The stage was set for many Acura celebrations during the final round of the 2009 American Le Mans Series at Laguna Seca Raceway. And the exciting weekend didn’t disappoint.
For the third year in a row, the Petit Le Mans had proven to be very frustrating for the Acura contingent, as another rash of misfortunes started with the brutal Scott Sharp crash and complete car construction by the Patrón Highcroft team, followed by tough breaks for the de Ferran Motorsports and Lowe’s Fernandez teams in the race.
But the page had turned as the three Acura racing operations headed to the picturesque Monterey Peninsula in preparation of the ALMS season finale. Somehow, traveling to the coastal California area south of San Francisco seemed to revitalize the teams, the drivers and everyone surrounding the ALMS tour. Maybe it’s the fact that the final race was imminent, or just the great atmosphere. Whatever it was, the scene brightened considerably for the Acura bunch.
The event would be Gil de Ferran’s final drive in a race car. After two years of sports-car racing, Gil felt it was time to concentrate on his management of de Ferran Motorsports. So, at Mid-Ohio, he announced that Laguna Seca would be his final race. And his team put together a great finale, with Gil’s former IndyCar team owner, the legendary Jim Hall, coming to the Monterey and bringing three famous cars from his stable; the 1995 Pennzoil Reynard Gil drove to his first IndyCar win at Laguna Seca in 1995; the famed Chaparral 2 sports car that won at Laguna Seca in 1964; and the legendary Chaparral 2F with the very first high rear wing that had raced in the Can-Am in the mid-1960s.
In addition, as a tribute to Hall, de Ferran ran new white livery on his Acura ARX-02a prototype with the ‘Circle 66’ car number. Sponsors such as XM Satellite Radio and Panasonic were portrayed in silver livery on the car. It made for a great look.
On Thursday, a test day at the track, the de Ferran team unveiled its new paint scheme, as well as the Jim Hall-inspired car display in the paddock area. It was neat to see the current sports car alongside the cars of some 45 years ago. Hall was pleased to be at the track with Gil and his family. Plus, the crowd of onlookers was impressive, as crew members from the entire paddock stopped by to get a “close-up” view of the old cars and visit with Hall and de Ferran.
Later that day, Acura hosted a photo shoot involving Acura’s three cars, six drivers, and all team members, as well as the HPD engineering staff. In addition, the 13 trophies that were won by Acura cars, drivers and teams in 2009 were displayed as part of the photo op. The photos made a great commemoration for the record 2009 season, which included the carmaker becoming the first auto manufacturer to win LMP1 and LMP2 classes in the same American Le Mans Series campaign.
Patrón Highcroft Racing, coming back from the incredible car rebuilding job at Petit Le Mans, came to the Laguna Seca race with a 21-point lead over the de Ferran squad. But the team had a new problem, as many of its members were suffering from the flu. Perhaps that 20-hour construction of the No. 9 Patrón Highcroft Acura ARX-02a at Petit Le Mans – along with weather conditions changing from hot and humid to cold and rainy – may have attributed to the illness on the team. In fact, Team Manager Rob Hill wasn’t able to appear at the track until Friday.
Still, the Patrón Highcroft team was prepared for the championship fight in the concluding round of the 10-race series. Drivers David Brabham and Scott Sharp were ready to go when testing began on Thursday afternoon. The Patrón Highcroft group knew its goal of completing 70 per cent of the race was well within reach, but the team wanted to race for the win against the de Ferran and Fernandez efforts.
The Lowe’s operation, meanwhile, had clinched the team, driver and manufacturer titles in LMP2, so they weren’t required to hold back in hopes of simply finishing. This time, the team was set to compete for the overall win. A tight circuit like Laguna Seca could be well-suited to another possible LMP2 overall win. An LMP2 car had not won an ALMS race overall since 2008 at Detroit, when Franck Montagny and James Rossiter captured the crown for Andretti Green Racing.
