Sebring: Dyson Racing preview

Dyson Racing Looks For Sebring 1st 2003 Class Victors Aim for Overall Win SEBRING, FL, March 17, 2004 - In two decades at the top of North American sportscar racing, Dyson Racing has captured every significant honor, except for one - overall...

Dyson Racing Looks For Sebring 1st 2003 Class Victors Aim for Overall Win

SEBRING, FL, March 17, 2004 - In two decades at the top of North American sportscar racing, Dyson Racing has captured every significant honor, except for one - overall victory in the world's toughest endurance test. Last year the team's #20 Thetford / Norcold Lola won its class at the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring as the first step in Chris Dyson's LMP675 drivers' championship, but the overall victory went to an Audi R8. When the green flag drops on Saturday at 10:30 am EDT, the Dyson team will be looking to finally capture this elusive prize.

"The whole idea is to win," said Andy Wallace, who is sharing the #16 Thetford / Norcold Lola with James Weaver and Butch Leitzinger, and won this classic event in 1992 and '93, driving a Toyota prototype. He's also had five second place overall finishes, two of them with Dyson Racing. "We've had so many near misses."

"I understand that no one has won this race more than three times," Wallace observed. "It would be nice to add my name to the list of three-time winners with the likes of Mario Andretti and Phil Hill."

Joining Wallace in the #16 car are regular Dyson drivers Englishman James Weaver and American Butch Leitzinger. The #20 car has Sebring's 2003 LMP675 class winners Dyson and Belgian Didier de Radigues. Joining them this year at Sebring is Holland's Jan Lammers, whose endurance racing credits include the Le Mans 24-hour in 1988 as co-driver with Wallace and a pair of victories in the Daytona 24-hour race.

"This race has got such a fantastic history," says Weaver. "It's the only one of the major traditional sportscar races in North America that Rob (Dyson, the team's owner) hasn't won, and it would be great to be able to do that for him."

The team has come close several times, including in 1999, when James Weaver chased down the race-leading BMW prototype over the last 90 minutes of the race, and came up less than ten seconds short in the closest racing finish in the 52-year history of this classic event.

Winning Strategy

There are several factors that make Sebring an especially difficult challenge to win: technical, physical and mental. In preparing for this year's American Le Mans Series season-opener, the Dyson team has addressed all of them.

The Sebring racetrack is notorious for it's car-killing nature. Much of the course is composed of large concrete slabs that date back to its World War II role as a bomber training base. The passing decades have seen the giant slabs shift, producing epic bumps in the racing surface.

Not that Weaver thinks that's necessarily a bad thing. "This is a very technical sport, as well as a physical one," said Weaver, who is known as a particularly tech-savvy driver. "A good race engineer who sets the car up to go well over the bumps gives his team a big advantage. At the same time, these severe bumps are very hard on the car and the driver."

"The Lola was a new car to us last year," said team manager Randall Kelsey, who first came to Sebring with the team in 1997 as a college student. "And new cars always have their weaknesses. We've worked closely with Lola over the past season to develop the car."

Changes to the rules for 2004 combine the former LMP900 and LMP675 classes into one, LMP1. And teams are no longer permitted to change the entire transmission/rear suspension assembly, a practice that permitted a team to make relatively quick repairs to a broken drivetrain. Now, a broken transmission case will knock a car out of the race, and the process of disassembling a transmission to replace damaged internal parts will drop a car very far off the lead. So there's now an even greater premium on reliability in an event that most drivers and other experts agree is the toughest sportscar race in the world.

Team manager Kelsey listed several items on the Lola that had been changed in the time since the 2003 Sebring race. They include beefier suspension uprights (the part that holds the wheel assembly to the chassis), substitution of the hydraulic power-steering system with an electrically- operated one, development of a stronger floor for the chassis, and finally, replacement of the Lola's combined starter/alternator with separate units for each function. In the race last year, the #16 car, which had been fastest in pre-race warm-ups, dropped from contention shortly after the start with power-steering problems. The #20 car suffered a failed suspension upright in the first 30 minutes of the race, lost nearly an hour to repairs, and then ran a fast-paced catch-up race to finally win its class.

Strong Cars Need Strong Drivers

"The car is now faster, stronger and more reliable than it was when we came here last year," said Chris Dyson, who drove in the 675LMP class-winning car last year. Dyson noted that the mechanical factors represent just one side of the special demands that Sebring places on a team. "People don't realize just how physical these cars are, particularly a car like the Lola where a lot of the speed in the car is found under braking."

The Lola, which uses its light weight to offset the horsepower advantage of the Audi and other cars in its class, is able to brake at high speeds with over 4gs of force. (Even the best performing street cars have a difficult time generating even 1g under panic braking.) Sebring has five different places where the driver brakes the car at its maximum capacity. Combined with the bumpy track surface, traditional hot weather and half-day race duration, Sebring represents the greatest physical demands the drivers see all year.

"If you aren't in top shape, you won't be able to drive the car fast for an entire stint, and you'll fall off the pace," said Dyson, who spends 15 hours or more each week in a combination of strength and cardiovascular fitness training. "And, a tired driver is much more likely to make a mistake and crash."

Fatigue can certainly be a factor. According to Weaver, the strategy for the first three or four hours of the race is to stay in touch with the leaders, and avoid falling a lap behind. But during the last two-thirds of the race, it's pretty much flat out. "It's my thought that if the car is screwed together well, the driver can't break it," Weaver said.

Owner Rob Dyson is cautiously optimistic about his team's chances. "But, I'm not underestimating Audi," he said. "They've won this race four times in a row, and they are a very strong team with great resources."

Under the old rules Dyson Racing did beat the Audis straight up at Sonoma, Calif. last year. But would it be even more rewarding to beat them here? "Yes, it would," said Dyson, who will be watching his cars from pit lane. "It would be very special."

-dr-

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About this article
Series ALMS
Drivers Andy Wallace , Jan Lammers , Didier de Radigues , Butch Leitzinger , James Weaver , Rob Dyson , Phil Hill , Mario Andretti , Chris Dyson
Teams Dyson Racing