The stars and cars of the American Le Mans Series have been keeping busy over the winter, preparing for the 2008 season. With only 56 days until the drop of the green flag at the Twelve Hours of Sebring, teams are working around the clock to...
The stars and cars of the American Le Mans Series have been keeping busy over the winter, preparing for the 2008 season. With only 56 days until the drop of the green flag at the Twelve Hours of Sebring, teams are working around the clock to secure their place on the grid for the season-opening race.
Since the last race at Laguna Seca in October, a number of announcements have been made not only by teams, but also from the series and organizers. One hot topic has centered on the LMP1 and LMP2 rules package.
On Dec. 20, the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) issued its 2008 technical regulations for its Le Mans-branded series. While the GT categories remained unchanged from the previous year, a number of adjustments were made in the two prototype classes. LMP1 was given a 25 kg weight break. Also, all gasoline-fueled P1 entries received a 3 percent air restrictor increase in efforts to help close the performance gap to the diesel-fueled cars. In LMP2, measures were made to help separate them from the P1 cars. This included a 50 kg weight increase and reducing the fuel tank capacity by 10 liters.
Just one day later, the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA), the sanctioning body for the ALMS, released a competitor's bulletin in reaction to the ACO's 2008 technical regulations. The bulletin stated it will transition to the ACO's regulation adjustments "over a period of time." It cites the stability of competition of the series as a reason for the slow transition to full regulation.
IMSA's bulletin outlined that prototypes will remain in last year's configuration for the start of the 2008 season. The only exception comes in LMP2, where there will be a 25 kg weight increase, bringing the minimum weight to 800 kg. Instead of the weight, restrictor and fuel tank capacity changes made by the ACO, IMSA has opted to not impose those adjustments just yet. Instead, they "reserve the right to make a modification to the balance of performance between the prototype classes in order to maintain the desired relative performance and competition." The bulletin also stated that changes could be considered "at or about the mid-point of the season."
Aside from sifting through pages of complicated technical regulations, teams have also been busy at work finalizing their plans for the coming season. Almost all of the regular competitors from 2007 will be back to do battle in the twelve-race season that kicks off at Sebring in March.
Heading the list in the LMP1 category is defending champions Audi Sport North America. The German brand plans to once again enter two R10 TDIs. With further engine, transmission and aerodynamic developments, the diesel-fueled machines should have the speed to better challenge the Porsche RS Spyders on tight and twisty tracks. For the first time, Audi plans to also enter the European-based Le Mans Series. A three-car attack on the 24 Hours of Le Mans is also in the books.
Head of Audi Motorsport, Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, has made stipulations for Audi's full-season participation in both series: "Stable regulations with the clear positioning of the LMP1 sports car as top category and good TV marketing in Europe are conditions for Audi's factory involvement in both of the Le Mans series."
Audi's four "regular" drivers for 2008 will be defending series Drivers' Champions Allan McNish and Rinaldo Capello as well as Lucas Luhr and Marco Werner. Luhr moves from a lackluster debut season in the German DTM series to a full-time sportscar ride, presumably in the ALMS. Emanuele Pirro, who was raced alongside Werner in 2007, remains with the team, as does Frank Biela. Seven-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen, Mike Rockenfeller and Alexandre Premat are also confirmed to return to the squad, to at least take part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Exact driver pairings for each series have yet to be announced.
Autocon Motorsports is expected to return in 2008 with a Creation entry. The stalwart privateer effort received an automatic invitation to Le Mans thanks to its second place finish in the ALMS teams' championship. With their current CA06-Hybrid chassis not eligible to compete in the French classic, team owner Mike Lewis has a decision to make regarding whether to upgrade his existing chassis or instead run a new car.
"We may end up using a Creation chassis that is already compliant and leave ours as is," he said. "Or we may upgrade ours. It all comes down to timing and economics." Lewis did say though that the team intends to compete in the majority of the races in 2008 and will be present at the Sebring Winter Test.
One team that's also been busy preparing for the new season has been Team Cytosport. The Greg Pickett-owned Lola B06/10 ran a partial schedule in 2007, claiming podium finishes in four of its five starts. Last November as part of a test, Memo Gidley unofficially broke the track lap record at Infineon Raceway in the AER-powered machine.
