In a very short period of time the motor race known as Petit Le Mans has acquired “Classic” status. It is now regarded in the same league as its yahoo, elder cousin, the Sebring 12 Hours. Some of this status is because of the association with the Le Mans 24 Hours and some of the status is due to the challenging Road Atlanta track. It is popular with teams, drivers, fans, even photographers, all of whom enjoy the undulations and sheer flat out speed of the place.
Generally a pretty good way to wind down the season. It gives a certain balance to the ALMS season to start at Sebring and finish in Atlanta. The race has attracted a top line entry most years since the first event back in 1998. 2009 was no exception.
To say that the racing environment is tough right now would be a gross understatement but even with the adverse financial climate there is one area of the American Le Mans Series that is enjoying increased competition and a small growth in numbers. That is the GT2 class, boasting factory supported cars from Porsche, Ferrari, Corvette and BMW, plus a bunch of good level privateers like the Robertson Ford GT and the PTG Panoz. A difficult and challenging arena to enter, not for the faint of heart.
Team Falken has a very high profile in drifting, arguably the 900lb gorilla in the scene over in North America. At any tuning or import show worthy of the name Falken also enjoys a top billing. There is also that marketing dream, The Fabulous Falken Tire Spokesmodels, who will happily talk low profile, high air pressure and unique tread patterns with the most earnest of rubber fans.
But in reality that is preaching to the choir, if Falken Tires want to expand their market and appeal to other high performance customers then another approach is called for. So after some thought the company arrived at the solution of running a Porsche in the GT2 class of the American Le Mans Series.
It is certainly a brave decision, not only are there the factory entries as described but there are three very capable tyre suppliers already on the tracks, Michelin, Dunlop and Yokohama. They are have years of experience in this kind of racing so Falken Tires faces a very steep learning curve.
Realistically the team should be behind the 7 factory cars with their ample resources and budgets. Indeed it should even struggle to beat the other experienced and well developed privateers such as Robertson and PTG so it was going to be interesting to see where the Team Falken Porsche would end up in the pecking order. Why is this so? Well the team is running a 2007 Porsche 911 GT3 RSR, which, while it has been updated, is not a 2009 car. Why is this important? The rules on GT2 specification are pretty tight so even small improvements have a big effect in the relative performance of the cars. Porsche and Ferrari have a continuous programme of development on their customer 911s and 430s. The factory backed cars get the flashy new bits first and then the improvements trickle down the line.
Of course this is exactly the reason that Team Falken has chosen to race in ALMS GT2, no easy options. Having put a toe in the water during 2008, Team Falken returned in 2009 for a limited campaign with its own operation, in anticipation of a full assault on the ALMS GT2 category in 2010. By common consent this GT2 class is the toughest competition on the planet, aim for the stars…………..
So that was how they and I came to be in Atlanta last Thursday for the first day of practice of the 2009 PLM. The team had high hopes about what it might achieve as it had tested extensively at the Braselton course………however……….record rainfall in Georgia stood the whole event on its head. Petit Le Mans being 1000 miles or 10 hours, whichever comes first, offers the well run small team an opportunity to beat their faster and better funded opponents. At least that is the theory.
Team Falken Tire is headed up by Rod Everett, who has vast experience in all forms of US racing and he is assembling a team with an eye to taking on the top competitors during the next few seasons. The drivers, Dominic Cicero and Bryan Sellers, have a good mix of experience and speed. I knew Dominic from his single-seater days in Europe, like so many others he has graduated to the Endurance scene from the open wheelers.
Thursday dawns and there are three practice sessions scheduled, each of which give the competitors to achieve the optimum setting for outright speed or for maintaining a good race pace. There is also the opportunity for rehearsing pit stops, driver changes and other race activities. Time lost in the pits is very hard to win back on track so this is a vital, if usually overlooked by spectators, element of a team's total performance.
The third session was scheduled for the dark to give experience of track conditions that would pass in the final hours of the race. However delays caused by the weather, the whole affair ran late into the night. Eventually the green flag was waved and off set the cars into the night.
More pit practice, more hard work, all in an atmosphere of nearly 100% humidity, making it one of the toughest events that I have covered all year.
