Wednesday
Mar252009

Audi superb at Sebring, but challenging times loom for the American Le Mans Series

Photo by John Thawley Peter M. De Lorenzo is a national columnist who founded Autoextremist.com, a highly-regarded website devoted to news, commentary and analysis of the auto industry. He is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.Audi proved once again why they’ve been one of the most successful road racing endeavors in history last Saturday by winning the 57th Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring presented by Fresh from Florida after a race-long duel with the factory Peugeot 908 HDi machines. The fact that the German manufacturer debuted its brand-new R15 TDI turbo-diesel racer and won the first time out with it is consistent with its phenomenal record in major endurance road racing events over the last decade. Audi team drivers Allan McNish, Dindo Capello and Tom Kristensen beat Peugeot after a magnificent battle between sports car racing’s two diesel super powers in America’s most prestigious endurance race. This year’s win by the new R15 TDI at Sebring marked the third time that an Audi prototype has won in its race debut, joining the R8 in 2000 and R10 TDI in 2006, an incredible achievement. And that was the good news of the weekend.

The bad news?

The car count at Sebring was way down, certainly not worthy of America’s most prestigious endurance race. And it gets even worse after Sebring, with the Audi and Peugeot teams disappearing to concentrate on resuming their battle at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June, leaving the ALMS in the lurch, especially at the upcoming St. Petersburg and Long Beach races. Like every other racing series these days, the economy is hurting teams and negatively affecting sponsor hunting, and the ALMS will have to fight to get cars to the grid. Even the vaunted and highly fan popular Corvette team is running only one (Long Beach) of the next four ALMS races as it makes its annual foray to Le Mans before returning to run the rest of the season in GT2 beginning with the Mid-Ohio round in August.

The fact that the ALMS’ raison d’etre is its indelible connection to the 24 Hours of Le Mans is both a powerful lure and a tremendous burden at the same time. That the series embraces advanced technologies and alternative/green fuels is definitely the wave of the future for racing, and it remains the place for manufacturers to compete while developing advanced technologies that will actually end up in production cars down the road. But when economic times are tough, those same advanced technologies and alternative/green fuels present even more of a challenge, because the cost to compete in the high-tech series is so high to begin with.

The ALMS will weather this economic storm, however, and I expect as the year progresses things will get better for the series. And there’s no doubt that the second half of the season is shaping up to be riveting, with a Titanic battle on tap in GT2 with factory BMW, Corvette, Ferrari, Porsche and Panoz teams squaring off in what’s promising to be the most intense closed cockpit road racing since the legendary Trans-Am era of 1966 - 1971.

I’ll be looking forward to it.

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