"I have driven everything from Formula Ford to an Atlantic Car with the occasional vintage car thrown in too," Gidley said. "But I have to say, I really felt like an astronaut blasting into outer space driving this car around Infineon Raceway... it was that exciting!" Klaus Graf and Pickett will compete in the full season, with Gidley likely to come on board for the longer endurance races.
Intersport Racing looks to the upcoming season with the same package it ran in the final two races of 2007. After campaigning a Creation Judd in the first ten races of 2007, the Ohio-based team opted to move back to the Lola brand with an ex-Dyson Racing B06/10. The team, which had a long relationship with engine provider Judd, kept the AER powerplant in the car for the final two races as an evaluation. Now it looks as though they will remain with AER for 2008. Father and son duo Jon and Clint Field and Richard Berry are set to return to the cockpit in 2008.
Defending Le Mans Series Champions Peugeot Sport has yet to confirm its 2008 program, but the factory French squad will be at the Sebring Winter Test with its 908 HDi FAP. Could this be a precursor to an entry in the Twelve Hours in March? If so, LMP1 could see an intense battle of the diesels on the famed ex-World War II airfield.
One of the main storylines of 2007 was the sheer dominance of the Penske Racing Porsche RS Spyders. The two Roger Penske-led LMP2 machines not only took eleven class wins, but also earned eight overall victories, defeating the Audi juggernaut. Ryan Briscoe, who teamed with Sascha Maassen to score three class wins, moves to Penske's IndyCar program. Replacing the Australian is none other than Patrick Long.
"I'm extremely happy to embark on this journey; motorsports is all about making the most of your opportunities and this is one I've always aspired to," Long said. "I'm completely focused on making the most of it and pushing for wins in 2008."
The American Porsche factory driver joined the team for the Petit Le Mans, helping Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas steer the No. 7 RS Spyder to the class win. While no other drivers have been confirmed at Penske for '08, defending champions Dumas and Bernhard as well as Maassen are expected to all return.
Acura made a splash in their series debut by winning its class in the Twelve Hours of Sebring, placing second overall. The Andretti Green Racing trio of Bryan Herta, Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan outlasted the Porsche RS Spyders to take a rather surprising win. However, none of the three teams were able to make it back to victory lane in the eleven following races of 2007.
For 2008, all Acura squads will utilize the same chassis, the new ARX-01b. It's an upgraded version of the ARX-01a that Andretti Green and Highcroft Racing ran in 2007. Fernandez Racing, which used a Lola B05/40 last season, will begin testing their new car later this month. Adrian Fernandez and Luis Diaz remain as drivers.
"The opportunity to run an ARX chassis next season greatly adds to our resource base," noted Tom Anderson, Fernandez Racing co-owner and managing director. "Not only will we benefit from the substantial development work by HPD, Wirth and the AGR and Highcroft teams to date, we will be able to contribute to that database as we begin to operate as part of a three-car effort on all fronts."
Over at Andretti Green, Bryan Herta will team with Christian Fittipaldi for the entire season. Four different drivers were paired with the Californian over the course of 2007. Fittipaldi, who was teammates with Michael Andretti in CART, moves to his team after a multi-year stint in Grand-Am.
"When you're hiring a driver, you want to think that he is going to be fast. But, when you're hiring a driver that you used to race against and were teammates with, you know he is going to be fast," Andretti said. "For sure, that is why we're excited to welcome Christian to the AGR family. We need to go to the next level with our ALMS program in 2008, and we feel like this is a great step in that direction."
Highcroft Racing played the role of consistency in 2007, ending as the highest-placed Acura team in the standings. While the Duncan Dayton-led effort has yet to officially announce its program for 2008, SpeedTV.com reported last month that IndyCar veteran Scott Sharp will join the team, bringing sponsorship with him. Sharp's teammate will be David Brabham, which leaves no full-season seat for Stefan Johansson. However, former Honda Performance Development boss Robert Clarke told French website Endurance-Info that there's a possibility of seeing a fourth Acura on the grid in 2008. If it would happen, it would be run by one of the three existing teams.
