American Le Mans Teams, Champions Lead the Way in Le Mans Testing
LE MANS, France (April 25, 2004) -- Racing teams from the American Le Mans Series led a record-shattering day in the GTS and GT classes and two former series driving champions were in the fastest overall car of the day Sunday as 52 teams tested for the 72nd running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The world's most famous endurance race will be held June 12-13.
Former series driving champions Allan McNish and Frank Biela were aboard the Audi Sport UK Team Veloqx Audi R8 that was the fastest car of the day in eight hours of testing at the 8.46-mile Circuit de La Sarthe. The car was the fastest overall and in the LMP1 (Prototype) class while breaking the previous track record with a lap of 3:32.615 with McNish at the wheel.
Corvette Racing, the GTS class champion of the ALMS the past three seasons, led the way Sunday as it shattered the previous GTS class track record, while ALMS team Petersen Motorsport/White Lightning Racing ran faster than the track record in the GT class as it seeks its second consecutive class win in the world's most famous endurance race.
Twelve racing teams from the American Le Mans Series were among the 52 that participated in the traditional and mandatory Le Mans Pre-Test on Sunday. The American Le Mans Series is based on the 24 Hours of Le Mans and operates on an agreement with the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO), organizers of the French racing classic. The series annually builds its schedule around Le Mans so that teams that wish to compete at Le Mans can do so without missing any ALMS events. The ALMS schedule will resume June 25-27 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
The Audi UK entry picked up where it left off in March when the car shared by McNish, Biela and Pierre Kaffer won the 52nd annual Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, the opening event of the ALMS season. McNish set his fast time in the closing moments of testing.
"After a four-year absence, it's good to be back at Le Mans," said McNish, who spent the past three years in Formula One but returned to sports car racing with a vengeance by winning at Sebring. He was the 2000 ALMS champion while driving for the former Audi factory team.
"We worked through a tire program before lunch, collecting valuable data for the race," the Scottish driver said. "Prospects look encouraging but the competition, not just from the other Audi teams, will be tough."
Biela, who shared the 2003 ALMS championship in the top Prototype class with Marco Werner and is a three-time Le Mans winner, was equally optimistic after the day of testing. "Our car's only problem all day was when I ran wide into the gravel when a backmarker almost forced me off the track," he said. "But thankfully there was no damage to the car and soon afterwards I set my personal best time. We are in good shape for the race."
The second Audi UK entry driven by Johnny Herbert, Jamie Davies and Guy Smith was second-fastest overall with a lap of 3:32.627.
Among regular ALMS teams, the fastest on the day was ADT Champion Racing, which turned the third-fastest overall time at 3:34.176 with JJ Lehto, Emanuele Pirro and Werner driving the Audi R8. The Champion team was a class winner at Le Mans last year but hopes to become the first American-based team to win the event overall in more than 20 years. The team was using a newly acquired Audi R8 that was formerly a test car for Audi AG.
"The car was good out of the box, especially since this is the first time we have driven this car," said Lehto, who was in the car early in the day when he was forced off the course by another car. The team was forced to replace the car's gearbox after the incident.
"We had a really good day because we were able to find a really great setup," said Pirro, the ALMS champion in 2001 and a three-time Le Mans overall winner. "We couldn't get a good time today because of the traffic but that's true for everyone out there. The car was great all day as were the tires."
Other ALMS regular teams in the LMP1 class did not fare quite as well in the test session. The Intersport Racing Lola B160-Judd of Jon Field, Duncan Dayton and Larry Connor battled clutch problems all day and managed a best lap of 3:46.922, 14th in class. The Panoz GTR1-Elan "Batmobile" fielded by Larbre Competition and Panoz Motor Sports was 17th in the LMP1 class with a best lap of 3:56.984.
Corvette Racing won the GTS class in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in both 2001 and 2002 but was soundly beaten last year by the Prodrive Ferrari team. The factory Corvette team made many changes during the off-season, most notably a surprising switch to Michelin tires, and the changes paid off as the team was 1-2 in the test session.
Max Papis, sharing the #63 Chevrolet Corvette C5-R with defending ALMS GTS driving champions Ron Fellows and Johnny O'Connell, set the fastest GTS class time of the day with a record 3:49.982 in the closing moments of the day. Papis and Oliver Gavin, one of the drivers in the other Corvette, engaged in a battle for the fast lap near the session's end.
Gavin's best time of 3:50.079 was agonizingly close to Papis' time, with Papis posting the fast lap only moments after Gavin had set his mark. Gavin was co-driving with Olivier Beretta and Jan Magnussen.
"I am extremely proud to be a part of the Corvette family today," said Papis, who joined the team during the off-season and co-drove to a Sebring class win with Fellows and O'Connell. "Everyone here works very hard and I was provided a great environment to drive well. All three of us on the team are comfortable with the way the car feels and we are excited for the race in June. This is a real team."
Third in the session was the Larbre Competition Ferrari 550 Maranello at 3:54.105, while the two Prodrive entries were fourth and fifth in class. The two Corvettes are the only regular ALMS teams in the GTS class.
After announcing a stellar driving lineup of Porsche factory drivers on Friday, the Petersen Motorsports/White Lightning team went to work with its new Porsche 911 GT3 RSR and was fastest in class by more than a second during Sunday's test session.
