Call it first time luck, or perhaps a sign of things to come. On its maiden outing in the American Le Mans Series, de Ferran Motorsports' Acura ARX-01b proved to be the car to beat, setting the quickest time in Friday's test session for Sunday's Larry H. Miller Dealerships Utah Grand Prix presented by the Grand and Little American Hotels.
Team owner/driver Gil de Ferran blazed around the 3.048-mile outer course layout in a best lap time of 1:32.424. The double CART champion and former Indianapolis 500 winner hopped into his new LMP2 entry in the second half of the session and began to crank out fast laps, benefiting from fewer cars on the high-speed circuit at the time.
"We kept the same set of tires on to see how the tires would behave over a long run," de Ferran said. "Simon [Pagenaud] had a few changes in the car, and also during the session he was running, he wasn't able to get a clear lap. When I jumped in the car, the car was already pretty good. I managed to get a couple of clear laps, and we made a change, made it better, and went quicker."
Pagenaud, also making his Series debut, was equally impressed with his introduction to sports car racing, having run the car in the first half of the session. The 2006 Champ Car Atlantic champion posted the quickest time provisionally, before being bumped off by an Audi. Pagenaud found traffic to be one of the most challenging bits of his run.
"I'm just getting used to traffic, passing cars every lap," Pagenaud said. "The track is changing every lap, especially in the gravel bits. For some reason a GT put some gravel on the track. So you better be careful and it's more rally style than circuit driving style. It's kind of fun. I'm thinking it's going to be tough, a lot tougher than I thought."
Earlier this week, de Ferran and Pagenaud turned laps at the Miller Motorsports Park facility, gaining more knowledge of its car. But nothing compares to racing with full 30-car field, and also having to navigate through traffic. De Ferran is upbeat heading into tomorrow's practice sessions but realizes it's still early days.
"During testing, we tried to do our homework as best we could, but the proof is in the pudding really," de Ferran said. "We have to be out there with everyone else to really see how competitive or not we are. Today was a good day, but it's only Friday. We have to keep our feet on the ground. There's still plenty to do before Sunday."
Marco Werner, in the No. 2 Audi Sport North America R10 TDI, turned the second quickest time overall, fastest of the LMP1 runners. The German's 1:32.913 lap time was 0.489 seconds slower than de Ferran's, also set late in the session. Werner and co-driver Lucas Luhr are coming off back-to-back overall victories in the streets of St. Petersburg and Long Beach and will be looking to make it three in a row on Sunday.
Werner was sandwiched in between P2 cars as the No. 7 Penske Racing Porsche RS Spyder of Romain Dumas and Timo Bernhard were third-quickest overall. The defending P2 class champions are optimistic for tomorrow and are not paying too close of attention at the times just yet.
"If you have a look at the times, everything is so close," Bernhard said. "So it's very hard to say anything. There were a couple of teams that tested here earlier this week. Right out of the box, we're pretty quick and that's what matters."
The No. 1 Audi of Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro was fourth, followed by Dyson Racing's No. 20 Porsche RS Spyder of Marino Franchitti and Butch Leitzinger in fifth.
Jan Magnussen turned the quickest time in GT1, a 1:46.125 in his No. 3 Corvette Racing C6.R. Magnussen pairs with Johnny O'Connell in the cellulosic E85-fueled machine.
In GT2, Dirk Werner aboard the Farnbacher Loles Racing Porsche 911 GT3 RSR was the man to beat. The German's lap time of 1:47.925 was nearly 1.5 seconds quicker than the competition, an impressive lap for single-car effort.
Werner, as well as two other drivers, are pulling double-duty this weekend, competing in both Saturday's Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series race at Laguna Seca and Sunday's race here. Marc Basseng, Werner's co-driver in the ALMS, didn't get much track time today but will have the car all to himself tomorrow.
"We changed tires to go to a different compound," Basseng explained. "The track's really nice. It's a good course that is very quick. It looks like its not very easy to overtake others, and they don't want to help you. We'll see."
Basseng has a busy schedule of his own, as he will compete in next weekend's Nurburgring 24 Hours race for Land Motorsport. The German Porsche team is one of the favorites to win the race, but Basseng admits that race holds a completely different challenge with over 220 cars entered.
Intersport Racing brought out the one and only red flag during the session when Jon Field became stranded on track with a broken drive train. Co-driver, and son, Clint set the LMP1 Lola's best time of 1:39.963 before the mechanical failure. The team hopes to be back out tomorrow.