Dyson Racing recently announced a driver change in its lineup for its two Porsche RS Spyders. Guy Smith and Chris Dyson move to the No. 16 while Marino Franchitti joins the team, partnering Butch Leitzinger in the No. 20 after Andy Wallace's return to the team for 2007 ended. Franchitti was a competitor of Dyson in 2007, racing a limited schedule for the Andretti Green Racing Acura outfit. The Scotsman has now inked a full-season ride for one of the most successful privateer American sportscar teams.
"This is really a dream come true for me," Franchitti said. "When I first came over to America in 2002, I was introduced to Butch Leitzinger, James Weaver and Rob Dyson and they were all very friendly to me. There is such history with Dyson Racing. They have won so many different races and championships in North American sportscars. They are an American racing institution and I have to thank Rob and Chris and everybody on the team for this opportunity."
B-K Motorsports will also be part of the fray in LMP2 with its Mazda-powered Lola B07/40. And don't count out a few part-time entries as well, including a Porsche RS Spyder from Horag Racing for Sebring and van der Steur's Radical AER slated for a partial season.
The GT1 class may look a lot like 2007, with Corvette Racing likely the only team competing. The two C6.Rs will return for the full 12-race season, hoping to welcome competition from other makes. The team recently announced at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit that it will run on E85 ethanol fuel.
"Our decision to compete in all 12 rounds of the ALMS schedule in 2008 reflects our commitment to our sponsors, our suppliers, and to Corvette enthusiasts worldwide," said Steve Wesoloski, GM Racing Road Racing Group manager. "There is a reason why thousands of Corvette owners attend Corvette Corrals at ALMS events and why the autograph line at Corvette Racing is the longest in the ALMS paddock: Racing is an integral part of Corvette's history and heritage, and we are continuing that tradition."
Aston Martin Racing, which battled the Pratt & Miller entries in 2006, is unlikely to return to the series in 2008, rather providing factory support for a new GT2 entry.
The GT2 class will undoubtedly be the most diverse category, with no less than seven different manufacturers represented. Ferrari, Porsche and Panoz return and will welcomed by Aston Martin, Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge as newcomers to the class. However, one team that has been in the series since the start will not be on the grid come Sebring.
Petersen Motorsports/White Lightning Racing has abandoned its sportscar program in favor of competing in cross-country rally events. The former off-road team announced on Jan. 17 that it will go back to its roots in quest of becoming the first-ever American team to win the Dakar Rally. Dale White, owner of White Lightning Racing, is pursuing partners for a possible future campaign in the ALMS, but time has run out for a full-season program this year. White will remain partners with Petersen in their rally efforts. There's also a possibly of the team returning to the ALMS in 2009.
While one Ferrari team will not return in 2008, another is planning its title defense. Risi Competizione's Mika Salo and Jaime Melo will be looking to repeat their success of last year. The Ferrari duo captured eight class wins en route to the Drivers' and Team Championships. The No. 62 Ferrari F430 Berlinetta is entered alongside the sister No. 61 car with a yet-to-be-announced driving squad.
Debuting in the series with Porsches in 2007, Tafel Racing makes the switch to the prancing horse this season. The team will run two Ferraris, with Germans Dirk Muller and Dominik Farnbacher leading the charge in the No. 71 entry. Muller, the 2007 FIA GT Championship GT2 Driver's Champion, has yet to be officially announced as the team's driver but is on the entry list for the upcoming Winter Test.
"We spent the majority of the 2007 season in the rear-view mirror of the Ferrari teams," team owner Jim Tafel said. "We took a long hard look at what it would take to get back on a level playing field with teams like Risi Competizione and Petersen Motorsports and after much soul searching and a very informative visit to Ferrari and Micheletto, who build the cars for Ferrari, we saw that the only way forward was to make the change."
Wolf Henzler, who teamed with Farnbacher to podium finishes in the final two races last season, was to return to the squad this year but has since announced that he will stay under the Porsche umbrella in 2008.
After making two starts in 2007, one in conjunction with White Lightning Racing, Corsa Motorsport is set for a full-season campaign with its Ferrari. The Steve Pruitt-owned operation will have sportscar veterans Johnny Mowlem and Gunnar Jeannette behind the wheel of the Hankook-shod prancing horse. Mowlem comes from racing Ferraris in Europe and was also Risi's third driver in the endurance races last year.
