Robin Liddell – Nerves Jangling At Laguna Seca
dailysportscar.comDaytona, Sebring, Le Mans, Petit Le Mans – PK Sport had entered them all before this season, and achieved considerable success at each. A first season of the full ALMS has been a challenge though. Robin Liddell kept us up to date with many of the key races during the 2003 season (see his interview with Paul Collins at Mosport), and here he tells the story of a best finish so far – fourth at Laguna Seca, with Alex Caffi. The Scotsman does tell a good tale…

“The start was a bit fraught, as you know. The background from PK’s perspective was that George, our new engineer, suggested to Mike Pickup that we had someone down at Turn 2 as a spotter, because George knew that the first corner at Laguna is often the scene of some drama. Mike was going to go and do the job himself, but he asked me whether I wanted him down there. I wasn’t that concerned about having a spotter, because in that situation, things tend to happen so quickly you generally have to take a decision and go for it. That’s how it worked out….

“It was carnage. We started seventh, and at Laguna there’s the long run from Turn 11, over the brow, round the slight kink which is Turn 1, and then into the braking area for Turn 2. As I got level with the start-finish line, brake lights started coming on: some cars had to have been slow away at the front and we all got bottled up. I lifted initially, then thought ‘to hell with it’ and kept it nailed down the outside. I stayed out wide, which worked out very well at Turn 2, where cars were going off, there was masses of tyre smoke, and there was debris on the track on the normal line. I came out of Turn 2 in third in GT, so that was a good first (proper) corner!

“The Safety Car came out then of course, so the order was Craig Stanton leading, then one of the Job cars, then me, then the Risi Ferrari.

"When we went racing again, I was battling with Stanton and Lazzaro, because the Job car took the lead and disappeared at the front. But I didn’t have quite the pace of the other two, and Lazarro passed me – and then he passed the Petersen car too. So we were fourth.

“I need to explain the set up of the PK car here. We run the ‘long’ diff., which is a bit of a compromise, especially on the tight corners. Coming round Turn 11 on your own was fine, but if I got caught in traffic and came through slower, we’d drop out of the power band and struggle away a little, up towards the start-finish line. In traffic, I could easily lose several car lengths to the Petersen car, accelerating away up the straight. We had the same problem at Trois Rivieres.

“We’d also chosen to qualify the car on soft rears, which was maybe a slight error of judgement. We realised that once we’d run in the last practice session, but the decision had already been made by then, and the paperwork submitted. We scrubbed some harder rears in during the warm up, and took the decision to run a harder right rear, as it’s an anti-clockwise circuit.

“After eight to ten laps of the race, I was struggling a little with the left rear, but the tyre then stabilised and didn’t lose any performance after that – but it meant oversteer in the right handers. Lazzaro had lined me up at Turn 10 (the right hander), and overtook me into Turn 11.“So that brought us to the stage where I was catching Craig Stanton (I think he was suffering as we got into the stint, because he was unwell). With the problem exiting 11, I couldn’t get close to him at Turn 2 – which was where he was having a problem locking his front left. So I had to find somewhere else to get by. I was catching him into the Corkscrew, and I finally saw an opportunity up the inside into the fourth gear Turn 9. It was just an opportunistic move, but having got by, I was able to pull away steadily. The tyres stayed very constant, and we were running a genuine third.

“I did have a slight issue with the brakes though. Alex had bedded in new pads in the warm up, and I just did the last few laps. I had a lock-up at the front, which I thought was odd, as I wasn’t expecting anything like that at warm up pace, and although the car felt very consistent, we never got to the bottom of the lock up. I knew we might have trouble when the fronts squealed as I rolled onto the grid…..

“Sure enough, the rears were locking in the race, so I turned the balance half a turn to the front, but with whatever the problem was with the fronts, I had a big lock up, and then a vibration of course. It felt similar to the vibration we’d had at Sebring when a front let go, so it was damage limitation from then on, and I just held the gap to the Petersen car at 10-12 seconds.

“Physically, it was an easy stint, even though it was hot. Sears Point had been tough, Trois Rivieres too, but at Laguna it wasn’t as bad as that – maybe because at Sears there isn’t a straight of any sort to give you a breather, while at Trois Rivieres, it’s as if the hot air gets trapped on the track. But running third at Laguna, I’d hardly taken a drink at all.

“Then we had our first sign that this race could be very interesting for us. The fuel light flashed on much earlier than I thought it would, so I got on the radio and passed that information on. When it coughed and then coughed again, I put the reserve on and told Mike I was pitting. He told me that this was earlier than planned, but we had no choice….

“Once Alex got in and I had a chance to see where we were, I realised that we’d only done one hour and 17 or 18 minutes. We’d pitted several minutes early for a one stop, and now it looked as though we’d be in trouble. Johnny Mowlem told me that I’d pitted at least a lap early at Road America, and here we were expecting to do a one stop. We seem to have some issue with fuel pick up, which we’re going to have to get sorted.

“Alex left the pits in third, but Johnny Mowlem – in the 2003 Petersen car – picked him off quite quickly, as I expected, but we were still running in a very good fourth. That was the best position we could hope to earn on this day, but with the fuel problem, I was a little surprised that we didn’t ease off a little to save the fuel.

“Then I spotted Johnny making some deliberate, early gear changes past the pits, and it turned out he had rising temperatures, which he was trying to control. But unless he slowed down a lot, we were still looking at fourth.

“Ten minutes from the end, Alex was struggling: Cort Wagner was catching him with the Buckler car. At first it was two seconds a lap, then it was more than that, as our car was coughing more. Cort wouldn’t have had any fuel worries, because Kevin Buckler had done something like an hour and 40 minutes to start the race in #66.

“So could Alex keep it going, and stay ahead of the blue car? Would the car keep going? It was a very tense time in our pit, and none of us really believed we could hang on. But we had a bit of luck: the winning Audi passed us on what turned out to be its last lap. There was no way that Alex was going to complete another lap, so that was a huge chunk of good fortune. Without it, we would have run out. Alex was on the radio, asking (shouting) what he should do, and Mike told him to keep going – which turned out to be the right thing to do, except that none of us thought he would make it! The mechanics thought he would run out, and I think it was only Mike who had faith that it would keep going.

“Alex hung on, and took the flag six-tenths ahead of Wagner, and the celebrations began, but it was a very fraught time in our pit. When you think you’re going to stop on the track, and lose it all….

“But fourth was what we deserved. It is tough racing at this level, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Miami next, and it’s going to be extremely hot there….but the street track should suit us.”
Robin Liddell


Contents Copyright © All Rights Reserved.