HPD Blog

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Acura at Mosport ALMS August 2009

The return to the lightning-fast Mosport International Raceway always gives the American Le Mans Series racers a little trepidation. It is scary fast.

The legendary 2.459-mile, 10-turn circuit northeast of Toronto has hosted all forms of motorsports, and many of the greatest drivers and riders.

It was the site of the first Canadian Grand Prix in the early 1960s and Sir Jack Brabham, David’s dad, won the 1967 Canadian Formula One Grand Prix over Denis Hulme and Dan Gurney. Jackie Stewart, Peter Revson and Emerson Fittpaldi also won F-1 races at Mosport. Gilles Villeneuve won Formula Atlantic races there in the 1970s. A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and the Unser brothers competed in USAC champ cars at Mosport during the 1960s. Mark Donohue drove the famed Penske Porsche 917/30 there in the 1970s; Bobby Rahal and Danny Sullivan raced in the Can-Am championship during the 1980s, and even the 500cc Motorcycle Grand Prix (now MotoGP) competed on the famed Mosport track.

The fastest qualifying lap in American Le Mans Series history was recorded at Mosport, when Dindo Capello turned in a speed of 138.116 miles per hour in 2008. Some of the fastest sections in all of road racing can be found at Mosport. Many drivers just shake their heads when describing Turns Two and Eight at the blistering-quick track.

“The place is so much fun to drive,” said Scott Sharp, a winner of three Trans-Am races and one ALMS race at Mosport entering the eighth round of the 2009 ALMS tour. “But there are some extremely scary spots. Driving through Turn Two and later, Turn Eight, is a wild sensation. They are so fast in a prototype car. The LMP1 car is flat-out in those turns. It’s one of the wildest rides we have all year.”

Sharp and driving partner David Brabham seemed to have a quickness in their step coming to Mosport. They won the LMP2 class there last year, and they were very confident following their exciting, close win over the de Ferran Motorsports pair of Gil de Ferran and Simon Pagenaud two weeks earlier at Road America. Four consecutive victories by de Ferran and Pagenaud prior Road America had closed the gap in the LMP1 driver and team standings. So, the Elkhart Lake victory was important for Sharp and Brabham.

The Patrón Highcroft contingent held a 13-point advantage over the de Ferran squad entering the Mosport round. The pressure was back on the de Ferran team for a win and a chance to close the points gap with just three races remaining.

The weather at Mosport was going to be an issue from the outset of Friday’s testing session. The hills northeast of Toronto can become socked in with clouds and mist on a regular basis, and that was case on Friday afternoon as the LMP1 and LMP2 prototypes rolled out for their session. Pagenaud threw down the gauntlet quickly in testing by taking the No. 66 XM Satellite Radio Acura ARX-02a sports car to a lap of one minute, 5.521 seconds. With 20 minutes gone in the session, the flying Frenchman had a two-second gap on the next-fastest prototype, Marino Franchitti in one of the Dyson Racing Mazda machines.

Seven minutes later, Pagenaud lowered his best time to 1:05.470, with Sharp at 1:06.946.
Times slowed a bit during the next one-hour session, as the full field of ALMS cars participated, rather than just the prototypes. In addition, a slight mist dampened the racing surface. Even so, Brabham and de Ferran took over their respective mounts and ran strongly in preparation for Saturday’s qualifying attempts.

At the conclusion of testing, Brabham had closed within a tenth of a second of Pagenaud’s top time. Pagenaud remained quickest at 1:05.470, followed by David at 1:05.513 and Luis Diaz in the No. 15 Lowe’s Fernandez Acura ARX-01b LMP2 car at 1:06.478. Diaz and co-driver Adrian Fernandez have put together a tremendous season, with six LMP2 victories entering the Mosport race. But heading to Mosport, they remained concerned about the straight-line speed of the Dyson Mazda Lola car

On Saturday morning, the cloudy, wet conditions continued. The top three LMP2 cars didn’t even head to Pit Lane until 20 minutes into the one-hour session. De Ferran posted the best time early with a time well off Friday testing at 1:21.447. But the de Ferran team wanted to be ready, in case the qualifying attempts were also wet. The clouds were so thick that the drivers were having trouble seeing from one corner to the next. It was scary, to say the least.