"In some ways this is diametrically opposite to my deal with Risi Competizione, where I was walking into a top level deal that was already consistently winning," Mowlem said. "With Corsa Motorsport, the challenge will be to help take the team to that kind of level, and I find that a very exciting proposition. But with Steve Pruitt at the helm, huge commitment from Hankook worldwide and a fantastic team mate in Gunnar Jeanette I am looking forward to the challenge and having some fun at the same time".
Runners up in the drivers' and team championship last season, Flying Lizard Motorsports is expected to return, spearheading the Porsche brigade. The team scored three class wins in 2007, including the Petit Le Mans. Jorg Bergmeister and Johannes van Overbeek also steered the No. 45 entry to wins at Lime Rock Park and Mid-Ohio.
Like the Lizards, Rahal Letterman Racing has also yet to confirm their 2008 program, but it's likely that they'll return to the GT2 class with a Porsche. Grand-Am GT Champions Farnbacher Loles may also field a Porsche or two.
A new car poised to make its debut comes from Drayson-Barwell, a partnership between Paul Drayson and Barwell Motorsport. The British-based team will enter a brand-new Prodrive-built Aston Martin Vantage GT2 for Drayson and former British GT and Porsche Carrera Asia Cup Champion Jonny Cocker. In quest of his dream to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Drayson stood down from his post as a Government Minister in Britain's House of Lords to fully concentrate on his driving duties. The car will be bio-ethanol powered and should debut at Long Beach in April. Until then, the team will use its GT3-spec Aston Martin DBRS9 in the opening two races. It's eligible to run in the GT2S category.
"The American Le Mans Series will be a serious challenge for both the team and me," Drayson said. "2008 will be a development year for us racing with a brand new GT2 car running bio-ethanol fuel. The two major concerns of our time are the environment and energy. But how can we be green without being boring? As we enter the 21st century, the car is at the heart of the debate around energy and climate change."
Another new manufacturer not foreign to the series but new to the GT2 class is Chevrolet. While not a factory effort, at least one Riley-built Corvette Z06 will be in the hands of Lou Gigliotti's LG Motorsports. The former Trans-Am and SCCA World Challenge owner/driver takes on a new challenge, this time in the ALMS.
"We're going to have a multi-million dollar showroom stock effort," said Gigliotti. "The ACO rules require a significant number of manufacturer-based stock technology. There's a lot Riley can do and they're experts at it. That's why we went to them. We've built our own World Challenge cars but that's a whole different level. We're excited to be teamed up with Riley. We're moving onward and upward."
Doran Racing officially took the wraps off its new GT2 project at last year's Petit Le Mans. The Doran Ford GT-R, a dream of enthusiast Oliver Kuttner, will hit the track in 2008 with at least two teams. Robertson Racing, which entered a Panoz Esperante in three races last season, shifts its focus to a full-season attack with the GT-R. Doran Racing will also field a car for Kuttner in select races and a third (and bio-ethanol fueled) car may be in the hands of Tim Pappas, according to a recent article on French sportscar racing website Endurance-Info.
Primetime Race Group, which debuted a Dodge Viper Competition Coupe last year at Detroit, announced a full-season campaign with drivers Joel Feinberg and Chapman Ducote. While it was revealed last year that Dodge Motorsports will help get the car ACO homologated, it now looks like that support will not be coming. It initially appeared that there could have been two or three more Vipers on the grid, but without the support, it looks like the Primetime entry may be the solo team flying the Viper banner.
Finally, Tom Milner's PTG Team Panoz squad looks set to return with at least one Esperante GTLM. After a lackluster 2007 season, the Virginia-based team will be hoping to turn things around. Bill Auberlen and Joey Hand, co-drivers of the No. 21 last season, are listed to compete in the upcoming Sebring Winter Test, as is youngster Tom Sutherland.
The scope for 2008 will become much clearer after the series' annual Winter Test at Sebring International Raceway on Jan. 28-30. A number of teams will be present to shakedown their cars and finalize plans for what looks to be an exciting season ahead.