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David Soares on Fast Times at Laguna High

I’ve long been of the opinion that motor racing in America has deteriorated into a parade of spec series pretty much everywhere except in the American Le Mans Series, where diversity still rules the day.  The ALMS is all about wonderful cars and the blissful cacophony of four, six, eight, and twelve- cylinder powerplants burning the gamut of gasoline, diesel, E10, and E85.  I have to admit that my experience of the series has been so colored by my love of the cars and the technology and the fact that there is something other than the drone of sameness when they turn up the noise, that I forgot what a terrific driver line-up features at ALMS races.  The driving at the Monterey Sportscar Championships this year at Laguna Seca served as a reminder of what a talented group of drivers are at the front of the sportscar pack.

For the past few years Laguna’s season-closing “Race into the Darkness” has featured an evening test on the Thursday lead-up, leaving the teams with a bunch of time on their hands after setting up camp in the paddock on Wednesday.  This year I accepted an invitation to a “Media Day” held at the Pit Row Suites the afternoon before the late practice session.  After parking my old nail I found that most of the assembled journos had headed down to trackside for demo rides in Vitesse and Spec Miata cars.  I know Laguna pretty well from behind the wheel and I don’t make a very good passenger, so I decided to head to the lunchroom for a chicken Caesar wrap and a bottle of water instead of guided tour.

I was greeted at the buffet by ALMS media supremo Bob Dickinson, one of the true class-acts in sports and a key member of the brain trust who have endowed the ALMS with its strong brand identity in the international press.  I only see Bob a few times a year due to my other commitments, but he immediately grabbed me by the arm and sat me down for lunch with 2008 P1 champions Audi Sport North America drivers Marco Werner and Lucas Luhr, and Eva-Maria Veith of Audi Communication Motorsport.

I wish that I could say that our 45-minute conversation was filled with the scoops and inside skinny about Audi Sport’s plans for the future that sportscar fans seem so obsessed with, but of course it wasn’t like that at all. Marco and Lucas did both agree with me that the Audi board would have to be crazy not to continue to race the TDI in the ALMS now that they will finally have a TDI to sell to consumers, but they’re the hired help, not the decision- makers.  I pressed Eva-Maria whether the introduction of a diesel road car by Acura might make a difference but she made it clear that the Audi board make their decisions based on what is best for the Audi brand and not on what others are doing in the marketplace.

It’s no secret that I’m a lawyer by training and I have to say that Marco Werner and Lucas Luhr share a thoughtful and systematic approach to their work to which I can relate very well.  While I wasn’t going to shake loose the Audi corporate game plan, there was plenty to talk about with these two intelligent and talented drivers. Both men were bitterly disappointed with the tire strategy at Petit Le Mans that gave them track position at the expense of tired rubber that dropped them from first to third in the final stint of the race. Even though the drivers’ and manufacturers’ P1 championships had been decided Marco and Lucas felt that they had unfinished business to take care of before the season came to a close.

We talked about the closed-cockpit cars and Werner and I connected about the sweltering 2005 Le Mans contest (which I attended with John Brooks and David Lister) that began his current four-race 24-hour winning streak.  He said that the heat never bothered him in the car because of his total concentration on driving, but that waiting in between stints was miserable.  He just wanted to get back in the car, J.J. and T.K. of course having their own designs on the seat.  Marco said that he had the opportunity to test the Bentley and that the closed car made him claustrophobic.  The first thing that came to mind when the door was closed was, “how am I going to get out of this thing!?”

Lucas Luhr was able to share the unique perspective of having developed and raced the Porsche RS Spyder against the R10 before switching marques and spending last year in the DTM.  He laughed about how much trouble the Audi R10 TDI drivers seemed to have controlling their cars during his ALMS Championship year in the RS Spyder.  He ribbed Werner that he thought that the Audi guys must be a bunch of geriatrics the way that they constantly seemed to be fighting for control while he teased them in his Porsche Spyder.  The RS Spyder is defined by its perfect balance and high-winding horsepower.  However, Lucas related that his first drive in the R10 was a real eye-opener!  The first characteristic of the R10 is that on cold tires it is like driving on ice.  The second thing that you notice is how tail-heavy the diesel V-12, with its long wheelbase and beefy drivetrain, makes the car.  Finally, despite the monster torque of the TDI there is noticeable turbo-lag that you don’t have to deal with in the Porsche.

