British PK Sport team finds American Le Mans Series to be a treasure in first full season.
BRASELTON, Ga.- If we take the start of the third millennium as Jan. 1, 2001, that's as good a date as any to begin the sequence of events that led to Mike Pickup's PK Sport embarking on a full 2003 American Le Mans Series season - and a year that concluded with leading the Le Mans 1000 km GT race at almost every hour of the six, apart from the vital one.
So how did Pickup arrive at this point, and why did the British team owner take the huge step to take his team to North America to race in the American Le Mans Series?
"It all came down to timing," he said. "We raced two Porsche 911 GT3-Rs in the British GT Championship in 2000, and came close to winning the Championship. Then the entry fees rocketed, and I looked at an alternative to the FIA GT Championship. Having thought long and hard about it, I sensed that the (new) European Le Mans Series was where PK Sport should be (for 2001)."
The two yellow Porsches made their debut at England's Donington Park in April of that year (in the first of the combined ALMS / ELMS events) and against Porsches and BMWs of the highest class, Mike Youles and Robin Liddell finished third in GT. The die was cast.
In fact, it was cast two days earlier.
"I received such a fantastic welcome from the ACO at Donington: that was what convinced me I was in the right place. They welcomed my team with open arms, and couldn't do enough to help us," said Pickup.
Five months later, Liddell, Youles and PK Sport were ELMS GT Champions - and midway through the season the team made its Le Mans debut. That was an eventful 24
Hours for PK Sport and its drivers and crew, the dreadful weather adding to the drama - but they brought the Porsche home to an emotional finish.
Sadly for PK Sport, the ELMS was canceled after 2001, which left a championship race team without a Championship to enter.
"We tackled Sebring, and that really was a cracking effort from this team of mine," said Pickup. "To have my two cars come home third and fifth there was everything I could have dreamt of - at the time. Thinking back, that was a turning point in my way of thinking. For the first time, I began to explore whether we could tackle a full ALMS season."
PK Sport managed to fill some holes in its 2002 season with a handful of other events - besides Le Mans and a debut at Petit Le Mans. Without regular races to maintain momentum, it was hard to keep the team at its peak throughout 2002, and other than a British GT win, PK Sport found itself treading water - at least compared to a normal season of racing.
"I knew where I wanted to be in 2003, and I had to make that happen," said Pickup. "It wasn't easy and it was a huge decision for us to make: to take a British GT team to the ALMS, and to compete in the full season with two cars. No one had done that before.
"But we made it, even getting to the (Road Atlanta) Chevy GP so soon after Le Mans. We had things to learn of course - we still do - but although that was a fight to get to Road Atlanta in late June, we made it, even overcoming the problem of one of our lead pair going sick on race morning.
"We had to play catch up, but by Trois Rivieres and Mosport we were in the thick of the GT battles. On the Canadian street track we qualified third, behind the Alex Job cars, and then suffered our only failure of the year, a split water pipe. At Mosport we finished fifth. Third at Miami and fourth at Laguna Seca were thoroughly deserved, I felt, and the other teams seemed to think so too. There was genuine praise from them at the results we recorded.
"Petit Le Mans wasn't so successful, but as a measure of how much I enjoy the ALMS races, I was really excited about going back there for a major endurance race: going to new tracks makes me anxious, but we'll have most of that problem behind us next year.
"Martin Kaufmann, Dick Martin and all the other IMSA track and administrative staff have made it quite clear how they feel about us racing in the ALMS, and we've had a great reception from Don Panoz, Scott Atherton and Doug Robinson: they've all made it clear that they appreciate and understand what we've done," said Pickup.
"What surprises me is that more Europeans don't do it. I'm glad they don't in one respect, but they'll find out what a treasure it is eventually, I suppose!
"Of course we couldn't have done it without Pirelli's support, and without the efforts of our other sponsors, and this great team I've got here. Robin Liddell was the permanent feature on the driving strength, and I know how hard he worked at it all year: he's a very competitive Scot, but what else would you expect from someone with red hair? I also know how quick he is----.."
It was Liddell and Jean-Philippe Belloc who drove the PK Sport entry at the Le Mans 1000 Km - and despite a very hard season, PK Sport prepared the 911 to a very high standard for the season finale. The yellow Porsche led the LM GT class for much of the race, and still led after a last stint puncture: the second one crimped chances of a win, leaving Liddell especially bitterly disappointed - but third place secured that all important Le Mans entry.
"Now all I've got to do is take advantage of a year in the ALMS, plus having a Le Mans 24 Hours entry in my back pocket," said Pickup.
From 911 GT2s in the British GT Championship in '99 to all but winning at Le Mans in 2003: it's been a long road, but Mike Pickup is very happy with the point he's reached. He can't wait for Sebring and the start of the 2004 season.