St. Pete: Risi Competizione race report

St. Petersburg, FL - Risi Competizione's No. 62 Ferrari F430GT took on history and a field of top competitors to win the GT2 Class at the Acura Sports Car Challenge American Le Mans Series race at St. Petersburg, Florida yesterday. Piloted by Mika...

St. Petersburg, FL - Risi Competizione's No. 62 Ferrari F430GT took on history and a field of top competitors to win the GT2 Class at the Acura Sports Car Challenge American Le Mans Series race at St. Petersburg, Florida yesterday. Piloted by Mika Salo and Jaime Melo, Risi Competizione's F430GT Ferrari won the team's fourth race in a row in the ALMS GT2 category; Risi Competizione won the last two races of the 2006 ALMS season (Mosport and Laguna Seca) and has captured the first two races of the 2007 season (12 Hours of Sebring and St. Petersburg). Second in class was the No. 45 Porsche 911 GT3 RSR driven by Johannes van Overbeek and Jorg Bergmeister for Flying Lizard Motorsports; third went to the No. 21 Panoz Esperante GTLM of of Panoz Team PTG with Bill Auberlen and Joey Hand behind the wheel.

"It was a very good win on a very tough course," said Team Managing Director Giuseppe Risi. "Mika and Jaime did a great job staying out of trouble and moving to the front. Jaime did a fabulous job in the first part of the race and Mika is a phenomenal finisher. The two of them together are an excellent driving team. The Michelin tires were great for us again. The fans can see the rivalry developing between Porsche and Ferrari. It's going to be a very, very competitive year."

The sparkling finish for the Rosso Corso 430GT Ferrari of Risi Competizione at the St. Petersburg race meeting was in stark contrast to the way the weekend started for the team. On Friday, with just 3 minutes left in the morning practice session, Jose Maria Lopez, driving the No. 61 Ferrari 430GT with Nic Jonsson, a Ferrari of Silicon Valley/Giacomo Mattioli racecar entered by Risi Competizione, had an on course incident that put the car into the wall, doing significant damage and taking it out of action for the weekend.

Street courses are their own unique types of circuits as Risi Competizione Team Engineer Rick Mayer noted. Because they are used for regular traffic for 51 weeks a year, and turned into a race track only for a short week; street circuits are tough, uneven, and unforgiving of mistakes. "You can't do anything about these anomalies but you need to take these items into account when you make changes to the car as these anomalies will upset the car," Mayer said. "We haven't been to the St. Petersburg street circuit. Street circuits are driver's tracks, and we have great drivers. That will be our ultimate advantage. You get very little track time and drivers are learning the track even in qualifying and still in the race."

A confident Mayer did not mention one key fact: A Ferrari has never won on an ALMS street circuit. Tomas Enge (No. 31 Ferrari 430GT for Petersen White Lightning) made a prescient comment before the race started when he said that "The track is quite challenging. There are places that are more slippery than the others so you have to be careful where you push...you can't get aggressive here."

Melo put the 430GT into second place on the grid (1.12.246); the No. 430GT of Petersen White Lightning, driven by Tomas Enge, was on the pole at 1.12.025. Henzel and Liddell's No. 71 Porsche 911 GT3 RSR, entered by Tafel Racing was third with a 1.12.736.

Team Manager Dave Sims said "We're totally comfortable with our grid position. This is a tough course. Starting well is important, but avoiding accidents and on course incidents is even more important. We'll do just fine."

The morning warm-up session put a punctuation mark on Sims' comments, as Salo turned the second fastest lap. The car was then returned to the transporter for final preparations before the race.

At 5:00PM, St. Petersburg was beautiful, warm, and ready for the race to start. The air temperature was 88 degrees, but on track the temperature was 108 degrees. But things were about to get hotter in the GT2 Class.

The cars rolled off at 5:04PM and 5:09PM took the green flag. Robin Liddell was leading the class at 5:16PM (no.71-GT2 Porsche 911 GT3 RSR) after 6 laps completed. One of the Panoz Esperanate GTLMs hit the pits for fuel and to repair some front damage; it took a penalty for not having a fire bottle over the wall during the stop.

Thirty minutes later, Jaime Melo brought his No. 62 Ferrari 430GT into the pits for tires and fuel and then rejoined the chase. In close order, Joey Hand (No.21 Panoz Esperante GTLM) took a pit stop (4 tires, fuel, no driver change), followed by Tim Pappas (No.54 Porsche 911 GT3 RSR) (ditto) and the Flying Lizard Porsche of Johannes van Overbeek (No.45 Porsche 911 GT3 RSR) who pitted for tires, fuel and a driver change, with Jorg Bergmeister taking the wheel.

