Central Highland Fling
Pity the poor Europeans who went to Daytona in pursuit of the sun only to be
cursed with Cape Wrath, complete with seagulls circling over the silent banking!
The 2004 season will start properly at Sebring on March 20, with expectations (no
promises) of much finer weather. The entry list for the opening round of the
American Le Mans Series, boosted by two Audi Sport UK Team Veloqx R8s, looks
extremely healthy, and although 49 cars is a little down on last yearís 55 starters it
does lack Panoz LMP, Team Bentley, DBA, Spyker, Lister, Nasamax and Pagani,
the latter three far from ready for racing when they first appeared.
Not the Phoney Pharaoh
It never did seem to be a good idea to encourage Europeans to compete at
Sebring if they wanted to get onto the Le Mans entry list -- just ask Ian Dawson
about that! -- but those that make the journey are rewarded by a truly classic race
with 50 years of history and a passionate fan-base, some of whom have been
queuing since early January for prime trackside positions. Even the Harrods sale
doesnít get that sort of response.
You take the High Road, Iíll take the LowÖÖ..
Only a brave man, or a fool, would predict that Audi will lose this yearís 12-Hours.
The Ďhome teamí, that of Dave Marajís Champion Racing, will comprise JJ Lehto,
Emanuele Pirro and Marco Werner.
There is a former ALMS champion (Pirro), the reigning champ (Werner) and the
Finn who may still be the fastest man in endurance racing, bar none. A mix of bad
luck and a wrong call by management cost the Champion team a deserved victory
last March, and there will be an extra incentive to finish the job properly this time.
If, as we expect, Allan McNish and Johnny Herbert join the Audi Sport UK Team
Veloqx line-up, it will be a spectacular display of driving strength. Frank Biela is
the other reigning champion, joined by the less experienced Pierre Kaffer, while
the other R8 is driven by Le Mans winner Guy Smith and GTS class winner Jamie
There is plenty of genuine LMP900 opposition (as opposed to jumped-up 675s)
in the shape of Intersport Racingís Riley & Scott, another from Autocon
Motorsports, Taurus Racingís Lola B2K/10 and the interesting addition of Martin
Shortís Rollcentre Racing Dallara Judd, but I suspect they wonít be fast enough,
or sufficiently durable to challenge when darkness falls on Saturday night.
How about the former 675s, the cars now variously called MG Lola EX257 (Dyson
Racing) or Lola B160 Judd (Intersport)? They got within a whisker of the Audis in
qualifying last March, theyíre good at single laps, but their reliability was poor.
Dysonís team has worked hard on reliability in the past year, while Jon Fieldís car
now has a Judd V8 in place of the peaky AER 2-litre turbo and is probably nicer to
drive a distance. I donít think Sebring is their ideal track, but with reliability Iíd
place them between third and sixth overall at the finish, jousting with the
As the carbon tub 675s move up a class there is a huge vacancy in the LMP675
category, for which aluminium tub cars such as Lola B2K/40 and Pilbeam are
suitable candidates. There are no fewer than six Lola B2K/10s in this group, two
from Rand Racing, and a singleton Pilbeam from Team Bucknum. What they
need is the extra power of a good 3.4 litre motor allowed by the ACO rules, from
Judd, JPX (fourth in the Le Mans 1,000 Kms) or designer Graham Dale-Jones.
Vettes take Care? Only if the Price is not Right
Iíll move on quickly to the GTS category, which is full of promise but might prove to
be a disappointment. Chevrolet Corvette versus Ferrari Maranello is the most
evocative match you could think of, and during the off-season the GM team has
been given a thorough shake-up, introducing Olivier Beretta and Michelin tyres.
The French tyres are worth a second a lap, Beretta too, and it would take no more
than that to turn the tables on the Care Racing Ferrari 550 Maranello team at most
tracks, Sebring included. Frederic Dor, whose contribution to endurance racing
has been immense, would not unnaturally like a partner to take over the running
of the Ferraris in America, and talks with Gabriele Rafanelli have slowed to a
Rafanelli told us this week that he is still talking to Care Racing and still hopes to
have an involvement with the team at Sebring. "After that the next race is in June,
so there is still time to reach an agreement" says the charismatic Italian who has
supported the American Le Mans Series since the very beginning.