The teams were watching the weather closely again this week, noting that fog and low clouds from the Monterey Bay can roll into the racing facility and pose a major change from sunny afternoon conditions. The track surface can also cool quite quickly, while the dense air frequently necessitates engine adjustments.
In Thursday’s late afternoon testing runs, there was no doubt that de Ferran wanted to establish his love for the 2.238-mile, 11-turn road course. Immediately, Gil was quick with a one-minute, 12.557-second lap, followed by Diaz at 1:12.983. The three Acura cars had more than a one-second advantage over the rest of the field. Last year, in qualifying, the four Acura LMP2 entries were in the top five positions at Laguna Seca, so, the Acuras were expected to be at the top of the speed chart.
Brabham was able to notch second in the test session with a 1:12.873 reading before Sharp jumped in for the final segment of testing. Both Simon Pagenaud and Adrian Fernandez also got laps in their respective cars as the sun set over the bay.
On Thursday night, the Patrón Highcroft team had decided not to run the Friday morning practice, since the team was pleased with the car in Thursday’s testing. Perhaps a bigger reason was the flu factor within the squad, and the thought that giving the team some added rest would be beneficial throughout the weekend.
Pagenaud was quickest early in the Friday morning practice, but the de Ferran team had to send its car to the garage area with a suspension problem. A left-front bearing had failed, and the team needed time to make the necessary repairs That left the Lowe’s Acura as the only Acura on track for the remainder of the morning session. Fernandez put the car P1 at a 1:13.311 before parking in the pit area.
Guy Smith later bettered Adrian’s clocking with a 1:13.096 in the No. 16 Dyson Racing Mazda.
With numerous support series competing during the weekend, the different types of tire rubber caused some slippery track conditions. It figured to be difficult to see any track records established during qualifications later in the day. But the Acuras showed some great, competitive action between the three teams.
Pagenaud and Fernandez battled for the top spot during the Friday afternoon practice. Brabham led off in the Patrón Highcroft Acura after sitting out the opening runs in the morning. At the 30-minute mark of the afternoon session, it was Pagenaud at a 1:13.491, with Fernandez at 1:13.606 and Brabs at 1:14.355.
Then, de Ferran, Diaz and Sharp made the switch to their respective machines. Diaz, who had qualified on the front row a year earlier at Laguna, quickly showed his prowess and held the overall top spot at 1:12.355. In the last minute of practice, de Ferran moved to the top of the charts with a 1:11.943.
Brabham wasn’t as happy with his mount, but the personable Aussie knew there were a few tricks to try on the No. 9 car that might assist him as he looked to repeat his 2008 pole at Laguna.
The LMP1 track record of 1:11.175 was up for grabs in Friday’s late-afternoon qualifying session, but the lap times established in practice never got close enough to place the record in jeopardy. The track conditions were cool, which could help the teams in the quest for the pole position and a potential track record. But, once again, the fog rolled into the track and hindered traction.
Diaz was quick right out of the pit lane, as he took the No. 15 Lowe’s Fernandez Acura LMP2 car to a 1:13.928 only four minutes into the 20-minute qualifying run. By his fifth lap, Diaz was P1 with a 1:11.310. De Ferran figured to be the favorite for the pole in the No. 66 machine, and Brabham could again be the sleeper for the top spot.
On his seventh qualifying lap, de Ferran clicked off a 1:11.206 for the fastest time of the day. Diaz made another attempt at de Ferran’s time with several 1:13s, but he couldn’t dip into the 1:12 bracket.
Meanwhile, Brabham was getting quicker with each lap. David recorded a 1:11.462 for third on the grid. Then he ripped off a 1:11.298 with four minutes remaining in qualifying. Could David upset Gil in his final race? De Ferran was on a flyer when the left front tire cut and deflated. So, it was up to Brabham to take a run at the pole on his final lap. A bit too much sliding for Brabs in the end, though, and he settled for second.
