As March receeds and April hoves into view the coverage of last weekend's Sebring 12 Hours was scheduled to stop. At SpeedHunters we generally look to the forward horizon being glass half full kinda guys. However reviewing some of the comments to the numerous posts we made around the race it is clear that there are a few outstanding points that should be answered, we owe you readers that much. So here goes.
Thinking about the race itself the first thing that hits you is the fantastic job done by Audi in winning arguably the toughest sportscar race on the planet with a brand new, unproven car. It is commonly held that the quality of a victory is measured by the opposition, in that case Sebring 2009 ranks up there with the best as Team Peugeot are as good an outfit as you will get.
The other opponent seen off was the car breaking track itself, getting both cars to the podium with only the most minor delays says everything you need to know about the quality of the engineering and race craft of Audi Sport, whether the Joest version or the North American. The worrying thing for the rest of the field is that this car will only get better.
Peugeot will be bitterly disappointed not to have won or better put to have handed victory to their German rivals. Off season it is clear that the team has worked on their weaknesses, particularly at pit stops and it greatly to their credit that they could match the best in the pit lane, Audi.
There was a touch of delusion in the PR analysis from Peugeot as to why they had lost the race, blaming a slow puncture on Bourdais' car towards the end of his stint.
In reality the top spot on the podium was lost by a combination of a few problems that should have been avoided by this stage in the programme. Hydraulic pumps failing just prior to the start simply should not happen and having one car retire late in the race through transmission failure or some other malady will need looking at, is it a design fault or just a Sebring thing?
Drivers Christian Klein and Sebastien Bourdais also need to keep from spinning, time lost through these incidents just hands encouragement to the likes of McNish. In fairness Bourdais' electric pace in the dark redeemed his slip and on Monday after the race Dindo Capello demonstarted how treacherous the track is when he wrecked the victorious R15 at Turn 17 ending up in the wall big time.
All of which does not detract from the fact that those of us lucky enough to be at Hendricks' Field saw something a bit special, historic even. It would appear that the combination of Audi, Peugeot and a wee Scot makes for compelling motor racing. So much for the good stuff.
The third component of the struggle for overall victory, Acura, in the shape of its two teams De Ferran Motorsports and Patron Highcroft Racing flattered to deceive in qualifying. Scott Dixon produced a bit a magic to snatch pole for Acura from the Europeans and in doing so, showcased his top level talent. David Brabham's Highcroft ARX-02a had a few niggles throughout the event and ended up in 6th place on the grid. As soon as the race started both cars went backwards in comparison to the diesel powered rivals and both ended up as retirements.
In regards to Acura the real action was taking place off the track. There were rumbles and rumours around the paddock that HPD (Honda Performance Development) were considering bailing out of the series in LMP1 given the lack of any factory opposition, namely Audi. This would be a disaster for the ALMS and the story was firmly denied on both sides by those in charge but refused to die. Robin Miller who broke the story on his TV show, "clarified" his remarks saying that he meant to sat the R&D on the ARX-02a would cease immediately and De Ferran would be pushed towards an IRL programme in 2010, possibly featuring Grand Prix refugee and Japanese poster boy, Takumo Sato.
There have also been stories around that one or both of the current LMP1 teams might take a shot at the Indy 500 this year. Both have the engineering capability and given the uncertainty over the Miller Motorsports Park round of the ALMS, possibly the time too.
In the short term, ie St Pete's and Long Beach the status quo will prevail but it would be a brave man to bet the farm on the outcome.
Ah St Pete's……….
Without doubt this will be the most difficult round for the ALMS this year. Almost any race would struggle to stand alongside an event of the quality of the latest edition of Sebring but one that has none of the top acts and a car count that is on life support is going to be difficult. No Audi, no Peugeot and no Corvette and only 17 cars on the list right now. It will be a long weekend. I have worked in series when the car count dips below 20 and one thing that you can count on is that if there is any bad luck around it will strike when most unwelcome, the walls of the Florida street circuit will have a seductive if solid appeal and it would not be a surprise to have one or two hit in hard before the race gets underway. Like most folks in the business I will keep my fingers crossed for the series.
The good news is that Corvette will be back for Long Beach for their final appearance in North America in the GT1 class. If you can get along to the SoCal port then you should. Cars and teams of the quality of the C6R and Pratt & Miller do not happen along very often and are deserving of all the support they can get. A final outing at Le Mans will close the GT1 chapter for GM, then it will be on with the new GT2 programme, joining Porsche, Ferrari and BMW werks efforts in this most competitive arena of the ALMS.
