If anyone doubted the potential of the American Le Mans Series to make a six-hour race exciting, dramatic, and over too soon they needed only to attend this season’s eighth round, contested at Laguna Seca in Monterey, California last Saturday.
Thirty-six cars started the race, with season championships on the line for several of the entrants. Weather through Thursday and Friday practice sessions had been cool but clear and breezy. This led the teams to set up tires and handling for colder conditions than what appeared at qualifying and race start.
Patrick Long, co-driver of the Flying Lizard Motorsports #45 Porsche 911 GT3 RSR, explained it this way: “We made a setup change before the qualifying session,” he said Friday afternoon, “and the results were very good. My lap was perfect, and we have a great car for the six-hour race tomorrow.” Despite the “perfect” qualifying lap, he and co-driver Jörg Bergmeister found themselves fifth fastest in GT with a time of 1:23.368 and an average speed of 96.64 mph. This left them four places down from pole-setter – and rival – Joey Hand in the Team RLL #56 BMW M3 GT, which ran a 1:22.226 at an average of 97.98 mph. Long continued: “The fact that others could go faster when we made no mistakes speaks to regulations that are outside of our control.”
For spectators, this put a variety of cars among the top GT qualifiers with the BMW starting from the pole, Corvette Racing’s #04 C6 ZR1 starting next behind them, RLL’s BMW #55 starting from third, and Extreme Speed Motorsport’s #02 Ferrari 458 Italia starting fourth, just ahead of Long and Bergmeister.
Well within these times but stuck in classification limbo came Porsche’s 911 GT3 R Hybrid from Porsche Motorsports North America, wearing #911. In the first practice session, Austrian co-driver Richard Lietz turned a 1:23.713, averaging 96.243 mph, and in the afternoon session, French teammate Romain Dumas bettered that time with a 1:23.228, at 96.723 mph. That performance might have put the car into fourth position on the GT grid. However, the ALMS has no class for all-wheel-drive cars or hybrid models, so the bespoke race car had to start from the back of the entire pack.
After two mornings of fog and temperatures between 50° and 60° F, the Saturday of the race dawned clear and sunny. At 1:30 PM when the green flag fell, it was 79° with light wind and, according to Michelin’s tire technicians, a track temperature of 90°. Pole sitters in each class held their leads through the first few laps, fighting heavy traffic and car-to-car contact. Positions changed fluidly and frequently as the race wore on. By about 45 minutes into the event, the first of the LMP1 cars had pitted for tires and fuel, though none had changed drivers yet. Within the next 15 minutes, the LMPC cars started their pit cycles, often swapping drivers along with tires and fuel additions. Following in quick succession, GT and GTC cars pitted, with most of them switching drivers. GT leader Joey Hand in the #56 BMW exchanged seats with co-driver Dirk Müller, relinquishing the class lead to the Risi #62 Ferrari 458 Italia; Patrick Long got out of Flying Lizard’s #45 Porsche, letting Jörg Bergmeister take over. Two minutes later, when the Ferrari pitted, Müller in the BMW reclaimed the class lead.
Following a yellow flag for a GTC GT3 Cup car that stopped off the circuit at Turn 6, most teams took advantage of the slowed pace and ordered drivers into the pits. After ten minutes set aside strictly for LMP and LMPC cars, GTs and GTCs were allowed into the pits. The #04 Corvette ZR1 took tires and fuel and exchanged drivers. Porsche GT3 R Hybrid driver Romain Dumas gave the wheel to Richard Lietz. Shortly after 3 PM, with 66 laps completed, Jaime Melo driving Risi #62 Ferrari snuck past Dirk Müller in BMW #56 to grab the lead in GT. After two hours, Melo led RLL’s BMWs #56 and #55 in GT class with 77 laps completed.
For each of its pit stops throughout the afternoon, BMW simultaneously called in both of its cars. As they both headed to the pits during a yellow flag for a GTC car that broke down at Turn 11, Jörg Bergmeister ducked in just ahead of them to the Flying Lizard pits, took tires and fuel, and shot back out. Jaime Melo drove the first-place #62 Ferrari to the pits for fuel and tires, and relief driver Toni Vilander maintained the lead exiting the pits.
