PANOZ TEAM HOPING TO RECAPTURE SPRING GLORY AT PETIT LE MANS Braselton, Ga. - Robin Liddell has tasted his share of victories in the American Le Mans Series. But his most recent at April's Grand Prix of Atlanta holds the most significance. For...
PANOZ TEAM HOPING TO RECAPTURE SPRING GLORY AT PETIT LE MANS
Braselton, Ga. - Robin Liddell has tasted his share of victories in the American Le Mans Series. But his most recent at April's Grand Prix of Atlanta holds the most significance. For that's the day the Scot and Bill Auberlen teamed to give Panoz Motor Sports a GT2 victory in the No. 50 Panoz Esperante GTLM.
It was an historic occasion on several fronts. One, it was the first GT2 win for the Esperante and Panoz, which had posted previous victories in LMP1. Second, it was only the Panoz team's second ALMS victory at Road Atlanta, the squad's home track. Third, it marked only the 11th time in 58 ALMS events that a car other than a Porsche took top class honors.
"In terms of the way we won the race, it was a real fight for much of the race and I had to take a lot of pressure from Timo in the Alex Job car, although people forget that I had in fact passed Timo to get in the lead earlier on after the first pit stop. I was determined to win the race, and although he had stopped and taken on fresh tires we had opted to stay on my old Pirellis and the tires held out to the end giving me the grip and consistency I needed to win the race."
Since then, Porsche has returned to its ways, sweeping each podium heading into Petit Le Mans, Round 9 of the ALMS. The annual 1,000-mile/10-hour race marks the return of the series to Road Atlanta with Panoz hoping to right its ship in one of the biggest races in the world of sports car racing.
Since that fateful day in April, Panoz has struggled, posting two fourth-place class finishes, the most recent at Portland at the end of July. The other Esperante, the No. 51 of Bryan Sellers and Marino Franchitti, looked as if it had hit on something in Mosport testing. Once raceday came, though, the car fell back and battled a lot of the same gremlins that have plagued it so far this year.
"A lot of what we had was a security level. We had the ability to spend a test day tuning the car and getting used to the track rather than three hours on a race weekend," Sellers said. "Test times are invaluable. You can never do enough. We're going against some guys who have been to these tracks every year, but it's a new experience for us."
The Panoz team will test at Road Atlanta on Friday, as number of other ALMS teams will do in pre-event testing, to see how the cars react to new motor and suspension packages. The two Esperantes took a good number of laps at Road Atlanta during the offseason, but this session likely will be a bit different, given the car has some miles on it and this is a 10-hour enduro.
"The car is fundamentally unchanged since the beginning of the season. We have been able to nibble away at some aero bits and pieces but we have not really seen any big gains since the win in Atlanta," Liddell said. "The team has done a fantastic job in terms of preparing the car to a high standard and it has not been easy for them, especially with the grueling schedule of the ALMS and Le Mans."
Auberlen said the approach is much different than for a regular 2:45 race in the ALMS. The team likely will tear the cars down completely and replace any part that they feel might even slightly hamper reliability. That's all in an effort to give the drivers a car they can push moderately hard, yet keep things together for 10 hours or 1,000 miles.
"In a long race, you have to keep it in one perfect piece," Auberlen said. "It's relentless what the team goes through to keep the car competitive, and that's what it takes. They really are doing a great job, and we appreciate it."
The spring race, especially the last 30 minutes, was a thing of beauty to behold. There was Panoz, going for its maiden GT2 win at its home track with Liddell at the wheel. Hot on his heels was defending class champion Timo Bernhard in the Alex Job Racing Porsche, one of the most successful combinations in ALMS history.
In the waning minutes, after several laps of bumper-to-bumper racing, Bernhard bumped Liddell from behind in Turn 7, sending the Scot into a spin and off-track. A subsequent stop-and-go penalty gave the lead back to Liddell, who enjoyed a comfortable margin of victory.
"To be such a small company like Panoz and beat such a big competitor like Porsche, it's something all those guys can smile about," Auberlen said. "What Porsche did is come at us right away, and it has taken time for us to catch up. But if I didn't think this team had a chance, I wouldn't be here. I know all the guys on the team are great. Once it gels, it's going to come together and be tough to deal with."
The ninth round of the American Le Mans Series is the 1,000-mile/10-hour Petit Le Mans, scheduled for 11:20 a.m. EDT Oct. 1 at Road Atlanta in Braselton, Ga. SPEED Channel will provide live television coverage. Qualifying is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. EDT Sept. 30. American Le Mans Series Radio, and IMSA Living and Timing Scoring will be available at www.americanlemans.com.