Another bizarre story emerged while at Sebring, namely that GM is facing legal action from Riley Technologies over the GT2 Corvette built by Riley and run in the ALMS by Lou Gigliotti. There are claims that GM is reneging on a promise to sign the car's FIA Homologation papers, making in ineligible to compete anywhere except in ACO sanctioned races. The facts surrounding this are now in the courts but the sum claimed is some $14 million, so not small change then, even for GM.
More long term good news is that BMW are planning to sell customer versions of the new M3. There are a few issues to be cleared up about homologation and what the ACO has decided for 2010 and onwards, but it is clear that the sport really needs the likes of the M3 on board both in North American and Europe and in ALMS, LMS and FIA GT. The fact that this will turn into a customer programme will make the homologation issues easier, the 2001 M3 GTR campaign was strictly factory only and the various governing bodies (and the other competitors) felt that running at that level was outside of the intentions behind GT2 rules.
It was also clear at Sebring that the rule changes in GT2 for 2009 have impacted on the Ferrari 430 entries much more than the 997s but somehow Flying Lizard and Farnbacher Loles chucked away that advantage, giving Risi an open goal. Arsenal die hard fan and Risi team manager, 'Beaky' Sims took advantage in best "Roy of the Rovers" fashion.
The latest Flying Lizard 997 is really special and I was lucky enough to have a good look round it before the race………..a detailed story on this later. The same applies to the Audi R15.
Other good news for the beleaguered ALMS management will be the arrival of a new prototype team, Corsa Motorsports. They are schedule to go green from Long Beach and will run a Zytek Hybrid for Johnny Mowlem and Stefan Johansson. Of course some wonder that having missed the first and most important race of the season will they actually appear? Johnny Mowlem was pretty confident when I ran into him at Miami Airport, but then he would be wouldn't he?. Another press release this weekend and another addition to the grid at Long Beach will be Falken Tires Porsche 911 RSR, all are welcome during these difficult times.
Scott Atherton, President and CEO of ALMS, has made it his number one priority to maintain and if possible build the number of competitors in 2009. Last week there was an announcement that cars currently competing in the IMSA Challenge for Porsche GT3 Cup cars could be eligible, depending on results, to run as a separate class in the ALMS races this year. On paper this sounds good, a synergy of sponsors and partners already involved, Patron, Yokohama and Porsche but on reflection there is an element of desperation in this latest attempt to boost the grids. The cars themselves are not GT3 spec as in the FIA sense but Cup cars from Porsche.
There would appear to be a number of safety issues, speed differential in respect of the prototypes being a main one, driver ability being another. The GT3 Cup cars were at least 10 seconds off the pace of the GT2 class at Sebring and nearly 30 seconds away from Bourdais' lap record of 1:43.2. This mean that the unfortunate Porsche drivers would be lapped every three or four laps by the leading LMP1 cars. They would feel like the B17 tailgunners that used to train over Hendricks Field, constantly looking in the mirror for the approach of a fast moving dot. As far as I am aware the issue of refuelling would present problems as the cars do not have on board fuel systems like the GT2 cars, nor would the teams have refuelling rigs to hand. The Cup 911s that ran in the Dubai 24 Hours could do the best part of two hours on a tank of fuel, extending that by 45 minutes to accomodate the ALMS standard race distance would be difficult and the cars would extremely heavy at the start.
Also by creating a class of racing that was in some measure cheaper than the GT2 class could undermine the rationale of actually signing up for a GT2 season.
None of these issues are insurmountable, I am sure ALMS and Porsche have already worked out a plan, it's just the question springs to mind, is this a good use of scarce resources?
Another more intriguing story popped out during Sebring week, with tales that Don Panoz was showing some VIPs a rendering of a new front engined Panoz LMP, a succesor to the likes of "Sparky" above. Denials and claims of being misquoted were issued but a consensus was formed amongst the grey beards observing the series, that this might be a resurrection of the Pratt & Miller Corvette LMP1 project that was killed off as a result of GM's financial woes last year. How far down the line this really is is open to question and how it would be funded was also not clear. Kite flying was considered the most likely explanation.
Of course the real stars of the show, the fans, were out in force. If numbers were a little bit down as reported it would not be a surprise and certainly things were much more subdued than I recall over the years. The Patron Highcroft promo girls pulled out of the annual vollyball contest depriving you of some fun shots and staging the Bikini Contest during the middle of the race was an act of cruelty on working photographers and it meant that I was sweating in the pits rather than in the pit. The sacrifices I make for my art……………..
Of course not everyone is cowed in the face of the credit crunch and such pioneering spirit was on full display at Turn 10 and their neighbours such as the Stumble Inn. It's how the West was won.
In the final analysis we had a great event at Sebring in 2009, those of who were lucky enough to be there will have bragging/boring rights for years to come.
And we were witness to the birth of another Audi legend…………………………..