Both the Lowe’s team and Dyson teams decided to get on the track in the last 20 minutes of practice. At the close of the session, it was de Ferran at 1:21.447, followed by Brabham at 1:21.936, Chris Dyson at 1:25.401, Diaz at 1:26.706 and Jon Field in the Intersport LMP1 car at 1:27.160.

The weather conditions improved for the afternoon practice as all of the teams were preparing for qualifying. But trouble lurked for members of the de Ferran team. They encountered a problem with the gearbox losing fourth gear. They were forced to replace it with an older gearbox that would later pose a major problem in the race. With the rain and mist on the racing surface earlier, the track’s grip had changed. Brabham posted the quickest afternoon practice time at 1:05.931, with Pagenaud at 1:06.298, followed by Franchitti, Clint Field, Diaz and Dyson.

Qualifying was going to be a shootout between Brabham and Pagenaud. De Ferran had won the last two poles at Mid-Ohio and Road America, with Pagenaud taking three poles prior to that and Scott Dixon a pole at Sebring, all in the No. 66 Acura. Brabs’ lone pole had come at Long Beach. Pagenaud was confident, but you just had a feeling Brabham was going to make it difficult for the young Frenchman this time around.

Brabs was a veteran of Mosport , while it was only Pagenaud’s second visit to the tricky, fast Canadian circuit. Meanwhile, in LMP2, Franchitti was going to be tough. He was super-fast in the AGR Acura at Mosport in 2007 and he loves the Mosport track. So, it was little surprise that Marino was fastest out of the gate in qualifying. Franchitti easily took the LMP2 pole, his second straight of the year, with a 1:06.397, good for third overall on the grid. Diaz was sixth overall and third in LMP2 at 1:06.944.

“The car wasn’t as fast as we thought it would be,” said Diaz. “The track changed a bit from Friday, and we didn’t get the setup as good for qualifying. But I’m confident we’ll have a good car for the race.”

LMP1 qualifying was a different story. It was destined to be a tight battle right down the last lap of the 20-minute session.

Both the Patrón Highcroft and de Ferran teams waited a bit before rolling onto the track. On his second lap, Brabham jumped to the top of the charts at 1:05.821. Any chance of getting close to Capello’s overall track record was gone, due to the earlier rain and slippery track surface. So, the battle for the pole was the focus for teams, media and the fans.

Brabham’s third lap was a 1:05.616, and he followed up with a fourth circuit at 1:05.323 with seven minutes remaining in qualifying. Pagenaud was feeling out the tarmac with a 1:06.225 on his second lap. Simon’s third lap was his best, at 1:05.397, just shy of Brabs’ best. But the de Ferran team was hot after a slower LMP2 car had pulled out of the pits and briefly moved into Pagenaud’s line.

Mosport is such a rhythm track that the slightest hesitation on the throttle can cost a driver time. That’s what happened to Pagenaud on his best lap. He then had to regroup for another run at Brabham’s quick time. Brabs threw down a quick lap, and, feeling his front-grip level was there again, pulled the No. 9 into the pits.

Pagenaud kept flogging his mount in an effort to win his fourth pole of 2009. The 25-year-old racer worked valiantly, with laps of 1:05.486, 1:05.566 and 1:05.845. But at the checkered flag, Simon had to settle for second.

“That was a great battle with David today,” said Simon. “He is very good at this track. I actually thought I had a 1:04 in the car today, but it didn’t work out. I got blocked a bit on my fast lap, but that can happen with anyone in qualifying. You basically have that one lap with the tires just right. On that lap today, we didn’t get all of the car’s potential. We’ll be ready for the race.”

