Risi Competizione, 2006 ALMS GT2 Champions
A Review Of Their Season
© Russell Wittenberg

Seven poles, six fastest race laps, five track records, four class wins, eight total podium finishes and one Championship. That was Risi Competizione’s season in the ALMS with the new Ferrari F430GT. It would mark the first Teams Championship, for both Risi Competizione and Ferrari, in the American Le Mans Series. Some pretty impressive numbers when you consider the team was not only breaking in a new prancing horse from Michelotto, but also played musical chairs with the driver’s seat, as 13 different men took turns behind the wheel.

As it does every year, the ALMS season begins unmercifully at Sebring. Sebring is unquestionably one of the toughest tracks in the world, especially on new cars. The Risi crew had done their homework and the 430 came out of the box quickly. By qualifying second in class and setting the fastest race lap (a track record) the 430 quickly showed its potential. The crew along with Kelleners, Lazzaro and Melo kept the Ferrari in contention for the entire race but typical new car gremlins would relegate them to a respectable, but ultimately disappointing, third place finish. The Risi Ferrari battled tire change problems, poor fuel economy and front brake pad wear requiring two changes, which caused them to spend six minutes longer in the pits than the race winning Panoz.

For the GT2 Ferrari, fuel economy was always a minor issue, even with the 360. But with new 4.0 liter 4 valve V8 the problem was magnified. The new 430 had greatly improved power and low-end torque over its predecessor but was now giving up 2-3 laps (at Sebring) per fuel run to the Porsches. This issue would follow the team through the next two events until, just before Lime Rock, Michelotto released a new spec. engine with improved fuel economy.

The Risi Ferrari would continue to show plenty of speed at the next two races, Houston (right) and Mid-Ohio, but was still unable to put it all together for a win. The short track at Houston accentuated the fuel mileage issue as the 430 was giving up several laps to the Porsches. An early power steering failure on the tight street circuit also took its toll on drivers Salo and Melo. Although they were able to qualify on pole and set the fastest race lap, again they would finish on the last step of the podium. Race incidents and poor choice of tire compound at Mid-Ohio took the shine off another decent qualifying effort, forcing the team to settle for a sixth in class finish.

The Le Mans break in the ALMS schedule gave the team time to install the new engine and take care of a brake cooling issue. The primary airflow used to cool the front brakes on the Ferrari must pass through the radiators first. The 430 was fitted with bigger radiators that were set at a sharper angle as compared to the 360, thus restricting the amount of air that was getting to the brakes. Smaller radiators and an additional intake duct placed behind the headlights were fitted to improve airflow to keep in check brake temperatures, which soared to nearly 600’ Celsius at Sebring. With these minor issues being worked out the team could begin to explore the gains the 430 offered over the 360. The larger engine providing more power is an obvious advantage but not so apparent was the significant improvement in torsional stiffness. The Ferrari GT is an all aluminum monocoque, which is very lightweight but not very rigid. The stiffness is achieved through the steel roll cage. Michelotto had a redesigned roll cage homologated specifically for the 430, which was a marked improvement over the previous design.

Mechanically, the car was well sorted for Lime Rock, but the team would be faced with several other challenges that race weekend. Risi had entered a second brand new Ferrari 430, and with Salo and Melo committed in Europe, was forced to bring in three new (at least to Lime Rock and the ALMS) drivers. Although Vilander, in his first ALMS start, did capture the pole, incidents in practice would severely limit track time and crash damage during the race would force the AMD-backed #61 out early and drop the #62 down to a fifth place finish.

It would all come right for the Risi team in Utah. Salo and Melo were back behind the wheel and the team just had to concentrate on the one car. A tire change after qualifying would force them to give up their pole position for the start of the race, but it wouldn’t matter. It was a dominating performance from the first practice session to the checkered flag on race day. Jaime Melo, who started the race, said, “I just tried to be safe in the first three or four laps. After that, I pushed to get the lead. I overtook the leader just trying to keep the pace and conserving the tires.”

They would carry this momentum with them into the Portland weekend, where again the 430 was clearly the dominant car. Even after getting caught up in the first turn melee, which forced an early stop for a tire change and caused them to nearly lose a lap, they would not be denied their second class win of the season.

