ALMS TEAMS AGAIN AT THE HEAD OF LE MANS CLASS
Braselton, Ga. - Three class victories. Ten podium finishes. And one whale of a result for the American Le Mans Series. The outcome of the 24 Hours of Le Mans could not have produced a much better result or promised a brighter future for North America's premier sports car organization.
The only way it could get better for the ALMS would be a sweep of all four classes. More on that later. For now, let's look at some of the many newsmakers from the 73rd running of the historic French endurance race, many of whom will be at the New England Grand Prix, Round 4 of the ALMS, at Lime Rock Park on the Fourth of July weekend.
There was Tom Kristensen, his arms waving after crossing the finish line in the No. 3 Champion Racing Audi R8 for his seventh overall Le Mans title and the first for Champion. The Florida-based team became the first American team since 1967 to stand on the top step at Le Mans. It also marked JJ Lehto's second Le Mans crown (he won his first in 1995) and the first for Marco Werner.
The Champion gang overcame (among others) 50 kilograms of added ballast, a reduced amount of air into its turbo-charged engine, a smaller fuel tank, and a pair of lightning quick Pescarolos to run trouble-free, as usual.
"I feel so fantastic, so great. I can't believe it," an ecstatic Werner said. "Le Mans was always a goal for me so I am quite happy. This was not just about the driver's job. It was a team job: teamwork, pit stops, strategy, everything was very important. The Audi was perfect, as always. It delivers every time, every time."
Added team owner Dave Maraj, "For us, this win is everything. To be able to win Le Mans after all these years of trying is just an absolutely amazing feat. And now it's given us the taste that we want to come back and do it again."
Corvette Racing got the ultimate redemption over Aston Martin Racing in GT1, finishing 1-2 for its fourth class win at Le Mans since 2001. It was twice as nice for Olivier Beretta, Oliver Gavin and Jan Magnussen, the trio behind the wheel of the No. 64 Corvette C6-R for the second year in a row. One of the Aston Martin DBR9s, the No. 59 that dethroned Corvette Racing at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, finished third in class in its beloved return to the Circuit de la Sarthe.
"The Corvette Racing team just never, ever gives up," Gavin said. "The team told me that we needed a certain lap time to make sure they would never catch us. We achieved the lap time we needed, and they broke. I take my hat off to Aston Martin, but nobody beats Corvette Racing."
The result was the same in GT2 for ALMS teams: a clean sweep with Alex Job Racing, Petersen Motorsports/White Lightning Racing and Flying Lizard Motorsports all looking down on the crowd in the podium celebration.
The No. 71 AJR Porsche, particularly, was a great story. On one hand, there were young Porsche factory drivers Marc Lieb and Mike Rockenfeller, two Germans who have seemingly limitless careers ahead of them. On the other was 57-year-old Leo Hindery, the founder and former CEO of Yankees Entertainment Sports Network in his final race at Le Mans. He finished second in 2003 and teamed with Lieb and Rockenfeller last year (the trio finished 32nd after their Porsche retired).
Now all three can add "Le Mans class champion" to their résumés.
"I've never been associated with such dedicated young men as Mike Rockenfeller and Marc Lieb," Hindery said. "Despite the fact my lap times were much slower than theirs, they supported me and cheered me on, and then worked extra hard to bring the win home to this team."
Now, let's look ahead to 2006. As noted above, Maraj said he will be back at Le Mans next year, along with the possibility of additional LMP1 teams from the U.S. The Corvette C6-R is only going to get better, and the stable of drivers is as strong as any. Plus, Aston Martin definitely will benefit from another year of competition . remember Bentley in 2003? And GT2 traditionally has been a playground for the ALMS, and it likely will continue to be so in 2006.
Which brings us to LMP2. The No. 32 Intersport Racing Lola performed admirably over the weekend with drivers Sam Hancock, Gregor Fisken and Liz Halliday. Engine problems, though, ended the cars day just shy of the 16-hour mark while leading by four laps. And the No. 34 Miracle Motorsports Courage had a good showing in practice and qualifying.
But remember next year that Penske Motorsports will be running the new Porsche LMP2 in the ALMS after competing in the last two events this year. Will the ALMS get its four-class sweep at the 100th anniversary celebration of the ACO? We'll all find out in about a year.
The next race for the American Le Mans Series is the New England Grand Prix, set for 3 p.m. July 4 at Lime Rock Park. The race will be broadcast live on SPEED (3 to 6 p.m. EDT) and on MotorsTV in Europe, reaching 40 million viewers in 21 countries as well as at www.americanlemans.com.