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 Canned Music # 1: David Soares on the ALMS Five Star Final at Laguna Seca

As I waited at the outside of the runoff area of Laguna Seca’s famed Corkscrew for the start of Friday morning practice at this year’s four-hour season finale of the American Le Mans Series, the Monterey Sports Car Championships, I found myself chatting with the only other person fool enough to have climbed the hill so early, one of the super-snappers who follow the series.  The shutterbug opined that, “I wish that I had been standing here thirty-seven years ago.”  I told him that I hadn’t quite been, but that my first road racing memory was standing at the snow-fencing along the Corkscrew for the October 1971 Monterey-Castrol G.P. Can-Am.  As the dust clears on the 2007 ALMS season, I fear that our photographer friend may have had the rose-colored filter screwed onto the end of his telescope. This year’s race turned out to be just about as good as it gets and I’m going to go out on a limb and say the same for the entire season.  To cap it, Allan McNish and Dindo Capello’s brilliant four hour attack spiked their claim to a place in the sportscar pantheon along with duos such as Ickx and Bell or Rodriguez and Oliver.

Like many “classic” seasons, and many great race weekends, this one didn’t look quite so pretty while it was happening.  There has been much gnashing of teeth as the seven year dominance of Audi’s “endurance” racers has been challenged by purpose-designed “sprint” format cars from Porsche’s North American motorsport arm and American Honda’s Acura brand.  At the end of the day, the Porsche RS Spyders wound up winning all but one of the “sprint” races and the Audi R10 TDI’s wound up winning all but one of the “endurance” races, the exceptions being an Audi 1-2 in the Acura Sports Car Challenge on the St. Petersburg street course and a Michelin double-stint pulling the Spyder 1.8 seconds ahead at the finish of the Generac 500 at Road America.

Turn the record, OVER !

The Laguna weekend started out looking like a Porsche benefit as Sascha Maassen simply obliterated the prototype lap record with a smoking 1:10.528, three seconds better than the previous year’s P1 pole.  Allan McNish’s Audi was relegated to the third row, but in reality was only six tenths off of Maassen’s pole pace.  At the post-qualifying press conference, Sascha modestly attributed much of the improvement in lap times to the recent resurfacing of the track.  While the press corps was palpably stunned by the pace of the P2 Porsches and Andretti-Green and Highcroft Racing Acuras, McNish was having none of it, stating his intention by walking into the press conference and extending his middle finger upwards in the specific direction of one Kerry Morse.  “We’re going all-out to attack,” he flatly declared.  “It’s going to take quite a bit of luck, but perhaps we can be a bit cute with the yellows.”  When I tried to get him to hand-wring about “horses for courses” he cut me off in mid-sentence: “These are two first-rate organizations pushing all out.”  The Germans didn’t nickname the be-kilted Scots “Ladies from Hell” for nothing.  Nishy meant to win this race.

At the start, Bryan Herta and David Brabham in the AGR and Highcroft Acuras obliged McNish by tete-a-que-ing the entire second row on the first lap, both going too deep into the Andretti Hairpin trying to out-drag the diesels on cold tires.  After a brief full-course yellow, the Scotsman commenced his promised “attack,” picking off Timo Bernhard’s DHL-Penske Porsche on the restart.  The number 1 Audi TDI next dogged pole-man Maassen for a few laps before making a bold but clean move on the outside of turn 5 where the infield straight rises from the lakebed to join the old circuit.  For years, this corner seemed to have only one line but McNish later noted that this year’s resurfacing of Laguna Seca has created a wider (and better) racing line allowing passing after a good run out of 4 without running out of grip.  “When you get the opportunity you have to nail it.”

Capello’s Catbus VS. Thurn and Taxis

The race then came Audi’s way, as first the Maassen/Briscoe and then the Bernhard/Dumas Penske DHL Porsches attempted to wrest away control of the front of the pack.  They managed to lead many laps, but McNish was never out of close touch.  The few full-course caution periods all came at opportune times for Audi, allowing Brad Kettler’s crew to refuel and replenish rubber without losing ground.  Then, when Dindo Capello took over from the Lowlander a few minutes before the halfway point, the race began in earnest.

Temperatures began to cool (a weather front had passed over Friday night) and the weight and traction issues which troubled Audi in hot weather became an advantage, bringing the tires up to speed more quickly after caution periods.  After the race Capello described the car having “too much understeer” until his next-to-last set of tires, when the combination of tire compound and ambient temperature finally gave him good grip  He went on a tear, picking off both Porsches and setting the second fastest lap of the race, only half a second behind Maassen’s best lap under racing conditions in the pole-sitting Porsche.  After the lead cars stopped for tires with about 30 minutes remaining Dindo proved himself to be the new King of Cool in a duel with Romain Dumas that went down to the checkered flag.  His concentration under pressure proved superb, holding off the lighter car through the twists of the Corkscrew and down the hill until he could surf the diesel’s torque up the front straight.  “A small mistake could have cost us the race.”


