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ALMS – Road America 500 – Race Report
JJ Finally Wins it All
Timo Takes Over Slim GT Driver’s Lead
© Tom Kjos
Road America, Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, USA – The Road American 500 started with a bang but ended in a whimper, after close racing and mechanical faults took a toll of the thin prototype fields over the first hour. In the opening period it looked like the kind of races we saw at Portland and Mosport, as Butch Leitzinger’s Lola B01/60-AER sprinted away from the pole and the field, while teammate Chris Dyson battled it out with Intersport Racing’s Jon Field and Champion Racing’s JJ Lehto. Butch led by over 12 seconds after eight laps, and was running alone, but it was hardly that sedate behind him.

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By the second turn of the race, Lehto was already on his second attempt at passing the two Dyson Racing Lolas that had started on the first row of the grid. This time it went particularly badly and the Audi spun after (very minor) contact with Jon Field’s Lola. JJ could only watch the entire field parade by before rejoining the chase. “I thought, it’s Portland all over again,” said Lehto. “But I was resolved to really take this one calm.” Making up two seconds a lap on the leaders, JJ elbowed the Panoz Esperante aside and was soon back in the fray, in fourth just three laps later, when he followed a flying Jon Field in a dive under the struggling Chris Dyson, and into third place. Both Dyson cars had come up ill-handling after having good setups all weekend, just as the Audi had done the reverse, the team having discovered a cracked rear anti-roll bar on Saturday night.

The chain of events that would end the Dyson challenge started in turn five, where according to Rob Dyson, “Chris checked-up too quickly and left Jon Field nowhere to go but to hit him.” (We believe it was Lehto who made contact with his son's car). That broke the Lola’s rear anti-roll bar. “After that, it had so much understeer that it was just a pig,” said Chris Dyson. That wasn’t the end of it, of course, for the team later discovered a broken flange on the turbo pop-off valve. That was quickly fixed, but of course the car was already out of contention for the win, when a break further up in the (exhaust) system ended the day for the #20 car.

Meanwhile, we left JJ Lehto in third place, following Jon Field’s Judd-powered Intersport Lola B01/06, and of course Lehto was again hunting down the lead cars. As the Intersport car entered Turn 5, Field spun and JJ jumped into 2nd position.

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For the next twenty-six laps and nearly an hour, we had the race we had gotten in the previous two rounds, as JJ doggedly stalked Leitzinger, who just as determinedly held him off. After a stop for fuel and left side tires only, Lehto continue his attack on the leader. Butch Leitzinger, like teammate Chris Dyson, was suffering with handling problems of his own. “The car was not handling all that well,” Leitzinger said. “It was understeering going in (to the corner) and oversteering coming out. It was pretty uncomfortable.”

The team was prepared to make adjustments in tire pressure, which Leitzinger was confident would have dealt with the problem. But after the refueling and tire change was complete, the car stalled twice as Leitzinger attempted to leave the pits. “I don’t know what that was about,” he called out on the radio. By the end of pit lane he did. The exhaust header on the #16 car was broken, too. The next lap it was retired. It was smooth (and careful) sailing from there for both Lehto and Werner until the checkered flag flew.

“We have to take the whole engine out of the car to replace the exhaust system,” said team owner Rob Dyson. “The race would have been over before we could have gotten the cars back on the track.”

The AER engines in the Dyson Lolas are turbocharged, so any break in the exhaust system in front of the turbo causes a severe loss of power.

The exact cause of the problem has yet to be determined, but according to Dyson the two leading candidates are mechanical interference between the suspension’s lower control arm when the fuel tank is full and the car is running at low ride height, or pressure pulses from newly developed pit lane speed control software. “We’ll have to go over the data that we’ve downloaded from the cars to make a final determination. This is really disappointing, because our cars were so strong here.”

Jon Field was happy with his runner-up spot, especially since the car was “terrible”. The finish is the team’s best overall, and came despite being knocked around a bit in the close racing for the lead over the first hour.

It was JJ Lehto’s fifteenth career overall win in ALMS, giving him the all time lead, and the Champion pair clinched the drivers championship for 2004. "It's been since 1988 in Formula 3 that I won my last Championship,” said Lehto. “It feels really good. It's still difficult to believe. I was close many times but now I’ve got it.”

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There was an even shorter contest in LMP2, where Jon Macaluso’s Miracle Motorsports fielded its new car, a Courage C65-AER. Against all odds, the car won its maiden outing. Ian James started the Courage, and it was all over before he handed over to James Gue, who missed the first day of his University of Georgia classes. “At the start we managed to stay ahead of the #30 car (Intersport Lola B2K/40-Judd, driven by Clint Field) and gain a second a lap, which isn’t much on a track this long,” said Ian, “I could see him (Field) in my mirrors, then he was gone.” Clint was gone all right…straight up an interior road past the “Roasted Corn on the Cob and Brat” stand, and t-shirt and die cast car vendors, a bit of “creative navigation” for which he was excluded. Field’s Lola was initially off at turn five, with a mechanical problem, and in the language of the ALMS pit notes, “is taking the shortcut back to the paddock,” (that entails leaving the track at five, turning right around the grandstands and heading up the hill toward the John the Baptist Church eatery). The next entry by the ALMS staff continues the story, “Clint Field has stalled on the hill by the vendor stands, trying to get back to the paddock behind the pits, will be towed the rest of the way.” Actually, I remember others taking the same cross-country trip in earlier decades that Clint did without being excluded. He might be able to plead that as his inspiration, except that those incidents were before he was born. With the Lola excluded, the new Courage – the same chassis that won LMP2 at Silverstone just Saturday past – ran to victory. Is that – victories for the same chassis on both sides of the Atlantic in a span of eight days – a record? John Macaluso, whose Miracle Motorsports wrapped up the LMP2 team championship here, was thrilled. “This is a dream day for me. I won my first pro race in a Can Am car here (at Road America) so long ago I don’t even want to think about it. This cements our invitation to Le Mans, which was a goal for the year.” Asked if the team would continue to run the Lola B2K/40 Nissan as a second entry (John shared the car with Mike Borkowski today), he confirmed the paddock patter: “It appears as of right now that Team Bucknum will lease the B2K/40-Nissan from us to run in the last two races of the season at Petit and Laguna Seca.” Indeed, the Lola was loaded on the Bucknum hauler before the teams left the track (Bucknum’s second Pilbeam chassis went home with Miracle to make room for the Lola).

