So How Was Your Season, Guy Smith?

This is the first of several off-season features, in which drivers have a chance to tell us about their season just finished. Guy Smith gets the ball rolling, the 2003 Le Mans winner having had an eventful 2006, culminating in missing a race, but being present for a very special event.

Well, what a year 2006 has been: it’s been a year of highs and lows, the lows coming thick and fast in the early months.

This year I joined Dyson Racing full-time, after a partial season in 2005: it is my first ‘full time’ drive since I raced in the ALMS in 2000 with Johansson Matthews Racing. In many ways this year was very similar to that year with the Reynard, in the fact that the Reynard, like the Lola, was a brand new car (and with a brand new AER engine this time) and it’s been a real challenge to get the package up to speed, and reliable.

Like any new programme it takes time, success doesn’t happen overnight. We knew the engine would be strong, the dyno figures proved that, and we knew Lola would build us a good car, but it’s the small things that are usually the hard bits to figure out.

Putting the chassis and engine together was straight forward, but at the first initial tests, at Sebring, in public, there were a few small, niggling problems: the performance was evident from those first few laps, but it was going to take time to make it into an endurance package, much like it did with Bentley in 2003.

Sebring was our first event - a great test of any driver, team or car, if not the greatest, and we were going well - but those ‘niggles’ kept on appearing and of course the arrival of the Audi R10 and its diesel power proved that it would be a hard year and perhaps not a fair contest.

The next few months were a blur, literally bouncing from race to race and for me, ALMS to Grand-Am back and forth: the Grand Am races at Daytona (right), Homestead, VIR and Watkins were great fun. The cars themselves are not the most rewarding to drive, but when the flag drops the racing is second to none and I really enjoyed that.

As we went through Houston, Mid-Ohio and Lime Rock we continued to learn and work on the package: we showed flashes of speed but were unable to back that up with results. Chris and I in the #20 car in particular were having the lion’s share of the bad luck, while the #16 car was able to hold together and score some points.

After a week in the South of France sampling the local ‘vino’ with Chris and our ‘other halves’, and a hefty amount of training thrown in for good measure, we came back to Salt Lake feeling a bit more refreshed, and were able to put our early season woes behind us.

Immediately the car was going really well, as was the latest spec. AER engine: the Salt Lake circuit was fantastic, a real mix of high and low speed corners, but it was so long! It felt like being at Le Mans. I am sure next year will be easier, having raced there before. Our race was good and for the first time we started to mix it up with Audis and the Porsche LMP2 cars.

I think this really was the turning point in our 2006 season but still it was obvious that Audi had a huge advantage in terms of a) horsepower and b) fuel economy.

Portland was up next and having taken the drive from Salt Lake to Portland, I was feeling pretty good going into the race. I had won my first race in America, in Indy Lights, there in 1998 - in fact I have never finished off the podium at Portland.

I was given qualifying duties for this race and had secured pole position early in the session - which looked good until Butch went out again for one last run and just pipped me! But still it was a Dyson Racing lock out of the front row, which was fantastic!

After qualifying I heard that there was some talk that Audi were not very happy as we had been allowed to qualify at 860 kg, down from 900 kg, (IMSA had allowed us to run at 860 as a performance adjustment). After much talking between the two teams and IMSA, we raced at a compromise 880 kg.

I was able to make a good start and squeeze past Butch into the Festival Curves: it wasn’t planned, I had expected to slot in behind him and keep the Audis out, but I was so worried that the Audi would get past me at the start I really focused on getting a good jump at the green flag.

To my surprise I was able to put my head down and pull out a sizable lead of around 10 seconds: for the first time the package really felt as one. We went on to finish third and keep up my run of Portland podium finishes! I am sad that we won’t race there next year, as I really love racing there and I have a lot of great memories.

Road America is a fantastic race track: I first drove there in 2004 in Champ Car. I remember it being bloody fast then but I wasn’t sure if it was the car that impressed me so much or the circuit. After my first few laps in the Lola, I realised that this is one of those tracks that would be mega even in a golf cart!

The race was good and bad: we had been running well, pushing our fuel window to the limit to try not to lose too much to Audi and right when we had to pit there was a full course yellow and the pits closed. We had no choice except to pit.

A penalty followed, effectively putting us out of contention for a decent result, the car though was mega and I was able record a new lap record.

We were really starting to feel good about the programme: both cars were running strong and running reliably and we had come up with a good, portable set up.

On to Canada and Mosport, but I couldn’t really remember the circuit so well. I last raced there in 2000 but somehow managed to forget the track! How could I? It’s awesome - so fast and challenging. Both Chris and myself love driving there.

Chris had a very strong opening stint and handed me the car in third place, and after a few laps I found myself in the lead as McNish had pitted. Again the car was going like a train and I was able to lap faster than the Audi.

However after my final stop I rejoined in second place, 20 seconds behind Allan. I pushed like crazy and was able bit by bit to chip away at his lead, falling short by 2.5 seconds at the flag. But I still felt good about what we had achieved and had we had the same economy as the Audi we would have spent 15 seconds less in the pits….but that is the diesel’s strength and that’s fair enough. I think my expression sums up that day in Canada...

I love Petit Le Mans - it’s a great event, one of the best of the year. After our previous strong showings at Road America and Mosport, I felt confident we could take the fight to Audi. Creation and Zytek had both brought cars over which was great as a boost to the grid and gave us more competition to go up against.

It wasn’t our best weekend though: a mix up in qualifying meant that we didn’t perform at our best, which was very disappointing as both the Creation and the Zytek had both gone well, but come race day we had found our feet. I managed to go fastest in morning warm up, with James right behind.

In the race, again we were running well with Chris keeping the Audis in sight and running a very strong pace, and the #16 car also putting pressure on the leaders. After Chris’s first double stint I took over and was able to get past Capello in the number 2 Audi and started to chase down Biela in the number 1 car. I was able to slowly make inroads into his lead, especially in traffic, but just as I got into a position to mount a challenge for the lead, I had a huge accident on the downhill section into turn 5, with the car turning sharp right on me with no warning. Without going into it the car stood up really well to the impact. I suffered no injuries, not even a bruise, which is credit to Lola for building such a strong car. However it was now VERY secondhand.

I had found out before Sebring that my wife Alicia was pregnant and that the baby was due on October 15, the Sunday before the last race in Laguna. I had been quite nervous that I might miss the birth as they say that first babies are usually late.

I needn’t have worried: I got the news that the #20 car would not be ready in time for the Laguna race. It was bitter sweet. I was so disappointed to miss the race as I felt that we were really making good progress and I could sniff that first win, but on the other hand I would be at home to see the birth of our daughter Bronte, who in the end was born right on her due date! Well done Alicia!

It’s probably the only thing that beats winning Le Mans!

I am looking forward to next season: the plan is to stay where I am at Dyson Racing and try and get that first ALMS win.

It’s been a great year and I have loved driving for Dyson and being part of the ALMS – and I’m sure 2007 will be a great year.
Guy Smith

 

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