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ALMS – Chevy Presents Petit Le Mans – Prototype Qualifying Report
Clint Field Nips Ian James at the Flag
Also at the Flag, Weaver The Quickest
© Tom Kjos
Road Atlanta, Braselton, Georgia, USA – We didn’t see this coming, not exactly like this, and neither did you. Sure, the Dyson Lolas have taken most of the poles this season, including a sweep at Road America, the most recent stop for this circus. James Weaver has done this before, gone fast at exactly the last (and right) moment. In their first outing, Miracle Motorsports had put their shiny new Courage C65 on the pole at Road America.

But we’ve watched Champion’s two Audi R8s begin to assert themselves over the last few sessions here, and to us (and others) it seemed there was an increased presence from Volkswagen-Audi AG. After setting the 1st and 2nd fastest times in the opening practice session on Thursday, the highest a Dyson car was on the time sheets in the next three sessions was third.

“I told them to go easy on the cars,” said team-owner Rob Dyson. “This race is going to run for ten hours, and if you can’t run that long, you can’t win. Our cars have been fast all year, but at this race we’re focusing on reliability. I didn’t want to run the cars any harder than we needed to.” Peter Weston, Dyson Racing’s late-of-Lola chassis engineer, when asked what to expect in qualifying, was specific. “Number 2 will get it (the pole).” That with the cars on pit lane, waiting the session’s green flag. Dyson team manager Randall Kelsey couldn’t disagree, except to add, “We’ll see whether James has anything up his sleeve.”

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Mike Jankowski at Creation Autosportif was upbeat just before qualifying. “We managed to get set-ups for both qualifying and the race that we’re happy with. We think we can match the race pace of the Audis.” That and the fact that this car had taken two out of four poles in the LMES – against mighty Audi Sport UK Team Veloqx – meant there certainly was reason for optimism.

dailysportscar.comUp the paddock at Miracle Motorsports, Jon Macaluso was busy, but Yves Courage (left) was happy to chat. “Yes, I am pleased. The only problem that we have had is the time – the time we need to get the tire to work with the car. I like very well American racing; in the past we have not had a good experience – we would like to start that again with a good experience.” Nicolas Perrin, a Courage employee working with Miracle, joined us. “We have a new tire (Yokohama) built especially for this car, and the circuits here are different. For us it is all brand new,” said Nicolas.

“Do you expect to have more than one Courage in the ALMS next year, Yves?” we asked. That got a smile and a simple answer, “Yes.” What do you expect from qualifying Mr. Perrin? “Pole position for sure.”

dailysportscar.comThe green flag for the prototype session came at 3:17. Sure enough, Pierre Kaffer (Champion Audi R8 #2) set an early fast lap in the high 1:12s. Is it going to be a romp? The other LMP1s are well up into the 1:13s, even 1:14s after a first set of laps. The really fast laps were set last night in the cooler weather, weren’t they? Perhaps that will be enough. Almost simultaneously, Ian James puts the Miracle Motorsports Courage at the top of LMP2 with a 1:18.220. Didn’t someone say that ALMS is getting so predictable?

At 3:23, Michael Lewis puts Autocon’s Riley & Scott Mk IIIC/Elan into the tire barrier. At last, some notice – but that cuts the session short. When we get the green flag back, there are just nine minutes left in the twenty-minute session. Right out of the chute, Ian James resets fastest LMP2 lap with a 1:17.991, and again, lowers the mark to 1:17.443. The Dyson Lolas seem to be struggling, not finding the speed. “Wait,” someone says, “the Goodyears come in later, James (Weaver) doesn’t have the heat in yet,” (another reason the Englishman so much dislikes one-at-a-time two-lap qualifying, we think, cynically).

dailysportscar.comMeanwhile, LMP1 is conforming to script. Pierre Kaffer resets best time with a 1:12.556. That lasts an entire minute. Nicolas Minassian banishes the German with a decisive-looking 1:12.421. It’s 3:36 PM. With just four minutes remaining, the pole looks set, especially when the Dyson cars and Audis don’t immediately answer. Minassian, Courage – our friends from the Automobile Club de l’Ouest might have to be revived, we think. This is the way the grand sport should look, no?

Then, wham, it was all different. A checkered flag, cars through just before, still on flying laps. John Hindhaugh, ALMS Web Radio, calling this session on the public address system here, is about to expire on us, having cheered and yelled through the changes and challenges. Now he describes the progress of the last cars on the track, and explodes into “he’s got the pole!” as Clint Field – the first we have heard from the Intersport Lola B2K/40 Judd – hits the mark with a 1:17.225, just seventeen thousandths faster than the Miracle Courage.

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That’s not the end, either. Weaver has been flying on this last lap (we’ve seen this before, haven’t we?). But the car is so low to the ground and so “hooked up” that alone on the track it doesn’t look fast. A fan tells me later, “I saw him through (turns) two and three, and I thought ‘why isn’t he pushing faster?’ I realized later he was just so smooth.” Hindhaugh gets through it – screams the result, “He’s got it! Weaver takes the pole!” And so he had, again, his fifth this year in eight races.

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Expectations? We asked Creation’s Mike Jankowski after it was all over. “We expected to be on the pole,” he said. “We were disappointed – we could have done better, but the fact is, we’re a little down on top speed, on the straight.”

Nicolas Minassian, who qualified Creation’s Reynard DBA 03S/Zytek, said, “It was a pretty good lap. This track takes a lot out of the car but I think it would have been possible to go quicker. I’m a little bit disappointed because pole position is always sweet, you know, but the front row is a great job. We are not far at all from the people who have been doing this forever and we are going to give them our best shot tomorrow.”

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Goodyear has captured both prototype poles again with only two teams in the fray; it seems it’s becoming a regular occurrence.

dailysportscar.comJames Weaver was in good form at the post qualifying press conference: “I’m a big fan of traditional qualifying. I think that stupid two-lap qualifying is just that – stupid. As a school boy, I remember going and watching Villeneuve (that would be Gilles, of course) in the British Grand Prix, and I’ve been convinced that is the proper way to do it ever since. If that (session just completed) doesn’t convince them (that the “traditional’ approach of multiple cars out during a timed period is exciting), then nothing will. I made a pig’s ear of a couple of laps there and came out in traffic – right where I didn’t want to be – but then “geniusly” (poking fun at himself) found a hole and got two clear laps in.”

We’re told that without the red flag interruption the Lola was “good for a one-eleven.” About the race tomorrow, James offered that a “betting man” would have to back Audi, wouldn’t he? “Audi has to be the finest sports car ever built,” said the Wiltshire, England, resident. Johnny Herbert, the Brentwood, Essex, England, Audi pilot looked forward to the race, after partner Kaffer fell just short in qualifying, "I'm very happy with the car and am hopeful I can win the Petit Le Mans for a second consecutive year. The amount of traffic makes this race particularly difficult so it's vital to have a car that is both good on and off line for overtaking. I'm delighted to be back here with Team ADT Champion Racing - winning the Le Mans Endurance Series for Audi was satisfying but I've missed racing over here."

We won’t count the blue and white cars out again, though, will we?

 

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