A review from Road Atlanta: Petit Le Mans

Petit Le Mans: Qulaifying

It is perhaps surprising that for endurance races the qualifying sessions are so incredibly short; in the case of ALMS races only 25 minutes. Even when the GT cars and prototypes qualify separately, with such a big grids the chances of a completely clear hot lap are quite low. At least the rain held off this time and the two short afternoon sessions were warm and dry.

The dash for pole is more for pride than a significant tactical advantage in such a long race, but there is a lot at stake for sponsors and manufacturers who want their car to take the first turn in the lead for the sake of the TV cameras. So it was that Englishman Anthony Davidson in a car that had been extensively rebuilt by Peugeot machanics overnight after a small excursion in night practice, that made the flying lap in qualifying that was better than he had dreamed of, to put his car at the front of the grid. There is no doubt that Peugeot are quick, they showed that at Silverstone, and ‘team perfect’ Audi sometimes slip up (also in evidence at Silverstone) and Road Atlanta is notorious as an ‘anything can happen and usually does’ circuit. So there is all to play for when the flag drops at 11:20am today.

In GT the Ferrari lock-lout on the front of the GT grid is a fitting swan-song for the Ferrari 430 GT. Risi Competizione headed the spectacular Ferrari assault in qualifying the Prancing Horse features on the first four cars of the 17-strong GT2 grid, with Brazilian Jaime Melo in the #61 Risi Ferrari leading the way.

Petit Le Mans: The Race

It was a clean start in the autumn sunshine as the snake of cars began to carve their way through the sinuous circuit of Road Atlanta that is bordered by trees and cut from the red Georgia clay. The record breaking crowd lined the circuit to watch history being made. Audi have been forced to play the part of under-dog since the might and money of Peugeot finally paid off in 2009. Audi’s response in the shape of the evolved R15 ‘plus’ is only just able to stay in touch, even with the driving talent of Tom Kristensen, Dindo Capello and Allan McNish. The scene was set for an epic battle, and we were not disappointed.

With such a huge grid and such a technical circuit full of blind crests and invisible apexes it was sure to be traffic that would be the deciding factor. In the first few hours there were a catalogue of bumps, nudges and taps that gave rise to the particularly American style of ALMS safety car period. We did see at least 9 safety periods at my count and they lasted at least 15 to 20 minutes each. The strategy of Peugeot during those periods has been widely praised, but it could so easily have gone against them. They guessed right and they took advantage. There were four major turning points in the race. The first was the misadventure of the #9 Audi when passing traffic, Andre Lotterer left the track in the esses and lost the Audi’s nose. Repairs cost them 15 laps. The second came in the 4th hour when Stéphane Sarrazin made an impossibly optimistic passing move on Dindo Capello. The Peugeot dream could have turned to nightmare in that moment. Sarrazin was lucky, his penalty for the suicidal manoeuvre was a harmless spin and loss of a few seconds of track position. Later, during a safety car period, when McNish was mid-stint and splitting the Peugeots, only one of the Peugeots pitted so that the Audi could not inherit the lead, risking a green flag pitstop later for the leading Peugeot. The gamble paid off and they kept McNish at bay. The most bizarre turn of events was when Capello was at the wheel of the R15 #7 and holding off Franck Montagny. Something broke inside his helmet allowing part of his headset to fall in front of his eyes. He managed to get to pitlane with minimal vision and McNish took over, but the unplanned stop under green flag conditions put an end to any realistic hope of victory. The Peugeots made a 1-2 finish and it was well deserved. Audi had the consolation prize this time, but showed that they are still snapping hard at the heels of the Peugeot Lion.

The real battle was in the LM GT2 class with Ferrari, Porsche, Corvette and BMW all on the same lap for much of the 1000 miles. BMW looked like they could run away with it, but were stricken with a jammed starter in the pits that sent them to the back of the pack. A catalogue of problems hit all the leading GT2 cars as the BMW climbed back up the order and the reliable but slightly off-pace Flying Lizard Porsche lay in wait to take advantage. In the end it was another strange turn of events that decided the result. Victory seemed sure for the Bruni / Vilander Risi Competizione Ferrari #62, but on the final lap and almost able to coast to the finish it ran dry of fuel and was stranded on the track. To everyone’s surprise, it was the Corvette of Oliver Gavin, Jan Magnussen and Emmanuel Collard who took the flag and LM GT2 victory.

Dave Davies