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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/ Discussing the future of the ALMS

by Gordon Kirby
This year's Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta was ruined by heavy rain which brought the race to an early end a little short of half-distance. Until then the race had been dominated by the visiting Peugeot and Audi teams and indeed they swept the results with Peugeot repeating their Le Mans win. The Peugeots finished one-two, again beating the Audis, while the lone Oreca from France made it home in fifth place ahead of the Highcroft Acura which enjoyed a clean run to sixth four laps behind the winners. Gil de Ferran's similar ARX-02a survived two incidents, one with de Ferran at the wheel, the other with Scott Dixon aboard, and eventually made it home forty-eight laps behind in a lowly twenty-sixth place.

The Highcroft team did a tremendous job to build a brand new car at the track on Friday and Saturday morning after the team's usual car was destroyed in a huge accident in Thursday afternoon's practice. Scott Sharp emerged from the wreckage entirely unhurt but the car quite literally was nothing more than trash. Team owner Duncan Dayton watched the ruinous crash from the team's pitstand.

"Scott went by the pits and I looked down," Dayton said. "I looked up at the in-car camera and he was upside down! I got on the intercom and said, 'He's upside down."

Sharp was at full throttle in sixth gear doing 140 mph when he collided with Dirk Werner's Porsche GT2 car.

"The car did a full rotation every 1.3 seconds," Dayton reported. "Peak deceleration was 15gs and it took 6.2 seconds from impact to stop. It took out 500 feet of catch-fencing and sheared-off three cables from the fence. Some of the cable was wrapped-up inside the wreckage."

Duncan showed me some of the remnants and emphasized how well the car had done its job, dissipating masses of energy as it crashed.

"It was a true testament to Nick Wirth's design capabilities," Dayton remarked. "My hat's off to everyone at Wirth Research."

Like everybody else, Dayton was relieved to see his driver jump out and walk away.

"Scott is an amazing jackrabbbit," Duncan shook his head. "At the driver changes during pitstops he just pops out of the car and it looked just like a driver change when he just popped out of what was left of the car."

A new tub and pieces were flown in from HPD in California and Dayton's 26-man crew, led by veterans Dave Luckett, Rob Hill and John Bright, attacked their task first thing on Friday morning. They fired-up the engine at 1 am on Sunday morning and completed their work four and a half hours later. The team went back to their hotel rooms to shower and were back at the track by seven am ready for IMSA's sleepy tech inspectors at 7.30 on Saturday morning.

"They did a fantastic job," Dayton nodded appreciatively.

Dayton confirmed that Highcroft will continue to race in next year's ALMS despite Acura withdrawing the factory support for its P1 and P2 cars. Duncan said he has no idea what cars the team will race next year.

"We will be racing prototypes in the American Le Mans series next year," Dayton said. "That's all I know at this stage. We have contracts with Acura and Patron and we fully intend to honor our commitments and our contracts. But with the P1 and the P2 rules being combined it's hard to predict whether a beefed-up P2 car will be competitive with a restricted P1 car and how all that plays out. I also think the advent of the Challenge class in the prototype division is an excellent tactical move for the shorterm. It's not a longterm solution but a great tactical move.

"At Sebring, we have to declare what chassis we're running and what spec it's going to be for Le Mans. Clearly our goal always has been to go to Le Mans, so we have to evaluate the rules and the performance-balancing regulations from IMSA before we can decide how we're going to proceed."

Dayton said he doesn't expect to run an Indy car for Sharp or any other driver in the next year or two.

"We don't have anything planned," he commented. "When the IRL pushed the new rules back to 2012 that probably delayed us a little bit. We realized that we didn't have the experience or the know-how to go and compete against Penske and Ganassi when they've been rubbing on those cars for eight years.

"We may do a one-off, or two-off, to get some experience under our belt, but we don't want to go unless we've got a fully-funded program to do it at the level we want. We won't do it for ego, but ultimately it's something we very much aspire to do. You can't be a major player in American motorsports if you're not at the Indy 500.

"We're contracted with Acura and Patron to race sports cars," Dayton added. "We would do something else only at their discretion and with their blessing. But we would have to have the right platform as far as equipment and room and resources for development. We want to do it in the best possible way."

During the Petit Le Mans weekend I also talked with Audi's racing boss Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich. Dr. Ullrich said Audi will probably race at Sebring and Road Atlanta again next year but is not likely to run any more ALMS races next season. He also warned that too much rule-changing and instability would push Audi out of Le Mans prototype racing.

"When we had to take the decision to pull out of the ALMS and the LMS last year it mainly came out of the economic situation and I don't see really a big change for next year," Dr. Ullrich said. "Once we had decided not to run in the ALMS and the LMS then the car development and the spare parts we produce over the season were not made and when you go again into the next year and you don't have anything as far as development and spares that makes the percentage big that we won't race the whole series next year.

"In addition," Dr. Ullrich went on, "the ACO intends to change the rules for next year and if they really change the rules for next year after just one year of the current rules then it will be a very difficult thing to convince my board to do another new car for one year because new rules are going to come in for 2011.

