2011 12 Hours of Sebring in the books!

With this weekend’s 12 Hours of Sebring marking the opening round of both the American Le Mans Series and the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, an even larger than usual contingent of European teams turned up for a 56 car starting field. For some years now, the bumpy Sebring track has attracted the European factory squads from Peugeot, Audi and Aston Martin as a high-speed test session for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This was also the first race run to the new 2011 rules package with downsized engines for the top LMP1 class.

Only three all-new P1 cars on the track to compete at Sebring were the factory Peugeot 908s and the Highcroft HPD ARX-01e. While Audi had been testing its all new 3.7-liter V6 diesel powered at Sebring in the weeks leading up to the race, the Germans opted to race with an updated version of last year’s Le Mans winning R15+ with smaller intake restrictors and fuel tank. The rest of the P1 field consisted of “grandfathered” old 2010 P1 and P2 machines including the biobutanol powered Dyson Racing Lola-Mazda and the ex-factory Aston Martin-Lola being run by the Cytosport Muscle Milk team. The French Oreca Matmut team that ran an ex-factory Peugeot in Europe (including Le Mans) in 2010 is entered in the ILMC with its V12 diesel machine so they were also running in Florida.

The lighter, lower cost P2 machines are now required to use production based engines and only four of them were ready for the season opener including a pair of Honda powered Lolas fielded by last year’s LMP Challenge winners, Level 5 Motorsports. Interestingly, Level 5 ran one car as a closed-top coupe while the other was in open-top configuration.

A full field of 24 GT cars took part including the debuts of the all-new Ferrari 458 Italia and the Panoz Abruzzi. Three of the older Ferrari F430 GTs were also on hand to prove that they were still in contention. Among the Ferrari squads, Houston based Risi Competizione arrived in Florida with absolutely no running time on their new 458 after the car was held up in customs for an extra week and then the crew had scramble just to prepare it for the race. The factory Corvette C6.Rs were making their first run with the new paddle-shift gearbox. The JaguarRSR XKR and Robertson Racing Ford GT squads both expanded to two car efforts.

Through most of the practice and qualifying sessions from Wednesday to Friday the P1 cars were all running fairly close together with no one really dominating. That all changed when Stephan Sarrazin went out for a hot lap in the #8 Peugeot and put in a blistering lap 1.109 seconds faster than the #1 Audi which took the #2 spot. The Peugeots and Audis alternated for the first five slots on the grid. Among the P2 cars, the new Signatech Oreca-Nissan ran nearly 3.5 seconds a lap quicker than the first of the Level 5 Lola-HPD which happened to be the open-top version.

Among the GT machines, things were a lot tighter with less than eight-tenths of a second covering the first six cars. Gimmi Bruni in the AF Corsa F430 went out and demonstrated that the older Ferrari still had some life left in it by grabbing the GT pole ahead of the 04 Corvette, the two BMWs, the Risi Ferrari and the #045 Flying Lizard Porsche.

Once the green flag fell on Saturday morning, Frank Montagny kept the lead and Alex Wurz slipped past Mike Rockenfeller’s Audi where they stayed for the next several laps with the Audis following close behind. In GT Oliver Gavin got the jump on Bruni’s Ferrari and quickly started to pull out a lead of several seconds over the first few laps. Eventually the grip on the Ferrari’s tires improved and the gap vanished and Bruni got back out in front while the Corvette lost grip any time it picked up some dust.

At the front of the pack, the four factory prototypes from Germany and France continued their mighty battle trading places and paint as they regularly rubbed fenders. However, several caution periods in the early hours prevented a breakaway and bunched up the field. Ultimately neither team was likely to be dominant anyway as the Audis seemed to have more straightline speed and the Puegeots had the advantage in corners.

Following a restart less than two hours in, the 04 Corvette came in contact with Patrick Long’s Porsche and they both spun in Turn 17. As the back end of the Corvette came around it struck the rear of the ExtremeSpeed Ferrari 458 of Johannes van Overbeek causing it spin backwards into the tirewall causing heavy damage and ending its day. Jan Magnussen got the Corvette back to the pits for some quick repairs that cost six minutes and ultimately a shot at victory at the end of the day.

In that same hour, Mike Rockenfeller pitted the #1 Audi on two consecutive laps for a punctured left rear tire that also damaged body work. After the second stop, the car went back to the garage for more extensive repairs that cost it eight laps. Teammate Dindo Capello had coming together with Peugeot driver Marc Gene in hour five that resulted in rear suspension damage to the Audi which cost seven laps in the pits.

