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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/ Sebring and the ALMS in 2010

by Gordon Kirby
No question Sebring is an American classic always sure to draw a big crowd and plenty of enthusiasm. Race fans and party-goers love to camp out at Sebring for as much of the week as possible, particularly when the weather is picture-perfect like it was this year as they watched the pair of factory Peugeot 908HDI's dominate the race. The Peugeots finished one-two, three laps ahead of the third-placed Lola-Aston Martin with Alex Wurz/Marc Gene/Anthony Davidson driving the winning Peugeot.

The old WWII era airfield in central Florida's cow country has long been a haven for springtime partiers. Sebring's tradition was built on the race's winning stars from the fifties and sixties. Great drivers like Stirling Moss, Mike Hawthorn, Juan-Manuel Fangio, Jean Behra, Phil Hill, Peter Collins, Dan Gurney and Olivier Gendebien won at Sebring in the fifties followed in the sixties by Jo Bonnier, John Surtees, Jim Hall, Mario Andretti, Bruce McLaren, Jo Siffert and Jacky Ickx, among others. It's an amazing list of some of the world's greatest long-distance racers and stirs memories of sports car racing's halcyon days featuring factory teams from Ferrari, Maserati, Porsche, Chaparral and Ford and the biggest names in racing at the time.

This year the ALMS was able to muster a field of thirty-four starters for Sebring, six more than last year. There were five LMP1 cars led by the pair of factory Peugeots, three P2 cars, half a dozen of the new Oreca LMP Challenge spec cars, thirteen cars in the thriving GT2 class and seven Porsche 911 GT3s running in the new GT Challenge category. In addition to the Peugeots the P1 field was completed by Dave Richards' Gulf/Lola-Aston Martin run by Howard Chappell with Adrian Fernandez among its drivers and by Lord Paul Drayson's Lola-Judd V10 that included longtime Audi star Emanuele Pirro on its driving team. Eight-time winners Audi were missing from Sebring this year but the German team tested its new R15+ at Homestead last week and was due to test at Sebring on Monday and Tuesday of this week along with the race-winning Peugeots and Duncan Dayton's Highcroft HPD ARX-01c.

Audi's Tom Kristensen tore his Achilles tendon playing badminton with his son in the winter and has been out of action for a few months but Kristensen was at Sebring this week to observe the team's testing. "There's no circuit or place with the right temperature at this time of year to do the testing better than Sebring," Kristensen said. "So testing will continue on Monday and we will prepare ourselves to try to regain the (Le Mans) trophy and get it back to Ingolstadt."

The real Le Mans test session took place at the beginning of this week therefore as the Peugeots and Highcroft P2 car joined the Audis and the Corvette team running more long-distance tests amid the detritus of last weekend's party. Of course, few if any P1 cars will run the full ALMS schedule this year although Dave Richards confirmed that the Lola-Aston will race at Long Beach emphasizing the importance of the American market to Aston Martin.

So Dayton's Highcroft P2 car and Rob Dyson's Lola-Mazda P2 car will be the stars of the show at most ALMS races this year. Both the Highcroft car and Dyson's Lola stumbled at Sebring allowing Greg Pickett to score a flawless P2 class win with Klaus Graf and Sascha Maassen aboard his Porsche RS Spyder. The Highcroft team led the P2 class most of the way building a six lap lead before an electrical problem lost them twenty-four minutes in the pits. Dyson's car was delayed early by an engine problem but rejoined after repairs to run the full distance completing 303 laps and finishing twentieth overall.

You have to congratulate Rob Dyson for his unflagging support of the ALMS series and for pushing the alternative fuels option with his P2 Lola-Mazda. Dyson's team is running just one car this year sponsored by BP/Castrol and fueled by isobutanol. Dyson ran the experimental fuel in one of his cars as an unofficial entry in the final two races of last season and the ALMS subsequently approved isobutanol for official use this year. Dyson's Lola-Mazda was out of luck at Sebring suffering an oil pump failure in the early laps but the team repaired the damage and rejoined to finish twentieth overall completing 303 laps.

The ALMS is trying to focus its fans' and the media's attention on the GT2 class with factory-supported teams from Corvette, Porsche, Ferrari, BMW and Jaguar. The competition is fierce in GT2 and the cars are good-looking and well-prepared, plus guys like Johnny O'Connell and Jan Magnussen have brought some color and personality to the category. Practically, the ALMS is well-served to push GT2 as hard as possible.

Winner of the GT2 class at Sebring was the Risi Competitzione Ferrari 430GT driven by Jaime Melo/Gianmaria Bruni/Pierre Kaffer. The Risi Ferrari beat the pair of the Rahal/Letterman BMW M3s by one lap after a racelong battle. It was Risi's sixth consecutive win in a major endurance race including Sebring, Le Mans and Petit Le Mans. The Corvette team had a disastrous race after the cars collided in the pitlane because of a radio miscommunication. Both cars were damaged and spent most of the race struggling along many laps behind finishing fifteenth and sixteenth overall.

