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David Soares on “Leading the Way” or “if this train is moving…”

October in Monterey is a sportscar tradition stretching back over five decades when the locals have come to expect the world’s best to come to take advantage of the balmy fall days when the Humboldt Current finally relents from generating the fogs of summer. Sportscar racing has had its share of ferment over the years, and the rhetoric was particularly harsh as this season has wound down.  It seemed entirely appropriate that the Monterey Sports Car Championships held at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca were the venue for the rhetoric to boil down to revelation.

The Ace of Clubs
It was during Friday qualifying for the into-the-night Saturday main that the stories that had been developing since Sebring gelled when Stefan Johansson and Nic Minassian put the Zytek and Creation cousins on the front row after having finished a convincing second and fourth in the last round at Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.  In a year dominated by bickering about the “Balance of Performance” within and between the four classes prescribed by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest it was refreshing to see these little hybrid developments of an old LMP 675 design leading the way.

After setting pole ahead of the factory-funded Porsche and Audi prototypes, Stefan Johansson, a veteran of 30 years in racing including a Le Mans victory in the TWR Porsche, time with the virtual gamut of formula 1 posses including Ferrari, experience with champ car teams as both driver and owner, and time on two different Audi R8 squads, described the Zytek as, “one of the best cars I’ve driven, hands down.”  Unlike the Audi R10, which was streamlined for speed down the long straights at Le Mans, the Zytek and the similar Creation are downforce cars – better suited to the circuits of the ALMS.

Payday payments, twice a week and Never on Sunday…
Johansson admitted his bafflement that no one has bought the car for the ALMS where it can be raced for at least one more year and, “would win a championship.” I asked some of the better-funded privateers along pit row who are seen rolling their eyes every time they see a Porsche or Audi at the top of the timing sheets why they didn’t pick up the Zytek program to win a championship next year.  I was universally met with replies of “too expensive” or “only one more year of eligibility.” Compared to what Audi and Porsche are evidently spending, this car offers a cheap shot at a real championship.

Johansson says that, “there are very serious discussions about doing this for next year. I'd love to stay with the program because it's a great car and a great team. It'd be a great package over here."  Certainly better than the Lolas and Courages everyone seems wedded to.  Some over-aggressive driving by Johansson and an unfortunatly poor understanding of ALMS pit rules by his team put the Zytek out of contention, but the Creation finished the four hour race a solid third, 29 seconds back of Capello and McNish’s Audi R10, despite Harald Primat’s apparent inability to master keeping his wheels on track at Laguna.

It was mistakes by Zytek and Creation that handed victory to the diesel Audis at Laguna, but there were other wolves in the hen house – the Porsche P2’s of Penske Racing, one of which qualified third in the hands of Sascha Massen and the other of which lead at two stages of the race with Lucas Luhr and Romain Dumas at the controls.  Luhr also set fast lap of the race before McNish pressured him into a spin that put him a minute back at the finish.  It might have been a different outcome had the late-race safety cars everyone had expected due to the slippery conditions and Autumn temperature-drop allowed the DHL-sponsored car to splash some fuel under yellow.  In fact, I had stopped Porsche Director of Motorsport Hartmut Kristen on the grid and asked if this circuit might not present a last shot at an overall win before the enforcement of the ACO’s 5% restrictor reduction on P2 cars.  Kristen cracked a rare grin and said, “With luck, maybe…” Although Porsche have made their plans for 2007 clear with the early introduction of a refined P2 car at last month's Paris auto show, Luhr and Dumas evidently had the green light to go “teasing some P1 car” at Laguna now that the Porsche has found some reliability.

Watch on the Rhine
On the same weekend as the Laguna race Henri Pescarolo issued a communiqué that was quite mis-en-colere about the recent meetings between the technical committee of the ACO and representatives from Audi and Peugeot.  Why has the Audi team been so vocal against the weight-break given the P1’s in America?  Why has Audi Technical Director Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich threatened to pull out of the ALMS over these “penalties?”  It’s not just the performance of the Porsche P2 car that has Audi’s full attention.  Audi Sport Technical Director Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich told the scribes assembled at the post-race press conference that, “I’m still convinced that if someone is doing a proper sports prototype with a non-diesel engine, we’re in trouble.”  Dindo Capello stated as much to Morse after the press conference where he and McNish shared the table with their boss.

Next year it won’t be so easy for P2’s like the Porsche or the Acura, as the ACO and the ALMS impose that restrictor reduction in hopes of returning P2 to the “privateer” class it was originally intended to be.  But Zytek and Creation took advantage of the 65 kilogram weight break granted by the ALMS in back in July to make a real show out of Petit Le Mans and Laguna Seca.  If that technical bulletin remains in effect for the 2007 season they are cars with a real shot at competing with the dominant diesel Audis for a championship.  These cars deserve to race at a competitive weight.  They also deserve race strategy on a par with that of Audi’s Brad Kettler and should be in the hands of a team with ALMS experience.  Even if it’s a one year deal, it could mean a major championship trophy that might open a lot of doors for 2008 and beyond.

                                                                                               David Soares
                                                                                             November 2006

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