All of the new Ferraris ran well at various times but ultimately succumbed to various maladies that dropped them well down or out of the competition. The last 458 with a chance was the fresh out of the box Risi car which led the GT field on several occasions. Unfortunately as the sun set on Florida, an alternator problem kicked in when the night driving lights were switched on and the battery rapidly drained. The team tried running with just the regular headlights but it was simply too dangerous and the car was parked with about 90 minutes left.

By this time, the 2010 Puegeot being campaigned by Hughes de Chaunac’s Oreca Matmut team had moved into the lead followed by the Highcroft HPD ARX-01e and the #8 factory 908 all on the lead lap. The Muscle Milk Aston Martin had retired midway after damage caused by a collision with one of the GT cars and the Audi were five and six laps down in fourth and fifth.

In GT the fight between the top six stayed on the same lap for much of the day and only late in the race did the two BMW M3s of the Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan squad get a firm hold on the top two spots.

However, the real battle remained at the front where the older Peugeot had the speed advantage on the HPD car, while the latter had an efficiency advantage. The question was whether the French machine could build up enough of a cushion to retain the lead while it made and extra stop for fuel in the final hour. The Connecticut based Highcroft team opted to run lean and preserve fuel as the Peugeot slowly pulled away.  In the final hour, the Oreca car dashed in for a splash of fuel that was just enough to allow to get to the finish and still exit the pits ahead of the Highcroft car. Meanwhile Frank Montagny in the factory 908 was unable to close a 20-25 second gap to Simon Pagenaud in the ARX-01e, especially after he got stuck behind Alan McNish in the #2 Audi. Just after 10:30pm, the Oreca car took the checkered flag in the team’s first visit to Florida since 2000 when it was running the factory Dodge Viper GT effort. The HPD and #8 Peugeot filled out the podium, all on the lead lap.

In GT, the 56 and 55 BMW’s led the way with the Corvettes right behind. The open-top Level 5 Lola-Honda recovered from early problems and overcame the pole sitting Signatech Oreca-Nissan for the LMP2 victory. In LMP Challenge, the Genoa Racing team took top honors while defending GT Challenge champs, Black Swan Racing continued their winning ways.

The teams with fresh cars now have four weeks to get things sorted out before getting back in action at Long Beach on April 16.

 

ALMS cuts petroleum use while improving racing

Being green isn’t what most fans think about when high-powered race cars roar past, but the American Le Mans Series thinks differently. Race cars obviously use a lot more fuel than a typical Prius, but efficiency is actually very important to most racers.

Weight is the enemy of performance and the more fuel a car uses, the more it has to carry, adding mass. In endurance racing, especially on long tracks like Le Mans, guzzling fuel also means more pit stops and time standing still while other cars are circulating.

ALMS CEO Scott Atherton led the charge starting in 2006 to make the series the “green racing” leader. ALMS regulations are based on those set down by the Automobile Club de L’Ouest (ACO) which runs Le Mans. Le Mans organizers have given prizes for the efficiency index going back to at least the 1960s and the ACO rule book made allowances for all manner of different powerplants including Wankel rotaries and different fuels such as diesel.

Atherton took this idea and expanded on it, deciding that the ALMS was going to make a concerted effort to reduce oil and petroleum use. There were a number of reasons for going down this path, not the least of which was to find an angle that would set the series apart and hopefully attract new fans. Adopting new fuels starting with E10 and diesel and allowing experimental powertrains would also provide an outlet for manufacturers looking to test new technology that could have production applications.

In 2008, Atherton announced the introduction of cellulosic ethanol E85 blends as one of the allowable fuels in the series as well as the launch of the Michelin Green X Challenge. Starting with the Intersport LMP1 team and the GT1 Corvettes that year, the use of E85 has grown to the point where virtually the entire GT field is now using it along with several prototypes.  The diesel powered Audi prototypes were regular competitors and winners and the diesel Peugeots also join in the fun at Sebring and Petit Le Mans as part of their preparations for the French endurance classic. In 2010, the Dyson Racing squad also began using a 20 percent bio-butanol blend for the entire season after testing it in 2009.

2009 also saw the debut of the Corsa racing team with a hybrid LMP1 car that saw limited success and Porsche ran its more competitive flywheel hybrid 911 GT3R at the 2010 Petit Le Mans.