Winners of the inaugural LMP Challenge class at Sebring this year were Christophe Bouchut/Mark Wilkins/Scott Tucker's Level 5 Motorsports' Oreca. The GT Challenge was swept by Alex Jobs' trio of Porsches led by Butch Leitzinger/Juan Gonzalez/Leh Keen as Jobs scored his sixth class win at Sebring.

The ALMS resumes at Long Beach in four weeks and then runs at Laguna Seca in May before taking a six week break for Le Mans. Some of the top ALMS teams will run Le Mans, of course, including Duncan Dayton's Highcroft operation. Dayton has long harbored an ambition to run a team at Le Mans and Highcroft's excellent performances over the past two years with Acura P1 and P2 cars have earned his team an invitation from the ACO. On Sunday, Dayton was looking forward to Monday and Tuesday's test at Sebring.

"The plan is to get twenty-four hours on the car," Dayton said. "We never took the engine lid off yesterday. We lifted it this morning and it was dry as a bone so I don't think there's any concern about the durability or the preparation. We didn't even wipe it down. It's still got all the klag in the radiators and the screens because we wanted to try to simulate as much as possible exactly the conditions for twenty-four hours. Hopefully, we should be able to run like a freight train."

Marino Franchitti will co-drive for Highcroft in this year's long-distance races at Laguna Seca, Le Mans and Petit Le Mans. Dayton was delighted with Franchitti's performance at Sebring in practice, qualifying and the race.

"The kid was on fire all weekend," Dayton said. "We've always been impressed with him and he's got to a level of experience where he's ready to learn at David's knee and help David help him become a great sports car driver and he's totally up for it. He's just lapping it up. He finally feels like he's found a home. He's going to go to all the races and participate in all the debriefs. We gave him a lot of time in the car this weekend and he did a great job so we collectively decided we would let him qualify and he did a great job.

"If we grow this into a multi-car team, which is certainly our ambition, we want somebody who's got experience with the team and can help develop the car and we think Marino's got the capability to do that."

Dayton is one of the ALMS's strongest supporters with a first-rate combination of drivers, car, team and sponsor. With Scott Sharp's assistance Dayton has brought Patron to the party as the ALMS's presenting sponsor. Patron operates an active marketing and promotion campaign around its racing program and is a big help to the ALMS in these times of reduced manufacturer support in the prototype categories.

"I remain extremely optimistic about the future of the American Le Mans Series," Dayton declares. "In my view, NASCAR is suffering badly from its lack of relevance. Times have changed and NASCAR isn't changing with the times but there's tremendous relevance in the ALMS. It's the only series in the world that manufacturers can legitimately support and invest in because it has an open rule book and a place where they can showcase their technology."

Dayton is convinced some major manufacturers will decide to return to the ALMS or initiate new programs as the economy improves.

"I believe there will be new manufacturers coming in," he says. "There continues to be overtures to the series from new OEMs. Clearly, people see there's great value here to promote their brands. The trick is going to be to manage it in such a way that the commercial rights have a value because at some point guys like Rob Dyson and Seth Neiman are going to get sick of writing checks if there's no return on investment. So a bunch of us are working really hard to figure out a way to maximize the value of the series.

"I think more and more manufacturers are getting it. Certainly 2008 was a high water mark in the last twenty years for sports car racing in America and I think it will be again. If the economy hadn't intervened and the manufacturers hadn't taken a step backward it would still be going strong because the justification of the economics of what the manufacturers are doing is still here.

"To me, it's the old adage. If you're not moving forward, you're going backwards. There are educated racing fans in America who are yearning for high-tech race cars that are different and exotic and there's nowhere to get that other than in the ALMS. Whether you're a fan of ultra-cool prototypes, or a 911 fan, the trick stuff in this series attracts people and you also have guys like Magnussen and Bergmeister pounding on each other like they did at Laguna last year."

Dayton is a fan of the new LMP Challenge and GT Challenge categories.

"I think the Challenge classes are great," he comments. "I think a lot of fans and a lot of people in the pitlane can't tell the techical differences between the cars so the Challenge classes make for great racing and are a great way to bring new people in. It's an economical platform for sure. To have a car with a carbon chassis, a paddle shift and carbon brakes with real downforce is much more attractive to a lot of guys than running around in an outdated Grand-Am car."

Dayton is sure the right answers to contemporary racing's many riddles will be found.

"It's really exciting to have the opportunity, first of all to participate, but also to engage with people who are really thinking about how to move the series forward," he concludes. "Everybody doesn't have the answers yet, but a lot of people are thinking about it. Clearly, racing in general is broken in America, if not around the world. So how you reshape it is a really exciting challenge. I'm not saying I've got all the answers by any means. But it's exciting to see a lot of people trying to focus their minds on what needs to be done."

The sport needs more Duncan Daytons and the ALMS is very lucky to have him.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2010 ~ All Rights Reserved

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