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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/ Rahal on BMW's second ALMS GT title

by Gordon Kirby
The ALMS's GT2 championship is one of the toughest in American racing with competition among five manufacturers and a bunch of good teams. The nature of long-distance racing adds to the complexity of the challenge. Yet Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and BMW have been able to win consecutive championships in the second and third year of their partnership. Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan won last year's GT2 manufacturer's championship with a pair of BMW E92 M3s and repeated the feat this year while adding the driver's title to their trophy haul.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan's BMWs were the cars to beat this year taking seven poles and winning three of nine ALMS races. The BMWs won the GT2 class at Sebring, Long Beach and Lime Rock and the season started on a high with a one-two at Sebring.

"We were one-two are Sebring which was a real thrill because that's by far the most difficult endurance race in the world," team owner Bobby Rahal remarks. "We just had a trouble-free race and that doesn't happen very often."

Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller won the drivers championship.

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"We've been fortunate to have very good BMW Motorsport drivers like Dirk Mueller and Dirk Werner and our North American guys, Joey Hand and Bill Auberlen, have proven to be very strong," Rahal observes. "We've not only had good cars and good support from BMW but we've had good drivers. Ultimately, you've got to have fast, reliable drivers if you expect to win.

"Joey is very popular at BMW Motorsport. They really like what he does and how he goes about it and the same thing with Bill who's got a lot more experience with BMW going back many years. Joey was a little bit unknown to BMW but his reputation in the company has become very strong."

Rahal adds that he couldn't be more pleased with his partnership with BMW.

"We have a very good relationship with both BMW North America and BMW Motorsport and winning two championships for them is a great thing. It's been a good association for sure."

A lot of development was required during the first year of the partnership but Joey Hand and Bill Auberlen were able to score the M3's first ALMS win at Elkhart Lake in the summer of '09.

"The first year was a lot of work, especially getting ready for Sebring," Rahal says. "Then the race at Sebring was fraught with all kinds of problems. We had seen these problems in testing, so it wasn't a surprise but it made for a lot of work. And it wasn't just from the BMW side. We had different tires from everybody else. We had Dunlops and the competitors had Michelins so we had two variables in both the car and tires. We were developing a car at the same time as we were developing a tire.

"BMW and Dunlop were willing to do that with us and in '09 we had some good races and some not so good races. But in 2010 the work that was done over the winter of 2009-'10 began to bear fruit and even more so in the winter of 2010 and '11."

Rahal is delighted that this year's dual championships were won on speed as well as reliability.

"While we were competitive at times in '09 we were consistently more competitive in '10 and even more consistently competitive this year," Bobby observes. "You look at the championship in '10 and we won only one race but we had very good reliability. Our pace may not have been as great as others on a consistent basis but we finished and were on the podium quite often. Of course, that's how you win championships but this year I think the championship was won by pace as well as reliability. It was a little bit different from 2010."

Big changes were made between 2009 and '10 and last winter saw some detailed development take place in many areas.

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"The car was a different car between 2009 and 2010 and '11," Rahal remarks. "Between 2010 and '11 there were some nominal engine improvements but more aero development and some general chassis development. The car BMW ran in Europe with Schnitzer had a different rear suspension than we had. In order for the car to run at Le Mans it was mandated that we had to have the suspension that they were running in Europe.

"The difference between 2009 and '10 was making some of the systems that had proven to be fragile in '09 more robust and more bullet-proof. Once those systems were made robust and proven out we could take our development dollars and devote them to more performance-related areas. So over the course of the winter of 2010-'11 there were some downforce and aerodynamic improvements and some chassis and engine improvements."

Rahal also praises Dunlop's tire development work.

"I think Dunlop did an excellent job this year. They really started to provide us with tires that were better than the Michelins in some circumstances. I think Michelin did a lot of great work to catch up as the year went on and maybe to surpass us in certain conditions. But I think the increase in Dunlop's performance was instrumental in our success this year."

The business of integrating RLL's engineers with BMW's engineers has worked well without any glitches.

"We had a pretty strong BMW Motorsport contingent that would come to each race in 2009," Rahal recalls. "There were engine guys and quite a few electronic guys to get traction control and those kinds of things sorted out. You really have to have people who know what they're doing in those areas.

"But as 2010 came along the BMW Motorsport participation at the races started to become less and this year we had one fellow who became the liaison between us and BMW Motorsport. He was there from the start and continued to go to all the races. They would occasionally bring in an electronics guy or what have you. For the most part it fell into our laps to handle many of the areas that BMW Motorsport handled in 2009."