Rafanelliís own Ferrari 550 Maranello, which has seen four years of service with
Emanuele Naspetti and Mimmo Schiattarella at the wheel, is up for sale and will
not race again as a team car.
Dave Price, one-time Team Panoz race director, has been in the States looking for
a good sponsorship deal to take on the Care Racing Ferraris, but if all fails it
seems doubtful that Care Racing will stick around for the full season.
The losers, in that case, would be the fans, and Chevrolet Racing. The American
team will have prepared rigorously for a battle that may only be enacted at Sebring
and at Le Mans. Unlike Chevrolet, Prodrive has done almost no development
work on the Ferrari 550 IMSA since the Petit Le Mans.
Barron Connor Racing will make its debut at Sebring with two new Ferrari 575
GTCs, the lead car shared by FIA Sportscar Champion John Bosch, FIA GT
Champion Thomas Biagi, and former Indy 500 winner Danny Sullivan. Wow! I will
expect the ACEMCO Motorsports Saleen S7R to get close to the Chevrolets and
Ferraris with Terry Borcheller and Johnny Mowlem on the driver strength.
Job done again?
In LM-GT, it will again be Alex Job Racing versus Ďthe restí, and Job admits that it
will be harder than ever to maintain his Porsche teamís superiority.
Lucas Luhr and Sascha Maassen have no more mountains to conquer in
America, having done it all in the last three seasons (Luhr has won four times
consecutively at Sebring, three times with Maassen) so the baton is passed to
their very capable understudies Timo Bernhard and Joerg Bergmeister. Marc
Lieb, the FIA GT champion, is the third of four drivers nominated by the Porsche
They get the factoryís development components (not many of those exist right
now, as the GT3 RSR is a brand-new model), but they are up against no fewer
than nine more RSRs from ever improving teams: Flying Lizard, Racerís Group,
BAM Racing, White Lightning, J3, PK Sport and Cirtek.
Anything can happen in this class and as Murray Walker was wont to say, it
probably will. Donít discount the Risi Competizione Ferrari 360 Modena (surely a
new GTC?) for Ralf Kelleners and Anthony Lazzaro, and two more from United
Colour will be added by the two Chamberlain-Synergy Motorsports TVR 400Rs,
which have been greatly improved during the winter and could challenge the
Porsche RSs, the Morgan Aero 8, a very British team, and Hyper Sportís Panoz
Gone but not forgotten
It is going to be a strange race without the thundering, front-engined Panoz LMPs,
and surely Don Panoz is going to feel a pang of regret when he surveys the grid.
But he has made a huge contribution to endurance racing in America, it is really to
great to be measured, and there is no law that says he has to keep on digging
deep to produce new cars to challenge the Audis.
Panoz founded the American Le Mans Series because he hated the way the old
PSCR, like the SCCA, rigged the performances by means of weight and
restrictors and thus penalised teamsí hard work and detailed development
He admired the European way of making the rules and sticking to them, although
his faith was sadly shaken when the ACO virtually outlawed the BMW M3 GTRs at
the end of the 2001 season.
The Audis ran off with all the goodies but never did Panoz try to interfere. The
Germans built themselves a legendary status, just as Porsche did before, and
although the cost was higher than the budgets of most rival teams put together
Panoz accepted the fate of his team with good grace, and savoured the rare
The R8 will eventually reach the end of its life, but what is worrying is the absence
of any rival to its successor, the LMP1 R10 or whatever they will call it. Porsche
refuse to come out and play. Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini are all firmly
wedded to the GTS class, to be joined later by Aston Martin.
The vexing black cloud over the future of prototype racing refuses to lift. In fact it
may deepen when the European teams return to base and the ALMS LMP1 class
is dominated by a single car, the Champion Racing Audi R8.