The race was loaded with pit miscues. At 5:53pm (0h 45m running), Tim Pappas (No.54-GT2 Porsche 911 GT3 RSR) took an non-optional detour into the pits to serve a stop and go penalty for starting on the jacks. Meanwhile, van Overbeek was complaining of some problems with his tires: "I had a really good start and got a position or two but then the tires started to overheat and we started loosing pressure. That made it hard to keep up and we lost a lot of positions."

Olivier Beretta (No. 4 Corvette C6.R running in GT1) echoed van Overbeek's feelings when he noted that "The track is good but the traffic is horrible. You use your tires up very quickly dodging through traffic but you can go easier for 2 or three laps and the tires will come back to you and you can start fighting again."

While the rest of the field was serving penalties and complaining about tire issues, Melo was quietly doing what he does best: slice through traffic, cut quick lap times, and stay away from trouble. At 6:18 pm (1h 9m running), Jaime Melo was leading the class, but only by 1.8 seconds over Enge in the No. 31 Ferrari 430GT.

Enge regained the lead when Melo Pitted for tires, fuel and a driver change (Melo out. Salo in) but, then, with one hour and 32 minutes gone in the race, put a wheel off on the last turn (Enge: "you can't get aggressive here") of the 14 turn course; the LMP2 cars were bearing down on him like a jet landing on a carrier, and Enge scrambled to avoid hitting the wall and hold onto his lead, but the gap was now down to 2.463 seconds and he was trying to hold off Mika Salo, who has gained a reputation as the "best closer" in the GT2 series.

By 7:03PM, Enge had managed to dig out a 6.3 second lead over a calm and quick Salo, but it was not to last. Enge got too aggressive and by 7:11PM (two hours and two minutes into the race), Enge was stopped against the wall, his car heavily damaged, a small fire in process, and Enge shaken from the incident.

Salo blew past the scene at 7:12PM, taking the lead with his No. 62 Rosso Corsa Ferrari 430GT, as Team Manager Dave Sims, words echoed eerily over the race track: "Starting well is important, but avoiding accidents and on course incidents is even more important." Salo, who competed in 150 Grands Prix and has been a factory Ferrari F1 driver, is very cool on the track and has the experience to see difficult situations before they develop. He continued on, maintaining and building the lead but avoiding trouble.

Behind Salo, the chase continued. Bergmeister (No. 45 Porsche 911 GT3 RSR) pitted for fresh tires and fuel and turned the car over to van Overbeek. Bergmeister noted in post race interviews that suspension problems were hampering the car's speed and that the car was becoming quite difficult to drive. Bergmeister was not alone; other cars were having suspension problems as well. Andy Wallis (No. 54 Porsche RSR Spyder) had an issue with an upper wishbone; Tom Milner (No. 18 Porsche 911 GT3 RSR) had his race end when he stopped on course just past turn 11 with a broken right rear suspension.

At 7:55PM, Salo, missing all the drama in front and behind him, crossed the finish line to win the Acura Sports Car Challenge American Le Mans Series race. Tomas Enge, who had an off earlier, was taken to Bayfront Medical Center for evaluation after complaining of various pains.

It was another record setting race weekend for the Risi Competizione No. 62 Ferrari 430GT. The team has now won the first two races of the 2007 ALMS Season (Sebring and St. Petersburg); it also closed out 2006 by winning the last two races (Mosport and Laguna Seca) en route to the 2006 ALMS GT2 Championship. Mika Salo has now won 5 races in a row (the last 5 he has started for Risi Competizione) and Jaime Melo has now won the last four races he has started for Risi Competizione.

Asked about the win, Team Managing Director Giuseppe Risi said that "We're off to a good start in 2007, but we take nothing for granted. Losing a car so early in the weekend like we did with the No. 61 Ferrari is a constant reminder of how unforgiving racing is. The competition is just ferocious in GT2. I want to personally extend our team's best wishes for a speedy recovery to Tomas Enge, who is a very gifted driver. Our team has worked very hard and we have, I believe, the two best drivers in the class in Mika Salo and Jaime Melo, but we cannot let up even for an instant. Our team, our pit crew, and our sponsors and supporters expect relentless excellence from us and we must deliver. Michelin did another brilliant job with tires and we are glad to win. But, there is no time to rest. When someone asked Enzo Ferrari what his favorite race was, he said 'the next one'. We're a Ferrari team and that's how we feel. We will have another difficult challenge at Long Beach"

Risi Competizione leads the 2007 American Le Mans Series in the Team Championship and Mika Salo and Jaime Melo are the leaders in the Driver's Championship. The next race is April 14th at Long Beach, California.

-credit: rc

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About this article
Series ALMS
Drivers Tomas Enge , Mika Salo , Joey Hand , Jörg Bergmeister , Jaime Melo , Tim Pappas , Johannes van Overbeek , Olivier Beretta , Jose Maria Lopez , Nic Jonsson
Teams Risi Competizione , Flying Lizard Motorsports