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Frankie say Relax…   The ALMS drives deep in to the desert

  As the ALMS drives deep in to the desert, what is on the horizon is obviously not a mirage. Miller Motorsports Park is a reincarnation of sorts, say Riverside 1961. A track built far from the glamour crowd, land was cheap, it was hot, dusty and the wind could come up at any time. No different for this new circuit of 4.5 miles in length situated about 40 minutes west of Salt Lake City. It will take a while for the place to develop an identity, or a soul as a fellow scribe just remarked to me. To use the cliché, if you build it, they will come, certainly applies to this facility.

  For the ALMS, this may have been the most forward thinking evident of management in sometime. A year ago, the circus was playing to a virtual non- crowd at Sears Point. Management at Infineon Raceway, while not hostile, was largely indifferent to the concerns of the ALMS and their show, little if any worthwhile publicity or series hype was done. Bottom line was that Sears Point had blossomed in to a stop on the NASCAR tour and that was the big money maker. By comparison, the ALMS were a non-factor, something that paid the bills for a month and nothing more. None of was this was forthcoming but was clearly evident to a great many people, vendors, competitors, sponsors, etc.

El Alamein vs. Alcatraz Island
  The lesson learned was why race where you really aren’t welcome, thus here we are on a hot July weekend in the middle of God Knows Where at a circuit already being dubbed Bahrain West. And I’m damn glad of it.  I hate the heat, I’m a waterbaby, was born near the ocean and my idea of a venue is Laguna Seca which is close to the Burkhart beach house in PG and dinner in Monterey.
But I know a good thing when I see it and even with the lousy relief map geography, this venue is going to make it. First-rate facility, real garages, bathrooms that work, a decent media center and friendly helpful people. The track itself, is if you are ready for this, a bit of Magny Cours, Riverside, Spa, everything that track designer and CEO Alan Wilson said he got wrong on previous circuits, he got right for MMP. Most drivers would agree with the exception of a lack of landscape and the usual villain in the manner of wind and dust.
Just add water and a few trees, from what I hear Larry Miller has the budget to maintain and upgrade the place. Scott Atherton and co. got a three-year deal and this is a risk that is sure to pay off, it may not be as glitzy an announcement as the Acura one but in many ways far more important.  MMP is a better bet than Sears Point ever was for the ALMS. And while Salt Lake City will never replace San Francisco, there are some pretty good bistros and the Cucina Toscana is about the equal of anything in North Beach.

Dindo of the Desert
  Practice showed that all the teams were getting a feel of the place, the comments from various drivers went from praise to cautious optimism to the usual too dusty, which really masked set up issues. Interestingly, when I spoke to some of the drivers after the second practice, a few things were evident. Dindo was describing turn one after having a strong run down the pit straight as having a complete lack of a reference point and he had to work at creating one that he could use. I asked him what happens to that point of reference in traffic then ? “There isn’t one”, laughed Dindo. Tomas Enge basically agreed that it would take time both for the circuit and the drivers to grow together.

  Of the front runners only Penske had tested here before and the letter document delivery Porsches were quickly on pace. By contrast, the Audi boys were taking it all in. There is no back slapping rah rah with the Magic man and the assorted crew from Ingolstadt, the R10 is more than just a racing exercise for Audi. For the chauffeurs it was business as usual. McNish got down to a decent practice time only to have Dindo blot his numbers by going a few tenths quicker in a few corners. Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro were content with just checking the place out. I never met a successful driver that didn’t have an ego and in this business you have to be both self critical and self-confident. Those points were obvious come qualifying. Virtually everyone expected McNish to get pole, he has the hunger and in the R10, the machine. So it was no surprise that Nishy sat atop the sheet for most of the session. The Scot went back out to improve his time near the end only to get demoted to 2nd on the grid after a wild lap from Biela. A number of dropped jaws and opened mouth stares were evident in the pressroom as Frankie had a big off in the dirt and continued on during the session. For Frankie, getting pole was a big moment but the man is a professional and let his lap time do the talking. Both he and Pirro are gracious men but are all to aware that their partnership is the B team, they were not the favorites to win Le Mans but they did. Pirro, ever so polite later remarked that they were in the ALMS to support the other Audi but wanted some of the shared glory too. How can you not cheer on a man so honest ?

Charlie cans the tuna and Marty stocks the shelf
  The Alex Job Porsche and Risi Ferrari were locked in their own qualifying battle for GT2 bragging rights.. Rocky versus Red Melo and it ended with Houston over Tavares. Ah, things really got interesting when post-qualifying tech came about.
The ground clearance of the AJR Porsche was deemed guilty of IMSA rule 10.1.1B-meaning it was too low. But no protested Alex… guilty claimed IMSA technical honcho Charlie Cook. Job has a valid point and one that IMSA needs to address, the tire pressure of the Porsche was at 28psi during the session and after all that waiting around became 19psi on it’s own. The heat was hell but it was enough to lower #23 to illegal status. Charlie huddled with race director Marty Kaufman and they issued the DQ. This made little if any sense, if the data sheets show a different tire pressure, why not allow a car to run the psi what is it was running on the track ? Charlie did admit that there should be a ruling of a set tire pressure through tech but it was too late for AJR. Back of the pack, however, a tire change misfortune put the Risi Ferrari from the P1 spot to P22 just behind the #23 Porsche. This turned out to be a bonus for the spectators as Melo and Rocky put on a clinic as they tore through the pack on up the GT2 leader board. Come on Marty and Charlie; get some standard pressures for the teams to work with for tech. Should be enough time after Portland to issue something…

  Aston Martin and Corvette. Are the weights and restrictors really making the Vette THAT uncompetitive ? At first glance it may seem so but as usual, there may be more to the story. The driver’s frustrations in the Pratt brat camp are reasonable and expected. The Aston lads would rather a fairer fight themselves.
Enge threw it down in the press conference after taking pole by wondering aloud as to why the Vette was faster in the morning practice than when it counted in qualifying. The penalties have taken on sort of a comic after life, however, listing the differences in press releases put out by Michelin aren’t going to win anybody over to the GM side. There has been a steady drumbeat coming out of Bib land dealing with the extra weight for the Vette. Fair enough, but where was everyone when the Audi R8 got hit ? Start putting the pieces of why Michelin is protective of the Pratt brats won’t take too much effort. Something to figure out while waiting for the next installment of golfing with Brabs.