This discussion lead into questions about why the R10 often qualifies well behind the Acuras and Porsches but seems to be able to recover in the races themselves.  I asked Lucas if the Audi squad was sandbagging, but he quickly dismissed this thesis and explained how the unique characteristics of the P2 cars make them better suited to the ALMS qualifying format.  The P2’s are very light when fueled for ten or fifteen minutes of track time and without traffic can really fly over the course of a few laps.  Once the race is under way the R10 TDI’s torque characteristics are much better suited to working the GT traffic where the P2’s on full tanks lose significant momentum if the breaks don’t come just right.

Luhr’s description of qualifying played-out the next day, with the R10’s setting times early to save tires and then sitting back and watching the P2’s fight it out for overall pole position, eventually won by David Brabham in the Tequila Patron Highcroft Acura with a new ALMS lap record.  The Audi times were only good enough for ninth overall for the departing Emanuele Pirro and tenth for 2008 P1 co-champion Lucas Luhr.  At the post-qualifying press conference Pirro added his voice to the complaints that the two classes don’t make sense in the ALMS.  However, when asked to reflect on his career in sportscars he had nothing but praise for Audi Sport and the “fifteen beautiful years” they have shared.  He not only had a lot of success, but “a lot of pleasure in driving,” and he related that he still has the form to keep competing but that it wouldn’t be the same without an organization like Audi Sport behind him.  He related that you couldn’t have it all and that maybe it’s better to quit while you’re ahead.  “You know in Italy we say you can’t have everything; you can’t have your wife drunk and your bottle of wine full.” Words to live by.

The race result is by now well known.  The Audi R10 TDI’s clawed their way through the succession of too many yellows, which all agreed were exacerbated by Laguna’s insistence on a naming-sponsor supplied four- banger trucklet as a pace car that couldn’t lead the field at enough of a pace to keep any heat in the rubber.  Marco Werner would have loved to let Pirro win his last race in an Audi prototype, but a pass presented itself and Tony Kanaan and Simon Pagenaud in Acuras and Romain Dumas in a Porsche were too many P2’s knocking at the door for an overall win to yield to sentiment.  In the end it was Werner and Lucas Luhr over Pirro and Dutch F1-dropout Christijan Albers (on a tryout with Audi Sport) ahead of the tight P2 gaggle of Kanaan/Montagny, Pagenaud/DeFerran, and P2 Champions Dumas/Bernhard.

At the end of the race, Bob Dickinson introduced Allan McNish as the winner of an Internet fan ballot for Driver of the Decade, marking ten seasons of ALMS competition.  McNish seems to have won on the strength of his three ALMS Championships and his brilliant controlled aggression at Sears Point in 2000, Laguna in 2007, and recently at Petit Le Mans in 2008.  McNish also pointed to Portland in 2000, fighting through injury at Adelaide, and the maiden-win of the TDI diesel at Sebring in 2006 as his own high points. McNish’s also acknowledged his driving partner Dindo Capello, who is the winningest driver in the decade of ALMS competition, followed by Frank Biela.  Capello’s win history is of course strengthened by the fact that he stuck around and partnered with Tom Kristensen during McNish’s Wilderness Years helping Toyota incinerate hundreds of millions on a Bernie-Kart that no one seems to be able to make competitive.

This litany of Audi Sport heroes in the ALMS has led me to the conclusion that while the R8 and R10 are truly brilliant cars, Audi Sport chief Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich is also a great talent scout.  These drivers all have a cerebral approach to racing and have been able match speed with precision and consistency.  They also have a strong dedication to physical conditioning and fitness which allows them to drive long distances in all conditions, heat, rain, darkness, bumps, and traffic.  What’s more they have become a cohesive family who not only work together in the car at the track but seem to share genuine bonds of respect and friendship over many years of competition at the highest level.  This is something exceptional in motorsport.

I’ll leave it to somebody with an outside perspective, 2004 Indy Racing League champion Tony Kanaan, to affirm my thoughts that sportscar racing attracts some of the finest and most intelligent drivers in motorsport.  The Brazilian-Lebanese Kanaan and co-driver Frenchman Franck Montagny had been brought in mid-season by Andretti-Green Racing to replace ChampCar Retirees Bryan Herta and Christian Fittipaldi in the XM Radio-sponsored Acura.  After winning P2 and dicing with Simon Pagenaud in the DeFerran Motorsports Acura to a close third-overall in the exciting final hour, Tony was grinning from ear-to-ear.  “I hope I can come back, having a team that has a car…  I don't think its fair to say you come here when you retire.  There’s no old guys here, it’s all just fast guys and experienced guys.”

                                                                  David Soares
                                                                 November 2008

sportscarpros Soares Says

David Soares