HPD Blog

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Acura: Petit Le Mans ALMS 2009 Blog

The 2009 Petit Le Mans can be wrapped up in three words, WHAT A MESS!

And that isn’t just the Acura Motorsports viewpoint on the scheduled 1,000-mile sports-car endurance classic at the high-speed Road Atlanta circuit. It pretty much covers the entire week surrounding the Petit event.

I actually felt sorry for the management of Road Atlanta coming into the week leading up to the 10-hour contest. Heavy rains had turned greater Atlanta into a disaster area, and the west side of the Atlanta region was completely under water. Several highways were closed, many communities were devastated and the media was making hourly reports to warn the residents of incoming rain.

In these conditions, a racing event some 50 miles northeast of Atlanta was of little importance to the locals. That made it tough on ticket sales for Petit Le Mans. The addition of drivers like Indy 500 winners Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti to the Acura lineup definitely helped the track’s sales, as did the return of the factory Audi and Peugeot teams. But the weather was a hard obstacle for the crowd to leap.

Action would begin with a testing session the week prior to the race. At least, that was the plan. Unfortunately, some of the hardest rain in years hit the northern portion of Georgia, turning the red clay into a river of red mud. The track became a quagmire, and the Road Atlanta maintenance crew had its hands full. Some minimal testing took place on Sunday – six days before the event – but it was clear that the clean-up surrounding the 2.458-mile track was going to be a chore.

Monday and Tuesday of race week launched a reclamation project for track officials. The task of cleaning the paddock, the spectator hillsides and the dirt roads throughout the grounds was immense. Luckily, the weather cleared, and the paddock area came to life; with crews, officials and sponsors constructing tents, trailers and work areas in anticipation of the weekend.

There was plenty of buzz in advance of this year’s Petit Le Mans with the new LMP1 Acura ARX-02a cars from Patrón Highcroft Racing and de Ferran Motorsports competing against the new Audi prototypes, winners at the 12 Hours of Sebring; and the lightning-fast Peugeot, winner of the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans. Some of the world’s greatest drivers were set to do battle in a fierce fight for the coveted Petit Le Mans title. Audi and Peugeot were not able to get the testing laps they would have liked due to the early rain, and the same was true of the Acura-powered de Ferran team.

So, this stellar lineup of drivers was anxious for a day of testing on Wednesday when Road Atlanta re-opened for action.

There were questions about the Acura and its competition level against the Peugeot and diesel-fueled Audis entering the Petit weekend. In the inaugural ARX-02a run at Sebring, the new Acura was quick enough for the pole thanks to Dixon’s impressive lap. But the gas-powered, four-liter Acura V-8 just didn’t have the “ponies” to match up with the diesels in the race. Now, six months later, would the Acura have the power to race consistently with both Audi and Peugeot?

On the LMP2 side, the Lowe’s Fernandez team had been a dominant force throughout the season, with seven wins and six poles. But the Dyson Racing Mazda Lolas were showing great straightaway speed with their turbocharged engines. The Lowe’s team, with drivers Adrian Fernandez and Luis Diaz, had to resort to some clever race strategy to take wins at Mid-Ohio, Road America and Mosport. The John Ward-engineered Acura was handling well, but the Lowe’s machine seemed to be down on horsepower versus the turbo Mazdas.

The Lowe’s team had clinched the drivers’ championship for Fernandez and Diaz at Mosport. But the team title and the manufacturers’ crown were still on the line at Road Atlanta.

The 1,000-mile Petit Le Mans would be a survival test rather than a speed run. So, the Lowe’s squad was set to be consistent to get to the finish and secure the coveted championships.
In Wednesday’s testing, Simon Pagenaud was quickly out front in the No. 66 XM Satellite Radio Acura, with a lap of one minute, 9.137 seconds. Dixon, coming from his win in the IndyCar Series race at Motegi, Japan, was able to jump in the de Ferran Acura to get his first laps in the car since the 12 Hours of Sebring in March.

Franchitti was also able to jump into the Patrón Highcroft Acura ARX-02a on Wednesday. At last year’s Petit Le Mans, Franchitti never got the chance to race. He was planning to compete against his younger brother and Mazda driver, Marino, for the first time in their careers. However, an early-race crash by Scott Sharp eliminated the Patrón Highcroft team from Petit competition that day. So, Dario was anxious to get back in the new Acura. He, too, flew straight from Japan to Atlanta after placing second to Dixon at Twin Ring Motegi.

At the end of testing on Wednesday, it was Allan McNish, in one of the Audis, quickest at 1:08.308; followed by Stephane Sarrasin in a Peugeot at 1:08.477, Pagenaud in the No. 66 Acura at 1:09.137, Pedro Lamy in the other Peugeot at 1:09.234, Lucas Luhr in an Audi at 1:09.821 and Brabham at 1:10.127.

Official practice opened Thursday morning and things were shortly tipped upside-down for the Patrón Highcroft team.

