It’s the last race of the 2009 ALMS season at Laguna Seca where the finale has been held for the last number of years. One of the best places to finish a season without a doubt. Monterey is one of the prettiest places in the US and the track is one of my favorites.
I’ve had decent success here in the past. I dominated here in 2005 with my teammates Justin Marks and Bill Auberlen in an M3 and finished well in every year after. Last year I lead for an hour or so in the aging Panoz and finished 3rd. So coming into the weekend, I felt pretty good. Dirk and myself were 3rd in points heading into the race with no real chance to take 2nd but we could drop to 5th if we had a bad race. Henzler was only 4 points back and Dom Farnbacher and Ian James 9 points back.
It’s Friday morning and we’ve had time to digest the test session from Thursday and our car. I’ve been given the nod this weekend to qualify the car so the day is setup around getting me the car in the 2nd session to do a qual sim run on new tires and low fuel to give me a chance to see how the tires come in and what the balance might be.
Qualifying has traditionally not been the most important session in sports car racing. With the longer races, where you start isn’t the most important but how your car handles over a stint is the most important. However, now that GT2 is becoming very tough and becoming a lot closer in times, qualifying starts to take some priority.
There’s Rico and Donny doing some setup work on the car. A lot of time is spent on the pad making sure the car rolls out on track exactly as we want it.
Practice 1 is in the books and we’ve got some understeer we’d like to get rid of in the car. A lot of attention has been focused towards the Dunlop tires this weekend and finding the right tire for the conditions. Thursday afternoon test session was a pretty good indication of track conditions for the race and once we found the tire that was working the best, it was the end of the session basically and we didn’t have much time to adjust on the car during the session.
So far, we haven’t been as competitive as we’d like. It would be nice to have another day of practice but that’s usually what you want when things aren’t just right. The team is used to that, as drivers we’re used to that, so you in these situations you have to accelerate the process of getting the car as close as you can get it.
As we come to practice 2, we still have some understeer in the car. Our engineers Jay O’Connell and Chris Yanchar at RLR have a pretty cool excel spreadsheet where, in the most basic way to describe it, you basically input what the setup of the car is and it gives you one number to look at to judge how much understeer or oversteer there should be in the car. That’s the most basic explanation I can give you because I can’t properly explain it here without boring you and getting myself lost. I can just ask them for “the number” in the car and it makes sense.
This number is the lowest it’s been all season, which means we have the most oversteer in the car we’ve seen all year, and yet that’s not translating on track. Knowing that we’re already a little off I expected to be in 8th or 9th in the second session. We were actually 4th for a majority of the session and ended up 5th in the end before qualifying.
This is where the 92 car braintrust sits during any on track session. Bobby and Jay who basically run the session for our car are the two in the foreground. Jay is our car engineer and is probably at this point figuring out how much fuel needs to go in the car to keep it around the same level so as to not change the balance of the car too much by a varying fuel load.
Everyone is listening in to what I say in the car on the stand here and can speak freely to one another on the stand through an intercom system. When the driver not in the car is on the stand he can discuss what he felt about the car during the session and what needs to be done to change to help improve it.
Qualifying. My first time qualifying this year. I qualified all last year and the majority of the season in ’07 as well so it’s not my first rodeo here with qualifying. Still, different car, different tires and the competition is a lot closer than it has been in the past. We steadily increased the the oversteer in the car to try and cure the understeer as the 2nd practice session went on and still never came to the best balance at the end and we’re out of rear bar adjustment, which was working in the practice session.
So, the plan is put in a lap and see where we sit and the team has another, larger, adjustment to try if the balance is off still and we’re down the order. Well, that’s basically where we were. 8th in class and it’s only 4 tenths to 4th or 5th place and 7 tenths to P1. So we aren’t miles off the pace but 8th isn’t where we want to be. I came in and made a big change to the car to get the balance better but the tires have lost their edge for that ultimate lap and we’ve shifted the balance too far to oversteer now, especially on entry, and on my last effort I had a big moment entering turn 4 and had to abort the lap after that. So that’s where we’ll stay, 8th. Not exactly what I was hoping for on my first time qualifying the car.