Beginning with Road America, Risi would campaign two cars though the remainder of the season. Salo and Melo headed back to Europe to finish their FIA season: only Salo would return to the team at Laguna. The team got mixed results at Road America where the latest crew of drivers (Ortelli & Dominguez, Vilander & Gene) were largely inexperienced at this track. Stephane Ortelli, who would be the only driver to compete in all the last four races in the 430, had a racing incident early on, which kept the #62 out of contention. Meanwhile Vilander had the #61 in P1 for a good portion of his stint but Gene was unable to hold that spot and finished in fourth.

At Mosport, Mowlem and Mediani would be called to replace Dominguez and Gene. Mowlem would set the quickest time in early practice, but only after a spin that nearly ended up in the barriers. Ortelli was not so fortunate in the following day’s practice. He lost control on the wet track and heavily damaged the front of the #62.

The Frenchman would redeem himself in the race by keeping the Ferrari up front and out of harm’s way as most or all of the other GT2 competitors had some sort of trouble with the damp Mosport circuit. Mowlem would bring it home in P1, followed by Mediani in P2 for a 1-2 finish, giving Risi a real boost in the Championship race. “I have to say that it was one of the easiest wins I've ever driven, because Stephane drove so beautifully and the team got it right," said Mowlem. "The full credit goes to Stephane and the entire Risi team. I thought we had the pace for the Porsche. We were the slowest car on the straights because of our mapping, but we can get through the corners so quickly.”

More ‘new’ faces represented Risi at the drivers’ meeting for the Petit Le Mans as Kelleners and Lazzaro were back along with Palttala and Franchitti also getting a seat. Kelleners started the race meeting off right by qualifying the #62 on pole and setting the fastest race lap. Ralf Kelleners: “We have quite a good car, but more importantly, we have a good race car. Earlier, we had a problem with the rear stepping out, but the engineers worked on it and now we have a car that is comfortable for all three of us in the car.” But while running in second early in the race he lost it coming onto the front straight, spun and hit the pit wall fairly hard. It would be the first and only DNF for the Risi Ferrari all year. The crew in the #61 car had a solid race and kept the team’s Championships hope alive with a podium finish.

At Laguna Seca, Salo would return to the series with a vengeance. He drove the #62 Risi F430 GT to qualifying and lap records on his way to a class win, thus securing the GT2 Team Championship for Risi Competizione. A late race penalty for Ortelli had Salo hunting down the #31 Petersen Porsche for a dramatic late race pass to take the lead. Mika Salo, “I very much enjoyed racing here in the ALMS. This was the main one to me. Unfortunately Ferrari decided to support the FIA. To me, the FIA series is nowhere, in comparison. When I got that 15 second penalty, I didn’t think we had a chance to catch them.”

It was a fitting end to a drama-filled inaugural season for the Ferrari F430 GT. Risi Competizione was a deserving winner of the Teams’ Championship. Ferrari did finish second to Porsche in the Manufacturers’ Championship; the shear numbers of 996s tilts that in Porsche’s favor. The Drivers’ Championship was a season long battle between the Flying Lizards’ Johannes Van Overbeek and Petersen’s Jorg Bergmeister. But certainly a Risi pilot could have won had it not been for the ‘drive by committee’ approach that Ferrari took. My DSC colleague Gary Horrocks had these thoughts after the Laguna Finale: “It must be remembered that neither of these teams would have had a chance in GT2 if Ferrari politics hadn’t messed up the Risi driving line up. During the summer, you never knew who might be in one of the Ferraris. That was because the Italians had decided that the FIA series was more important than the ALMS, and when there was a conflict between the two series, they sent “their” drivers to the FIA races. Ask the drivers? Was that the right choice? Not likely. Ferrari can build cars, but they sure make some odd and misdirected decisions. It was the car to have this year though - as Sebring suggested ten races ago.”

The team has recently completed testing at Sebring with Mika Salo present and he was clearly excited about the prospect of a full season in the ALMS. Ferrari has yet to name its drivers and nothing is official, yet it looks certain they will provide two factory men for the one Risi entry and a second privately backed car for Risi is likely. The team is very optimistic about its chances next year even against the new Porsche 997. By concentrating their efforts on chassis and suspension development, to excel on the “bumpy” tracks, they hope to dominate the early races, as the tight schedule won’t allow the Porsche teams much time to sort the all-new 997.

 

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