The Green Challenge is a second championship in addition to the race for outright victory. Working with the US Department of Energy and the Society of Automotive Engineers, ALMS developed a formula that rates the cars on a combination of distance run on the track and overall carbon footprint. The teams that demonstrate the best combination of performance and efficiency take the prize.  In 2010, the Highcroft racing team took both the overall LMP championship and the Green Challenge for prototypes, while E85 fueled Flying Lizard Porsche took the GT class.

So what does it all amount to? For the Corvette Racing team, the struggle for efficiency saw the team improve from getting 10 laps per tankful at the 8.5 mile Le Mans circuit during their debut season in 1999 to 15 laps per tank in 2009. The 911 hybrid gets 25-30 percent better fuel efficiency than its conventional equivalent despite added weight. At this year’s 12 Hours of Sebring, the combined field will use over 28 percent less petroleum than the 2007 field. The Sebring field also includes a number of European teams that aren’t set up for running on E85, so once they go home and the rest of the ALMS season continues that improvement will get even better.

According to ALMS spokesman Bob Dickinson, if the entire U.S. vehicle fleet achieved a similar improvement, oil imports could be cut in half and 338 million gallons of gasoline would be saved.

We won’t kid you, we love the sound and fury of sports cars chasing each around a road course for hours on end and the technology is damn cool. The fact that it can be done while using less of the planet’s resources at the same time, is a serious bonus.

Highcroft Racing gives first glimpse of new HPD ARX-01e LMP1 car: Updated!

Defending American Le Mans Series LMP champions Highcroft Racing have finally shown the first images of the new HPD ARX-01e that will campaign in 2011. With the Le Mans Prototypes returning to a two class setup this year, Highcroft has had a busy off-season testing the all-new twin-turbo V6 that Honda Performance Development (HPD) has produced for P2 customers while also developing a new P1 car.

This year’s P1 rules are based on the old P2 rules with normally-aspirated E10-fueled engines limited to 3.4 liters but with the same 900 kilogram minimum weight as the pre-2010 P1 cars. The ARX-01e will be powered by an updated version of the tried and true V8 that Highcroft has used since the beginning of the Acura ALMS effort in 2007. To compensate for the extra 50 kg the car now has to carry, the 01e engine gets larger air restrictors that boost output to over 500 horsepower.

Aside from the V8, the only other major component carried over from last year’s ARX-01c is the central tub. All of the bodywork and suspension hardware has been heavily revamped by HPD and Wirth Research. Nick Wirth and his UK-based race engineering shop have been working with Honda’s California -based racing division since the program was launched in 2006. The 01e adopts several of the design features first seen on the 2009 ARX-02a including the equal-diameter front and rear wheels.

2009 Acura ARX-02a

The aerodynamic package of the 01e looks like a blend of the older P1 car and last year’s 01c. The green and black Patron that has become familiar on the Highcroft machine for the last three years has been replaced by sponsorship from from technical partner Michelin.

The Highcroft crew is now headed to Sebring for a shakedown test with the new racer ahead of next week’s season opening 12 Hour enduro. David Brabham and Marino Franchitti will be back in the cockpit with Simon Pagenaud joining the lineup for the longer races at Sebring, Road Atlanta and Laguna Seca.

Update: The team hit the track in Sebring over the weekend completing 33 laps on Saturday in their first shakedown run.  Day one was dedicated to systems checks before starting on some setup work on Sunday.  Monday the track will be open for two four hour official test sessions for all race entrants. Those sessions will give us the first indications of how well the Highcroft HPD machine will run against the Audis, Peugeots and Aston Martins.

Ferrari F458 GT in ExtremeSpeed Motorsports livery

 

Scott Sharp’s ExtremeSpeed Motorsports team was the first outfit to show off the all-new Ferrari F458 GT on the track back in January, but at that time it was only seen in basic black. Afterwards ESM took a pass on the American Le Mans Series winter test at Sebring while it prepared its new cars for the team’s second season of competition. The cars have now been revealed in a fresh variation of the usual black and green livery of the Patron distillery that looks stunning on the voluptuous Italian bodywork.

Nobody has any idea how fast the 458 GT will be, but ExtremeSpeed Motorsports will look damn good doing it. Only one 458 GT has been seen in public in the hands of the Risi team at Sebring. That car consistently ran mid-pack during the test, closing to within half a second of the leading Corvettes by the end of the fourth and final test session. We only have a few more days to wait until official practice opens for the 12 Hours of Sebring and all of our questions are answered.

