Bernhard snatches Utah pole in closing moments

Timo Bernhard muscled his Penske Racing Porsche RS Spyder to the overall pole position Saturday at Miller Motorsports Park, outpacing the brand-new de Ferran Motorsports Acura in the closing moments. Bernhard ripped off two back-to-back quick laps, good enough to steal the top spot away from Gil de Ferran for Sunday's Larry H. Miller Dealerships Utah Grand Prix presented by the Grand and Little America Hotels.

Class and overall top qualifyer Timo Bernhard celebrates.
Photo by Larry Kuivila.

All weekend long, de Ferran and co-driver Simon Pagenaud have been the drivers to beat, piloting the newest LMP2 car on the American Le Mans Series grid. De Ferran was fastest in testing on Friday while Pagenaud paced Saturday morning's practice session. "The Professor" looked set to continue that mark in qualifying, but Bernhard stole the thunder just as de Ferran faltered for the first time.

De Ferran led the way in qualifying for most of the 20-minute session. The Brazilian's best lap time of 1:31.189 held up until Bernhard put in a time 0.016 faster. Seconds after Bernhard grabbed provisional pole, de Ferran spun off course, ending his session in the sand. But Bernhard was unaware of de Ferran's problems, as the German didn't look at his dash nor communicated with his Penske Racing crew. He ended up clocking an even faster lap on his last attempt, a 1:31.050. It held as the pole-winning time.

"When we planned for four laps left, I was running out of fuel, so I came in anyway and put more fuel in," Bernhard explained. "My engineer asked if I wanted to go out again. I thought, 'its only four minutes left. If the tires are not so good on the out lap I would just come back in.'

"But the first lap was very good and I knew the tires were very good. So during the next lap I picked my points that I knew I could improve on, so I put everything together and a great lap and that was the best I could do. Then I knew I had one more so I tried to push even more knowing I was already good. Then as I came across and was even better I thought, ok maybe that was my best."

Bernhard led a sweep of P2 cars filling the top five positions overall, all of which were separated by less than half a second. De Ferran though had to settle for second, but what's worse is the car may have to start from the rear of the field Sunday. His spin damaged the tires, and Series rules only allow one tire to be replaced for the start. Michelin engineers recommend fitting the car with four new tires for the start.

"That's what qualifying is all about," de Ferran said. "It was a good lap until I spun. But this is a great effort for all the guys on this team. Congratulations to Timo who beat me."

Bernhard and co-driver Romain Dumas saw their P2 class win streak come to an end at Long Beach when the Patron Highcroft Racing Acura took a breakthrough win. Now, add the fourth, and very quick, de Ferran Acura to the mix and the bar has been raised even further this weekend.

"It is what we always asked for, and now we have it." Bernhard said of the increased competition. "I know Gil de Ferran is a great and successful race car driver in his career. I didn't know how much time they really had for testing and its really impressive they have come out here and be fast right out for the first time."

Lowe's Fernandez Racing's Luis Diaz bagged the third quickest time overall, a 1:31.342, just three-tenths slower than Bernhard's time. Diaz and co-driver Adrian Fernandez were also quick in the morning practice and could prove to be a dark horse for the win tomorrow.

"It was very competitive out there," Diaz said. "Throughout qualifying, we were very close to the fastest time. I am happy and very optimistic for tomorrow. I think it is going to be a tough race. Whoever makes the least mistakes will have the victory.S

Patron Highcroft Racing 's entry of David Brabham and Scott Sharp made it three Acuras inside the top-four overall. The No. 6 Penske Racing Porsche of Sascha Maassen and Patrick Long rounded out the top-five, just 0.412 seconds adrift from the pole speed.

Marco Werner peddled his No. 2 Audi Sport North America R10 TDI to the sixth quickest time overall, taking pole in LMP1. Werner and co-driver Lucas Luhr won the past two races overall in the streets of St. Petersburg and Long Beach. But Werner thinks repeating that feat on the 3.048-mile Miller Motorsports Park be a tougher challenge.