Aside from de Ferran Motorsports' impressive series debut, the other main storyline this weekend was the adaptation to the new outer course layout. While some first timers enjoyed just lapping around the Miller Motorsports Park facility, others wish the tight and twisty, 24-turn, 4.5-mile layout was still used.
"I really love the track," Drayson-Barwell's Lord Paul Drayson said. "I think it's a brilliantly designed circuit. You feel from driving it that someone really intelligent has designed it. It's all about keeping momentum. The changes in terms of the fast and slow corners and the combination of the wind blowing stuff on the track means that there's just one line, and that it. You go off that line and you get a lot of dust and the grip goes away. So it's really quite technical but very satisfying."
Drayson is one of a handful of drivers who had never driven on the full layout. Penske Racing's Timo Bernhard, a veteran of the Series, enjoyed the technical bits of the tight and twisty 4.5-mile circuit and misses going though the infield section.
"Just one corner changed, but basically the infield is not here," Bernhard said. "You have to work on your setup differently because most of the slow and medium speed corners are gone. I think it's not too bad but I have to say that I like the infield portion a little bit better. It was more challenging. But now the track is quite quick."
Bernhard predicts a lot of overtaking to occur in the first section of the track. Traffic will also play a key role in the two hour, 45-minute race.
"Usually with the longer tracks, you didn't have a lot of traffic during the race with 30 to 35 cars," Bernhard said. "But now, it's a lot closer and the high speed section will have a lot of passing. The GT cars will have to work a little as well."
Both LG Motorsports and PTG Team Panoz have made the switch to Dunlop tires this weekend. Lou Gigliotti will also have a new co-driver in the form of either Michigan-native Aaron Bambach or SPEED World Challenge veteran Eric Curran. Both tested the team's Riley Corvette C6 today and Curran was fast right out of the box.
"It's going excellent, excellent," Gigliotti said. "The Dunlop tires are working well. If Eric Curran and I can drive together, we'll have a hell of a car. We tested here the other two days and were in the low 1:50s. Eric just ran a 1:50 right now. We're good."
Curran set the car's best lap time of 1:50.829, in only his third lap in the car. The team will decide on its co-driver by tomorrow.
Over at PTG, the Virginia-based team has switched from Yokohama to Dunlop rubber, also hoping to close the gap to the leading GT2 cars. The No. 21 Panoz Esperante of Tommy Milner and Tom Sutherland didn't have much time on track today due to a water pump failure. But Milner believes there's a lot more potential out of the car, especially with the switch to Dunlops.
"We had done a test at Summit Point, our home track, just to compare the Yokohamas, Dunlops and customer Michelin tires," Tommy Milner explained. "The Dunlops were the quickest, and also the most consistent of the three. GT2 is really competitive nowadays. Yokohama has been a partner with PTG for so long. In the end, we're a race team and have to go fast and be competitive. For us, right now the Dunlop makes more sense. As we go forward, we'll reevaluate what's the best option is for us."
Drayson-Barwell's Aston Martin Vantage also runs on Dunlops. The British-based team has been making steady progress with its GT2 car, which is now in its second outing. However, an engine problem earlier this week in testing prevented more time on the track. Drayson said a new powerplant was flown over from England and the team worked hard to get it ready for this weekend.
"It's very early days with development of this car," Drayson said. "The car is fantastic, absolutely fantastic. But we are now learning what needs to be done to develop it. It's steady progress, but I'd like for it to be going a bit faster."
Patron Highcroft Racing is fresh off class victory at Long Beach, when David Brabham and Scott Sharp took the Duncan Dayton-led Acura effort to its first-ever win. The No. 9 Acura ARX-01b was seventh quickest overall today, and Sharp believes there's more in the LMP2 car.
"It went pretty good," Sharp said. "Being the chassis development team for Acura, we often find ourselves coming to the early sessions and trying to test some new pieces for Acura. That's what we pretty much were doing this afternoon. We tried a few new things, a couple that worked that's pretty promising.
"We baselined the car there towards the end of the day, and I think we ended up 5th in class. We're only a second off pole, so we feel pretty good about where we're at and make a few adjustments overnight and go even better tomorrow."
A one-hour practice session is on-tap starting at 10:20 a.m. Saturday, followed by a final practice in the afternoon before qualifying.