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.