Petit Le Mans: Race Preview

The 11th annual Petit Le Mans powered by the Totally New Mazda6 is shaping up to be one of the most anticipated races in American Le Mans Series history – all for the right reasons. Thirty-eight cars are entered for the 1,000-mile/10-hour test of endurance at Road Atlanta, with incentives such as the inaugural Green Challenge bundled into the action-packed weekend.

Where do we start? Well LMP1 would be the obvious choice, and what a race we are in for. The classic Audi vs. Peugeot match-up will once again be in full force, for the second time on American soil. The French Lions, though, only have one of its Peugeot 908 HDi-FAPs entered, as accident damage from the Le Mans Series season finale at Silverstone cost them their second planned entry.

photo by: John Thawley “It is important for Peugeot to take part in this race in order for the team and the technical department to gain even more experience,” said Peugeot Sport director Michel Barge. “To ensure we have the necessary resources that our participation in this race requires, just as we did at Sebring earlier this year, we have consequently decided to enter just one car.”

Nicolas Minassian, Stephane Sarrazin and Christian Klien will drive the solo No. 07 entry. However, there was drama for the 908 HDi-FAP on Saturday in testing when Pedro Lamy had an off while navigating around traffic. The car sustained serious damage, but was repaired for the final day of testing on Sunday. 

Could Peugeot really put up a fight to the Audi Sport North America on effectively its “home soil”? Projections last month said the French diesel could be up to two seconds per lap quicker than the R10 TDIs around the 2.54-mile, 12-turn circuit. If that’s the case, then things could get real interesting. 

The pressure is on over at the Audi camp, and they have responded, bringing back defending and two-time ALMS P1 champs Allan McNish and Dindo Capello to steer the No. 1 entry with Emanuele Pirro. The potent trio knows the series and circuit very well, something the Peugeot squad lacks. Newly crowned drivers’ champions Marco Werner and Lucas Luhr will be at the helm of the No. 2 Audi, with the team going for a two-driver approach in that car.

photo by: John Thawley “For me, Road Atlanta is one of the most challenging tracks in the world,” Luhr said. “There are many parts where you need to be brave. It goes up and downhill continuously. Every lap at Road Atlanta is a real pleasure – especially with such a fantastic sportscar like the Audi R10 TDI, which is equally at home there as I am.”

The battle for top gasoline-powered car honors should be one of the most competitive ever, with seven P1 entries all fired up to take on the challenge. Season-long stalwarts Intersport Racing is back with two cars, purchasing the ex-Charouz Racing System Lola B07/17 Judd. Ryan Lewis and countryman Luke Hines will pilot the No. 30 machine, making a potent package that could surprise a few. After inheriting the class victory at Detroit, Intersport’s AER-powered No. 37 Lola of Jon and Clint Field and Richard Berry will be hoping for more success, but a podium here would certainly feel like another win.

British-based Creation Autosportif makes its annual trip across the pond for the final two ALMS races of the year, this time bringing both of its Creation CA07 AIMs with them for the end-of-year bash. Jamie-Campbell Walter, Harold Primat and Stephen Simpson will pilot the No. 88 machine, while Liz Halliday makes her North American racing return, partnering with Stuart Hall and Dean Stirling in the No. 888 entry. Both cars will be running on Cellulosic E85 fuel.

“I’m excited to be back in the ALMS,” Halliday said. “I’ve been away for two years and it’s going to be really cool seeing everybody again. It’s a great championship and I love racing in the US - the fans are always fantastic and hopefully they will be happy to see me back in a car again.”

photo by: John Thawley Two Zyteks will also be on the grid, in its newly named “Ginetta-Zytek” badge formed from the partnership with Team LNT’s Lawrence Tomlinson. Team LNT will in fact enter one of the 07S examples, with help from IndyCar Series team Conquest Racing. Danny Watts and Olivier Pla are down to handle driving duties in the No. 50 entry.

The long awaited debut of the Corsa Motorsports Ginetta-Zytek will finally be made, but most likely without its planned hybrid technology. Instead, the Steve Pruitt-led team will focus on developing the revolutionary system for 2009 but use the final two races of this season to help settle into the P1 category. Ralf Kelleners will join Johnny Mowlem and Gunnar Jeannatte behind the wheel of the No. 48 machine.