Another yellow flag was waved just moments later – about a third of the way through the race – and the rest of the cars came in for fuel, tires, and, in many cases, new drivers. As the track went green at just after 4 PM, Bergmeister in the Lizard’s #45 Porsche had caught up to GT leader Toni Vilander in the #62 Ferrari. He shot inside the Ferrari, hoping to out-brake it and grab the lead. The two cars bumped going into Turn 7 and then again as they careened down the Corkscrew. Vilander pulled wide but kept control and inched ahead of the Porsche as they screamed downhill toward Turn 9.
For the next 15 minutes, Bergmeister was relentless, sitting on Vilander’s rear bumper, awaiting his opportunity to pass. It arrived on lap 109 when he once again tried to get by Vilander. This time he succeeded and took the GT class lead.
Throughout all this, observers around the track wondered if Porsche’s GT3 R Hybrid was the camel with no hump. It seemed never to need fuel, tires, or driver swaps until – at last – its second pit stop occurred three hours into the race, shortly after 4:30 PM. At that point, Richard Lietz scrambled out and Romain Dumas resumed driving duties, steadily working his way up through the pack.
Fifteen minutes later with the track still green, Bergmeister pitted and Patrick Long was put back in the #45 Porsche, leaving Vilander in the #62 Ferrari to grab the lead. On the next lap, #62 came in for fuel and tires. As the #45 Porsche reached the corkscrew, the Ferrari was refusing to restart. Seconds passed until more than a minute had gone by before it came back to life, and Vilander, visibly frustrated, drove the 458 Italia back into competition.
Reacting to the #99 Jaguar pulling off at Turn 10, the track went full-course yellow at 5:16 PM, after 3 hours, 49 minutes of racing. When officials opened the pits a few moments later, the LMPs shot in for tires, fuel, and drivers. Then minutes later, IMSA let the GT and GTC cars into the pits and, as Patrick Long brought Porsche #45 in for fuel and tires, Vilander snatched back the class lead. Both BMWs, #56 with Joey Hand at the wheel and #55 with Dirk Werner driving, chased Long into the pits. Werner stepped out to allow Bill Auberlen into the seat. At 5:30 PM, with the race two-thirds complete, the track went green and racing continued with Long, Hand, and Vilander running nose to tail around the circuit.
When Vilander pitted at 6:09 PM, Hand in BMW #56 inherited first place in GT with Long in hot pursuit. But only 15 minutes later, BMW called another team pit stop and both cars stopped for fuel and tires. Hand yielded to Dirk Müller and Auberlen handed off to Dirk Werner before the two white BMW M3s returned to the circuit. Patrick Long had disappeared into the lead.
But that joy was short-lived for Long, who pitted just 10 minutes later, quickly handing off driving duties to Bergmeister for the final hour. Müller in BMW #56 reclaimed the lead. Up in the front of the race pack, Stefan Mucke held on to his overall lead in the Gulf-liveried Aston Martin Racing Lola B09 coupe. Even after a quick fuel stop just before 7 PM, he led the cars racing between the coming shadows on the track’s highlands, the low golden sunlight setting on the west side.
At 7:10 PM with only 20 minutes to go, a race that at times had seemed like a relentless high-speed tour through the Monterey hills changed its nature. Hard-charging Jay Cochran, driving the third-place-overall LMP1 #16 Dyson Lola Mazda, spun a car going through the Corkscrew. As the victim slid to a stop, the car got stuck on the curbing. Officials threw a full-course yellow. A moment later Bruno Junqueira, piloting the #99 Jaguar XKR, stopped on course at Turn 4. Safety crews emerged from runoff areas to tow and tug cars to safety. The racers who had survived so far fell into line behind the Mazda safety car and prepared for the new sprint race that was forming ahead of them.
At 7:19, with officially just 8 minutes, 19 seconds remaining in the race, the course went green. The sun had set behind the hills across Highway 68. Photographers spun up the ISO on their digital cameras hoping to capture the cars racing in relative darkness. It was clear as day, however, that the race had become physical.
Steven Kane, in the triple-headlight #007 Aston Martin Lola, led overall by more than two laps. He had only to stay out of trouble to claim his prize. LMPC class leader Elton Julian in the #63 Genoa Racing Oreca FLM09 was 9.139 seconds ahead of second place contender Gunnar Jeannette in the #06 CORE Autosport Oreca. Jeroen Bleekemolen, driving the Black Swan Racing #54 Porsche GT3 Cup, held a comfortable lead of 2.457 seconds over Spencer Pumpelly in TRG’s #66 Cup car. But with just five minutes to go, Dirk Müller in the #56 BMW led Jaime Melo in the #62 Risi Ferrari by just 1.100 seconds, barely two car lengths apart. Bergmeister, in the Porsche, was attached to the Ferrari’s tail.