It was an exciting dash for the pole, with the three Acura cars a mere tenth of a second apart. The pole was Gil’s third this year, as many as his teammate Pagenaud, and the seventh for the de Ferran team in 10 races. Now, de Ferran was setting his sights on victory in the race, his finale as a driver.
“I was sliding the car like a go-kart out there,” said de Ferran following his pole run. “It was my last qualifying session, but I didn’t think about it at the time. The session was tough and very close. I couldn’t lose focus at the end. Now, it’s kind of emotional. But we still have four hours of racing ahead of us. And we want to win this race very badly.”
The Saturday morning warm-up brought trouble for the Patrón Highcroft team. Brabs went out for just a lap, and an oil leak was discovered. The crew wheeled the car back to the garage and went through it completely. Meanwhile, De Ferran was quickest in the warm-up with a 1:14.111. So, the stars were pretty much in line for Gil to conclude his driving career with a pole and win. It would be just like he did back in 2003, in the IndyCar Series season finale at Texas.
The Laguna Seca staff had named de Ferran as Grand Marshal for the weekend, so Gil had some pre-race responsibilities, in addition to prepping for the four-hour race.
“Simon will start the race this time,” de Ferran explained. “I want to see the checkered flag for the last time from the cockpit. Win or lose, I think it will good for me to be in the car at the finish.”
The Patrón Highcroft team, still battling the flu bug, finally received some time to rest after finding the oil leak in the morning. Brabham would start and drive for the first two-thirds of the four-hour event. Diaz, after his brilliant qualifying run, was the starter in the No. 15 car, and hoped for a solid stint before handing the car to Fernandez.
At the drop of the green flag, Pagenaud was fast and pulled out an advantage. Brabham paced himself, but, as usual, the powerful Lola of Jon Field applied pressure. A full-course caution period came early when Paul Drayson and Klaus Graf came together in Turn Nine. On the restart, Field drove around Brabs on the front straight for second.
Pagenaud was on a mission in the white No. 66 Acura, as the popular Frenchman drove away from the field. By Lap 20, Simon enjoyed a 22-second lead and he diced his way through traffic well. By Lap 27, the advantage was up to 50 seconds, as Field had held up Brabs tremendously in the corners. Finally, David was able to scoot into second, but Pagenaud was long gone at that point.
On Lap 34, the yellow came out again, and Pagenaud pitted. A lap earlier, Simon had held a 69-second margin on Brabham. Brabs pitted on Lap 35 for fuel and tires. But David’s day almost ended in disaster three laps later. On the restart, Brabs’ mount was stuck in heavy traffic as he headed into Turn Two.
As David maneuvered his car down the hill, a very aggressive Oliver Gavin, in one of the GT2 Corvettes, clipped Brabham’s left rear and slid by into four other machines. Playing it cool as he entered Turn Two, Brabs hit his brakes early in the No. 9 Acura and avoided the big crash. A few inches further and Brabham’s title hopes might have been buried in a ton of crash damage.
Luckily for the Patrón Highcroft crew, the crash kept the yellow flag out for several laps, and David was able to return to the pits for new rear bodywork, tires and fuel. However, when the green flag flew on Lap 44, Brabs re-entered in sixth position.
Pagenaud and Diaz put on a good dice for the lead for several laps before Simon was able to open up a three-second lead by Lap 51. Trouble struck Brabham again on Lap 54, when the shifter indicator on the steering wheel went out. The team decided to bring Brabs into the pits again.
Would this small electrical problem cost the Patrón Highcroft team the LMP1 championship?
The Patrón Highcroft crew made the call to assist David with the shifting calls as he left the pits. Brabs would have to remember his gear shifting as he drove the track, and hope that nothing else would go wrong with the electrical parts of the car. Brabham remained in sixth by Lap 60, as Pagenaud held an 18-second lead.
