Nancy Knapp Schilke
Muscle Milk beats Dyson by 0.112 seconds after 4 hours of tight battle
The two LMP1 championship contenders went head-to-head again this weekend in the American Le Mans Series four hour race on the Road America road course in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. While Guy Smith and Chris Dyson ended up with heartbreak, Lucas Luhr and Klaus Graf celebrated. The margin between the two rivals was the closest ever in the history of the series since its inception in 1999.
Graf took the pole yesterday for the Muscle Milk Aston Martin Racing Lola Coupe and Luhr was in the No. 6 at the start of the race. Dyson took the early lead in the No. 16 Dyson Racing Mazda Lola, passing both Luhr and his own teammate Steven Kane on the first lap, and the game was on. The two teams traded the top spot until the checkered flag. Graf and Luhr had to fend off the pressure, and as the flag waved to end the contest, it was Muscle Milk AMR on top by 0.112 seconds.
I thought, ‘Oh man Guy is right behind me on this restart, I'm going to have to push again’.
“It was probably the last 20 minutes toughest of my career. I can’t remember pushing so hard for the last 2 hours. We were completely lucky the way the yellow came out,” said Graf. Ironically it was the No. 20 Dyson Mazda Lola that brought out the final caution. “The guys just drove an awesome race. We made for a great show. We showed ALMS has some of the best sports car drivers in the world.”
It was the eighth ALMS win for Graf and his sixth win overall. Luhr now has 35 class wins; 10 of them are overall victories. “I knew Klaus would do everything he could to keep it,” smiled Luhr. “But you could catch traffic at a really bad time, like the kink. If you do it wrong, he could be down 60 miles an hour from you. I'm really proud to be part of the Muscle Milk team, it is really, really good racing.”
Luhr who at the start of the 2011 season commented that he was “having fun again” and during Graf’s final stint, he was in the team’s pit area watching his fellow countryman hold off their rival team in the No. 16 and said, “It's much easier when you're driving and not have to watch your driver not get squeezed and handled. I prefer the driving much more than watching. Klaus is a little bit older than me, maybe after what he did to me, we are the same age now!” After last year’s loss, Graf was holding on to take the victory this year and he said, “I briefly flashed back to last year. Not under the green, but under the yellow you have a lot of time to think. I thought, ‘Oh man Guy is right behind me on this restart, I'm going to have to push again’. It's one thing to overtake a prototype car in another prototype car, it's pretty hard.”
Smith did set the fastest lap of the race with a time of 1:52.517 during the chase for the victory. “The car was awesome at the end,” he said. “The last set of Dunlop tires was fantastic. A couple of times Klaus would get really good breaks in traffic and we would drop five or six seconds back but I kept charging and would catch up again, only to have to repeat it again as we went through traffic. I am disappointed because it was so close, but it shows that even after four hours of hard racing, how strong the Mazda is.”
Dyson commented, “It was one of the best races we have ever been part of. You cannot ask for a better race to come down to such a close fight after four hours. I have to hand it to Guy: some of the moves he pulled off at the end, especially where he overtook on the grass, were inspired and brave and this is why I so enjoy having him as my teammate. He is able to dig deep and find the speed when needed and put in exceptional performances.”
LMP2 winning team was the only P2 present this weekend but they still had to finish to score the points. Scott Tucker recorded his eighth class win while season long teammate Christophe Bouchut landed his sixth ALMS victory. This weekend Luis Diaz was with the Level 5 Motorsports team and he just notched his 10th win in the team’s Honda Lola.
“For Level 5 it is so close to our operations, so it was important to do well. With what we did, we had a small problem with the speed limiter in the pits so we were losing possible good position,” said Bouchut. “The car was working so well all weekend, it was an LMP2 and there is not a lot of different between that and the LMPC, so close on the power on the straights, but we have to brake hard on the brakes in order to get around them. It was a fun race though. We had to work really hard for our place.”
Every time team owner Tucker is at a race track, he takes advantage of other IMSA sanctioned or SCCA sanctioned series that are competing at the same venue as the ALMS. “It was a great weekend and a great opportunity to get extra seat time racing in 4 different races this week. The Cup car is a legal car in the Trans Am class, plus our prototype lites car. It was an experience and we learned a lot from the laps in the car. We had a great race today and worked really hard. Looking forward to the next ones,” said Tucker at the post ALMS 4 Hour race press conference.