In the practice session, Scott Sharp was driving the No. 9 Patrón Highcroft Acura ARX-02a prototype through Turn One in fifth gear when he made contact with a GT2 Porsche coming out of the pit lane. The collision was massive when the Acura’s right rear clipped the front of the Porsche. Sharp’s car vaulted into the Turn Two catch fence and flipped several times. The crash had a similar look to Kenny Brack’s in the 2003 IndyCar Series race at Texas. Almost unbelievably, Sharp was able to jump out and walk away from the incident. The car, however, was a different story. Parts and pieces were strewn hundreds of feet around the track and some 500 feet of catch fence needed to be replaced.

It’s a tribute to the incredible design of the new Acura ARX-02a by Wirth Research in England and the HPD engineers that Sharp was uninjured in the spectacular wreck. The integrity of the driver’s cockpit remained intact when safety workers reached Sharp at the accident scene.

Needless to say, the Acura was a complete mess. In fact, the car’s tub section was destroyed so badly that it would not be reparable for the Petit weekend. The Patrón Highcroft team’s LMP1 points lead looked to be jeopardy, with the 10-hour event just 48 hours away.

So, Duncan Dayton, Patrón Highcroft Racing owner, and HPD officials determined that a spare tub sitting at HPD headquarters in Santa Clarita, Calif., could be shipped overnight by private air carrier for Friday-morning delivery at the race track. The Patrón Highcroft crew then developed a game plan to build the car from the ground up. The team, with HPD engineers assisting, assembled spare parts on Thursday in preparation for the tub’s arrival on Friday morning.

The tub arrived at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport at 7 a.m. and was on-site at Road Atlanta by 9:30. With a game plan in order, the 20-plus person Patrón Highcroft crew went to work building a million-dollar racing machine from scratch. Hundreds of parts needed to be added to the car’s frame and suspension, and the man-hours required were extensive. By 1 a.m. Saturday, the engine had been started and, by 5:30 a.m., the car was ready to take to the track for the race warm-up at 8:15 a.m. It was, truly, an amazing job.

While the Patrón Highcroft team was building a race car, action continued on the racing surface with three practice sessions. The de Ferran squad missed the second practice round on Thursday to change an engine, while the Lowe’s Fernandez team worked on race setups in response to changing conditions. Heat and humidity became a problem for the teams. ‘Sticky’ and ‘miserable’ were the appropriate words to describe the weather conditions.

Due to Sharp’s incident, most of the day’s track activities were delayed, but the night-practice runs proved fast and competitive.

The two Peugeots led the nighttime session, with the Audis third and fourth. Pagenaud was the quickest of the Acura drivers, fifth overall in the session. Diaz was ninth overall and second-quickest in the LMP2 class in the dark.

The steamy weather seemed to get worse on Friday. It was tough just to stand in the pit lane. I couldn’t imagine driving the race car, encumbered by all of the safety equipment. But, we also knew that the weather was going to change again on Saturday. More rain was predicted.

In qualifying, Nic Minassian [you may remember him as a Ganassi CART driver in 2001 before being let go in mid-season] won the pole with a remarkable 1:06.937 lap for an average speed of 136.606 miles per hour in the No. 07 Peugeot. That is blistering fast at Road Atlanta. Franck Montagny, a two-time Acura winner last year for Andretti Green Racing, was second-fastest in the other Peugeot, followed by McNish, Luhr and Pagenaud. Fernandez took the No. 15 Acura to 11th overall and third on the LMP2 grid.

On Friday morning, the American Le Mans Series held its annual ‘State of the Series’ program at which the 2010 schedule was announced, as well as some competition changes. The LMP1 and LMP2 classes will compete as one next year, with a new LMP Challenge class added. The Challenge car will be constructed by Panoz Motorsports at its Road Atlanta facility. In addition, the GT divisions will be consolidated into one category, and the GT Challenge class will also return in 2010. ALMS President Scott Atherton also talked about a continued emphasis on ‘green’ racing, and expanding the series’ role as a global leader in the use of alternative fuels. The 2010 schedule will not include the St. Petersburg race, and the Series will contest a total of nine events, with Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta being the finale.

It was amazing to see the tired-but-proud Patrón Highcroft team wheel the No. 9 Acura, completely built in some 20 hours, to the pit lane for the Saturday morning warm-up. However, the skies weren’t as bright as the Patrón Highcroft team’s spirits, as rain fell at a steady pace.

Weather forecasts called for some hard rains to hit Road Atlanta throughout the day. That was a far cry from the hot and humid conditions of a day earlier.

In the race, the de Ferran team had hopes of closing in on the Patrón Highcroft contingent in the LMP1 point chase with the driver lineup of Pagenaud, de Ferran and Dixon. Trailing the Patrón Highcroft bunch by 17 points and expecting the Connecticut-based team to experience some difficultly throughout the day with the new car, the de Ferran team was anxious for the race to begin. The Lowe’s squad was set for a long day of consistent runs to collect enough points to clinch the LMP2 team and manufacturers’ championships.

