Story by David Phillips - photo by John Thawley David Phillips is one of North America’s most respected and renowned motorsports journalists. His ‘Another Turn’ feature appears regularly on americanlemans.com. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Le Mans Series.

Even the most ardent supporters of Risi Competizione had to wonder which team would show up for the 57th Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring presented by Fresh from Florida. Would it be the team that ran away with the 2007 American Le Mans Series’ GT2 title on the strength of eight wins in 12 races? Or the team that couldn’t win for losing in last year’s edition of the Series, earning but two GT2 wins in 11 outings?

In some ways, the opening round of the 2009 championship was a mixture of the past two seasons for Risi, one that began with driver Jaime Melo cooling his heels in his new homeland of Italy owing to visa difficulties that, ultimately, led to the No. 62 Ferrari F430 GT starting the race from pit lane as Melo was MIA for Thursday night’s mandatory practice.

But if the race meeting began like 2008, it ended like 2007 with Melo and co-drivers Mika Salo and Pierre Kaffer taking GT2 honors, having led the final 10-plus hours of the competition.

Adding the icing to the cake is the fact that Tracy Krohn, Nic Jonsson and Eric van de Poole earned a sixth place for Risi with the Krohn Racing Ferrari F430.

But while it’s tempting to think that 2009 may be a case of back to the future of 2007 for the Houston-based outfit, team owner Giuseppe Risi says it’s business as usual, just as it was in 2007, 2008 and as long as he can remember.

“My expectations and goals for 2009 are exactly the same as they have been for all the years I’ve been racing,” he says. “That is to do our best. You can wish to win, but a wish is not enough; you’ve got to put the effort behind it.

“To address last year … our effort was no less last year; we did not forget how to win. Because after every race I analyze things with all my people; we look at it and, when we identify what it is, and if it’s not a big thing, we can only look inward; we cannot look outward.

“So we looked inward and the answers that we had for ourselves were pretty straightforward. We made some mistakes. The car let us down on a couple of occasions - the A/C unit, the pump that failed, the starter motor that failed at Long Beach. Then Jaime made two mistakes, one at Sebring and Salt Lake was another. Then Mika made a driver’s mistake at Road America when we got pretty well boxed in by our second car - again that was a whole team thing - and then he spun off on the last lap.

“It’s a matter of accountability,” Risi continues. “There are too many people in life who think ‘Oh, it’s somebody else’s fault.’ But when you can account for what happened and you know where to point your fingers, especially when it’s yourself, then you have peace with yourself and then you can go on. That’s my philosophy.”

It’s a philosophy that has, so far, produced a championship in the Grand-Am’s SRP class in 2002 and consecutive American Le Mans Series GT2 titles in ’06 and ’07 … not to mention a glorious win in the 24 Hours of Le Mans last year (the team’s second at Le Mans) that went a long, long way towards making up for the disappointments experienced in the Series.

That said, Risi Competizione faces new challenges this season. First off, stalwart Salo will most likely only be with the team for the long-distance events, having informed Risi last year that he intends to pursue opportunities in (what else for an ex-Ferrari F1 driver?) NASCAR. As a result, Risi is seeking to reconstitute the remarkable alchemy generated by Salo and Melo over the years by adding veteran Pierre Kaffer to the mix.

“Mika had plans to go and do NASCAR,” Risi explains. “I don’t know all the final plans because it’s not something we deal with, but he told us way ahead of time. He said, ‘It’s one of the things I’ve never done; I’ve done everything else - Formula One, Indy cars, ice rallies and goodness knows what else …’

“But Mika always has a home with us. He knows that. Obviously I had to make a commitment to my number one car, and my number one car is going to be Jaime Melo and Pierre Kaffer. So Mika will help out in the endurance events and if we have enough sponsorship to run a second car on a continuous basis, then Mika will do that when the second car is not dressed as a Krohn car. So that’s how that will work out.”

As for Kaffer, he emerged as the team’s (and Ferrari’s) consensus choice after a test late last year with two other drivers. On the one hand, says Risi, it was a very close call. On the other, not so much.

“It wasn’t a shootout exactly,” says Risi, “but everybody was given the same car, the same tires, Jaime set the base line and that’s how our choice was based. And obviously, Ferrari had a say in matters; it’s not something I just do by myself.

“So Maurizio Parlato (president and CEO of Ferrari North America) was here, we had the Michelin truck, all the tires we needed and we had two good, full days. Temperatures were the same, everybody went out and did a stint and that’s what our choice was.

“It is not an easy choice because all those three guys were very quick, all within one or two tenths of a second of one another. It’s a very difficult choice to make. Pierre’s feedback is very good. He’s a mechanical engineer, his English is good and he’s very clear. Maybe it was because of all the miles he’s done, but Pierre had one little step better.”

That opinion was justified when Kaffer blended in perfectly with Salo and Melo to score the team’s second win at Sebring and third podium finish there in four years.

“It always takes a while for this kind of thing to sink in, especially when you mentally prepare yourself for the worst,” Risi said afterward. “We dominated the race, had absolutely no technical problems at all with either of the cars so it was a perfect result, and the team did a fantastic job right from the get-go. All six drivers did a superb job and it’s a perfect start to the season.”

But, in the end, it’s only a start. There are nine more Series races to go, as well as the opportunity to defend the GT2 victory at Le Mans.

And with many of the usual GT2 suspects back for another go in ’09 - joined by BMW at Sebring and, beginning at Mid-Ohio, GT1 kingpins Corvette Racing - Risi knows it’s no time to party like it’s 2007.

“We look forward to all the competition,” he says, “because we have the people, the team is here, the drivers are here and I also believe we have the right machinery. So let the best man win.”

Besides, there’s a little extra incentive to earn another GT2 manufacturers championship.

“This year we, again, have some great drivers,” he says. “This racing has gotten tougher. There’s nothing wrong with that and it’s a special year for us because it’s probably the last full year with the Ferrari F430. It’s been a fabulous race car, probably one of the best GT cars Ferrari has ever made. So we certainly want to let the so-called Old Lady go out in style.”

Certainly Risi started the ’09 season in style. While that resulted in a win, Giuseppe Risi would be the first to tell you it’s the same style, win or lose, whether it’s 2007, 2008 or 2009.

« The GT2 Chase is On | Main | Audi superb at Sebring, but challenging times loom for the American Le Mans Series »