The American Le Mans Series competitors battled until the final seconds of today's qualifying session for the Road America 500. Close competition was expected for overall and class poles, and the teams did not disappoint. Team Joest Audi R8 claimed the overall pole followed by the #16 Dyson Racing Lola and #38 Champion Racing Audi R8.
"I like fast turns," explained Werner. "I've come to America this year and I see beautiful tracks and fast corners."
Werner turned several fast laps in qualifying and believes his car can continue this fast pace throughout the race tomorrow.
Champion Racing qualified their Audi R8 second in LMP 900 at 1:52.472. Driver Johnny Herbert followed Werner on track while they set their fast times, but Werner's pace proved slightly quicker than the ex-F1 ace could manage. The team parked their Audi with a few minutes remaining in the session only to lose second position overall to the Dyson Lola moments before the checkered flag. Herbert explained, "Before the session started, we only planned to do five laps."
Third and fourth in LMP 900 went to the old but reliable Panoz cars. The faster #10 JML Team Panoz pedaled by David Saelens was a full three seconds behind the Joest Audi.
Intersport Racing LMP 900 made some progress with their new Riley and Scott MkIII C, finally breaking the two minute barrier. Qualifying ahead of the production cars is a small victory for the team, which first took possession of the car last Wednesday. The team picked up more than twelve seconds from their Friday times.
The #16 Dyson Lola-MG, with James Weaver claimed second overall and first in LMP 675 with a time of 1:52.442, two and a half seconds clear of the existing class record, and three hundredths ahead of Herbert. Weaver produced a fast time early in the session and briefly led the charts before posting his fastest time, and claiming second overall, on his very last flying lap."
"I was driving around congratulating myself when I saw Werner's time," said Weaver. He added, "We flat out got beat. Our car was going very well. I made a porridge out of one fast lap, but I wouldn't have been able to match Werner's time."
Second in LMP 675 went to last year's class pole sitter, Jon Field, in the Intersport Racing Lola-MG. Field's time of 1:53.471 was also under his existing record. The team, already using a car loaned from the MG factory, damaged their front bodywork in pre-qualifying practice. Their replacement piece is also on loan from MG, leaving only the rear bodywork from the original Banana Joe sponsored car.
The Dyson #20 entry, in the hands of Chris Dyson, was third quickest in class, with a 1:54.349.
The Corvette-Ferrari battle in GTS has been a highlight of the ALMS season. Practice suggested a tight battle in qualifying and the session did not disappoint. The two Corvettes led the two Prodrive Ferraris, but the whole foursome is separated by less than half a second.
Oliver Gavin in the #4 Corvette Racing claimed his fourth pole in six races this season. His time of 2:01.969 broke the Corvette team's own lap record from last year.
"The cars were all bunched up at the start. I managed to space myself out and run a quick lap. In the race I expect the Ferraris to be even closer," said Gavin.
Gavin is followed by the #3 Corvette, and the #88 and #80 Prodrive Ferraris. The Ferraris never led the Corvettes during the session in spite of their similar times.
Tomas Enge, who qualified the #88, is optimistic for tomorrow, though: "We closed the gap a lot between us and the Corvettes since practice. We made a good, conservative tyre choice for the race."
The top GT qualifier, as usual, hailed from Alex Job Racing Porsche. Lucas Luhr, in the #23, led teammate Jorg Bergmeister in the #24. Their times of 2:09.124 and 2:09.493 shattered the record from last year by more than three seconds.
"When I saw the time, I said that's impossible. I think this year I just got it together, or last year I was going too slowly," said Luhr. Second qualifier Bergmeister was less enthusiastic: "I'm slightly disappointed after qualifying. We'll see how the race goes tomorrow."
Third in class belonged to Marc Lieb in the #43 Orbit Racing Porsche with a 2:09.764. Lead Ferrari, the Risi Competizone #35, is fourth in class.
The fast times posted during this weekend are all the more remarkable in light of the rule changes instituted at the 2003 season start. All classes received a 10% air-restrictor reduction, reducing power by a similar amount. The lap records this weekend reflect the intense development of the ALMS cars needed to overcome this power deficit.
Lap times in practice and qualifying have been extremely close in every class. The battle between the Ferrari and Corvette entries looks tighter than ever. At the front, the Dyson Lola is finally challenging the all-conquering Audi R8 for overall wins.
With the times so close, victory may well come down to reliability and pit strategy. Sunday's Road America 500 has all the right ingredients to be the most competitive race of the ALMS season.