Brabham had to start the race from the pit lane, since the team had posted no qualifying or night-practice times. But the Patrón Highcroft team did not seem to mind. Heck, they’d just spent 24 hours constructing an entire new Acura. Half of their race was actually done. The team had recorded the entire construction in time-lapse photography, which can be seen on its website and many others. It was just a remarkable feat, to say the least. Now, could the team race to the end of 1,000 miles, against the fast Peugeots and Audis, the Oreca and the de Ferran Acura?

In the rain, Allan McNish, the defending Petit Le Mans champion, took the lead from the Peugeots. His mastery in wet conditions has always been impressive. De Ferran started for the No. 66 team and looked strong early in the rain. Gil locked into fifth position, and his machine seemed to handle in the wet.

On Lap 17, de Ferran moved to fourth past one of the Peugeots. By Lap 28, he was third, some 50 seconds behind leader McNish. Brabham drove his way through the GT ranks and was eighth by Lap 28. The track was now drying, and teams were calling their drivers to pit for slick Michelins.

By Lap 42, de Ferran moved to second overall, and he was putting in a fine effort in his opening stint on slick tires. But the race would turn sour for the de Ferran team on Lap 50. In Turn 10, de Ferran’s Acura was struck from behind by the lapped prototype of Clint Field. De Ferran spun and his car suffered left-rear damage. A quick repair job (13 minutes for a toe-link change) in the garage area got Gil back into the race. But the team’s chances to gain points on the Patrón Highcroft team were dashed.

In fact, there was more damage to the No. 66 than was initially thought. The team had to replace more parts later, after Dixon slid off the track in Turn Five in wet conditions.

The Lowe’s team looked to be in good shape with a three-lap lead over the Dyson Mazdas, as a result of early trouble for the No. 20 Dyson entry. A yellow flag came out on Lap 67 and Brabham pitted to turn over driving chores to Sharp. At the green flag, McNish took the lead again, with Sharp in fifth and Diaz in ninth.

There was another visit to the garage to repair the right-front side of the No. 66 after Dixon’s off-course excursion at Turn Five. Dixon re-entered the race some 25 laps down to the leaders. But there was a long way to go, or so we thought. Meanwhile, on Lap 98, the Lowe’s Acura hit the pits with a steering problem. Diaz was complaining of the steering pulling to one side. The team worked to resolve the problem.

At Lap 100 (2 hours, 23 minutes), the Audis and Peugeots held the top four places with the Oreca car fifth and the Patrón Highcroft machine running sixth with Sharp.

On Lap 117, the No. 88 Lola caused another full-course yellow, and all three Acuras pitted.

Fernandez jumped in the No. 15, while Pagenaud replaced de Ferran in the No. 66. But, during the caution laps, Adrian decided to pit again, as the steering was too bad for him to continue. The Lowe’s crew took the car to the garage, where a complete replacement of the steering rack was required.

Surprisingly, the No. 9 Patrón Highcroft Acura was the only competitive Acura by Lap 140, with Sharp running sixth overall. The team’s strategy to run consistent laps and get to the end of the race was right on pace. On Lap 149, Fernandez returned to the race, third in LMP2. Sharp pitted two laps later for Dario to take over. At long last, the popular Scotsman got his chance to race at Petit Le Mans. Two years ago, he was scheduled to drive the Andretti Green Acura. But after announcing a jump to the Ganassi stock-car team, Dario was absolved of any driving responsibilities for AGR.

Last year, he never got his chance after Sharp’s crash parked the Patrón Highcroft Acura early in the race.

Pagenaud had a problem with a broken exhaust in the No. 66 and the car returned to the garage. Shortly afterward, a wiring harness needed to be replaced on the No. 15 Acura, as a myriad of problems continued to plague the de Ferran and Fernandez teams.

By Lap 176, all three Acuras were back on track. At that point, the predicted heavy rains finally arrived. Several cars began sliding off track, including the leader, McNish in the No. 2 Audi.

On Lap 184, ALMS officials decided to wave the red flag to halt the race due to the incredible downpour. In fact, “mini-streams” were forming on three separate sections of the circuit. The Peugeots, due to McNish’s spin, were listed 1-2 overall, followed by the two Audis, the Oreca car and the Patrón Highcroft Acura, which had run 180 laps. The Lowe’s Acura was 15th overall and second in LMP2. The No. 66 de Ferran mount was 24th overall and ninth in LMP1.

An outstanding crowd actually showed for the Petit Le Mans event and waited out the rain, as track officials attempted to diffuse the rivers of water running throughout the facility. Ultimately, however, a five-hour delay in hopes of a restart finally ended with a checkered flag.

The long, hard effort to build a car paid off for the Patrón Highcroft team with a sixth-place finish and added to the team’s point lead over the de Ferran team. Going into the series finale at Laguna Seca, the Patrón Highcroft operation held a 21-point lead.

The second-place finish for Fernandez and Diaz in LMP2 gave the Lowe’s Fernandez organization the LMP2 team championship and Acura the LMP2 manufacturers’ title, representing the first time in ALMS history that a car maker has captured both prototype titles in the same season.

-- Tom Blattler

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