Not once, not twice, but three times in a row. That is how many pole positions Marino Franchitti has taken in his last three ALMS races. The first pole for Marino was round 7 in Road America when he was 0.2 seconds quicker than the Fernandez Acura, the second pole came in Mosport just two weeks ago when Marino's lap was 0.5 seconds quicker than the #16 sister Lola-Mazda, then yesterday under sunny skies on his fifth lap in the 25-minute qualifying session Marino set a lap of 1:10.152 to put his #20 Dyson Racing Lola Mazda on pole with an average speed of 130.457 mph around this 2.5 mile circuit here at Road Atlanta. This time the gap was almost 1.3 seconds to Marino's closest rival, Klaus Graf in the Cytosport LMP2 Porsche Spyder.
Marino returned to his pit immediately after setting the time waiting to see if any of his LMP2 rivals would improve upon it, but no-one did. "It was mega" said a very happy Marino after the lap, "the car was dialled in immediately it came off the truck and we were able to get right on the pace during the test session on Wednesday. Then we had the engine problem at the end of the session and the guys did a fantastic job fitting the new race engine when it arrived here at the track Thursday afternoon. We managed to get out just before the end of night practice and I knew straight away the car was in good shape in any conditions. During yesterday morning's practice session the car was well balanced and I felt we had a car capable of giving us the pole."
However it was a far different story here this morning, the bright skies had disappeared and the rains that bedevilled the area during the last week had returned. Warm-up was delayed by 90 minutes, which meant the race start was only an hour away.
The #20 car is being driven this weekend by its regular pairing of Marino Franchitti and Butch Leitzinger, but as in Sebring Ben Devlin has joined the driver line-up. The 1,000 mile (or 10 hour maximum) Petit Le Mans got underway on time at 11.15am with Marino at the wheel.
Marino made a good start holding station in 8th place overall and leading the LMP2 field, however 12 laps and 19 minutes into the race Marino was back in the pits with an electrical problem; the car was stuck in 6th gear and Marino had no other selection on his paddle shift. Visual data had also been lost and with no speed indication, pitlane speed became an issue, but he managed to keep it within the limit and avoid a penalty.
The repair took just under 10 minutes and Marino returned to the track 7 laps down on the leaders and 3rd in LMP2, however between good strategy and outright speed the team made up 3 laps before the end of his stint. The #20 car continued with its driver rotation through Butch and Ben until almost 5 hours into the race when the skies opened and monsoon conditions prevailed. The race was red flagged and all cars returned to their pits. Heavy rain and storms continued and finally after a further 3.5 hours, approximately 8.5hrs into the race, ALMS officials declared the race officially over with full points awarded to competitor's positions at the point the race was red flagged. At that time the #20 Dyson Lola-Mazda was in 20th place overall, but more importantly leading the LMP2 field and had won their second race of the season, and one of the top endurance races on the sportscar calendar.
An unexpected end it might have been, but Marino was delighted "What a great result for the whole BP Dyson Mazda team. Of course we wished we could have gone the full race distance for the fans that stayed around to support us, but mother nature had other ideas. We rebounded really well this weekend from any issues we had and I have to thank my team mates and crew and congratulate them for the job they did. I was also proud to see BP introduce biobutinol to the racing and the ALMS this weekend and have such a strong run with Chris and Guy in the 16 car. Lets hope we can get a third win of the season at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca to finish off the year!"
The 10th and final round of the 2009 ALMS is on Saturday, 10th October, at the Laguna Seca Raceway, California.