The Mid-Ohio weekend is always a busy one for the Acura drivers.
The week starts early with appearances at the four Honda of America Manufacturing, Inc., plants in Ohio, located in Marysville, Raymond, East Liberty and Anna.
On Wednesday prior to the Mid-Ohio weekend, the Acura drivers, along with selected IndyCar Series drivers, tour the plants, meet and greet the Honda associates, pose for photos and sign posters and other items for the associates. These events are always appreciated by both the drivers and the associates.
Thursday, the Acura drivers were on track for the initial test runs on the tight, tricky 2.25-mile Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. With competition in four separate classes, the Mid-Ohio ALMS race is thrilling for the fans, but sometimes frustrating for the drivers. Lapping GT cars that are some 50 miles- per-hour slower than the prototypes on several portions of the circuit often creates tight quarters, as well as some bumping and shoving.
The three Acura teams were coming to Mid-Ohio with different agendas.
The de Ferran squad had won three overall ALMS races in a row, at Long Beach, Utah and Lime Rock. The team wanted to close on Patrón Highcroft Racing’s LMP1 points lead with a fourth straight victory. In addition, there would be some emotions associated with Mid-Ohio after last year’s fiery pit incident that left fueler Keith Jones with severe burns. Jones, after skin grafts and many hours of rehab, was back with the team at Sebring, but drivers Gil de Ferran and Simon Pagenaud wanted a win for “Jonesie” on the weekend.
The Patrón Highcroft contingent was out for revenge after a near miss at Lime Rock Park, where David Brabham held a five-second lead with only 13 minutes remaining. However, a left-rear tire puncture cost Brabham, co-driver Scott Sharp and the Patrón Highcroft crew an overall win. So, the Connecticut-based team was ready for battle when testing began Thursday afternoon.
The Lowe’s Fernandez Racing team had its five-race LMP2 class winning streak snapped at Lime Rock, when the Dyson Racing Mazda scored its first 2009 triumph. Despite a mechanical malfunction, the Lowe’s Acura pairing of Luis Diaz and Adrian Fernandez came back to finish second. It was an important finish in the team’s fight for its first ALMS points title.
During opening testing, the Acura teams fought a slick racing surface in the hot afternoon sun. All three squads seemed frustrated as they tried numerous chassis and tire combinations to gain grip. At the conclusion of Thursday’s runs, Brabham clocked the quickest with a one minute, 11.886-second lap in the No. 9 Patrón Highcroft Racing Acura ARX-02a LMP1 car, followed by de Ferran’s 1:11.971 in the No. 66 XM Satellite Radio Acura ARX-02a LMP1 machine, and Diaz’ 1:12.439 in the No. 15 Lowe’s Fernandez Acura ARX-01b LMP2 prototype.
“Our car just couldn’t get the grip level we were looking for,” said Brabham, the reigning 24 Hours of Le Mans overall champion. “Maybe it was the different types of rubber from the different series running during the weekend, but we couldn’t get the traction we wanted. It was pretty frustrating.”
There were some long hours in the teams’ engineering offices and the HPD trailer on Thursday, as personnel tried to figure out a way to get more grip for Friday. The previous year, the IndyCar Series cars ran in advance of ALMS qualifying, and the Indy Cars’ wide tires helped to clean up the slippery surface. This year, that was not the case. An early practice on Friday saw similar times to Thursday. This time, Pagenaud was fastest at 1:11.570, with Brabham at 1:12.140, the No. 20 Mazda at 1:12.604 and the Intersport LMP1 car at 1:12.907. The Lowe’s LMP2 car was sixth overall, but never got a clear lap in the session. The Lowe’s crew was confident they would be okay in qualifying.
The afternoon practice on Friday saw the speeds improve with de Ferran, last year’s overall pole winner, quickest at 1:10.571 and Brabham second at 1:11.250, with Diaz at 1:11.373. Acura was looking for its fifth 1-2-3 qualifying round of the season at Mid-Ohio.
De Ferran entered ALMS qualifying at Mid-Ohio seeking his fourth straight pole at the track. Gil drove the Marlboro Team Penske Honda to CART poles in 2000 and 2001 at Mid-Ohio, and he won the overall pole with his LMP2 Acura last year. Gil had a little more incentive on this day, which everyone learned about after qualifying. He was going to announce his retirement from driving following the 20-minute qualifying session.
Brabham was attempting to stop the successful qualifying run of the de Ferran team this time around, but de Ferran was on a mission. The two drivers are good friends off the track. However, it is a different story on the track and David and Gil put on quite a show for the fans in qualifying.
Diaz surprised a lot of people by jumping to the No. 1 position overall in the first five minutes of ALMS prototype qualifying. Luis is fast and his Lowe’s car was hooked up now, after the earlier slippery conditions of the Mid-Ohio tarmac. Diaz was first early at 1:12.106.
By the eight-minute mark, it was Brabs to the top of the charts at 1:10.585, and a minute later to a 1:09.883. The de Ferran team sent Gil out a little later than the other drivers. Immediately, de Ferran reported that the tires were off, and the car was shaking a lot. Perhaps his Michelins had picked up some marbles, or a tire was out of balance, but Gil was pretty upset when discussing it with his team over the radio.