Here’s a quick interview post qualifying
The famous Corkscrew. It’s one of the most unique turns in racing. You fall something like 6 stories in about a second. It’s a pretty crazy corner. The hardest part about the Corkscrew is just working up the nerves to launch yourself over the edge when you cant really see where you’re going. Once you run it a couple of times and you find your reference point for aiming the car off the cliff, for me at least, it’s just another corner. It’s hard to pass here but it does lead to one of my favorites, Rainey Curve.
As a part of every ALMS weekend, there is a driver autograph session in front of every teams’ trailers. It’s something the ALMS does to keep the ‘For the Fans’ mantra alive. Anyone who gets a ticket to any ALMS race can walk around the paddock and see the cars, teams, and drivers up close.
For Laguna Seca, the local BMWCCA chapter came for a visit and a talk from some of the RLR staff about the cars and the weekend so far. All 120+ of them. It was like an army of BMW fans taking over the entire tent. That part of our job is fun. To talk and interact with fans who are true fans of BMW cars is always fun. Any little bit of info you give them about the car or the weekend so far seems to make their day. Afterwards, most of them walked away with a Dunlop hat and a hero card and the chance to stand next to the cars they would be watching in a matter of hours.
Sometimes, when the camera is pointed at you enough, it’s hard to always give the same smile every time. All of the build up with the fans waiting in line, people taking pictures of the cars, and just general atmosphere around this time, before the race, puts me in a good mood.
Again, on the grid before the race with lots of fans asking for pictures and giving you words of encouragement for the race. You get to walk around the grid and give some fellow competitors some hand shakes and keep relaxed. Maybe start making plans for the night too…
Here I am standing with Don Bell, President and CEO of Bell Microproducts. Don is a racer himself, having raced most recently in the Porsche Cup series here in the US. Bell Micro is one of my personal sponsors and this is the home race for Bell Micro, as their headquarters are in San Jose. Just speaking with him and a few guests before the race and answering some questions for the guests about what’s to come.
At this point, even though the race starts in less than 30 minutes, everything is ready to go. I’ve tried a thousand different approaches to the start of the race and I’ve found just keeping relaxed and in a good mood is the best for me. If I think too much about the race and try to plan what I want to do on the start, it never works out how I want. I just let my instincts take over and do whatever it is I think it best as the situation comes.
Not the best start of my career. Laguna is tough to pass so I hoped to just settle in behind my teammate and start the push forward after that. I had the inside line into 2 but where we were in the line of cars I had to pinch the car a lot at the apex of the last corner to stay inside, right as the cars were taking off. The Ford GT next to me had a better run out of the last corner and was able to move in front. This would prove to be a headache for me later.
Unfortunately, the 90 car started smoking heavily on the first yellow of the race and was out of the race. There was no reason to believe our car would have a similar problem so really it was just another spot for us. It just meant we were the only car left for BMW for a good result and if anything were to happen to us, that would be a very unfortunate end to the 2009 season, after such a strong second half.
During the second full course caution of the race, most of the GT2 field took the opportunity to pit. Our Dunlop tires having shown to be able to go more than a stint competitively, we pitted like most of the others in front of us, except we left the warm Dunlops on and only took fuel. This got us out in 4th place instead of the 7th place we were before, but more importantly in front of the Ford GT which was just fast enough to keep me behind but I was definitely quicker over the lap and caused me to lose touch with the front runners as the run went on.
On the restart braking for turn 2, I had the 5th place Corvette behind me attempt to outbrake me into turn 2. He left his braking too late and took to the gravel on the inside to avoid the cars ahead of us on the track. I too left the braking quite late but I had enough room on the outside to slow myself down in plenty time without hitting the cars ahead.
I was looking to go around the outside of a Porsche Challenge car just ahead when I saw a flash of yellow to my left and then a big hit on my left rear. I let the car roll back a little to hopefully avoid any more damage and let the car roll too far. The track has some very deep sand traps right on the road edge and I was stuck. We lost a lap while I was pulled out but I thought we were done. The impact felt to be on the left rear wheel but the corner worker said it was fine.