Corvette Racing Video Series Season 2: Episode 1 Paddle Shift

The American Le Mans Series opens its 2011 season at Sebring in a few weeks, and the Corvette Racing Video Series returns as well. The first episode is out, and takes a look at the biggest change to the C6.R for 2011. The ALMS has made numerous changes to the technical regulations this year including the approval of paddle shifters for GT cars, and the Corvettes will be among the cars running with the new setup.

Well before the recent winter test at Sebring, the Corvette factory team had the new cars out at Road Atlanta for a test session focused on evaluating and calibrating the new electronic shift mechanism. Now that there’s no more third pedal, the electronic brains will have to manage the timing of de-clutching, moving the internal mechanisms in the gearbox and either closing or blipping the throttle during gear changes. Everything has to be perfectly choreographed in order to optimize performance and reliability.  Check out the video for more details from program manager Doug Fehan and crew chief Doug Binks.

American Le Mans Series 2011 preview

We’ve passed the midway point between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, so it’s time to start thinking about motorsports again. That means getting ready for the 2011 American Le Mans Series (ALMS), which rose from the ashes of IMSA in 1999 and has since become the preeminent sports car racing series in North America. Despite the economic slowdown of the last several years, ALMS has grown its fields and its attendance, thanks to CEO Scott Atherton’s collaboration with Le Mans organizers Automobile Club de L’Ouest (ACO) and an emphasis on relevant and green racing. It’s far more exciting than the F1 space race or NASCAR’s same-sameyness.

Atherton has promoted the idea of alternative fuels and alternative drivetrains along with a mix of high-tech prototypes and recognizable GT cars. ALMS is the only series North America with such a diverse mix of propulsion systems. The base fuel for cars in the series is E10, a blend of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline. Many of the cars including virtually the entire GT field now run on cellulosic E85 a next generation biofuel made from organic waste materials. Though the Audis no longer run the full season in America, they and the French Peugeots still appear at Sebring and Petit Le Mans with their diesel powered prototypes and in 2010, Dyson Racing began running on biobutanol, another biofuel with characteristics more like gasoline.

For 2011, the fuel situation remains the same with four approved fuels but the other technical rules have been modified to align with the updated ACO specs. In 2010 ALMS ran the former LMP1 and LMP2 cars in a single class with weight and air restrictor adjustments to even out the performance. This year we are back to two prototype classes with the new LMP1 largely following the former LMP2 specs. The most significant change for the P1 cars is that hybrid powertrains are now officially allowed.

In 2009, Corsa Motorsports ran an LMP1 car with a Zytek hybrid drive system that had some success but inadequate funding sidelined that car last year. Porsche’s 911 GT3R hybrid made its North American debut at the season ending Petit Le Mans last fall with its electro-mechanical flywheel energy storage system. Porsche has yet to announce 2011 hybrid racing plans, but the 918 RSR may well appear on the track before the year is out.

2011 LMP1 cars will continue to run with race-bred engines limited to 3.4 liters normally aspirated or 2.0 liters turbocharged if running on gasoline or ethanol blends and 3.7-liters if diesel fueled. Dyson Racing is back this year with its butanol-fueled Lola coupe powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged Mazda four cylinder engine. The diesel powered Audis and Peugeots will also return for at least the enduros at Sebring and PLM since both races are part of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup that also includes the flagship race in France and four other events in Europe and Asia.

Audi will contest Sebring with an updated version of the R15+ TDI that won at Le Mans last year while it continues testing of the all-new R18 TDI for its race debut in France. Unlike the open-top R15 and its predecessors the R10 and R8, the R18 is a closed coupe. This echoes the more aerodynamically efficient approach taken by Peugeot. The 5.0-liter V10 diesel has been supplanted by an all-new 3.7-liter twin-turbo V6 diesel. At PLM last year, Audi motorsports chief Dr Wolfgang Ulrich declined to comment on whether the new car would use a hybrid drive, but if it does, we wouldn’t be surprised to see it adopt a version of the flywheel system from the 911.

In addition to the new body style, the R18 also adopts a feature that debuted on the 2009 Acura ARX-02a, identically sized front and rear wheels and tires. For many years, most race cars have used smaller front wheels, but the new configuration allows for a more balanced weight distribution and handling.

Peugeot is also back with an all-new diesel prototype that retains the 908 designation of the old car but not much else. The 3.7-liter diesel in the 908 has eight cylinders and two turbos, down from the old car’s V12. Peugeot has been testing a hybrid version of the old 908 since September 2009 but hasn’t indicated if the electric boost and regenerative braking system will be used on the 2011 car. The French manufacturer has also opted for a equal front and rear wheel/tire combo used on the Audi. All of the new prototypes are also equipped with vertical “shark-fin” aerodynamic panel on top of the engine compartment, a change mandated by the new rules to help prevent the cars from getting airborne if they spin.