Racing by ATM
As much as I want to see the Aston Martin do well (anyone not moved by the DBR9’s aggressive stance is style challenged) it should not come at the expense of the work done by Pratt and company on developing the Corvette. Everyone knows that GM is in financial trouble and Pratt gives an excellent return on GM’s investment. For Aston Martin, the camera is out of focus. Had the private money behind the Ferrari 550 continued, there is a good chance that Prodrive would have a car on an equal, if not better, footing than the DBR9 to challenge the Vettes. Business wise, Prodrive is busy retooling for F1 and from a cursory glance I don’t see the same urgency around the DBR9 that was evident with the Ferrari 550. Any decision for extra investment in developing the Aston has to come through the offices of Dr. Ulrich “Norman” Bez and whom does he answer to ? Uh, huh…  I can just imagine THAT phone call: “Hello Bill, need some more Euros, I mean pounds to keep the Aston on the track. Maybe you could extend the rebates on the Five Hundred to get us through Petit.”

Suppose they gave a race….
  No need to do a race report, as you know what went down. McNish got a great run from the start and Frankie hit the dirt again and fell back a number of positions and settled in for the long haul as the wee Scot motored off to a sizeable margin. Darren Turner likewise had the Aston Martin he partners with Enge reeling off in to the distance of the other DBR9 and the Pratt Vettes.
The best battle was GT2 where owners Risi and Alex Job witnessed an on track blitzkrieg as their chauffeurs, Melo and Rocky, slashed their way from the back of the grid to the top. The Ferrari had the ways and means to get to P1 and left Rocky to fight it out with the Panoz and fellow teammate Patrick Long aboard the White Lightning Porsche for the second slot.

  The Porsche document carriers had a few unscheduled visits to the box, which helped keep the Intersport Lola of Field and Halliday on pace for a podium finish. This brings up an interesting issue, why doesn’t the ALMS and IMSA slap down the Penske Porsches ala Corvette in order to keep the smaller (i.e. Intersport) competitive with Weissach’s thinly disguised I’m really competitive in LMP1 chariot. The whole complex of the race changed at 8:26 PM as a full course yellow was issued due to the Dumas ridden Penske Porsche mount pulling up lame just past pit out. What was he thinking ? There could not be a worse part of the circuit for a driver to come to a halt. But maybe that was the whole idea as a full yellow would bring the field together and on a 4.5-mile track, a minute ahead didn’t mean squat. And that was the script; all the real drama came in the last twenty minutes. Dindo pitting as the green flag flew with a puncture and in GT2, Klaus Graf could not cope with the pressure and went from 2nd to 4th after a big trail ride through the dust. The announcement later in the week that Graf would not be driving at Portland due to schedule conflicts is nice PR spin, I like Klaus and he has had a great run in various forms of racing but he was not the right choice to partner Mike Rockenfeller.

When two tribes…
Frankie relaxed after the drop of the checker, Pirro held off the charging Porsche of Luhr but while there was little room for error, Pirro has far to much experience to toss this one away. The likeable Italian buried his foot coming out of the final turn and let the monster torque of the R10 carry him home. Dindo went for ice cream and McNish was more than annoyed but recovered. When you consider the years of experience that the Audi drivers have it is a remarkable story. Pirro was emotional in the press conference, mostly with his praises of the R8 and the continuity with the R10. The driver’s admiration of the now retired R8 is genuine and sincere. McNish’s reaction of winning at Lime Rock was not for the camera; the R8 simply meant that much to him. The R10 is off to a promising start and is in good hands. Risi’s efforts paid off with the Ferrari finally getting something more than pole positions. The Porsches are still quicker in some areas but the Ferrari is a more concentrated effort at the moment as development stopped some time ago on the 996 GT3 RSR. Come 2007 and the new 997 things will be different.

I got here in a Porsche, not a Ducati…
  I am finishing this column up from the enlarged one-shot deal of a media center at Laguna Seca while qualifying is going on for the Moto GP. There are seats for almost 300 hacks and most are filled. Lots of accents and activity. It is a fantastic show, a great and huge crowd and like most of the west coast, damn hot. Bike people are different than sports car fans but no less enthusiastic about their sport.

  I have been following reports from Portland along with assorted calls and am disappointed that IMSA gave the R10 extra baggage after the refilling limiter from last week. Officials can’t seem to get the handle on the Vette-Aston Martin issue and one can only imagine the frustration of both the Aston boys and the Pratt brats on this “it’s another weekend and your turn to lead” scenario. The ACO in their evaluation of the R10 was that basically it is up to the manufacturer to step it up. Both IMSA and the ALMS need to carefully think about this when handing out penalties and restrictions. However, right now the thinking is heading down the right path… going to Utah was a big risk but for the ALMS but the right one. This venue may turn out to be the most important race of this season for reasons that have nothing to do with what went down on the track.

                                                                        Kerry Morse
                                                                          July 2006

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sportscarpros Not that it's any of my business

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