If this afternoon's American Le Mans Series Grand Prix of Sonoma presented by Foster's had gone one more lap, Johnny Herbert probably would've driven what was left of his Champion Audi into Victory Lane. Instead, the No. 50 Panoz of David Brabham...
If this afternoon's American Le Mans Series Grand Prix of Sonoma presented by Foster's had gone one more lap, Johnny Herbert probably would've driven what was left of his Champion Audi into Victory Lane. Instead, the No. 50 Panoz of David Brabham and Jan Magnussen crossed the finish line three car lengths ahead of an unrelenting Herbert, who almost ran over the No. 18 Mugen-powered Panoz when he made one last desperate attempt to make a run on Magnussen with the checkered flag in sight.
"I was pushing, pushing, pushing hard, but the car was not nice in the dry," Magnussen said after recording his first win since last June at Mid-Ohio and his fifth ALMS victory. "Johnny got closer and closer, but I was driving as hard as I could, it wasn't nice. He came closer and close and closer, and they told me to drive harder. I drove flat out, as hard as I could. But it was nice to win."
The first 20 minutes of the race were run under the yellow because of standing water on the track. Despite the fact that rain continued to fall all around the 2.52-mile 11 turn undulating road course, the track finally dried out enough to allow the field to take the green flag at the end of lap six. By the end of the race's first lap under green, Brabham, whose Panoz team had set his car up for wet-weather conditions, had passed the No. 1 Audi of Dindo Capello as well as the pole-sitting Champion Audi of Tom Kristensen to take command of the race.
Although it's never easy to pass an Audi, it was a little easier today because Reinhold Joest's factory-backed Audi squad left both of its 2002-spec Audi R8's in France after last weekend's pre-qualifying test session for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But to keep all of its drivers in contention for the ALMS title, Joest put Capello, Frank Biela, and Emanuele Pirro in Champion Racing's two-year-old Audi, while Kristensen joined Champion regulars Herbert and Andy Wallace in Champion's 2001-spec Audi.
As the rain tapered off and the track began to dry, Kristensen reassumed the lead. "At the beginning of the race the car was setup ideally for those conditions," Brabham explained. "As soon as the track dried up a bit it started to behave strangely. I wanted to come in and change, but the team told me to stay out as long as possible for the fuel. I knew when Jan got in he was going to have to try really hard in a not very good car. Maybe we went too much toward a wet setup. Tom was catching me, but I managed to stay ahead. When I was out there at the start I could feel quite a bit of grip coming from the tire and I felt confident. As it dried, the rears were getting worse and worse, and I just tried to stay [on the track]."
Brabham did stay on the track, but he couldn't catch Kristensen until the two pitted just past the halfway point. During the first round of stops for the front-runners, Magnussen took over behind the wheel of the No. 50 Panoz and Herbert jumping into the No. 38 Champion Audi after giving up on his ill-fated attempt to qualify for the Indy 500. "We were trying to get a jet that we could use to get us to both tracks in time and we were having some trouble doing that" Herbert remarked. "I had to get up at 5 a.m. this morning, go to St. Louis, then San Francisco, then helicopter here. We got here about 12 noon. I would like to have run both races, but we are in contention for a championship here Dave Maraj asked me to be here, I had to say yes."
After all of the top teams had stopped, Magnussen regained the lead. Then things became interesting after Magnussen and Herbert made contact several times before Herbert's right-front tire exploded, costing him a lap to the Dane. Moments later, Pirro, who had just taken over second, slammed into a tire barrier, ripping off most of his car's body work and mangling its rear suspension. Miraculously, he was able to limp back to the pits even though his right-rear wheel was almost perpendicular to the rest of his car. Although Pirro eventually rejoined the race thanks to the Teutonic resourcefulness of his mechanics, he was out of contention for the win.
When Magnussen had to make another stop, Herbert made up his lap and put on a scintillating performance reminiscent of his Formula 1 days to bring himself within inches (0.482 seconds to be exact) of victory.
For his part, Herbert was not amused by some of what he saw during the final laps. "At the end of the day, they've [the slower drivers] got to be aware of the blue flag. I was basically past the white Panoz in the end, but he came over. I'm not sure what line and track he was on, but he wasn't on the same one I was."
The No. 51 Panoz of Bryan Herta and Bill Auberlin finished third.
The Archangel Motorsports combination of Ben Devlin and Dave McEntee emerged victorious in LMP-675 after both MG-Lola's experienced electrical problems. "I think consistency is a good word for it. We had the car set up for the wet, so in the dry I just stayed with it," McEntee stated. "I think Ben did most of the hard work. The setup was fantastic. Archangel Motorsports has put together a great car - it worked great. We had high hopes for this race and it turned out well."
In GTS, Ron Fellows and Johnny O'Connell led a Corvette sweep of the top two spots on the podium. "The race went real well. It was a dilemma at the start trying to decide whether to go with the new or old Goodyear tire, we went with the old. It took a couple of laps to get the heat in the tires. We thought the Saleen was going to be a real threat, but they weren't, so it worked out. Johnny brought it home."
"This was easy," O'Connell added. "I had a moment where I wanted to pull away, and I did, a little. Ron had made it easier with the gap he gave me. Since we hooked up, we work well together. If he keeps handing it to me on a platter, I won't complain."
Lucas Luhr and Sascha Maassen won the GT class. "I pushed as hard as I possible could to get in the lead because of the visibility problems," Maassen explained. "It was hard to get by my teammates. Our car was great in the weather [rain], but there was a lot of standing water on the track and a lot of puddles."
"Lucas started and finished [the race]. Our first goal was to win the race. The second goal was to give Lucas the most laps, since I had the most laps at Sebring. On our first stop, Lucas came in for dry tires, I came in, did two laps, and like at Sebring, we got lucky with the pace car, which put us a lap up."
After many of its teams compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the ALMS will return to the track during the last weekend in June at Mid-Ohio.