueler, fire bottle crew member and vent person must have their safety equipment inspected before each race. IMSA’s bulletin sent to teams addresses the fact that certain fabrics used in some shoes and gloves are not fire-resistant and could actually accelerate a fire. Also, routine maintenance and care to fire suits is necessary in order for it to function properly. The Series has already enforced the use of fire suits for all people in pit lane during a race, one of the only championships in America to have such a regulation.

Action at Road America begins on Thursday afternoon, with a two-hour test session at 1:40 p.m. Practice and qualifying is on tap for Friday, with the four-hour race into the darkness getting the green flag at 4:00 p.m. Saturday afternoon. As always, Trackbytes will be on site to provide the latest from the weekend.

Update: We’ve received word of a few other late driver changes/additions. Gregor Fisken has been added as a third driver to Intersport Racing’s No. 30 Lola B06/10 AER, joining Ryan Lewis and John Faulkner. Also, Risi Competizione regular Patrick Friesacher will be unable to race due to a back injury sustained in an A1GP testing accident. Therefore, the team has drafted in Rob Bell to partner Harrison Brix in the No. 61 Ferrari.

« Drivers Pay Visit to Shriners Hospital for Children in Chicago | Main | Sneak Peek at B-K Motorsports' Newest Weapon of Choice »