"This track is not really built for us," Werner said. "It is a very fast track but you change directions so many times its hard for us with all of the weight we have. If you see, the four-tenths to pole position is not a very big gap but we are so far back. I'm hoping for a good start tomorrow and hopefully a really good race."

The second Audi of Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro wound up eighth overall. The Audis sandwiched the No. 20 Dyson Racing Porsche of Butch Leitzinger and Marino Franchitti, which will start seventh.

In GT1, Olivier Beretta claimed the top spot, outpacing the sister No. 3 Corvette Racing C6.R of Johnny O'Connell and Jan Magnussen. Beretta, who shares the No. 4 machine with Oliver Gavin, clocked a 1:43.869 early in the GT session. The team is using this weekend to prepare for next month's 24 Hours of Le Mans, a race which will feature plenty of competition for the yellow cars.

"This is a great preparation for Le Mans but the cars need to be in good shape because we'll need them there," Beretta said. "It is very hard to test for Le Mans because it is very specific to its own entity. But you can test particular things here to put together a whole package. Le Mans is the most important race to us and we are going there very confident and hope we will do very well."

You couldn't have asked for a closer margin for the pole in GT2, as the No. 45 Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche of Wolf Henzler and Jamie Melo's No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari ran identical times. Since Henzler turned his 1:47.135 lap time before Melo, the German was awarded with the pole position.

Ironically, Henzler was in a similar situation with the opposite outcome in a SPEED World Challenge race in 2005. He ran an identical time to the eventual polesitter but was not awarded the top spot because he set it after that car. Now, Henzler benefits from the other side of the rule, thus claming his second career Series pole.

"It all came down to Jaime Melo's last lap," Henzler said. "He was having a good run and we knew it would be very close and he crossed the finish line with the exact same time, but since I did my time first, I will be on the pole. It's a great start to the weekend - thank you to the crew who put together such a fast car for us for the race."

However, Henzler didn't have a trouble free run in qualifying, running off course before setting his quick time. This proved to be the case for two other Porsches as well. But the good news is that unlike de Ferran, the tires held up fine and Henzler and co-driver Jorg Bergmeister will not have to give up their starting position.

"During the qualifying run, I could tell I had a lot of heat in the tires, and I braked late and went off," Henzler explained. "I picked up a lot of dirt on the tires, the next two laps I had no grip, lots of under steer and over steer. I thought, that is it, qualifying is over, but then all of the sudden the car came back and I put down the best lap right after that."

Melo meanwhile drove his heart out in qualifying. He and co-driver Mika Salo have fought setup issues all weekend and have now finally gotten the prancing horse back in contention. The defending class champions need to have a clean run on Sunday to turn around their season, after only collecting three points in the first four races.

RI didn't have anything else to put in; I gave it everything and took as many risks as I could without damaging the car," Melo said. "I didn't expect to be that fast, to be honest; the Porsche is very strong on a straight line. We made a few changes to the car before the last practice session and that definitely helped me. Looking at where we started the weekend, this result is okay and I am more confident about the car for the race than I was for qualifying.S

Patrick Pilet in the No. 46 Flying Lizard Porsche was third quickest, and like teammate Henzler, the Frenchman also had an off during his run and recovered to set his fastest lap. He and co-driver Johannes van Overbeek also look strong for the race.

"Our Porsche was good today, but it was a tough session for me," Pilet said. "I made some mistakes in the session. Sometimes I pushed too much on the throttle, and then I lost too much time, and had to make up my time with the tires too hot and less grip. But I was able to get a fast time at the end."

The No. 87 Farnbacher Loles Porsche of Marc Basseng wound up fourth, the third of the Porsches that had an off-course excursion during the session. Co-driver Dirk Werner will return from his Grand-Am duties tomorrow to partner Basseng for the race.

Two cars failed to turn laps in qualifying. The Primetime Race Group Dodge Viper Competition Coupe suffered engine woes preventing it from setting a time while the No. 5 VICI Racing Porsche had a clutch problem and will also start from the back.

Teams and drivers will awaken bright and early tomorrow with warm-up scheduled for 8:00 a.m., followed by the two-hour, 45-minute race getting the green flag at 1:05 p.m.