Pagenaud extended his margin to 35 seconds by Lap 70, and Gil was getting prepared in the pit area for his final drive. The next lap brought a caution period, and Simon pitted the No. 66. Gil jumped in as the crew made a fast fuel and tire stop. Diaz also pitted and was replaced by Fernandez.
The No. 48 Corsa Hybrid LMP1 prototype, with Stefan Johansson in the cockpit, was putting on a sensational drive, running second overall when it encountered a steering problem. On the restart, de Ferran got stuck in traffic and Fernandez closed the gap. Meanwhile, Brabham was two laps behind the lead pack, but the Aussie was running a consistent pace in fifth. By Lap 90, Fernandez was pressuring de Ferran with the Lowe’s machine. The nimble LMP2 Acura was very competitive in traffic and staying right with Gil.
On Lap 100, de Ferran’s car came alive as the Michelins heated up. He was able to open the lead to 12 seconds. Four laps later, Brabs pitted at the two-hour, 35-minute mark and Sharp took the wheel. The Patrón Highcroft team needed about 10 laps to secure the title. Running third overall, Sharp was nursing the Acura through busy traffic.
On Lap 121, both de Ferran and Fernandez pitted for the final time. Under the green flag, the de Ferran team felt it only needed to fuel the car. This would give Gil a good advantage over Fernandez, who took on tires and fuel during his stop.
De Ferran hold a 20-second lead at Lap 126, but the question was, “Would he be able to hold off Fernandez?” Adrian’s fresh set of Michelins was going to be an advantage, especially as the track surface cooled in the darkness. Traffic was another problem for Gil. The heavier LMP1 Acura couldn’t get through the GT cars as easily as Adrian’s car could. Lastly, Fernandez’ smaller Acura would get better fuel mileage than the larger engine in de Ferran’s LMP1 Acura.
By Lap 135, Fernandez had cut de Ferran’s lead to eight seconds. And just 10 laps later, Fernandez was a half second from Gil’s white No. 66. The race was on.
It was a tremendous nose-to-tail battle, with Fernandez able to run right with de Ferran as the Acura-powered pair diced its way through lapped cars. On Lap 149, Fernandez dove under de Ferran in Turn 11 for the lead. But Gil’s LMP1 power was put to use on the long front straightaway and de Ferran soon went back to the front.
“Gil, Fernandez is right up your ***,” radioed Will Phillips, de Ferran’s chief engineer. “We need you to save as much fuel as possible. We’ll be able to use that fuel later in the race.”
“I know, I know,” said de Ferran. “I’m trying the best I can.”
Fernandez was in a strong position with better fuel mileage and fresher tires. But de Ferran’s power on the long straightaway always opened up a gap. Still, it was never more than a second. The racing was sensational, with two guys in their 40s putting on a great show.
You would have thought it was 10 years earlier in the CART days. Lap after lap, Fernandez applied pressure, and de Ferran held him off each time. With two laps remaining, Adrian was only .471 seconds behind Gil at the start/finish line, and he was much closer on other parts of the circuit.
On the final lap, de Ferran’s crew told him to use his fuel to hold off Fernandez. Adrian was pressing as hard as he possibly could. At the checkers, de Ferran completed a storybook ending by capturing his final race by .662 seconds. Adrian finished second, and drew some consolation from his eighth race win of the 2009 season, tying the LMP2 mark set by Penske Racing in 2007.
And Sharp, some three laps down due to the Patrón Highcroft team’s assorted problems, came home third overall, securing the coveted LMP1 team and driver championships.
There were smiles all around the Acura camp. The 1-2-3 overall finish was Acura’s fifth podium sweep of the year, and no car maker in ALMS history had ever taken both prototype championships in the same season.
“I never thought about those laps being my last during the race,” said de Ferran afterward. “I was totally focused on racing flat-out against Adrian. Our race was great, and it is memorable to have a final race be so competitive. It wasn’t until I shut off the motor that it finally hit me that this is it. That was my final race. It’s been a great career. Now, I move on to another portion of my life.”
-- Tom Blattler