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The Way It Is/ Looking at Acura's ALMS P1 program

by Gordon Kirby
One of the biggest announcements of the American racing season was made in Detroit two weeks ago at the Belle Isle ALMS/IndyCar weekend when Acura confirmed it will expand its American Le Mans Series program next year into the LMP1 category. Acura's new ARX-02a P1 car will be raced by de Ferran Motorsports and Highcroft Racing. Gil de Ferran and Simon Pagenaud will drive the de Ferran entry and David Brabham and Scott Sharp will continue with Duncan Dayton's Highcroft team. Each team will run only one car.

De Ferran's selection was no surprise because he has a long, successful history with Honda and is rated by the company as the best test driver they've ever worked with. Some people were caught off guard by the selection of Highcroft, but Dayton's team has won the LMP2 class four times this year, including an outright win at Lime Rock thanks to David Brabham's superb driving.

Acura also confirmed it will continue in the LMP2 category, in 2009 at least, with Adrian Fernandez's team and a second operation to be determined. Conspicuously absent from the announcement was Andretti-Green Racing who went on to win the following day's ALMS race with Franck Montagny and

eremy Rossiter. AGR have apparently been dropped by Acura although the team will, of course, continue in IndyCar racing and will also race as Team USA in the A1GP series this winter with Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick driving.

Erik Berkman, president of Honda Performance Development (HPD) explained the key elements in selecting de Ferran and Highcroft to run its two P1 cars in next year's ALMS. "We tried to assess lots of things about past performance and potential capability, but we also looked at desire and resources, which are critical to us," Berkman emphasized. "We had discussions with all the teams about these issues and took all that into consideration. It was a complicated cocktail."

Berkman admitted that running cars in two different categories will be a demanding task. "As we move into P1," he commented, "the challenge gets bigger and adding P1 to our P2 program is an additional challenge for us. We believe it's in our capabilities to do it without a compromise and we recognize that there's a lot of work ahead to launch into the P1 class and maintain our level of competitiveness in P2. The P2 car will be entering its third year of competition so it will be something of an evolutionary change going into next year."

Berkman refused to provide any details about the new P1 car which is said to be powered by a twin-turbo V-8. "We're not going to be announcing any specs about this car until a later late, so don't even ask," Berkman remarked. "You can ask, but we won't say anything. We don't want to tip our hand on what we're doing and how we're doing it. Once the target's found and we're turning a wheel, we'll decide to announce more information at a later date."

He did confirm that the P1 car will be called an ARX-02a and the '09 P2 car will be referred to as the

ARX-01c. Most of the design and development work will focus on the P1 car and the collaboration continues between HPD and Wirth Research in the UK. The P1 car is being designed and built in both California and the UK.

"Currently, we are far from capable of building a car by ourselves," Berkman said. "So we'll continue to work with Wirth Research in the UK going forward on both the development of the P2 car and the new P1 project.

"We've had some success to this point in working relationship matters and Wirth has grown his company in support of the Acura program. We are sharing future plans about how we develop our in-house capabilities for HPD. At the beginning of this program we planned to introduce chassis design and development capabilities to HPD which previously had never existed. We now have a nucleus of people at HPD and at different teams, including Wirth. So step-by-step, we'll improve our in-house capability."

Berkman pointed out that HPD and Wirth did a lot more work on the Courage-based P2 car than Acura anticipated at the beginning of the program. "The P2 car started as a Courage but about all we have left of that car today is the Courage monocoque," he noted. "The initial ARX-01a car was conceptualized as much more of a Courage than it turned out to be. Through the development leading up to the launch of the P2 program in '07 we determined there was a lot more we wanted to change than was originally planned."

Berkman reported that the first ARX-02a has yet to be assembled. "Bits and pieces are starting to come along. The planning for the car started not long after the P2 program was first put together. Actually, it was maybe a little before that as far as planning and the thinking about conceptualizing the car."

Berkman said no decisions have been made about competing in the P2 category beyond next year. He also downplayed the possibility of supplying cars to customers in 2010 or beyond.

"After '09, we're not talking about what we'll do. We're only talking about next year and our appetite for how many P2 cars we can put out there is limited to two. We know there would be some demand for this car but we're not sure that we can support a bigger customer program going forward."

Berkman also addressed the longterm possibility of Acura racing its P1 car at Le Mans. Of course, the Acura brand is not sold in Europe so it's unlikely Acura will race at Le Mans until its road cars are ready to enter the European market.

"We have no plans for Le Mans next year, or any other year," Berkman said. "We have no plan, but we have an aspiration, call it a dream, or a desire to go to Le Mans. We've talked to the people at the ACO who are very encouraging in wanting us to come to Le Mans and we would very much love to go. But to say that we have a plan to do that is not the case. We need more time to prove, step-by-step, that we have something worthy of going to Le Mans with."

Inevitably, team owners de Ferran and Dayton are pumped-up about their new adventures. "I'm really super excited about this program," de Ferran said. "We are a very young operation but this is yet another step in a very long relationship I have with Honda. I hope we've been able to contribute something to the competitiveness of the Acura program this year and that is for sure our intention next year. We're very honored to take this step with Acura into the highest category of sports car racing in the American Le Mans Series."

De Ferran says he could not be more impressed with his young co-driver Simon Pagenaud. "He's doing a great job," de Ferran remarked. "I couldn't be more pleased. He's fast in the dry and he's fast in the wet, and he uses his head. I'm very impressed with him and he's a gentleman, too. With a guy like him, maybe in a year or two I'll be able to retire for good and just concentrate on running this thing."

Duncan Dayton is equally excited. "We're absolutely thrilled to be onboard with the P1 project," Dayton said in Detroit. "It's a dream come true for us. I met with Scott Atherton about four years ago and mapped-out a strategy of the milestones I wanted to hit along the way and we're absolutely on target, so we're really pleased to have this opportunity with Honda and Acura.

"I have to thank Robert Clarke for taking a big gamble on Highcroft Racing and signing us a couple of years ago along with AGR and Fernandez for the P2 program. It was a gamble a lot of people thought might not work out, but as I said to him in a letter on his retirement earlier this year, his faith in our organization and our ability to deliver on our dream is something that's motivated us every single day. It's been a relentless pursuit in trying to live up to the trust that he put into us."

Be sure to return to this space on Thursday when I'll post a follow-up column exploring how Duncan Dayton sold Acura on a partnership with the unknown Highcroft Racing for P2 and now P1. Dayton is an interesting fellow and a great racing enthusiast. You'll chuckle at his audacity, among other things.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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