JJ Lehto fought hard to win: not once, not twice, but three times the Champion Racing drove the wheels off his Audi R8 to take the victory at today's American Le Mans Series event for himself and teammate Marco Werner.
"It was the most busy stint in my ALMS experience," exclaimed Lehto. "Lots of hits and spins, this is like nothing I've ever experienced before. It was a lot of hard work. I think it's the first time in my whole racing experience that so much has happened in one race. Never before, this was something new today!"
The first incident took place after just seven minutes: Lehto was lapping Tim Sugden (J3 Racing Porsche 911 GT3 RSR), when the two cars made contact, sending both spinning off track. Butch Leitzinger (#16 Dyson Lola-AER), who had passed Dyson earlier, was ready to pounce, and took over the lead; Lehto dropped back to third, over 15 seconds back.
Lehto made up ground quickly, and took second from Dyson in turn three, with three wheels in the dirt to make the pass. But when Gunnar Jeanette spun his Panoz Esperante into a gravel trap and caused a full-course yellow, Dyson reclaimed the lead with a quick fuel-only pit stop.
But when the green flag came out, Lehto tried to remedy things, diving inside Leitzinger for second. But with the cars side by side in the turn, Leitzinger ended up on the marbles, and the Lola slid off to the gravel.
The stop done, the Finn set to work cutting down the 15-second gap again, and ended up on Dyson's rear fender again. For lap after lap, the fans were treated to the sight of the two LMP1 cars battling it out: the larger Audi looking for an opening here, there and everywhere, and the smaller, lighter Dyson using the track to its full advantage.
Side by side into turns, with no quarter given, but no contact and no blocking. For those old enough to remember, the duel was surely comparable to the legendary battle of Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi at the 1982 Italian Grand Prix.
"I am never going to forget this race," said Lehto. And a great many spectators will be bound to agree with that. "It was the best race I've ever seen," thought Werner.
"It was such great fun," said Dyson afterward. "It was a good clean fight. JJ had the edge. But remember, catching up and getting past are two different things."
It wasn't a very nice race for the bodywork of the Audi R8 but this is one of those races that you will remember for a long time," Lehto reflected on the many incidents after the race.
The Finn once again drove like a man possessed, but this time he was able to make short work of the #16, taking the lead for good at the 1:44 mark. When he headed for the pits three laps later to hand over the reins to Werner, the drama was over for the day.
Leitzinger received a stop-and-go to match Lehto's for a failed pass attempt on the Audi -- the end result of that attempt was a spin for the Dyson Lola, and a follow-up hit from the #4 Corvette, which was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and couldn't avoid the Lola. In the sister car, Andy Wallace had to make an additional stop to replace a coil pack.
"It was pretty hairy, and some serious competition," Leitzinger recalled after handing the car over to James Weaver. "I think it was just everyone racing hard. There were no cheap shots. I just talked to JJ and we were laughing about it. I think we realize it was just racing."
The end result of it all was a fourth straight win for Champion Racing, and a two-three finish for Dyson Racing, with Leitzinger and Weaver in the #20 bettering the #16 car, which finished 12 laps adrift, sixth overall.
The #4, piloted by Beretta and Oliver Gavin, had a much more eventful race, making contact with both the #38 Audi and the #16 Lola, and a stop-and-go penalty, dropping the team two laps behind the #3. But with the #63 Saleen and both Lamborghinis having retired from the race.
"The car was fantastic today but our luck was not," Beretta recalled. "We were very quick all weekend and the crew worked very hard. At the end of the day it was another great 1-2 finish for Corvette and for that I am happy."
Jon Field, Clint Field and Mike Liddell gave the #30 Intersport Racing Lola Judd another team victory in P2 with a comfortable 17-lap margin over the Miracle Motorsports entry -- the only other car in the class still running.
In the GT class, the Porsche battle continued in Portland. This time, the spoils went to Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb (#24 Alex Job Racing Porsche 911 GT3 RSR), with Dumas taking the class lead from the #31 White Lightning Porsche, piloted by Craig Stanton at the time.
The #31 (Stanton and David Murry) had seemed to have the class win all wrapped up, to add to their Le Mans 24H class honors, but tire wear caught up with the team, and Stanton struggled to keep the Porsche on the road in the closing laps.
On the final lap, Darren Law relegated the White Lightning team to third, claiming the second place in class for the #45 Flying Lizard Racing Porsche (Law and Johannes van Overbeek).
ALMS now travels north of the border -- but south of Portland -- for the next round of competition at the classic Mosport road course, just east of Toronto, in two weeks' time.