Brabham, this year’s overall 24 Hours of Le Mans winner, was pleased with his first pole position since Long Beach. The Patrón Highcroft team had been working hard to match the pace of the de Ferran team, and this run was a good showing in David’s heads-up battle with Simon.

“We felt the car was getting better with each run this weekend,” said Brabham. “I thought we had a good shot at the pole today. Of course, Simon is very fast and we had to be on our game today. Our engineering staff has been flat-out since Mid-Ohio to get our pace stronger. I think we showed that today with the pole.”

In Sunday morning’s warm-up runs, the track and the air were damp, like a fog. Sharp was quickest early in the session with 1:09.808, but de Ferran posted the best time of the 20 minutes with a 1:08.276. Fernandez was second overall at 1:08.726, and the popular Mexican star felt good about his Lowe’s Acura entering the two-hour, 45-minute feature in the afternoon.

The Canadian racing fans are always enthusiastic and this year’s Mosport ALMS race was no exception. A driver autograph session at noontime proved extremely popular with the spectators in the paddock area. All six Acura-powered drivers enjoyed visiting with the fans and signing a variety of items, from hero cards to personal photos to die-cast cars.

A later green-flag time, 3 p.m. EDT, produced a darker sky and misty conditions at the famed Mosport circuit. Planning for weather would be a key for the two Acura LMP1 teams, as well as for the Lowe’s LMP2 Acura squad. The Patrón Highcroft team decided to start Sharp on a medium-hard Michelin tire from the pole. Meanwhile, de Ferran was starting in the No. 66 XM Acura and went with the softer Michelin rubber.

You had the feeling Gil was going to make a strong outside move on Sharp in Turn One when the green flag dropped. And that was case, as de Ferran drove hard into Turn One and grabbed the advantage. In fact, a hard-charging Jon Field in the LMP1 Lola also slipped by Sharp for second on the opening lap. Field’s 5-liter V-8 engine produced horsepower on the back straightaway, and Field passed de Ferran for the overall lead. But Gil fought back to regain the advantage in Turn Eight with a superb pass.

Sharp was able to get some heat into the medium-hard Michelins and took back second place in Turn Five. But the veteran was 3.6 seconds behind de Ferran. In the LMP2 class, Diaz’ Acura wasn’t handling as he would like. He kept reporting, “a lot of push [understeer]” in his radio communications. Diaz still managed to hang onto the fifth overall spot, while, from the pit stand, engineer John Ward worked on a plan to improve the car’s handling during the upcoming pit stop.

Traffic from the slower GT cars assisted de Ferran as Gil opened up a nearly a 10-second margin on Sharp by Lap 16. He grew the gap to 11 seconds on Lap 25, but trouble was in the offing for the No. 66 team. The older gearbox that had been installed on Saturday was beginning to leak. The transmission was getting hot and the team needed to pit de Ferran earlier than planned as a result. Meantime, Marino Franchitti slipped by Sharp in traffic and took second overall in the Mazda.

On Lap 27, de Ferran’s team asked him to pit for fuel, tires and gearbox oil. But Gil seemed confused by the team’s call. He believed that if he was asked to pit that he would be replaced in the cockpit by Pagenaud. But the team wanted Gil to stay behind the wheel. So, de Ferran pitted and leaped out of his Acura, while the team urged him to stay in the car. The confusing pit stop dropped de Ferran to fifth. In addition, the sticker tires proved slick out of the pit lane and Gil put the car in the grass in Turn One. By the time he could recover and get back on track, Franchitti and Sharp had put a lap on de Ferran, and it was to be a long road back to the front for the team.

By Lap 34, Sharp had closed on Franchitti for the overall lead, and he took the point on the next lap. Sharp utilized traffic to his advantage and pulled away to seven-second advantage by Lap 38. On Lap 43, Diaz pitted the Lowe’s LMP2 Acura and Fernandez took the controls. On Lap 45, the full-course caution flag appeared as Chris Dyson suffered a hard crash in Turn One, but walked away.

