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Deceptive Bends

World Class? No, Cattle................
Hitting the ground at Orlando Airport on Thursday night was probably not the best idea in the world. As usual I had managed to avoid saying much at all to the nice couple sitting next to me on the plane, which suited them as much as I, but sadly I was just outside accurate throwing distance of Brooks’ head, several rows in front though still in cattle class, which meant I had to eat my bread roll instead. Still, I was a day late and a dollar short, and on Sunday, that would catch up with me.

It reminded me of a flight taken with Damien Faulkner a few years ago. We were, as usual, back in the zoo with the Mickey Mouse chasers of all ages when an unwitting steward accidentally left the curtain open to Business Class. We called the man over. “Is that the world famous racing driver, Johnny Mowlem, up there? We are big fans. Would you mind asking him for his autograph for us, please?” Needless to say, Mowlem was surprised, turned, and both steward and driver were faced with the sight of Faulkner and myself flicking wholly unsuitable gestures at them both.

430 Man
It made us laugh at the time, but Mowlem was to be taken a bit more seriously on Saturday during Sebring’s 12-hour race. Having spent years working his way through his career with Porsche, culminating in a class victory at Daytona, Johnny turned his attention to prototypes with Jan Lammers and Zytek but at the weekend he returned to GT2 in a Ferrari, and won the class.

He was paired with Mika Salo and Jaime Melo, who earned his Ferrari spurs on the final corner of the final lap when he held off Jorg Bergmeister to win. Melo had run out of brakes and his tyres were shot, but he used all the road, and the door of the Porsche challenging him and the threat of his rival hitting a concrete wall, to stay ahead. Mowlem, Melo and Salo had the faster car, and should have won easily, but a starter problem and a pit error made the result unnecessarily close.

Throughout the race, the Porsche and the Ferrari had fought for the lead, with both cars being driven at their limit. It was the first time that the new 997 had faced the 430 in the same class, having raced at the Spa 24 Hours in 2006 in the G2 and GT2 categories respectively. From the press room on Saturday afternoon, Mowlem was seen posting some impressive laps, faster than anyone else in the class at the time. Afterwards, he admitted that Melo and Salo were fierce competitors, and he was having to raise his game to match them, but that is perfect competition, is it not?

"Brilliant Bob" RIP
On Sunday morning, thinking with regret of Thursday’s flight as I looked ahead to a return leg that afternoon, I took a moment to stop by the side of the road just outside a sleepy and otherwise unassuming village of Lorida. On the exit of the first bend heading towards the track on highway 98, I parked and walked down the embankment to pay my respects to Bob Wollek. “Drive Safely, In Memory, Bob Wollek” reads the sign, and below someone had placed fresh white lilies. I cast my mind back to that terrible moment in 2001 when Chuck Dressing had pulled me aside in the press room to tell me, before many others knew, that Bob was dead having been knocked off his bicycle.

I remembered sitting in the press room, stunned, before getting to work and writing some memories of Bob, and some facts, including one that he was Christened Bob, and not Robert, as his father protested against the German leaders who claimed that “Bob” was too American for their liking. In Alsace Lorraine where Bob lived, that was a big deal.

As I looked at the memorial, I thought of Mowlem’s drive the day before. The British driver was due to share the Petersen Porsche with Wollek that weekend, the start of what would have been a fantastic season for him. Few could hold a candle to Bob through the slower corners, including the youngsters raised through Porsche’s youth scheme such as Sascha Maassen and Lucas Luhr. Aside from Bob's speed, Mowlem could have learned so much from Wollek that year, and I wondered what would have happened had he lived. Would Mowlem have secured that Porsche factory contract that he felt he deserved? He may well have stayed with Porsche, and been given his chance to drive the RS Spyder.

Dial In 911
Or maybe not. Marc Lieb is one of Porsche’s finest and he has not yet got his hands on one. A short wander down to Turn One during the 12 hours confirmed Lieb’s credentials, despite his part time driver status as he completes an engineering degree at university. He slid that Porsche through Turn One every lap, touching the rear wheel on the outer edge of the kerb in perfectly judged trajectory. He had watched Salo close in the Ferrari before the Finn spun at Turn 17, narrowly missing the wall, and could only watch again as the Ferrari again made up lost ground.

There is no doubt that the Ferrari has the legs of the Porsche, but Porsche’s Dr Frank-Steffen Walliser, General Manager Motorsport Strategy, was not concerned. It was the first race, he concluded, disregarding the Spa 24-hours as those cars were prototypes for what we saw at Sebring. They have not yet touched the surface of what the car can do, yet Ferrari will not stand still, either, and it will be interesting to see the pace of development for these two endurance motorsport giants. Porsche will continue to race its flagship model in the GT2 class, unless it becomes painfully obvious that it cannot match Ferrari. “Then we will have to think of something else,” said Walliser.

The Porsche Caymen would provide a much better platform with its mid-engine configuration, but for the time being, Porsche’s personnel are unwavering in their commitment to the 997. The manufacturer is also committed to its RS Spyder programme which, like the 997, was beaten at the weekend. The Honda/Acura that beat it was brilliant, Tony Kanaan in particular mastering the mighty Turn One. The former Courage chassis rode the bumps as well as any Porsche which had a year’s worth of development behind it. The two manufacturers will have a mighty battle on their hands this year against each other without any of the political fighting that has gone on with Audi.

P2, taking the P1...............
The IMSA organisation stated that it would listen to both sides of the LM P1/P2/five per cent restrictor argument, and would probably not act. If Porsche was to build an LM P1 car, then their moaning would carry far greater importance, concluded the straight talking chief executive Doug Robinson. But Porsche has stopped short of stating that it will do so, and therefore it really has no place commenting on the LM P1 regulations. Robinson has decided that the current performance levels would leave Audi with a large advantage at tracks such as Sebring and Road America, and a smaller advantage at the tighter circuits. So that is OK, then.

But Audi is not happy. It wants IMSA to stick to the ACO’s rule book and slow the P2 cars down by reducing their air restrictors by five per cent. The ACO wants a clear gap between the two classes, but IMSA doesn’t, preferring to have good racing at the front of the grid, as well as in GT2. If Audi leaves, never mind, is their view. Yet Audi does have a point. If the rule book is not followed, who will invest the millions of dollars needed to take them on? No manufacturer will commit to a multi-year LM P1 plan if all of their development work goes out of the window because IMSA says so. Is it marketing, or a sport? One observer pointed out that it was a sport last time he looked.

As heads bounce off desks in America, Germany and France, and eyes roll in the press room, we can look back on a wonderful race. Audi won by six laps, from Acura as the Porsches hit trouble. The Corvettes ran around together, and it was striking that there was no applause for the winners (Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta and Max Papis by the way) in the post race press conference. That left a sour taste in the mouth, and was obviously uncomfortable for the drivers who are hoping that the rumours of Aston Martin’s return after Le Mans prove to be true.  (Incidentally, Robinson also said that he would never balance the performance as he did in 2006. “If the team cannot find a good technical partner, then they are going to have to figure out how to solve the problems on their own, rather than to lean on us to help them.”)

But in GT2, the giants shone. Lieb, Salo, Melo and Mowlem, while Bergmeister put on a great chase, led during the final corner, but ultimately lost out by two tenths of a second after 330 laps. Bob’s last day was spent looking at the BMW M3 GTR and he realised its threat to Porsche. At the weekend, Mowlem was part of another threat to Porsche. And he, too, won.

Andrew Cotton
March 2007

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