De Ferran pitted for a quick check and the team sent him back out for a pole run. At the 13-minute mark, Brabham improved to a 1:09.592. De Ferran’ first hot lap was a 1:10.265 and he looked well-positioned for a better clocking. David felt good about his car and told his crew, “We’re in pretty good shape right now.”
Diaz moved to No. 3 overall and first in LMP2 with a stellar 1:10.484 with five minutes remaining in the 20-minute session. A minute later, de Ferran was back in a familiar slot, first overall with a 1:09.499. The next lap, Gil improved to a 1:09.443. Brabham was close, too, at 1:09.512.
The Patrón Highcroft team brought David into the pits for a quick check and a shot at a two-lap run and possible pole. In his first lap out, Brabs clicked off a 1:09.580 and was primed to better Gil’s top lap. But that pole lap for Brabham wasn’t to be, as the No. 9 Acura suffered some understeer. David had to settle for second on the grid, with Diaz third overall.
Rumors had been flying around the track Friday that de Ferran was going to make a big announcement after qualifying. Many of the media felt it would be about the addition of a possible IRL effort to Gil’s ALMS team. So, the small media room in the Mid-Ohio tower was packed, as poor Luis Diaz began by discussing his pole run, the third of the year for the personable Mexican racer.
But the media crowd was there to listen to de Ferran, who talked about winning his fourth straight Mid-Ohio pole and his team’s pursuit of a fourth consecutive overall ALMS win. The media knew something else was in the air from Gil. Then, de Ferran announced that this would be last driving appearance at Mid-Ohio, and that he was retiring from driving when this season ends. He talked about his plan to start a racing team a year ago, and that driving was not a part of his overall goal for de Ferran Motorsports.
Of course, questions were asked regarding the expansion of his operation into the open-wheel categories. Gil admitted he is looking at a possible entry into the IRL, as well as remaining in ALMS action.
“My dream is to field two sports cars in ALMS and two cars in the IndyCar Series,” he said. “Of course, that is my dream. I hope we can find the funding to get it done. But that is our goal right now. Sure, it is a big goal but that has been my intention since I began our organization last year. For me to pull it off, I must remove myself from driving. I cannot commit one hundred percent to both activities. My duties for this team are more important off the track now.”
Saturday’s weather looked a little dicey, with some heavy rainstorms headed into the northern Ohio region. The morning warm-up was actually run in the wet, and Fernandez was the quickest for most of the session. Early predictions saw the Lowe’s team as a favorite if it rained during the race.
A large crowd, which would have been much bigger without rain in the Cleveland area, greeted the ALMS racers on Saturday afternoon. The chance of seeing IndyCar qualifying and the ALMS race was huge draw and a large contingent of Honda associates was spread around the Mid-Ohio racing complex to cheer the three Acura teams on.
After one false start, Pagenaud took the lead at the drop of the green flag, with Sharp following. The long backstraight helped the turbo-powered Mazdas get by Diaz in the Lowe’s LMP2 Acura at the start. But a GT crash caused a long yellow flag on the first lap and kept the field close through Lap Eight.
Pagenaud opened his margin to six seconds by Lap 22, as the prototypes fought heavy GT car traffic. Pagenaud and Sharp fought their way through the slower cars in their overall battle. However, Sharp’s Patron Acura was hit in the left side by a Porsche at Turn Six, and the No. 9 Acura was wounded with broken bodywork and underbody. This enabled Pagenaud to scoot away and build a 24-second advantage by Lap 47.
On Lap 50, Sharp pitted for fuel and tires, and Brabham took over the driving chores. Two laps later, Pagenaud hit the pits, with de Ferran jumping in the cockpit. The de Ferran crew got Gil out in the lead, with Brabham in hot pursuit. On Lap 53, Fernandez took over for Diaz in the No. 15 Lowe’s Acura and the Lowe’s team began its race-ending strategy in an effort to catch the No. 20 Mazda.
By Lap 65, de Ferran’s lead was up to 40 seconds, and Brabham complained of his car suffering some “lost rear aero” after Sharp’s contact with the Porsche. A full-course yellow cut into de Ferran’s big margin and all three Acuras pitted for the final time on Lap 81.
The Lowe’s team pulled off the move of the race by taking fuel only and getting out of the pits in front of de Ferran. Thus, Fernandez was able to pick up a lap on the No. 20 Mazda and take the LMP2 lead. After the green flag dropped again on Lap 84, de Ferran extended his lead to over 12 seconds in just eight laps.
During the final few minutes of the two-hour, 45-minute feature, de Ferran maintained a lead of 10 to 12 seconds, while Fernandez was able to hold his advantage in the LMP2 class.
The checkered flag saw Acura’s fourth 1-2-3 finish of the year, with de Ferran claiming his team’s fourth straight overall victory and Fernandez recording his fifth LMP2 win in six starts.
De Ferran’s victory capped an emotional weekend for the Brazilian star. Winning the pole and the race (his first triumph at Mid-Ohio) and announcing his driving retirement, he dedicated the win to Keith Jones. Gil sat on the side of his No. 66 Acura in tears for several minutes in the Winners’C ircle. Jones hugged Gil and Simon on the victory podium to give the de Ferran team a sensational wrapup to an impressive weekend performance.
The fourth straight overall win for de Ferran Motorsports tied an American Le Mans Series record, and the squad would go after a fifth straight the following week at Road America.
- - Tom Blattler
More Acura ALMS information, race results at Acura.com/Motorsports