Both Audi and Peugeot are planning full campaigns in the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup (ILMC) which means that they will be at both Sebring and Petit Le Mans as well as five other races in Europe and Asia. Peugeot has not indicated whether the new or old 908 will run at Sebring.

Among the ALMS regulars, two-time prototype champion Highcroft racing is back again with Honda power shifting back to the P1 class. Highcroft will be running an updated ARX-01e with the 3.4-liter V8 used so successfully for the last several years. Highcroft has been a Honda factory development partner since Acura entered the ALMS in 2007. The Connecticut based team spent much of the off-season testing a modified ARX-01c P2 car fitted with the new twin-turbo 2.8-liter V6 from Honda Performance Development (HPD).

The new HPD engine conforms to the 2011 LMP2 rules that require production based engines that cost no more than $35,000. The HR28TT is based on Honda’s global V6 that sees use across most of the Honda and Acura lineup including the Accord, Odyssey and MDX. In ALMS defending prototype challenge champions Level 5 Motorsports are moving up to the P2 class with a pair of Lola chassis using the new HPD V6.

In addition to Highcroft and Dyson, LMP2 stalwarts Muscle Milk Cytosport are also moving up to P1. The Porsche RS Spyder has been retired from ALMS competition so the squad owned by Greg Pickett has taken over one of the former factory Aston Martin Lola coupes. Like other older P1 cars, this one is grandfathered in with tighter air restrictors on its 6.0-liter V12 but that didn’t seem to cause much grief at last week’s annual ALMS winter test at Sebring where it outpaced all other challengers.

Last summer Roush Yates Engines announced plans to produce an LMP2 spec engine based on Ford’s 3.5-liter Ecoboost V6 and Lola announced that it would produce an installation kit for its chassis.  However, no team has publicly announced plans to compete with the Ecoboost engine.

In the GT ranks, the fields will again be full for 2011 with all of last years marques returning. Corvette Racing is back with two freshly built C6.Rs. The team experienced more difficulties than usual in 2010 including a double DNF at Le Mans. However, the Detroit based squad brought it all together at the season-ending Petit Le Mans with a last lap victory.  That momentum carried through to 2011 where the new car topped the GT class at the Sebring test.

While the Corvette is basically the same as the 2010 model, the driver lineup will see its biggest shakeup in several years with decade-long veteran Johnny O’Connell leaving the Vette squad to pilot one of the new Cadillac CTS-Vs in the SCCA World Challenge series. Tommy Milner is moving over from the Rahal-Letterman BMW squad to join Olivier Beretta in the #3 car.

One on only two all-new cars in GT for 2011 is the gorgeous Ferrari 458 Italia, four of which will be operated by Extreme Speed Motorsports and Risi Competizione. The 458 gets a larger engine, new gearbox and of course completely different aerodynamics from the 430GT it replaces. Speaking of the 430GT which has been so successful over the past several years, Tracy Khron is back in 2011 running one of the “obsolete” Ferraris.

The other new entry this year, is the 458’s most direct market competitor, the Lamborghini Gallardo which will be run by the freshman West Racing team.

Of course this wouldn’t be GT racing with a complement of Porsche 911s and the GT3 RSR is back in the hands of Flying Lizard and Black Swan Racing which is moving up from GT Challenge. Also returning is Rahal-Letterman Racing with its factory backed pair of BMW M3 GTs.  Robertson Racing returns and will be running two of its Ford GTs for the full season after debuting the second car #04 at Petit Le Mans.

Also expanding to two cars is the JaguarRSR team which is back for its sophomore attempt. 2010 was pretty much a disaster for the Jaguar XKR-GT with a string of mechanical and electrical failures that usually it retire very early on. With two cars, the team has brought three veteran racers in P.J. Jones, Bruno Junqueira and Cristiano Da Matta to join team owner Paul Gentillozi. Hopefully with the experience of 2010 behind them the pretty green and black Jags can actually finish races this year.

The LMP Challenge and GT Challenge classes are back again for a second season with their lower cost and fixed specifications and several new teams joining the party.

The 2011 ALMS and ILMC seasons kick off on March 19 with the 12 Hours of Sebring with a massive 59 car grid. If 2010 is anything to go by, 2011 should be another bang up season for sports car racing fans in North America and the around the world.