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ALMS Season Finale Pt.1

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On: Wed, Oct 14, 2009 at 12:49PM | By: John Welch

ALMS Season Finale Pt.1

The American Le Mans Series, week to week, is the most entertaining racing of any kind in the world. It is a thinking man's sport; the sheer number of different car makes and drivetrains and classes gives a race-dork like me hours of brain food. After having learned every nuance of new cars and teams over the 2008/9 off-season, my autotechnophile-glands were swollen and ready to burst. This year saw several changes take place in the ALMS. Using the economic downturn as an excuse, Audi pulled out of the series for the first time in nine years. Running only two events, Sebring and Petit Le Mans, the Audi team was not able to dominate the series like they had in the past. A new LMP1 contender stood up to take their place, Acura.


Le Mans Protoytpes: When Acura joined the LMP2 division of the ALMS, two years ago, they made it clear that an LMP1 campaign was their eventual goal. Though the Lowes Fenandez team stayed in LMP2 for 2009, Patron High Croft and De Ferran Motorsports moved up to LMP1.

The bullet in Acura's gun this year was the ARX-02a, a chassis designed by Wirth Engineering. The team did not have the time or the money to develop their own diesel engine to compete with Audi and Peugeot, so they focused on beating the Euro-diesels through the twisties. After examining the rule book, Acura came to a weighty decision: their LMP1 contender would use a bored and stroked version of their LMP2 engine in combination with high downforce and wheels and tires that are not staggered. Most LMP cars use a narrow front tire to minimize drag. Acura found that if they used the mandated rear wheels on the front, they could corner 5 to 10 mph faster then the Audis at Sebring. Gil De Ferran used this advantage to steal the pole away from the iconic German manufacturer at Sebring. Audi won the race, with both Acuras suffering mechanical trouble by the end of the first hour.

For the season finale, at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, the Acura contingent knew that the championship would go to one of their two LMP1 teams. Lowes Fernandez had already taken the LMP2 championship in their battle-tested ARX-01b, and Acura was hungry for more.

Within the ranks of private LMP competitors, there were several teams that stood out this weekend. Intersport Racing, long time participants in the LMP1 championship, made strides at the beginning of the race. As is usually the case, Jon Field was able to bully his way to the front of the pack during the opening laps. Whereas the Acuras make do with a four liter, naturally aspirated V8, the Intersport Lola is powered by an AER P32T twin-turbocharged 3.6 liter V8. The Acuras may have 600 to 650 bhp at any given time, while the Intersport car could see 750 bhp with a twist of the boost knob. Unfortunately Intersport seems doomed to have permanent bad luck; even though they are always the fastest LMP at the beginning of the race, something, be it a mechanical issue or on track mishap, ruins their day. Every time. It's a shame; Intersport deserves to see some success after years of running the ALMS without factory support.

Another interesting LMP entry is the Corsa Motorsports Ginetta-Zytek Hybrid, an LMP that employs a Judd V8 matched to a energy regeneration system manufactured by Zytek. This is the same system McLaren used on their F1 car this season. The Zytek has not performed well this season, racking up a succession of DNFs that would stifle most privateer teams. Thankfully, by the last round of the championship at Laguna Seca, it appeared that the Ginetta-Zytek was living up to its potential. Though not as fast as the Intersport Lola, the Zytek was consistent. After starting in the back of the LMP grid, driver Johnny Mowlem pushed his way to the front. He was able to pass every prototype he came up against, including the Highcroft Acura of David Brabham. Known mostly for his GT resume, Johnny made sure that the ALMS paddock knew he can pilot an LMP with the best of them. The strong showing in Monterey was also a boon for the Corsa team, giving team owner Steve Pruitt some ammunition for his off-season sponsor hunt. Hopefully this car will return next year, adding that much more diversity to the ALMS garage and proving the ALMS to be the most forward thinking racing series in the world. Where else can you see a diesel-powered car race against an E10-fueled Hybrid powertrain? There isn't anywhere else.

The race went as expected for the two Acura LMP1 entries. This being team owner Gil De Ferran's last race as a driver, co-driver Simon Pagenaud made it his personal mission to put the De Ferran Acura on pole. He succeeded in fantastic style, beating the Highcroft Acura by a full second. Not a serious issue for Patron Highcroft; they were more concerned with the championship, having taken the lead from De Ferran several weeks earlier. Content to cruise around Laguna Seca (while also suffering some minor technical glitches) the Patron-sponsored car chose a sensible pace and stuck to it. De Ferran, on the other hand, went balls-out until the final half hour of the four-hour race. The last several laps were made interesting by the appearance of the Lowes Fernandez LMP2 Acura, taking advantage of De Ferrans limited fuel situation. The restart from the final caution period saw Luis Diaz switch to his 'full rich' fuel map, giving his Acura the benefit of full power for the final stint of the race. Conversely, the Chaparral-liveried De Ferran Acura was forced to run a lean mixture to ensure that they would finish the race. Under these compromised situations, the Fernandez car was able to catch Gil De Ferran, and almost passed him, reminiscent of the 2007 race at Laguna Seca. The showdown was epic that year as the Penske Porsche RS Spyder LMP2 of Timo Berhnard was able to scare the wits out of the leading Audi all the way to the finish line. An LMP2 beating an LMP1 for the overall victory is tantamount to Saddam being able to turn back US Marines in 2003 — there is little hope, if any at all.

The race concluded with De Ferran being able to hold on to his tentative lead, securing a victory at his final ALMS event. Next year De Ferran may move his team to the IRL, may stay in ALMS, or may do both. He has been coy thus far regarding his plans for next season. He has been a welcome edition to the ALMS ranks and would be a welcome sight on the Sebring grid next season.

A review of the GT2 race and video of the last few laps will be showing up on the AutoShopper blog, later this afternoon . . .

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