BMW's motorsports boss Dr. Mario Theissen attended most races prior to his retirement earlier this year. Theissen ran BMW's F1 team from 2006-'09 until the company made the decision to withdraw from F1. The F1 withdrawal meant BMW placed more emphasis on and resources into its GT program in both Europe and America.

"After they left Formula One and knowing they were going to Le Mans in 2010 it became a big project for them," Rahal says. "BMW have some very talented people starting with Dr. Thiessen and they began to focus on the program. There's no question that the development that took place was headed by very capable and motivated people.

"Dr.Theissen showed his commitment to it. He's a racer. He loves racing and is a competitive guy. He's not just an engineer. He's a competitive engineer and he knows that by going to the races you can actually see what's going on. I think it was great for him to come to races and there's no question that BMW Motorsport's engineers contributed greatly to the performance.

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"I think in the end Dr. Theissen came to really appreciate what we could do as a team. He paid a great compliment to me one day. He said we were the best team that BMW had and he was very vocal about that. Obviously, we were very proud of that and continue to try to prove that every day."

Jimmy Prescott has been with Rahal since the early days of Rahal's racing career. Prescott was Rahal's chief mechanic when Bobby drove for Truesports in the eighties and these days Prescott serves as shop manager at RLL in Hilliard, Ohio and team manager of the BMW program. Other RLL veterans include guys like Scott Roembke, Dennis Swan and Larry Faust. Roembke is fighting some health issues these days now and everyone in the sport wishes him the best.

Jay O'Connell is RLL's technical director. O'Connell is a former Ford and Jaguar development engineer who's been with Rahal's team for five years.

"Jay has taken on the direction of the engineering of the car," Rahal says. "He works in conjunction with BMW Motosports. Chris Yanchar is the lead engineer on the other car and has also been focusing on simulations. Another of our electronic engineers has focused more on traction control and things of that nature. It's a pretty lean outfit in many respects but they do a very good job for us."

RLL's contract with BMW extends through next season.

"We'll be back next year and I think we mutually want to be together in 2013 and beyond," Rahal says. "There are a lot of question marks about the GT2 program and the longevity of it. In Europe they're very focused on the DTM and I'm not quite sure how that will affect us. But both our group and BMW Motorsports want to continue to work together."

Rahal says he expects Hand and Auberlen to continue driving RLL's BMWs but he's not yet sure of the identities of the team's German co-drivers.

"For sure I think we'll have Joey and Bill back. But beyond that I don't know."

Detail development work continues on the M3s this winter.

"Mutually we've identified some areas that we think we need to improve upon," Rahal says. "Some of that will be done by us and some of it by BMW Motorsports. There will continue to be some development. I think there has to be because Porsche and Corvette have new cars coming next year and the Ferrari became very competitive at the end of the year so I'm sure they're going to be doing some development work too. It's a never-ending battle. We have to keep pushing."

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Needless to say, Rahal is a big fan of the ALMS.

"You've also got the tire companies competing and developing new stuff," he remarks. "That's the great thing about the ALMS. You've got the manufacturers and tire companies competing. The one thing that's certainly enjoyable about the ALMS is that there are not so many restrictions. You actually have choices and that's fun."

Nor does he have any doubts that the fans love the wide variety of cars and classes competing in the ALMS.

"The fans really enjoy the cars and are very knowledgeable," Rahal comments. "When you go to a race like Petit Le Mans there's so much action because you have so may different types of cars with different kinds of pace out there at the same time and I think the fans really enjoy that."

RLL also hopes to run two Indy cars next year.

"We've got two Indy cars on order and we're hoping to put a full program together there," Rahal says. "We're moving forward on the IndyCar program. Despite the tragedy in Las Vegas I think there's a buzz about IndyCar racing as the corporate world gets better. Some of the crowds at some of the road races in particular this year were very, very good, Baltimore being one example and Mid-Ohio another. I think there are a lot of good things happening in IndyCar and obviously we want to be a part of that."

RLL announced last week that Honda will supply the team with IndyCar engines. Back in 1993 Rahal did the track-testing of Honda's first CART engine and introduced the Japanese manufacturer to Indy car racing the following year. Rahal's team also won the Indy 500 in 2004 with Buddy Rice and Honda engines.

"We are talking to a lot of drivers about the IndyCar program,"Rahal added. "So we're busy, which is good, and I'm enjoying it just as much as ever."

At the end of last week RLL also announced that Tom Anderson has joined the team as president of racing operations. Anderson is one of the most experienced and accomplished men in the sport with strong backgrounds in both IndyCar and ALMS. Tom is sure to make Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing even stronger.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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