Lehto, Herbert beat the fire for Miami win

Usually, Champion Racing doesn’t win races like this. Usually, when the race is hanging precariously in the balance, an exceedingly cruel twist of fate intervenes, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. But today was different.

LMP900 podium: winners Johnny Herbert and JJ Lehto, Olivier Beretta and Gunnar Jeannette.
Photo by Tom Haapanen.
Today, after surviving a fire in the pits, it looked like Johnny Herbert would not have enough fuel to make it to the finish without having to make a second pit stop, but three yellows in the race’s final hour allowed Herbert and J.J. Lehto to win their third race of the season in the Miami Grand Prix of the Americas.

According to Herbert, the race went according to plan.

“We rather expected it, what with the changes they made to the circuit from last year,” he said. “We did plan it that way, and it worked out in our favor. We still had to save fuel the last part of the race, but it was perfect for us. We had some fuel in the end – I got the final warning light one lap from the finish.”

Although Lehto qualified on the pole, today’s victory was not a foregone conclusion as the Champion Audi faced stiff competition throughout the race from the Joest Audi of Frank Biela and Marco Werner.

#38 Team ADT Champion Racing Audi R8: Johnny Herbert, JJ Lehto.
Photo by Tom Haapanen.
Indeed, Werner, apparently unaware of the thick slabs of unforgiving concrete ringing the narrow 1.211-mile street circuit, shadowed Lehto from the drop of the green flag, bobbing and weaving furiously in an attempt to force his way past the Champion Audi. Yet Lehto refused to yield, eventually opening up a comfortable gap on Werner by deftly carving his way through a seemingly endless stream of back markers.

“It was all up to the traffic today,” Lehto said. “There were cars all over the place. I was working hard to get by. It was taking so much effort that I really felt tired when I got out.”

“The traffic was horrible,” Werner added. “There were lots of GT guys that didn’t want to watch in their mirrors.”

Then, as luck would have it, a pit fire erupted during Lehto’s first pit stop, handing the lead to the indefatigable Werner. As Werner streaked away, the Champion Audi, now in the hands of Herbert, managed to rejoin the race in second after the crew extinguished the flames that had briefly engulfed the car’s cockpit.

By all appearances, it looked like Champion Racing had found yet another way to lose a race. Not only had Herbert lost valuable time to Werner, it also appeared as if he would have to stop again because the team had opted to pit so early in the race. However, with the help of three cautions in the race’s final hour, Herbert was able to conserve just enough fuel to make it to the finish without having to make another stop.

Werner and Biela had to settle for second, followed by the Panoz of Olivier Beretta and David Saelens.

Besides exorcising some of the demons that have haunted this team since its American Le Mans Series debut in 1999, today’s win also allowed Lehto to stay alive in his hunt for the drivers’ championship, which will come down to the final race of the season in three weeks at Road Atlanta.

#80 Prodrive Ferrari 550 Maranello: Darren Turner, David Brabham.
Photo by Tom Haapanen.
In GTS, the Pro Drive Ferrari of David Brabham and Darren Turner emerged victorious after Johnny O'Connell crashed his race-leading Corvette with less than 45 minutes remaining.

Although it was Ferrari's third consecutive class win, O'Connell and Ron Fellows clinched the GTS drivers’ championship by virtue of taking the green flag. Tomas Enge and Peter Kox, driving another Pro Drive Ferrari, finished second, followed by Fellows and O’Connell.

Lucas Luhr and Sascha Maassen claimed their fifth GT win of the season in the Alex Job Racing Porsche. The win was Maassen’s twentieth – the most in American Le Mans Series history. The Risi Competizione Ferrari of Ralf Kelleners and Anthony Lazzaro finished second, followed by the Porsche of Robin Liddell and Alex Caffi.

And in LMP 675, Chris Dyson and Andy Wallace drove to victory in their Dyson Racing MG-powered Lola, finishing two laps ahead of their teammates, James Weaver and Butch Leitzinger.