“This will be one of the world’s toughest proving grounds for a technology that can benefit everyone,” Mowlem said. “This is an exciting moment for all of us, but it is still one step along the way. After the Petit, we go on to California for the race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.”

Finally, Autocon Motorsports will be present at Petit, but with a new car. The Mike Lewis-led effort has purchased Chamberlain Synergy’s Lola B06/10 AER and will run it for Chris McMurry, Tony Burgess and Bryan Willman. The team will benefit from the technical support of Hugh Chamberlain this weekend as well.

photo by: John Thawley There are 10 entries lined up for LMP2, but it’s the stars that are behind the wheel of these prototypes that are making the headlines. After getting overtaken in the manufacturers’ championship, Porsche and Penske Racing have responded by entering a third yellow RS Spyder for its IndyCar stars Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe.

Five Porsches are now ready to go up against the four strong Acura contingent, with a number of all-star names also on-board in that camp. Newly signed Chip Ganassi Racing IndyCar driver Dario Franchitti joins Patron Highcroft Racing’s David Brabham and Scott Sharp, whereas 2008 IndyCar Champion Scott Dixon has been drafted into de Ferran Motorsports’ lineup of Simon Pagenaud and Gil de Ferran.

Fresh off their maiden overall victory at Detroit, Andretti Green Racing has opted to replace James Rossiter with its IndyCar duo of Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti, who join lead driver Franck Montagny. Finally, over at Lowe’s Fernandez Racing, Michel Jourdain Jr. comes on board as a third driver, teaming with Adrian Fernandez and Luis Diaz.

What could all these changes imply on the P2 title hunt? Penske Racing’s Romain Dumas and Timo Bernhard still hold a lead, but a slim one at best. Four points separates the dynamic duo from Highcroft’s Brabham and Sharp, while Acura now holds a four-point lead in the manufacturers’ championship thanks to its sweep of the podium at Detroit. Penske Racing, though, currently enjoys an 11-point margin over the Duncan Dayton-led organization in the teams’ championship.

While much of the news in P2 may be about the superstar drivers and tight title race, an exciting new car will also be making its debut. B-K Motorsports has entered its all-new Lola B08/86 Mazda Coupe for season-long drivers Ben Devlin and Gerardo Bonilla. They will be joined by Raphael Matos, fresh off victory in the season-ending Grand-Am Rolex Series race at Miller Motorsports Park.

photo by: John Thawley The Wisconsin-based team is the first ALMS squad to take delivery of Lola’s B08/80 Coupe, an evolution of the B07/46 open-top prototype that it’s campaigned over the past two seasons. The project to create the closed-top car began in December 2006 under the leadership of Lola designer Julian Sole. While built on the platform of Lola’s successful LMP2 car, the B08/80 features significant enhancements over its predecessor.

Over 310 hours of wind tunnel time was utilized to perfect the aerodynamics of the car. Engineers also improved the lift/drag ratio, revised the front suspension geometry and made the B08/80 more drivable through ride height adjustments. All of this adds up to a more refined package.

“We’re all obviously very excited about the new car,” Devlin said. “It’s great for the team and everyone who has put countless hours in to get it ready. Mazda’s increased support and the teamwork from our partners has been great as well. We’ve moved forward with the tires earlier this year, and now we have a new chassis. Hopefully, we’ll have good things with the new Coupe.”

The GT1 category will once again only be a two-horse race, as the Bell Motorsports Aston Martin DBR9 has mysteriously dropped off the entry list. This means Corvette Racing will have the class all to itself as they pursue winning the inaugural Green Challenge.

The race-within-a-race will be run for the first time and is open to all competitors. Developed by the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and SAE International, the Green Challenge winner is determined based on performance, fuel efficiency and environmental impact. There will be a winning team from both the prototype and GT ranks.