The caution period enabled Sharp to pit and Brabham to take over the reins of the Patrón Highcroft Acura. De Ferran stayed on the track and moved to second overall. In fact, de Ferran was able to utilize a “wave around” the pace car to gain back his lost lap. Following the “wave by,” de Ferran pitted for Pagenaud. As the clean-up continued from the Dyson crash, Pagenaud pitted to top off the fuel load and gearbox oil supply.

The green flag dropped on Lap 55 and Brabham took off in the Patrón Acura en route to a nine- second lead. Pagenaud, meanwhile, tried to fight his way through some slower traffic. He actually cut Brabham’s lead to just under two seconds before he was forced to pit again for gearbox oil. It was a shame, as the battle between the two Acura squads was just beginning to form. But the de Ferran team was working with a wounded transmission and hoping to bring it home without any further repair. In addition, Pagenaud’s radio was not working as well as possible. It was difficult for the French driver to hear his crew.

A total of seven pit stops hindered any chance at victory for Pagenaud and de Ferran, but the crew and drivers put in a fine effort with their fractured gearbox. Despite the repeated pit stops, Pagenaud recorded the race’s fastest lap, with a 1:06.3 on Lap 88.

In the meantime, Brabham was weaving his way through the tight traffic to hold his largest overall advantage. Despite the one-lap lead, Brabham felt his concentration level needed to be high as he drove to the checkered flag.

“It is difficult to keep your edge when you have a large lead,” said Brabham, who sought his 19th ALMS career win. “It is easy to make a mistake with a back marker and see your good race end suddenly. You need to drive as you would if just seconds from the second-place car.”

As for Fernandez, the popular Mexican star was holding a lead on the No. 20 Mazda of Butch Leitzinger when he made his final pit stop. But, a pit-lane speeding infraction cost Adrian dearly. He had to bring the No. 15 Lowe’s Acura back for a “stop and go” penalty. The violation gave Leitzinger the lead with 30 minutes remaining in the two-hour, 45-minute contest.

Fernandez made his “stop and go” on Lap 102 and trailed Leitzinger by 15 seconds. Adrian then began a stellar performance by clipping off seconds lap after lap, reducing his deficit to just six seconds on Lap 112. By Lap 118, Fernandez was down by under a second and Leitzinger’s Mazda was laboring. The Dyson team wasn’t getting the same fuel economy at the Fernandez contingent, and the Mazda was attempting to stretch its fuel to the end. But the Mazda engine couldn’t handle the pressure and Leitzinger was forced to park the car on the side of the track near Turn Two on Lap 119.

For Fernandez to capture his seventh win of the year, he needed to get to the finish line. He did, and the win for the Fernandez and Diaz gave them the ALMS LMP2 drivers’ point title with races remaining at Road Atlanta on Sept. 26 and Laguna Seca on Oct. 10.

At the same time, Brabham cruised to a victory for himself, Sharp and the entire Patrón Highcroft organization. The victory was the second consecutive for the Connecticut-based squad and extended the LMP1 team and driver points lead to 17 with just two races left.

“It was a good win for our team today,” said Duncan Dayton, team owner of Patrón Highcroft Racing. “We would like to have another race with the de Ferran guys like we had at Road America, but today’s event was easier for us because of their problems with the gearbox. I don’t wish any bad luck on anyone in this kind of racing. But we’ll take the win and continue our fight for the title. Road Atlanta is up next and we’ll set our sights on trying to win that prestigious race, the Petit Le Mans.”

With Audi and Peugeot factory teams set to return at Road Atlanta, the LMP1 battle for the Petit Le Mans title could be one of the best ALMS races seen in some time. The Audis bested the Peugeots and Acuras at the 12 Hours of Sebring in March, but things have changed a bit since then.
Peugeot placed 1-2 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June and the new Acura ARX-02a chassis has been developed much more since the opening round of the ALMS season. So the competition level is expected to be the highest in some years when the green flag drops for 1,000 miles of racing at 11 a.m. on Sept. 26.

-- Tom Blattler

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