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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Whither the ALMS?

by Gordon Kirby
At Lime Rock last Saturday, Gil de Ferran and Simon Pagenaud scored their third ALMS win in a row aboard de Ferran's Acura ARX-02a LMP1 car. The only opposition came from Duncan Dayton's Highcroft Racing ARX-02a which finished second driven by David Brabham/Scott Sharp. With half an hour to go Brabham appeared to have the race won only to cut a tire and be forced to pit for fresh rubber.

It was good to see a solid crowd at Lime Rock with plenty of fans on the hill inside the track as well on the outside of the track along the start/finish straight. ALMS boss Scott Atherton said he couldn't have been happier with the turn-out.

"The advance sale here was up twelve percent," Atherton reported. "That's great news in these tough economic times and with all the challenges we're facing these days."

Pagenaud qualified de Ferran's car on the pole at the tight little 1.5-mile track and the Frenchman also turned the race's fastest lap.

© Gary Gold
"It was a really difficult race with all the traffic and the GT3 cars in particular," Pagenaud said. "It was a very stressful race in that way. The first thing I said to Gil when I got out of the car was, 'I'm going to remember this race forever!' I had too many close moments and I think my heart rate was higher than normal because of the stress to avoid somebody.

"Everybody out there is doing their best but the track is so short and so narrow that sometimes you get there and you think the other guy saw you but he didn't. So you end up running into the grass and worrying about the damage you might have done."

De Ferran said the Acuras were running nearly 300 kph at the end of the straight and reckoned the GT3 cars were close to 60 mph slower.

"The difference in speed is so large, particularly with the GT3 cars," de Ferran remarked. "When you come at them, especially at the end of the straight, it seems like warp speed. You think they're far away and then suddenly you're right on top of them. It can be pretty hairy!"

De Ferran says the Acura P1 car keeps its drivers fully occupied.

"The car has got a lot of downforce," Gil recounted. "It's a big and quite heavy machine, as P1 cars are forcibly by the rules. The car is actually quite nimble. From a physical standpoint the quicker things are the more frantic the action is in the car. You don't have half an hour to control the slide. Everything happens very quickly.

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"I enjoy driving this car. It's a very high performance car. If you had a little more power with this amount of downforce and this amount of grip from the tires, we would be going extremely fast! Physically, its challenging because everywhere we go you're always pulling a lot of gs."

Pagenaud is very impressed with the ARX-02a.

"This car has the most downforce of any car I've driven and it requires a different kind of approach," Pagenaud observed. "Everything happens quite fast in your head through the high-speed corners and you need to think about being smooth in everything you do. I would say, from what I know, that it's quite close to a Formula 1 car to drive. It's quite different to any other formula cars because it has so much downforce. This car is predominantly about downforce so it's been different to drive than a Champ car was and I'm definitely having a good time.

"You're always very tense in the car as you go into the corners. You brake as late as you can and everything is on the edge all the time, more so than any other sports car I've driven. It's quite difficult to drive and requires you to be really focused and always on the wheel."

David Brabham says the latest aerodynamic restrictions have reduced the ARX-02a's early effectiveness.

"From a chassis point of view the Acura's performance is pretty good," Brabham commented. "When we first tested the car we had the bigger rear wing and the speed through the corners was phenomenal. When they changed the regulations to the new rear wing to try to slow the cars down, it took a lot of rear downforce away and to balance it you have to take front downforce away. So in terms of where we were with the P2 car last year and where we are with the P1, the P1 has a little bit more performance but because of the regulations we've definitely lost some downforce.

"Also aerodynamically, in terms of stability with the new regulations, it's a lot harder to keep the aero balance stable under braking and when you throw it into a corner. I find these new regulation cars are a little bit more trickier to drive. Which means you're going to be slower in the corner. I could do things in last year's P2 car which I can't do in this car. It's just not possible."

All of the remaining tracks on the ALMS schedule--Mid-Ohio, Road America, Mosport, Road Atlanta and Laguna Seca--are quick, physically demanding tracks.

"It's going to be very physical at all the tracks coming up," de Ferran said. "They're all medium to high-speed tracks with a lot of fourth and fifth gear corners and sometimes top gear corners. Those are the corners where we pull a lot of gs. Turn one in Atlanta is going to be fast! And at Laguna, all those corners in the section behind the pits and going up the hill, and then after the Corkscrew, are going to be unbelievable. We're going to be pulling over 3gs through there, no question. I think short straights and high-speed corners suit the car best. So it will probably be most suited to Laguna Seca."

Pagenaud agrees with his boss about the upcoming tracks.

© Gary Gold
"I think Mosport is going to be hard on our necks," Simon remarked. "It's going to be very high gs and very tough on the neck. All those tracks will be very tough. Elkhart is not so physical because it has some long straights, but at Mid-Ohio we're going to have to be on the wheel as well. Mid-Ohio is a tough track because you don't have much time to rest."

De Ferran said his team used the ALMS's two-month break to catch its breath.

