Champions Lead the Field at American Le Mans Series "Wheels Down Winter Test"
Braselton, Ga. - Three reigning American Le Mans Series championship teams roll into Sebring International Raceway Jan. 31-Feb. 3 for the first ever "Wheels Down Winter Test" (WDWT) in preparation for the series prestigious inaugural race - the historic Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring March 19. In addition, the WDWT will feature the long anticipated debut of the Aston Martin DBR9, expected to challenge GT1 front-runner Corvette Racing and the Saleen S7R as the 2005 season unfolds.
Headlining the field is Champion Audi, last year's overall champion and winner of the LMP1 championship. Drivers JJ Lehto and Marco Werner won seven of nine races a year ago for that team behind the wheel of the No. 38 Audi R8. A bit of mystique surrounds Champion Audi this season with its announcement at the recent North American International Auto Show in Detroit that it will enter and compete with not one but two teams in the ALMS this year. Audi has yet to announce its driver lineup for either team, however.
"These couple of days at Sebring are a perfect test for all the preparation we've done during the off-season," said Champion Audi team owner Dave Maraj. "Although we expect tremendous competition, we feel that we are ready to compete for another ALMS championship beginning at Sebring in March. We believe both teams will be very competitive and are equally encouraged about competing for the overall title at the 24 Hours of Le Mans as well."
Audi North America's Rod Bymaster indicated that drivers for both teams would likely be announced prior to the "Wheels Down Winter Test".
Champion Audi is not the only championship team that enters the tests with an air of mystery. GT2 champion Alex Job Racing has also yet to announce his drivers for his two-team foray this season. Last year, Job's Porsche 911 GT3 RSR won that class with drivers Timo Bernhard and Jorg Bergmeister leading the charge with five wins in his two-car challenge. Bernhard won the GT drivers' championship last season. Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb drove the second car winning twice and making four other podium appearances. Sascha Maassen, Lucas Luhr and Wolf Henzler contributed as the third drivers at the endurance races of Sebring and Road Atlanta's Chevy presents Petit Le Mans. Job will have a unique structure this year as he heads one factory team and fields a second privateer team.
"We'll have a little bit different structure this year," said Job, "We're running one factory team and another second car as a privateer team, but I feel good about our chances to be very competitive for another title with both."
Job is expected to announce drivers prior to the Sebring test.
The third championship team at the WDWT is John Macaluso's Miracle Motorsports which won the LMP2 class championship a year ago in the Courage C65. Macaluso has changed his lineup for the upcoming season, putting Chris McMurry and Jeff Bucknum in charge of defending the championship.
"Chris and Jeff are the perfect combination to help us try to defend our title," said Macaluso. " We're really looking forward to our test at Sebring as we think we've got a real contender again this year."
Much of the excitement, however, at the "Wheels Down Winter Test" is over the long anticipated debut of the Aston Martin DBR9. Many are calling the Aston Martin one of the finest looking and best prepared race cars to emerge in years. Competing in the GT1 class, the Aston Martin could prove a formidable foe to the newly announced Corvette Racing team's C6-R driven by champions Ron Fellows and Johnny O'Connell again this year. Aston Martin's challenge will be mounted by Aston Martin Racing's joint venture of Prodrive and manufacturer Aston Martin Lagonda. Prodrive was the same entity that brought the Ferrari 550 Maranello to the ALMS GTS class in 2002 and 2003, winning the last four races of the 2003 season and falling a mere one point short of Corvette Racing for the manufacturers' title. Aston Martin is expected to enter two cars for the inaugural race at Sebring.
Another much improved car in GT1 class appearing at Sebring will be ACEMCO Motorsports' Saleen S7R with drivers Terry Borcheller and Johnny Mowlen. The ACEMCO Saleen, running on Michelin tires for the first time in 2005, finished third in its class a year ago and is expected to mount a serious challenge this season to both Corvette and the new Aston Martin team.
Two other GT2 teams that will be at Sebring and expected to be strong contenders in that class are the Leo Hindery-Tim Munday BAM! team with its Porsche 911 GT3 RSR and Panoz Motorsports, featuring its exciting new pilot Bill Auberlen. Auberlen returns to the Panoz operation for which he drove last in 2002. Auberlen has gotten a lot of test time in with the Panoz Esperante GTLM during the off-season and will head the Panoz team expected to make a competitive run at Alex Job's championship Porsche squad.
"Signing Bill is an enormous boost for us," said team general manager Ed Triolo. "Behind the wheel, he has confirmed all the work that our partners at Elan Power Products, Elan Motorsport Technologies, and Pirelli Tire have done during the off-season to make this an excellent car for '05. The next step to mounting that challenge comes with these tests at Sebring."
On track sessions are scheduled daily from 8 a.m. to 12:00 noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.. Testing will be open to the public with a $10 admission fee going toward the Tsunami Relief Fund. Spectators, however, will not be allowed in the Competitor Paddock or Green Park. No overnight camping will be permitted.