The Las Vegas-based team, owned by Michael Petersen and Dale White, watched as Porsche factory driver Jorg Bergmeister set the fast time of the day with a record lap of 4:05.979. Bergmeister, who drives in the ALMS for Alex Job Racing, will be joined by in the Petersen car by two-time ALMS GT class champion Sascha Maassen and rising young American star Patrick Long as the team seeks its second straight Le Mans win.
Maassen had a previous commitment and could not be at the test, but team owner Petersen substituted for the Porsche star during the day.
"The team did a really great job," said Bergmeister. "At the beginning of the day we had some handling problems. But we really improved upon that and that is the way that it should be. At the end we put on some qualifiers and I had a clear lap and the car felt really, really good. We worked a lot on the race setup during the day and I think we have a good car for the race. We'll see. Hopefully it will go that good at the race as well."
Long, who drives for the New Century Mortgage/Racer's Group team in the ALMS, is racing at Le Mans for the first time. "Jorg drove flawless and got a really good race setup," said Long. "That allowed me to get settled in the late afternoon and put some really consistent laps together. I came out of the day with what I wanted to accomplish and I am quite sure that the team did as well."
Second-fastest in the GT class with a time of 4:07.315 was the combined Orbit Racing/BAM! Porsche entry from the ALMS. Porsche factory drivers Mike Rockenfeller and Marc Lieb shared the 911 GT3 RSR with American Leo Hindery. The car received left-side damage at 12:15 p.m. when Lieb made contact with the guardrail Tertre Rouge, but the car was repaired and the team finished the afternoon session.
"I was on my first flying lap, driving through Tertre Rouge," said Lieb, who also drives in the ALMS for Alex Job Racing. "The Corvette was passing me so I was backing off, I was really driving easy through the turn. Then I must have hit a bump or something on the exit, I was already under power and I just lost the car. I don't exactly know what happened. If I had been pushing it, I would understand it, but I wasn't pushing it at all."
Other ALMS teams in the GT class included two Porsches for Seikel Motorsport that turned the sixth and ninth-fastest times on the day, the PK Sport Porsche (13th) and The Racer's Group (15th). The Racer's Group team won the GT class in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2002.
The only ALMS team in the LMP2 class for smaller, less powerful Prototypes is the Lola B2K/40-Judd of Intersport Racing, and the car experienced problems during the session when its exhaust system broke. Team manager and lead driver Clint Field said that the problem could not be repaired due to lack of replacement parts on hand but he felt that the car could be 10 seconds faster.
The car's best time of the day was 4:04.740, well off the class-leading pace of 3:49.924 set by a Courage JPX and fifth in class. Field is leading an All-American driving lineup that also includes Bill Binnie and Rick Sutherland.
SUMMARY OF REGULAR ALMS TEAM TEST SPEEDS
JJ Lehto, Marco Werner and Emanuele Pirro; ADT Champion Racing, Audi R8 (LMP1); 3:34.176 (3rd class, 3rd overall).
Jon Field, Duncan Dayton and Larry Connor; Intersport Racing, Lola B160-Judd (LMP1); 3:46.922 (14th class, 14th overall).
Jean-Luc Blancheman, Roland Berville and P. Bourdais, Larbre Competition/Panoz Motor Sports, Panoz GTR1-Elan (LMP1); 3:56.984 (17th class, 26th overall).
Ron Fellows, Johnny O'Connell and Max Papis; Corvette Racing; Chevrolet Corvette C5-R (GTS), 3:49.982 (1st class, 18th overall).
Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta and Jan Magnussen; Corvette Racing; Chevrolet Corvette C5-R (GTS), 3:50.079 (2nd class, 19th overall).
Clint Field, Bill Binnie and Rick Sutherland; Intersport Racing; Lola B2K/40-Judd (LMP2), 4:04.740 (5th class, 31st overall).
Jorg Bergmeister, Patrick Long and Michael Petersen (sub for Sascha Maassen); Petersen Motorsports/White Lightning Racing; Porsche 911 GT3 RSR (GT), 4:05.979 (1st class, 33rd overall).
Leo Hindery, Mike Rockenfeller and Marc Lieb; Orbit Racing/BAM!; Porsche 911 GT3 RSR (GT), 4:07.315 (2nd class, 34th overall).
Alex Caffi, Gabrio Rosa and P. Van Mersteijn; Seikel Motorsport; Porsche 911 GT3 RS (GT), 4:13.547 (6th class, 39th overall).
Tony Burgess, Phillip Collin and Grady Willingham; Seikel Motorsport; Porsche 911 GT3 RS (GT); 4:16.645 (9th class, 43rd overall)(reserve car).
Jim Matthews, David Warnock and Paul Daniels; PK Sport; Porsche 911 GT3 RS (GT), 4:18.519 (13th class, 47th overall).
Lars Nielsen, Gregor Fisken and Ian Donaldson; The Racer's Group; Porsche 911 GT3 RSR (GT); 4:23.560 (15th class, 49th overall).
OTHER REGULAR AMERICAN LE MANS SERIES DRIVERS
Andy Wallace and David Brabham; Zytek Engineering; Zytek (LMP1), 3:35.132 (5th class, 5th overall).
Chris Dyson; Racing for Holland; Dome-Judd (LMP1); 3:36.384 (7th class, 7th overall).
Gunnar Jeannette; Epsilon Sport; Courage JPX (LMP2); 3:56.124 (4th class, 25th overall).
Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas; Freisinger Motorsport; Porsche 911 GT3 RSR (GT); 4:09.071 (3rd class, 36th overall).
NOTE: Full results available online at www.lemans.org, the Official Website of the Automobile Club de l'Ouest and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.