Everything was fine with the car, minus some damage to the exhaust pipes which cost us some horsepower. The Corvette hit pretty much the strongest part of the car on the side there so we got away with one a little there. We did however lose a lap to the rest of the GT2 field and we would have a hard time making that back.
When I pitted after the damage, it was about an hour and a half into the race, and they stuck Dirk in the car to finish the race. It would be a long stint for him but with strategy it would be best to get him in now so if we wanted to only take tires for our last stop, we wouldn’t have to worry about a driver change taking too long.
So far the car was running strong. The team and I decided it would be best to put a softer front compound on the car to help the balance, as we still had an understeer. We hadn’t run this combination in practice but we had run both compounds and they would both last and hopefully give Dirk the best car to challenge to the end.
Dirk was pushing very hard. At this point we had nothing to lose. Both Henzler and the Panoz who were just behind us in points were ahead of us on track and we were in danger of losing not only 3rd but also 4th. Dirk set the fastest race lap of GT2 as the sun was just about to set. It was looking tougher and tougher for us to be able to make up that time to challenge for a podium finish. We had the speed but with the setback of the hit earlier, it wasn’t looking like that was going to happen.
The fog began to roll in and cooled the track and air pretty quickly. It came in at a perfect time though because the sunset is very tough at Laguna Seca. As we exit Rainey Curve, the sun basically is right in your line of sight. You are almost driving blind and when you are having that hard of a time to even see where you’re going and still have to watch for faster cars behind and slower cars ahead of you it can get very tricky. The fog eliminated this thankfully but I think the photographers were a little bummed because the lighting at that time of day sets up for some very cool pictures.
The cooler temperatures would also help us double stint the front tires if we needed to at the end as well. That was our only concern and thankfully the fog eliminated that concern.
The last half hour was tough for Dirk. Since we were out of sequence on the pitstops we had moved up to 4th but had to pit for fuel to go to the end so we dropped back to 8th with a shot at getting back to 5th. Dirk got 7th quickly, then was closing in on 6th quickly with only 10 minutes to go. He got 6th and was closing the gap to 5th every lap. Getting closer and closer but it just seemed like he just wouldn’t have the time.
While all that is going on, the battle for 3rd and 4th was between the two competitors behind us in points and it looked like if the Panoz would finish ahead of Henzler, that we would be able to keep 3rd in points in the end. With only a few laps to go that was the order and if Dirk could get 5th we would have 3rd for sure.
On the final lap, Dirk caught 5th but didn’t have an opportunity to really get by, until the last corner when traffic was ahead for both. Dirk tried everything he could but it wasn’t enough and used the car up completely at the end to try and get 5th but it just wasn’t meant to be.
In the meantime, Henzler had gotten by the Panoz for 3rd and it looked like we would lose 3rd to Henzler but keep 4th place.
In the end, we finished 6th after an awesome drive by Dirk and with how the results played out ahead of us we would lose 3rd in points to Henzler. It was just an unfortunate race for the team, getting hit like that so early in the race, and not having a chance to really challenge for a podium in the end.
As I look back on the season, it was a lot of fun for sure and a great season both on and off the track. For a brand new car to finish on the podium in its second race and win in it’s debut year in such a competitive class, GT2, it has to be considered a success for the team and for BMW. My first season as a “factory driver”, something I really never thought I’d have the chance to say two or three years ago, and to have the year we did, has to rank as one of the most enjoyable seasons of my career.
I had a great time with the EA crew who came to Long Beach to shoot the NFS Drivers Films and met some great people from that experience. I’ve got some cool video to remember the season by now because of it and that will be fun to look back on later.
The season isn’t completely over though. I leave a in a few days to head to Japan for the Asian Le Mans Series race at Okayama to race with the M3 and the team one last time. We’re looking to go out on a high note for the team and for BMW and to cap off the first season for the new M3 in style.