"Since we started in the middle of last year not only have we had a steep learning curve about sports cars but we had to set up the team from scratch as well," Gil noted. "So the team is really getting into gear now that we are just over a year old. We really used the last two months to tidy our game up a little bit and make sure that our preparation and procedures are tidied-up. It was our first off-season we had since we started at the beginning of last year and I'm quite happy with the evolution of the team."

De Ferran is finding it very demanding to be a fighting fit race driver and team boss, too.

"I've been trying hard," Gil said. "I'm good in the car. I can do the lap times. I'll qualify at Mid-Ohio. So we'll see how that goes.

"I have to do a regular work-out program and that's been one of the main difficulties this year. This car puts extra demands on your physical conditioning and the economic situation has put extra demands on the other end of the equation so just balancing everything has been very hard this year. Bringing Robert (Clarke) on board has been a huge help."

De Ferran also discussed his team's working and competitive relationship with Highcroft Racing.

"We have a pretty interesting relationship with Highcroft because we certainly collaborate a lot to try to improve the Acura overall. But at the end of the day, we have a pretty strong rivalry. David is a very good personal friend. I've known him for what seems like a million years and we like each other, and I'm getting to know Duncan better. They are good people who we respect but it's an interesting rivalry. Once the green flag drops we're racing hard. We're not just showboating around."

De Ferran continues to be very impressed with Pagenaud.

"Simon is proving himself to be one of the top sports car drivers out there today and he's only 25," Gil said. "So there's a long way to go before he achieves his full potential."

De Ferran and Pagenaud are excited about Peugeot's recent announcement that the team will enter a couple of cars at Road Atlanta's Petit Le Mans at the end of September. Of course, both Pagenaud and Brabham raced Peugeots at Le Mans last month with Brabham sharing the winning car.

"We are really happy that there will be more competition for the end of the season," Pagenaud said. "Obviously the Peugeot is a great car and it will be great to be able to compete against them. We will see if we are able to win. We've certainly improved the car since Sebring and I think Road Atlanta will be a better track for our car, especially with the high-speed corners where our car is so good. So we have a good expectation for that race."

Added de Ferran: "We very much welcome Peugeot's participation in the last two races of the year. Hopefully, Audi will come and join for those two races as well. That would be fantastic.

"As Simon said, we have improved our car since we started this year. Quite frankly, this car is such a new concept that the learning curve is still very steep. It was clear in Sebring that the diesels had an advantage over our petrol-fueled Acura. However, I happen to think that our car is the best-handling sports car around. We were able to prove that at Sebring despite our deficit in horsepower. I think we've proved we've made some gains since then. But I'm sure they have improved as well.

© Gary Gold
"Laguna Seca, where the straights are not as long, might suit our car quite well, but as Simon said, the fast sweepers at Road Atlanta should also be quite good for us. What's not going to be too good for us at Road Atlanta is the really long backstraight leading up to the chicane."

Brabham reckons the Peugeots will be very hard to beat at Road Atlanta.

"The Peugeot should be very strong there because the turbo diesel still has got quite a lot more power," Brabham commented. "If you just look at Le Mans, you can see that. I think Peugeot have a very good package chassis-wise as well as engine.

"For us, it's a brand new program and the engine hasn't gone into phase 2, let alone phase 3 or 4. It's still very early days. But we need to find more horsepower as well as fine-tuning the car as we are doing as we go along.

"We're getting much more of an understanding of the car, but I still think that when the Peugeot arrives it'll be pretty tough for us to beat them, that's for sure. Last year we struggled trying to beat the Porsches there because they had just that little bit more straightline speed, and around there that's very crucial."

HPD's chief Erik Berkman readily admits Acura has not done any engine development since the Sebring season-opener.

"We want to develop the engine and the chassis to be better and better, but we're coasting right now," Berkman said. "We're racing, but we're not trying to make real progress. We built that car so we could develop it to be a giant-killer, but at the moment there's no incentive for us."

Brabham believes the Acuras would have a better chance to beat Peugeot at Laguna Seca.

"I see us being a little closer to them around Laguna, for sure," Brabham said. "But it should be fun. It'll add a little something to the championship and de Ferran and Highcroft might still be duking it out for the championship."

Like all of us, Brabham would love to see Audi follow Peugeot's lead.

"It would be great if Audi came over too," David added. "I don't think anybody quite knows at the moment. I think the fact that Peugeot have announced they are going to Petit Le Mans will certainly get Audi thinking."

Persistent rumors over the past few months suggest Acura will pull out of the ALMS at the end of this season unless some regular competition materializes.

"It's premature to talk about next year," said HPD's Berkman. "This time last year we had made our decisions about the P1 program. We're trying to do the right thing to keep racing in hopes that maybe we can find a way through. We've got ongoing discussions with our teams."

Meanwhile a veteran team owner and manager with close to forty years experience said at Lime Rock that if no new manufacturers front up with P1 cars for next year IMSA will create an equivalency formula to encourage Grand-Am Daytona prototypes to race in the ALMS.

"It's extremely unlikely that ISC or the Grand-Am will buy the ALMS," this gentlemen commented. "But it's extremely likely that prototype cars from that series will race in this series."

At this point, what the future holds for the ALMS remains unclear.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

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