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In GTS, Olivier Beretta and Oliver Gavin drove their #4 Corvette C5-R to a fourteen second victory over teammates Ron Fellows and Johnny O’Connell, their third win of the season and second consecutive.

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“Finally things are going our way,” said Gavin, who with Beretta had tried various changes (Wednesday night church services being one) to break what appeared to be a string of bad-luck races. “My wife and children are here this weekend, so there is no ironing…” (Oliver’s wife had ironed clothes while watching the races, another routine changed before the Mosport win). The Ollie car was just faster on the track and in the pits on this day. “Olivier (Beretta) was faster, I just couldn’t keep up with him. I’m disappointed, but that’s the way it goes,” said Johnny O’Connell. Gavin praised the pit crew, “We were three seconds faster in the pit stops, so the crew helped a lot.” For his part, Beretta compared the Corvette team favorably with every team he has driven for in his career, including in Formula 1. The ACEMCO Saleen S7R soldiered through to a finish, but there was no sign the “overall package” had “come together” on this day, as the silver car finished four laps behind the Corvettes – the drivers considerably overheated after cool suit / drinks bottle / ventilation fan failures. After a promising start, the Carsport Viper finished well off the class pace, their day including a long drive back to the pits with two blown tires, and a lot of missing bodywork, bringing out the race’s only full course caution.

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The GT race was the best of the day, if anyone was paying attention, and they certainly should have been. At the start of this seventh round, Flying Lizard drivers Johannes Van Overbeek and Darren Law led Alex Job Racing’s Timo Bernard by a scant four points in the quest for the 2004 ALMS championship. Timo and partner Jörg Bergmeister, who is out of the running after illness prohibited his participation at Sebring, started the race from the class pole, while the silver and red reptilian car started at the back of the field. We said in our qualifying report that starts nearer the back than the front had been little problem for van Overbeek and Law, and so it was today. By the time the race’s only caution flags flew, the Lizard had truly been flying and was second in class less than twenty seconds behind. Bunched up together by the yellow, they pitted together and left the pits in a near dead heat, the yellow and white AJR Porsche in the lead. Meanwhile, Petersen Motorsports-White Lightning Racing’s Porsche, the defending champion here, in the hands of Craig Stanton, had gotten a wave-around when the pace car picked up leader Marco Werner and found themselves in third place on the heels of the Flying Lizard machine. Like the Lizards, the Petersen car had completed a drive through the field, an early spin for David Murry as a result of contact with the Carsport America Viper requiring the dash. With the cameras focused elsewhere, few saw the drama on the restart, but winning driver Timo Bernhard did. “When we first got the green on the restart, it was really, really close with the 45 (Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche GT3 RSR). He got right beside me, but I was able to hold him off. As we went through four (which is the sweeping, shallow turn that makes up the downhill “straight” before the very slow turn five), I was able to pass some other cars, and the #31 (Petersen Motorsports) car followed me through (for second place).” The #45 car got stuck behind the traffic and was dropped well back, ending the challenge for the lead. The two Flying Lizard drivers now trail Bernhard by just three points with two races yet to contend. Both of those races will award bonus points for being of longer duration than the two hour, forty-five minute format. The #66 The Racer’s Group Porsche was hurt as much as others were helped by the caution. The car had come into the pits just five minutes before the yellow for its regular pit stop, thus losing a lap to the field when the yellow flag appeared. TRG drivers Patrick Long and Cort Wagner none-the-less finished fourth in class, Long holding off Tim Sugden in the J3 RSR, also a lap down after Justin Jackson started this one. Long and Sugden were sometimes the fastest GT men in the field. After a promising start to the weekend, the Panoz Esperante finished ninth – both drivers in need of medical attention from the heat. Sascha Maassen was among the very fastest GT drivers, but the car lost a lap and then more with a loose engine cover, while fastest of all was the #24 AJR Porsche, but Marc Lieb suffered suspension failure while leading, and then the clutch packed up. Ill fortune haunts the #24 this year. With Risi Competizione’s Ferrari 360 Modena not entered, the Panoz was the only non-Porsche in the field. That gave Porsche the opportunity to wrap up the manufacturer’s championship with two races remaining in the 2004 season. Not that the title was ever in doubt.

It wasn’t a classic race, but it had its entertaining moments. The first hour was graced by a battle between the prototypes at the front of the field (a high speed battle, on a fantastic circuit), and the last half hour by a scrap for the GT crown. Marco Werner and JJ Lehto secured a richly deserved LMP1 driver’s championship – JJ particularly having entertained us with great drives since he and James Weaver captured our imaginations at Sebring in 1999. With that, the focus of the series and its teams turns to the Petit Le Mans, already a “classic” event. We expect the field to be augmented by some number of European entries, particularly in the prototype classes. And we can hope for a renewal of the kind of racing at the front we saw at Portland and Mosport.

 

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