Diaz commented, “Scott did a great job keeping the pace and Christophe was amazing through traffic. I know this team is committed to win. The goal was for overall podium, but we had a trouble with the pit speed limiter, which put us back a bit. But I'm sure by the end we will be fighting right there for the overall win.”
LMPC had its own close racing action. The surprise was that it was the PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports team who took the victory. The team had a young driver teamed with a sportscar specialist in their Oreca FLM09. Butch Leitzinger was back and yesterday, he shocked the top PC teams in the spec challenge prototype class by taking the pole. Today, Leitzinger scored his 10th ALMS victory. Taking his very first win was Rudy Junco Jr., who had to leave as the race ended. “Rudy couldn't be here tonight, he had to hoof it to the airport, tomorrow is his daughter's 2nd birthday and he promised her he wouldn't miss it. He is such a talent though, he is an incredible driver.”
The duo teamed up to take the PC win by nearly 19 seconds over the trio for the Genoa Racing team: Eric Lux, Christian Zugel and Elton Julian. “It was a great race to push the entire time and the car held up. At any one point in a restart, we were all together, there is never a car you can think, oh well I'll be able to get him around. You have to be careful around every driver because they are so completive. This is a very proper racecar, but because you can't change a lot between cars, it really comes down to how well the team works together, your strategy and how well the drivers can race and get the car set up,” said Leitzinger.
Risi Competizione stood on the top step of the LMGT podium and the celebration included Ferrari and the team as Jaime Melo and Toni Vilander crossed the finish line first in their Ferrari red F458 Italia. For Melo, it was his 18th class win but for Vilander it was his very first victory in the ALMS. The duo beat the BMW Team RLL cars by a gap to the second place M3 GT by nine seconds and just slightly more over the third place BMW.
The one class that does have the most entries at all of the American Le Mans Series events is the GT class and the battle for the championship continues to tighten up as the season goes on, leading up to the season finale at Road Atlanta. The close finishes always garner fan appreciation and Road America with its long track offers extra challenges. Part of the class excitement is their pit stops as the battle on track continues in pit lane and Vilander commented, “I want to thank Jaime for the work he did, and Risi for the work they did. Refueling and changing tires is something that let us pass people in the pits and not just having to pass on the track. I had an engineer yelling on the radio to shut the door. I needed to stay on the pit-speed, change gears, and so I was running out of hands.
“The guys on the wall kept telling me we were doing fine, keep it up, we're doing fine. At the end of the day, we did well and kept up our spirits and kept pushing hard. Hopefully this is something that will give us a boost for the rest of the season,” he added.
Melo offered his thoughts on the win after what has been a tough season for the former championship team: “This win is really important for us, really important for the Ferrari, especially for this new model. We can never give up. I took the #55 with about 30 minutes to go in the race. I can say it was not easy. It was really hard to keep the pace. I couldn't make a mistake because I knew they had enough to get around. We had to work the tires early in the stint, so I had to manage those for a long time. The first half of the race we felt we could just stay and let everyone else battle. The strategy was just great, Risi showed again we're here to win. We never give up and looking forward to the next race.”
For the BMW Team RLL, they were pleased with their double podium finish considering that they are aiming for the championship at the end of the season. Bill Auber Len and Dirk Werner ended second ahead of their teammates Dirk Mueller and Joey Hand.
"We come to win every race," said Bobby Rahal, Team Principal. "We tried hard and looked really good, but got unlucky in traffic a few times. Just in the wrong place at the wrong time. We had excellent pit stops- best all year I believe. We beat everyone in the pits. The 55 car gambled and it went their way. Bill and Dirk did a great job. The 56 car got caught up in some traffic with the Lizards and Corvette, but we kept hunting. We like to win, but we will take a second and third finish.”
The next stop on the ALMS calendar is the new street circuit in Baltimore. Then they head to the home of the famous corkscrew in Monterey, California before closing out the season in Road Atlanta.