Friday's menu was another practice session and then in the afternoon official qualifying. What did the clocks finally say about Team Falken and its opponents? Pretty much what was anticipated.
Out on track the speed of the BMWs, in particular, confirmed the expectations of Team Falken in that they would be around a second off the ultimate pace. As an indication of how competitive the class is, that second translated into 11th place. The two Corvettes also looked strong as did the Flying Lizard and Farnbacher Loles Porsches and no one could discount the Risi Ferrari, winners this year at both Le Mans and Sebring. The Falken guys therefore concentrated on getting the optimum race set up, there were forecasts of rough weather to come during the race, so outright speed would matter less than consistency and staying out of trouble.
Eleventh, I hear some of you say with a raised eyebrow? Especially those of you used to seeing Team Falken at the head of the table when drifting, why not first? Well as I have tried to explain the GT2 class in the American Le Mans Series features some the best teams in motorsport and getting on equal terms with them will take time and budget, there are no shortcuts. So for Team Falken to be in the leading pack, even at the tail end is a pretty good performance.
Saturday and the day of the race. Before the theoretical hour of sunrise the rain rattling on the hotel window did not sound promising. The whole of the state of Georgia had been subject to very heavy rainfall during the preceding week (it even made the news in England) and the thick red clay soil was saturated, so a downpour on race morning would top water levels up to a critical point, any repeat in the race could even cause a stoppage.
Such a possibility crossed the minds of the IMSA officials as the Red Flag procedures were raised at the 7.00am photographers' briefing. Yes we were all there, Rod Lindbergh and myself, a little bleary from the hour and a touch soggy from the efforts of getting from the car to the media centre in the deluge but we suffer for our art……..and our readers.
The Warm Up came and went, no problems for Team Falken.
Before the start the cars line up on the front straight and then what seemed to be the entire adult population of Jackson and Hall Counties come down to get the buzz………..eventually they were all cleared off the track and the race could begin.
In damp conditions the race got underway. The Team Falken Porsche hanging onto the GT2 train that followed the initial leader, the Robertson's Ford GT. Then, one by one, the factory Covettes, Porsche and BMWs slipped by the David Murry in the iconic Detroit entry.
In the first hour the news was largely positive for the Team Falken Porsche, up to 8th in class and much more importantly setting the fastest lap time of the class while everyone was on wet spec tyres. This showed that both tyres and team were working well, things looked good for the long term race ambitions.
Those of us who go racing for a living know only too well that it will bite you on the a$$ at every opportunity, even in the most innocuous circumstances. Bryan Sellers, very experienced at Road Atlanta, went for a normal overtaking manoeuvre trying to pass one of the Flying Lizard Porsches. He found some standing water, there was contact with the other 911 and the Team Falken car sustained damage to the right front corner.
Sellers managed to get the Team Falken Porsche out of the gravel trap and back to the pits where the prognosis was mixed. Yes the damage could be repaired but it would cost the team valuable time. To speed up the job the car was taken out of the pit lane and back to the truck………..no restrictions on the numbers of those who can work on the problem.
39 laps later the Falken Tires Porsche was back on track and back on the pace picking up places in the class battle. In reality their race was run and now all they could hope was for the leaders to strike problems.
At around the 4 hour mark the rains returned big time, causing several cars to leave the track while aquaplaning. That brought out the Safety Car for ever more prolonged periods, a Red Flag situation could not be far away.
Ten minutes shy of the half way point "Drapeau Rouge" was called, halting the the Team Falken climb up the order.
The cars were lined up in a parc ferme situation down the pit road and the rest of us took shelter from the elements. The track and IMSA worked mightily to re-start the race but the radar screen showed more and more rain on the way. Finally the skies darkened and McNish and Sarrazin took a look round the track and gave their opinion, no race.
So the Team Falken adventure was over for this weekend.
"Our learning curve has proven to be a bit longer than we anticipated" was the post race comment of Rod Everett………..spot on analysis. The team have some things to work on before their next outing at the ALMS final round but the basics are in place, now the hard yards begin in earnest.