“The Green Challenge adds an entirely new dimension to racing,” said Doug Fehan, Corvette Racing program manager. “It’s not simply a race to the checkered flag – the Green Challenge takes science, technology and engineering to an entirely new level in motorsports.

photo by: John Thawley “The determining factors in the Green Challenge include weight, fuel consumption, the speed of the vehicle, distance traveled, emissions from the exhaust pipe, and the environmental footprint of the fuel that’s used,” Fehan explained. “It is a huge, huge challenge, and one that we’ve embraced because it sends the right message – and because it’s the right thing to do. Corvette Racing’s commitment to green racing reflects the position of General Motors in finding new ways to power vehicles that are exciting for our customers.”

Corvette Racing holds a good chance of taking GT honors, as both of its Corvette C6.Rs run on E85R fuel. Drayson-Barwell’s Aston Martin Vantage GT2 is the only other GT car to use the environmentally friendly fuel. Four prototype teams (No. 37 Intersport Lola, No. 12 Autocon Lola and both Creation Autosportif machines) will also use E85R.

Ron Fellows rejoins Johnny O’Connell and Jan Magnussen in Corvette Racing’s No. 3 machine, while Max Papis will share the wheel of the No. 4 Compuware entry with Oliver Gavin and Olivier Beretta.

In GT2, the focus will more or less be on the championship battle. With 55 points up for grab in the remaining two races, the title could be wrapped up this weekend. Flying Lizard Motorsports’ Jorg Bergmeister and Wolf Henzler have a 28-point lead over Tafel Racing’s Dirk Muller and Dominik Farnbacher. The once small gap was lengthened after The Ferrari’s starter motor misfortunes in Detroit.

“We must collect more points than the competitors here to close the gap in points,” says Muller. “Personally, I am not so focused on the points. I like to give my personal best in both the events [Petit Le Mans and Laguna Seca] and, if we match everybody there, then I believe it will be really good. I am very much looking forward. Luckily, I have had a lot of these situations in my racing career.”

photo by: John Thawley Bergmeister and Henzler will once again be bolstered with driving services of Marc Lieb, who teamed with the Porsche duo to claim the season-opening Sebring win. The sister Lizard Porsches retain its regular driving strengths, but with Lonnie Pechnik and Darren Law teaming with Seth Neiman in the No. 44 entry and Johannes van Overbeek and Patrick Pilet sharing the No. 46 car.

Risi Competizione will be looking for win number two of the season, and the Houston-based team once again partners with Krohn Racing to field the No. 61 Ferrari. Tracy Krohn, Nic Jonsson and Eric van de Poele will pilot the lime green entry, which will be competing here and also at Laguna Seca.

There are a few notable additions to the GT2 roster, including the return of LG Motorsports. The Lou Gigliotti-led organization will run its revised Riley Corvette C6 for the first time since its sixth-place finish at Miller Motorsports Park in May. Gigliotti will be joined behind the wheel by Belgian ace Marc Goossens and Tommy Drissi.

Gigliotti and Bill Riley of Riley Technologies have been working together to further develop the car, with hopes of the hard work paying off this weekend. Riley will sit atop the stand calling the race strategy.

“Riley and our LG Team have completed some updates that we are very pleased with,” Gigliotti said. “Racing our Corvette in the ALMS Series gives our world wide customers a team to root for. We have a saying, ‘We race, you win’ and we live by that.”

photo by: John Thawley Monaco-based JMB Racing has entered a Ferrari F430 GT for drivers Ben Aucott, Pierre Kaffer and Stephane Daoudi. This trio shouldn’t be counted out of turning a few heads, especially considering its track record in past endurance races this season.

In terms of notable driver additions, Joey Hand has been drafted back into Panoz Team PTG Panoz Esperante, partnering Tommy Milner. Pierre Ehret is set to rejoin Tafel Racing’s No. 73 Ferrari, while Jorg Hardt will share the wheel of the No. 87 Farnbacher Loles Porsche with Bryce Miller and Dirk Werner. Also, Darren Turner will lend a helping hand over at Drayson-Barwell, completing the line-up in the British team’s Aston Martin Vantage GT2.

Track action officially gets underway Wednesday with a two-hour test session. Thursday’s activities consist of three practice sessions, including one in the evening. On Friday, there is a final practice followed by qualifying, but the annual “State of the Series” address is also on tap. The 1,000-mile/10-hour Petit Le Mans gets the green flag at 11:15 a.m. on Saturday, running into the Georgian twilight.

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