One moment later, Müller watched opportunity circle him and fly away as Melo and Bergmeister both passed him. One lap after that, as the Porsche and Ferrari crossed the start/finish line with a single lap remaining in the race, Bergmeister took the lead. But he lost it to Melo again going into Turn 2.
Then Melo seemed to hesitate. Bergmeister swerved and shot around the Ferrari as it slowed; it had run out of fuel! Müller’s BMW, which had been hugging the Ferrari’s tail, passed it, as well, and took second in class, 3.57 seconds behind the Porsche.
Porsche wins the battle, BMW wins the Championship
The Flying Lizards had adopted a strategy. They understood that to win they had to finish. “The strategy,” Patrick Long explained after the race, “was just to protect the car and not get into the barn-burning racing that the GT class has progressed to. We tried to stay out of it, and hoped the officials would tone it down… I didn’t believe in luck in racing until this year. Now I know we make our own luck.
“There was door banging,” he went on, “and taking each other to the wall within the first hour. [Flying Lizard’s chief strategist] Thomas Blum was leading us on the radio and he just said ‘Let’s keep the steering wheel straight and stay out of it and it will come to us.’ Jörg kept [to] that and was able to pull out a successful finish at the end.”
Bergmeister, who had handled the last laps, elaborated: “[The other teams] were kind of rough with us. They kept hitting me; actually both guys were hitting both of us. In the end, they ran out of gas, so it was a rougher race for them.”
Second-place Müller offered his own perspective. “This race was really tough. With fifty minutes to go we were leading, cruising along, and in control. And then the full-course yellow came. There was a lot of hard, hard attacking from behind in the closing laps. The biggest challenge was to remain on the track. Luckily I have enough experience from touring cars to deal with all the bumping and banging.”
BMW Team RLL came into the Monterey event with an advantage in championship points, knowledge that Müller used as part of his own strategy.
“I knew we were good in points and I decided, ‘Okay, just let the guys go and sort it out.’ In the end, we came in second, which was fantastic.” It was fantastic enough to award BMW Team RLL the GT Championship for 2011. Finishing at Monterey with 156 points against Corvette Racing’s 116, Flying Lizard Motorsports’ tally at 85, and Risi Competizione’s Ferraris with 83 – and only 30 points possible for the win at the Petit Le Mans season finale in Atlanta – BMW Team RLL won both GT Team and Automobile Manufacturer titles Saturday evening.
What about the 911 GT3 R Hybrid?
Austrian co-driver Richard Lietz had said before the race that, “The car will start at the back of the field since it is unclassified. But I am not concerned. We want to show the public that a hybrid can be fast and fun to drive as well as efficient.”
With 470 horsepower available from the normally-aspirated, rear-mounted flat six-cylinder engine, the electric motors with regeneration system provided another nearly 200 horsepower on demand to the front wheels. “Of course,” fellow driver Romain Dumas of France explained, “the great advantage of this car is the extra power available with electric four-wheel drive. But you have to modify your usual driving style.
“The start phase was huge fun,” he continued, “because it was relatively easy to overtake slower competitors. But it’s even more fun because we can apply [new] tactics thanks to the lower fuel consumption.” While LMP1, LMPC, GT, and GTC cars required five pit stops to complete the race, the GT3 R Hybrid needed only three during the six hours. It sounded nearly identical to its purely internal combustion-engined Porsche siblings, but its performance was anything but the same. It was on Laguna Seca’s uphill runs that the car showed its potential, gathering speed and surging past slower cars like a rocket-powered locomotive.
Right in there among all the bumping and banging, the technological showcase completed 236 laps of the 2.238-mile, 11-turn circuit, or 528.17 miles. This was the same number as the class-winning Flying Lizard Porsche GT3 RSR. In the final results, ALMS listed Dumas and Lietz in the GT3 R Hybrid as finishing in tenth place overall. Bergmeister and Long, in the RSR, were listed one spot behind, in eleventh position.
In modern racing history, there have been many contests in which inspired drivers have started last and finished third, or second, or even won. But can those drivers and those cars skip two of the five pit stops normally required to finish the event? With the savings in fuel, time, and other materials due to better fuel economy, this weekend in Monterey racers and spectators alike witnessed the future of modern racing.