"I could convince my board to continue in recent years because of a quite acceptable continuance in the rules with predictable changes. But now this becomes inconsistent and more difficult in a time period when economics are bad. It makes the risk bad so that some of the board will say, 'Hey, what's going on?' The main issue now is to convince the guys from the ACO that in times like this stability is even more important than before. To go the other way is the most counter-productive thing they can do."

Dr. Ullrich said he appreciates the ALMS's reasoning in combining its P1 and P2 cars into a single category for next year. But he says the move has added to his problems in convincing his board of directors to keep its prototype sports car budget alive.

"We have understood from Scott (Atherton) that they are going to try to bring the performance of an LMP1 to a similar level of performance of the P2 cars," Dr. Ullrich commented. "I can understand this from the organizers perspective but if you are a manufacturer that has been racing an LMP1 car because you don't want to make an LMP2 and then you get restricted to being no faster than an LMP2 and someone asks you, 'Why did you spend this money on this P1 car?' This is the problem.

"I think the solution is that there should be a year where you run the existing cars and just try to make competition good for the fans. But if the ACO plays the game different than that, and changes the rules again two years in a row, I don't know how these things fit together.

"I hope that we can race at Sebring and Road Atlanta next year," Dr. Ullrich added. "If we race at Le Mans and there is a way to race the cars at Sebring and here at Road Atlanta without changing the cars, then I think we will be there for sure. But if they have a change in the rulebook I think we won't have the cars ready and I am frightened if anybody else will have them ready too. So I hope a solution will be found. There is no question we would like to be there if it fits well into our preparation for Le Mans, but only if we can race more or less the existing cars."

Dr. Ullrich also said Audi is continuing to talk to the IRL about its new formula for 2012. He said Audi may be interested in competing if the IRL's new rules embrace the FIA's 'global engine'--a four-cylinder which can be turbocharged and raced in various forms across a broad range of categories from F1 to sports cars, Indy cars and rallying. It will be interesting to see if this dream is able to navigate the many agendas that drive worldwide motorsport's numerous categories and emerge in a uniformed form.

"We are talking," Dr. Ullrich said about the IRL's new formula. "It comes with the FIA's idea of the global engine concept which as you know is under development. It looks positive and if they end up in two or three years where there is an engine configuration available that you can race more or less in all the bigger series then it's going to be quite efficient for a group like ours to be able to do some different racing activities with the same basic engine. It would be very efficient."

Meanwhile Duncan Dayton would like to see the ALMS be much more aggressive about defining and marketing its green initiatives.

"I've said to Scott (Atherton) if you look a the money that the National Guard, the Air Force, and the Army are spending to sponsor NASCAR and Grand-Am cars, I would guess it's between $20 million-$40 million," Dayton observed. "If I were involved with running the ALMS I would go to the government and say rather than spending $20-$40 million on the biggest-polluting, most technically unsophisticated cars in America I would give that money to the ALMS and put up an X-prize with some financial reward for pushing green technology forward. That's absolutely where the series needs to be for the longevity and well-being of the sport. And of course, this type of thinking has been a hallmark of Le Mans since the get-go with the index of performance and efficiency and so on.

"To me, we want to be thinking about zero carbon footprint race cars. Not by buying carbon credits but by actually designing and building a car that's going to be a zero emission car that can go 200 mph and run for forty-five minutes or an hour on whatever kind of charge it needs, whether it's full electric or whatever.

"I believe the ALMS has tremendous potential technically and it also offers much more interesting venues than NASCAR for corporate hospitality and for selling and promoting the latest in green technology. But it also needs some financial rewards to induce people to push technology forward.

"I think the ALMS is well-positioned and needs to push further in this direction. I also think in this age of government bail-outs, what can we do that's best for America? There aren't a lot of things that would be more helpful to national security than being energy independent.

"My theory all along, and I've said this to Scott too, is that when everybody else is lifting off the throttle you've got to put your foot down," Dayton added. "It's like investing in the stock market. When everybody is selling, you've got to buy. I think 2010 will be a bit of a muddle-through year but if we can get to 2011 with a new rules package and new manufacturers and cars coming in I think this series has so much interest because it has an open rulebook and a variety of chassis and engines and we need to generate an even wider range of fuel and solutions.

"Obviously, the costs are high and sports car racing has always lived or died on the whims of the manufacturers. But the backbone of sports car racing has always been the privateers. So I'm in favor of cost-cutting and finding ways of limiting the expense of competing, but the main focus should be on aggressively selling and marketing a longterm green plan."

I can only add that over the past few years I've heard from race fan after fan that the ALMS is their hope for the future of the sport. Hundreds of fans have told me they've given up on the IRL and Grand-Am because the cars are aesthetically unattractive and technically uninteresting. As any regular reader knows I live squarely in the camp that believes the essential elements that have always driven motor sport--technology development, improving the breed and innovation--must be recaptured if the sport is to truly thrive in the 21st century. I hope the ALMS can make it happen.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

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