Laguna Seca: Race report

ZYTEK, PORSCHE PROTOTYPES CLAIM HISTORIC VICTORIES AT MONTEREY SPORTS CAR CHAMPIONSHIPS Salinas, Calif. - In a historic finish to the American Le Mans Series season, the No. 15 Zytek 04S captured its first victory in the series while Penske ...

ZYTEK, PORSCHE PROTOTYPES CLAIM HISTORIC VICTORIES AT MONTEREY SPORTS CAR CHAMPIONSHIPS

Salinas, Calif. - In a historic finish to the American Le Mans Series season, the No. 15 Zytek 04S captured its first victory in the series while Penske Motorsports won its ALMS debut with its new Porsche RS Spyder on Saturday at the Monterey Sports Car Championships.

Hayanari Shimoda and Tom Chilton won from the pole position and cruised to victory in the four-hour event at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. The same can be said about Sascha Maassen and Lucas Luhr, who will go down in the record books as winning the first LMP2 race for Penske's No. 6 entry.

Shimoda passed James Weaver in the No. 16 Dyson Racing Lola near the 2:30 mark to give the lead to the Zytek team for good. Shimoda beat the No. 2 Champion Racing Audi of Emanuele Pirro and Frank Biela, the reigning LMP1 drivers champions, by 1:15.064.

The biggest key, it seemed, was making it through Turn 1 on the opening lap. Three cars, including the Zytek, were involved in a crash in the first turn at Petit Le Mans. Once through, Chilton and Shimoda clearly were the class of the field.

"We've come to America three times and two of those times, we didn't finish the race," Chilton said. "The Zytek was faultless. Other than a little problem with the pit stops, it was very good. The circuit changes from lap-to-lap here, and you have to have your wits about you. It was a pretty faultless race, and we are very happy."

Chilton, 20 and Shimoda, 21, became the youngest driver pairing to post an overall win in the history of the ALMS. All they needed to do down the stretch was keep the car on the track in the dark.

"It wasn't so bad from day to dark," Shimoda said. "I got used to the darkness, so it's fine. Tom won the pole and then brought the car back without any damage after his stint. It's nice we could finally win. This time it was hard to overtake cars because there are so many good drivers. But our car is much better, so I could overtake them."

A second-place finish by Pirro and Biela gave them podium finishes in all 10 ALMS events this season, the type of consistency that delivered each their second championship but first together.

"This race has been one tenth of a wonderful championship," Pirro said. "I am so happy we ended this season with such a great race. My target was not just to finish, but to be in the top three because a race car driver is not only quick, but reliable as well. Today we were very competitive, and finished the best we possibly could today. We asked a lot of the car today, and all season we have pushed it to its limits, and with a bit of luck, we've won this championship."

Biela said winning the championship with Champion Racing and Pirro made this year the most special of his racing career.

"We have been in cars together for a long time, and we always have a fantastic time,"

Biela said. "One special thing about this 2005 championship is that it is with Champion Audi. Champion has really made racing enjoyable again, and I'd like to thank Dave (Maraj) and all of the team because out of 24 years of racing, this was maybe the best."

Maassen, Luhr and their Porsche prototype lived up to the lofty expectations that accompanied the car to the Monterey Peninsula. The first race for Porsche's first factory-built prototype since 1998 couldn't have gone much better. Not only did it win in its first outing, but it also broke the track qualifying record for LMP2 cars in qualifying on Friday. The Penske Porsche was 1.2 seconds from the overall lead as deep as 2:15.

"Everything happened like we expected," Maassen said. "It was crowded out there, and the traffic was incredible. It wasn't very easy. I wanted to be conservative, and the pit stops were incredibly good. We almost made it to the end but needed a splash of fuel. The car was very reliable and almost perfect."

One of the questions coming into the day was how the car would respond to changing track conditions. Luhr found the answer firsthand when his stint started with a little more than an hour left.

"When I went out from the pits, I thought, 'My goodness what happened.' The track was dirty and had stones everywhere but I got used to it," Luhr said. "I really enjoyed the ride today. It was really great. We did such hard work with Penske and Porsche over the summer. It's a really nice, unique thing to do. All we wanted to do is race."

The No. 10 Miracle Motorsports Courage of Jeff Bucknum, Chris McMurry and James Gue finished second in class.

Although he finished fifth in class with Jon Field and Liz Halliday in the No. 37 Intersport Racing Lola, Clint Field won the class drivers championship, and Intersport claimed the team championship, firsts for both. Field finished the season with five victories, the most of any driver in the class.

"This is a good year to say the least," Field said. "I came close to the championship on the other ones, this was tough year for us with some gearbox problems, and a fire (at Road America). That's a very difficult thing to overcome with a small team like ours. We only have two full time employees and seven or eight total team members. For the race we really just did what we planned, which was just run laps. We wanted to compete with Penske, but after the first stint we knew we really couldn't, they were just too fast. I think this is the best fifth place finish we've ever had."

In GT1, Corvette Racing's No. 4 Corvette C6-R won its fifth straight race to wrap up the class drivers championship for Olivier Beretta and Oliver Gavin, their first as a duo. They beat their No. 3 sister car of Ron Fellows and Johnny O'Connell to the finish by more than a lap.

The win was more impressive given the depth of the class. The No. 4 car beat the pole-sitting ACEMCO Saleen, Aston Martin Racing's two DBR9s and Carsport America's Dodge Viper.

"This was an amazing race. Ollie was fantastic, the crew was perfect and the car was fast," Beretta said. "The race was incredible. We knew all we had to do was finish to win. So by the middle of the race it was becoming harder to keep pushing. I told myself I just needed to stay calm, be safe and keep your brain on."

Beretta joined Fellows as the only two drivers in ALMS history to win three class championships. Beretta won titles with Team ORECA in 1999 and 2000 as the chief rival of Corvette Racing in the early days of the ALMS.

The championship duo won for the fifth straight time and seventh in the last eight races, including a win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

"This was a phenomenal year for Olivier, myself and the team," Gavin said. "It took until Le Mans for the team to really gel. I'd like to think everyone at GM and Corvette, because the C6-R was quick right out of the blocks. We were the strongest car out there today, and I'm confident that we'll come back as strong next year."

The team of Jorg Bergmeister and Patrick Long also won in class, both the race and drivers championship. The No. 31 Petersen Motorsports/White Lightning Racing Porsche won when the No. 50 Panoz Esperante of Bill Auberlen and Robin Liddell pitted for a splash of fuel with seven minutes left.

The win also clinched the GT2 team championship for the privateer outfit, beating out Alex Job Racing.

"We were in this to keep a good clean nose but also to push for a team championship," Long said. "It was tough with the traffic and the safety cars. We came here to win a championship, and keeping our noses clean was a way to do that. To come out with more race victories than anyone else in the class is sweet. We always said we would go out and try to win races and championships."

Bergmeister and Long won for the fifth time this year (most in class) and for the fourth straight event.

"Once we finished the 70 percent, we started pushing and that paid off," Bergmeister said. "We didn't have the quickest car. But we set up the car for a championship. I was hoping we'd have a good season, but I knew it would be hard to beat the AJR guys. They are the factory guys to beat, and we did it."

The 2006 American Le Mans Series season begins with the 54th annual Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring on March 18 from Sebring International Raceway. That will kickoff a 10-race schedule for the ALMS.

-alms-

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