The Awkward Squad
Though Allan McNish was delighted that Johnny Mowlem and Robin Liddell won
their Daytona 24-hour watches in 2004, he was still more than slightly pissed off
that he hasn’t yet won one. The Rolex watches are treasures – Dominique Dupuy
refused to take his off his wrist for months after winning the 24-hours in 2000 for
Dodge. Since the introduction of the Daytona prototype class, the top flight
European drivers have dropped down the pecking order and now headliners
include NASCAR’s finest, including Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony
Stewart, who is now something of a veteran of the 24 hours. This year, Juan Pablo
Montoya joined the competitor’s ranks and immediately won his own watch at the
first try. McNish must be incandescent.
Montoya drove better than many expected, and on Sunday morning was part of a
three-way battle with Max Angelelli and Ryan Dalziel, the 24-year-old from
Lanarkshire in Scotland who led the race and undoubtedly in my view was the star
of the show. OK, once again when there was a superstar in the garage I was
kicked out (third time following Earnhardt in 2001 and Danica Patrick in 2005,
though technically I wasn’t allowed into the garage on that occasion), so that may
have coloured my view, but Dalziel was marvellous.
The Citgo team had trimmed the rear wing mid-race for more speed on the
banking, but that was where the Scot appeared to be vulnerable. In traffic, with
NASCAR’s new superboy on his tail and Angelelli, re-Christened “Max the Axe” by
a barking mad commentator (he actually corrected himself having wrongly
identified Angelelli as “Mad Max” at one point), Dalziel kept both at bay. He was
intimidated; Montoya was a boyhood hero of his, but that just made him all the
more determined to keep him behind. And he did so until the pit stops.
Big, though not particularly exciting news, was that Pirelli was taking over the
contract to supply tyres to Grand Am from Hoosier. The American company
doesn’t make production tyres, preferring to stick to race rubber, but they are
widely acknowledged to be terrible in Grand Am circles. It is the same for
everyone, granted, and they are not unsafe, yet they are disliked due to their lack of
Will Pirelli do a better job? Probably, but the interesting bit was that there was
nothing for them in the ALMS. Aston Martin was not likely to stay with Pirelli anyway
this season, but their withdrawal merely confirmed the fact that Pirelli would not be
in GT1. The Panoz Esperante is now an old car, and of limited value to the Italian
manufacturer. There was little else for them to choose which speaks volumes for
the entry list and the return on investment.
Unofficial sources suggested that Pirelli would therefore withdraw from American
racing and stick to a European programme with BMS Scuderia Italia’s Aston
Martins, and Maserati. That seemed to be the plan, until the Grand-Am contract
came up for grabs. Selling tyres to 71 cars for a 24-hour race will make money,
said Pirelli. We are very ‘appy. The teams should get better tyres. They are very
‘appy. Grand-Am maintains its one-make tyre formula, will make money from
Pirelli, and has a big-name European-based brand to link with. They are very
The ALMS lost Pirelli as it had nothing else to offer.
BMS will run the factory Porsche in the FIA GT Championship this year, with
Emmanuel Collard and possibly Matteo Malucelli, and have a plan to run a
Porsche RS Spyder in the future. Sources suggested that would be in 2008, but
Pirelli dampened the flames on that one. They need between six and eight
months to test their new prototype tyre to compete with Michelin, which has so
much experience that the Italians know they are up against it. They also need to
find the budget to buy the car, to test it and to race it. It may take them a year to get
that sorted out, said Pirelli, meaning no RS Spyder race programme until 2009.
That would boost the LMS numbers in two years, but that grid is already full to
bursting. Another project was announced in the immediate aftermath of Daytona.
Jean-Denis Deletraz was quietly confident at the Aston Martin party early in
January that he had a new LMP1 project, and that we would all be very impressed.
That spells trouble for Team Phoenix, with which Deletraz and Andrea Piccini
raced in the FIA GT Championship last year, but Deletraz was right. An Audi R8
engine, 3.6 litre twin turbo in the back of a Lola.
It will be the first time that the R8 engine has run without crippling restrictions
since 2002. In 2000, the 3.6 V8 engine produced 630bhp. In 2001, that dropped to
620bhp as restrictions bit, went back up to 630bhp in 2002. From there, figures
went into freefall, dropping to 570bhp in 2003 and 550bhp in 2005. Deletraz with
630bhp in a lightweight Lola chassis may not get the juices flowing, but Marcel
Fassler was in talks to become an Audi driver this year, and will partner the Swiss.
And possibly so will Piccini, whose eyes will pop out of his head at first, and he
will then be sublimely quick. As good as Minassian or Collard? We shall see. And
so will Audi.
They reckon this is the best chance to prove that the ACO’s equivalency between
petrol and diesel is parable. No doubt Audi will be taking its own measurements
against the diesel performance – Peugeot has a 5.5 litre, V12 diesel after all, the
same as their own R10 TDI power plant. If it all goes well for Audi in the LMS, they
will trumpet the results and stick two fingers up at IMSA. If it all goes badly, well,
the engine is eight years old, run as a customer programme with only one
engineer, and in the back of a chassis that has the compromises necessary to
take multiple engines…
And given the chance, Audi will stick two fingers up at IMSA, Dr Ullrich again re-
iterating that he has the support of the board to withdraw from the ALMS if they feel
they are being hard done by. The LMP2s will not run with the smaller air
restrictors, a fact that matters little at Sebring, but may matter a lot at street circuits,
and in the Houston car park. Audi expected that IMSA would use its two chances to
restrict the R10 TDI during the season. However, IMSA has already penalised the
R10 TDI before racing begins, and has two more chances to do so, leaving Audi
unhappy but short of options.
They have already confirmed that they will not race in the LMS this year, and Ullrich
made it clear on Monday that he would not countenance a switch to the LMS even
if they decided to withdraw from the ALMS. There is no marketing plan to do so,
and so it would simply be an exercise in spending money. That is not the way to
go racing, says Ullrich, and few could argue. So it is the ALMS, or bust, and IMSA
must get a grip of its series.
It is strong, there is no doubt about it as it has weathered the loss of Cadillac,
Dodge, BMW, Maserati, Panoz, Aston Martin…crikey what a list. It almost lost
Chevrolet this winter as Europe beckoned and only the draw of the car clubs kept
them in the US. The Chevvy fans want to see the C6.R, and the factory drivers, and
that was why they stayed, though Doug Fehan had a plan to reach the audience
even with a European programme of just six races.
Yet the ALMS kept Audi, because it suits Audi to race in the US and promote diesel
as a performance fuel. If the diesel is being beaten by Porsche, that is when it will
all start to get really sticky for IMSA. George Howard-Chappel and Doug Fehan are
united in their plea to save GT1; keep it transparent. If you win, you get 40kg. If you
win again, you get more weight up to a maximum, and then you start looking at
aerodynamics. The FIA GT Championship has got it right, and both would be keen
to see a similar programme adopted in the US.
As for the LMP1, new manufacturers are looking, but won’t come if they feel the
performance can be negotiated. “If you open the door 1mm, 10 seconds later it is
wide open,” says Dr Ullrich. And the ALMS may not have another chance at
keeping Audi as the winds of change blow. The LMS is successful, Grand Am is
luring away contracts as manufacturers are seeking new playgrounds. The ALMS
has run for eight years, and will undoubtedly run for another eight. In what form,