The Audi R10 TDI won a hammer-and-tongs battle with the theoretically faster and better-suited Porsche RS Spyder at Laguna.  The fans along the fences were out in droves and the general consensus among them was that they were seeing a phenomenal race between beautifully turned-out and masterfully driven technical marvels.  The P1 vs. P2 distinction was meaningless to them.  I can say that likewise at the Can-Am race my photographer friend wished he had seen, nobody expected Jo Siffert to go for a “class” win in his 5 liter “endurance”-based Porsche against the 8 liter “sprint” McLaren-Chevy in which Revson barely completed an hour-and-a-half- long race before taking the checker trailing a terminal smokescreen.  A race is a race to the fans who have paid for their passes.

The Phony War…

Which brings me to the “theoretical championship” many of us have been tracking and which many pundits want to “award” to Porsche.  After seeing what Nishy and Dindo can do in a long race with changing conditions, 2007 was Audi’s year.  If the ALMS/LMS model is to be seen as a revival of the international “makes” and “manufacturers” championships of yore (and I do), you can’t simply count up the overall wins and call it a day.  The enduros always scored more points.  I’ll leave it to others to tot the scores up and award them to teams and drivers, but I refuse to count a “win” at the 12 Hours of Sebring so closely with one at Lime Rock, or Long Beach with a 4-hour at Laguna, or Belle Isle with Petit Le Mans.  Audi won the Big Ones this year, including Le Mans itself where the Porsche RS Spyders dared not tread as “true” P2’s.  Their season-capping wins at Petit Le Mans and Laguna anointed Audi as season champions in my book.

But Roger Penske and Porsche Motorsport North America were winners as well.  By being allowed a few performance breaks they won races in important markets like Los Angeles, New York, and Detroit.  They gave us great shows nipping at the heels of the Audis in the long races.  They revived the reputation the “Giant Killer” Porsche Spyders of old and the numbers 6 and 7 of the “Let George Do It” L&M Porsches of my youth.  They filled fields of GT3 Cup cars and began to exorcize the curse of the Ost-front command car they gave up front-line racing to build with Volkswagen.  The Porsche board seems to be having the last laugh on that one as well; they liked it so much, they bought the company.  They may have chosen to return to prototype racing by building a “sprint” car for North American circuits, but hopefully they’ve got the Monkey off their backs.

After Saturday’s race, I brought out my copy of Pete Lyons’ 1995 Can-Am book to review his comprehensive season-by-season charts documenting this purported Golden Age.  In 1971 Peter Revson won the championship with nearly double the points of third-place bridesmaid Jackie Stewart in the Lola T-260.  We’re talking about Jackie Stewart in his prime!  This should come as no surprise, as the orange M8’s hardly had a race with anyone from 1968 to 1971.  Then in 1972 Roger Penske and Mark Donohue hung a waste-gated turbo-lader off the back of the 917 “endurance” car and George Follmer scored exactly double the points of runner-up Denny Hulme in his McLaren M20.  Donohue did the same thing in ’73 and Oliver did it in ’74.  Single team dominance.  Every year.

The name game…

This year in the ALMS we had drama, close racing, and exciting finishes overall in every prototype race – not to mention Mika Salo and Tomas Enge playing dodge-em in GT2 Ferraris.  The Audi Sport North America R10 TDI’s proved themselves to be among the all-time great endurance racers, with brilliant driving from McNish, Capello, Werner, and Pirro, supported by Biela, Luhr, Rockenfeller, and Kristensen, and superb organization from Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, Dave Maraj, Reinhold Joest, and Brad Kettler.  After a couple of early miscues, Roger Penske and Tim Cindric showed the RS Spyder to be a giant-killer in the hands of young guns Dumas, Bernhard, Maassen, and Briscoe, helped by Collard, Castro-Neves, and Long.  The Acuras of Andretti-Green, Lowe’s-Fernandez, and Highcroft proved worthy contenders and look forward to realizing the potential shown at Sebring. Dyson Racing was also always right there as they learned the Porsche ropes after so many years in the Lola camp.  The “Championships” may be meaningless per-se, but the racing was nonpareil.

To paraphrase James Carville: It’s the racing, stupid.  That’s why people come to this show, why Doug Fehan was able to sell the GM Board on spending the money in an empty class to put on a show for the Corvette Corrals.  After the race, even Dr. Ullrich seemed more satisfied with this victory than those of years past: “We came here not expecting to win, and we of course are very happy to do so. The team kept on working and kept on working, and that is the secret of motor sport. If you don't give up, no matter your position, anything can happen.”  But the season can perhaps be best summed-up by ALMS Series President and CEO Scott Atherton, who was as jacked-up as a kid on Christmas morning when I ran into him in the post- race scrum.  I asked him if he got everything that he wanted.  “I sure did,” he enthused, “Times ten!!!

David Soares

January 2008

sportscarpros Across the Border

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