The Road America 500 delivered some spectacular racing on the way to Champion Audi's second win of the American Le Mans season. While the anticipated competition for the overall win failed to materialize, the Corvette-Ferrari GTS race within a race was decided on the last lap, in favor of the #88 Ferrari. Dyson Racing #16 claimed second overall and first in LMP 675, and White Lightning - Petersen Motorsports celebrated their first ever victory in GT.
Champion Racing cruised to an easy victory, with little to worry about after the race's first hour. The team was running second to Team Joest Audi until the first series of pit stops when, incredibly, Joest Audi suffered a mechanical problem in the pit. The Audi, with its previously unblemished reliability record during this ALMS season, had a starter motor failure. The team was forced to change the starter losing seven laps in the process.
The Champion Audi led by more than a lap throughout the remainder of the race. Driver Lehto found it difficult to focus when he stepped into the car at the first pit stop: "When I got into the car it was very difficult to get into race mode. We were a lap ahead."
The team anticipated problems with fuel economy on this long, fast track. "It was going to be tough without a few yellows. On the second or third lap I went to the lean engine map. I was able to save fuel," said starting driver Johnny Herbert.
JML Team Panoz salvaged a second place in LMP 900 after an eventful start to the race. The #10, driven by David Saelens, managed to stay near the front in the initial minutes before making contact with the #16 Dyson car who spun off the track in turn 5. The Panoz was assigned a one minute penalty in response to the incident, a problem quickly compounded when Saelens drove off the edge of turn 14 into the gravel. After a pitstop, and the one minute penalty, the car was a lap behind the Champion Audi. In the hands of Olivier Beretta the car climbed briefly to second overall before falling back behind the #20 Dyson, Saelens closed out the race for the team.
"To get third spot overall and 2nd in class is outstanding considering we were forced to stay for a minute in the pits - that was very disappointing," expressed Saelens at the race end. "Olivier and I are forming a great combination and I am really pleased for the team because they worked so hard since last weekend to get the car ready."
The mechanically challenged Joest Audi managed a second place in spite of losing the seven laps to starter trouble. The Audi clearly had the speed to win, setting fast lap time of 1:54.613. "I'd hate to lose the championship here, the car was perfect," said starting driver Marco Werner.
The #11 Panoz was running in the top three before electrical problems struck at the first pit stop. The second Panoz lost several laps, finishing fourth nearly a lap behind the third place Audi.
The Dyson #16 earned a well deserved LMP 675 win. The car failed to start from the dummy grid, and only made its way onto the race track with a push start. Forced to start from the back of the field, the team quickly found itself a lap down. The Dyson Lola-MG has suffered terrible reliability problems, so the car's constant pace throughout the race proved something of a relief. The speed of the little Lola brought the team into second overall, a position it would only briefly relinquish on the way to the class win.
After the race Chris Dyson was able to find something positive in the car's starting foibles: "Thankfully we were able to start this race rolling, rather than from pit lane. For two weeks in a row now we've had to start from the back."
The rest of the LMP 675 field failed to put up any challenge. The second and third place finishers, Essex Racing #18 and Downing Atlanta #64, finished ten and eleven laps in arrears, respectively.
The #16 Dyson displayed blinding speed throughout the run-up to the race. Butch Leitzinger capitalized on a second place starting position to move into the lead on the first lap. Lap 6 brought the first of two incidents, some light contact with a GT back marker while braking into turn five. There was little damage but the trailing Joest Audi used the incident to slip past. Just two laps later, in the very same turn, a chasing Panoz made contact with the Dyson car from behind, causing terminal damage.
Team owner Rob Dyson was none too pleased: "The 16 car getting punted was a stupid error. I don't know what can be done to correct this."
The third Lola-MG, belonging to Intersport racing, also had a disappointing day. Their #37 car qualified fourth but fell back to seventh on the start. The situation worsened on lap 13 when driver John Field drove off course when braking into Canada corner. After a stop to clean out the off-track debris, the car suffered a starter failure and was pulled behind the wall.
After the first sequence of pit stops the #80 Prodrive assumed the lead, closely followed by the #3 Corvette. The #88 Prodrive, after a breaking a wheel stud, and the #3 Corvette, after a trip into the gravel, circulated two laps down.
The final pit stops saw the #3 Corvette with Johnny O'Connell leading the #80 Prodrive with Jan Magnussen. The Corvette's 25 second lead dwindled to less than one with five minutes remaining. Jan Magnussen explained the last three laps from his perspective: "I tried to pass him going into turn five and he shut the door, pushing me onto the grass. After a second lap of this I had to find somewhere else. On the white flag lap I got a good tow.this was my last chance so I was going to have a big go. It worked. I braked about 100 meters later than I have all weekend. The car stuck."
Driver Johnny O'Connell faced a last lap challenge from the Prodrive Ferrari team for the second week in a row. At Mosport he held off the opposition. This week he was less successful. "I was worn down mentally and physically. I opened the door, and he shot through. It was a mental mistake and it won't happen again," explained O'Connell.
The #88 Prodrive claimed third, passing the surprisingly quick Team Olive Garden Ferrari late in the race. Tomas Enge qualified the car ahead of the sister #80 Ferrari, and hoped for more in the race. "It was unfortunate what happened in the pits. Luck did not go our way today," said Enge.
Both Team Olive Garden and Konrad Motorsport performed better than expected in GTS. The Olive Garden distinctive green Ferrari ran third for much of the day, challenging the better funded Prodrive entries. Domenico Schiattarella looked for a podium: "When I saw the #4 in the gravel.I thought 'we can make the podium yet.' Unfortunately it was not to be today." Konrad Motorsport's Saleen also made a short appearance in third.
White Lightning - Petersen Motorsports claimed their first ever ALMS win, but the performance of the day belonged to Alex Job #23 driver Sascha Maassen. Maassen climbed into the car at the first pit stop and quickly found himself stuck in fifth gear. In spite of this limitation he continued to turn laps under 2:20, within a few seconds of the class leaders. A fourth place finish among 17 GT cars is a tremendous result. "It was an interesting race for us. Road America isn't the best circuit to have to drive only in fifth gear," said Maassen.
The other Job entry, the #24 Porsche, suffered a suspension failure on the fourth lap. The length of time required to repair the damage relegated the car to thirteenth in class, fifteen laps behind the class winner.
This race is the first time since Mosport 2002 that an Alex Job car did not win an ALMS event.
Petersen Motorsports took full advantage of the Alex Job problems. "I don't think we had the pace to beat the Job cars without their problems," commented Johnny Mowlem. "Whenever I'd run a quick lap the team would get on the radio and tell me too slow down, to hold the pace. This win has been a long time coming."
Second in class belonged to #66 The Racers Group Porsche, the car that beat Alex Job in that 2002 event. The team almost gambled on a one pit stop strategy in an attempt to catch the class leader but found their fuel mileage was just a little short. The second place finish is their season's best.
Zip racing finished third after passing the stricken Job #23 on the last lap. Driver Andy Lally was thrilled with the result. "We skipped the last race to get ready for this one. It was the best finish we've ever had."
The Road America 500 produced some fantastic racing, particularly in the GTS class. The GTS cars with their booming V8s and screaming V12s attract some of the most vocal fan support. After a race like the Road America 500 it's easy to see why. If the Dyson and Intersport Lola-MGs are able to find reliability the LMP classes may produce this same type of excitement. The series moves next to Laguna Seca, and the on track battles are sure to continue.