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Sharp’s Wreck Dulls Acura Hopes at Petit

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 25 2009
The chances of Highcroft Patron drivers David Brabham and Scott Sharp at the Petit Le Mans wandered off track on Thursday. (Photo courtesy of the ALMS)

The chances of Highcroft Patron drivers David Brabham and Scott Sharp at the Petit Le Mans wandered off track on Thursday. (Photo courtesy of the ALMS)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Braselton, Ga. – The chances of an Acura pulling off an upset against the factory entries of Audi and Peugeot in the Petit Le Mans were set back Thursday when Scott Sharp’s ARX-02a cartwheeled into the fence at Turn 2. The driver quickly hopped out and walked away from the horrendous crash, but the chassis of Highcroft Racing was a total loss, much of it strewn in pieces up and down the Road Atlanta track.

Highcroft, winners of two straight races in the American Le Mans Series, will have to build a new car from a spare tub being flown in from Honda Performance Development in California. The new tub was expected to arrive at 9 a.m. on Friday morning, precious little time before the qualifying session in the afternoon and just 24 hours before the morning warm-up prior to Saturday’s 11:20 a.m. start.

The emphasis by Highcroft will switch from winning the race to the LMP1 class championship of the ALMS, where Sharp and David Brabham lead Gil de Ferran and Simon Pagenaud by 17 points. With one round remaining at Laguna Seca in October, the focus will be on starting and finishing the 1,000 miles at Road Atlanta, which pays bonus points due to its distance.

“I was heading up the hill in sixth gear and felt a hit in the right rear,” said Sharp, who caught the left front corner of the Farnbacher Loles Porsche as the GT2 entry exited the pits. The racing line normally runs close to the pit exit lane. When a car is leaving the pits, drivers must anticipate that by choosing a line toward the left. Sharp did not see the car driven by Dirk Werner, who stayed in the usual line as he left the pits.

“The wheel arches are very high with the wide front tires on the Acura,” said Sharp. “I didn’t see a thing, only felt the contact. I knew it was a big one and I am just really grateful to Acura and all the boys at Patrón Highcroft Racing for building such a strong car.”

It was the second major accident in as many days. Driving an Audi R15 TDI, Lucas Luhr went off entering the esses on Wednesday. The contact with the wall at the left rear corner forced Audi Sport to build up a new chassis overnight from a spare tub, which the team had at the track.

The memory of last year will be present for Highcroft as the team rebuilds its car. Last year, Sharp also crashed in practice, forcing Highcroft to rebuild its LMP2 class Acura, which then hit the wall in the race. It wasn’t clear if a mechanical failure after the rebuild led to the accident and early retirement — or another error by Sharp.

“We went through this last year and I can’t believe it’s happened again,” said Sharp. “I was just thinking to myself how much I like this place when next thing I’m headed upside down with a mouth full of Georgia clay.”

The goal for the de Ferran team will be to bring in as many points as possible, which means going for the 30 points awarded the winner. Though they are not regular competitiors in the ALMS, the two Audis and the two Peugeot 908 HDI FAP’s are also in the LMP1 class and will affect the points distribution. So de Ferran must race the diesels hard for position to gain points and can’t afford to play it conservatively if it intends to eat into the Highcroft duo’s advantage.

“We have had the flat-out speed for most of the year,” said Pagenaud, who has a season-high three overall pole positions in LMP1 competition headed into Friday afternoon’s qualifying session. “The team has put together an excellent car this year. We have had a few mechanical problems that have hurt us in the LMP1 point standings. But we are prepared for the (Petit). A victory would give us a strong chance for the series championship.”

The Acura ARX-02a’s are powered by a 3.4-liter V-8 using an E10 ethanol blend. Due to a Le Mans rulebook which has encouraged alternate fuels, the diesel-powered cars of Audi and Peugeot produce more horsepower as well as torque. The Acura’s unique four-square design with the same size wheels and tires on all corners is a further drag handicap versus the more powerful diesels, which have averaged 14 miles an hour faster on the straights at Road Atlanta in practice.

At the season opener at Sebring in March, the new Acura of de Ferran in the hands of Scott Dixon won the pole versus the new R15 of Audi and the three-year-old 908 of Peugeot. The Acura’s cornering and better tire wear proved to be the difference. But in the race, neither de Ferran nor Highcroft could stay with the diesel entries.

“I think the Acura is under-powered unfortunately going to places like Road Atlanta,” said Dixon, joining the de Ferran team for the first time since Sebring. Dixon anticipates the difficult traffic patterns on the 2.54-mile, 12-turn course at Road Atlanta will pose even bigger problems for the ARX-02a.

“In sports car racing when it comes down to passing people (in other classes) I think power is the only way,” said Dixon. “The Acura is all about momentum. You have to keep the car going in order to be fast. I’d like to think the car’s going to be competitive.”

In practice, the Acuras have yet to get into lap times of 1:08, while the Audis and Peugeots, which fought at Le Mans for the entire 24-hour in June before the French cars emerged victorious, have been in that range throughout practice. In Friday’s night practice, Franck Montagny set the quickest of the three sessions in the No. 08 entry of Peugeot at 1:07.912 (134.645 mph). The de Ferran Acura’s fastest lap was 1:09.235 during practice and the Highcroft entry posted a best of 1:10.380 prior to the accident.

“The competition level at the Petit race will be one of the toughest in any race in the world,” said Pagenaud. “The Acura cars didn’t run at Le Mans. So this race could match up as the one of the hardest to win in 2009.”

If the Highcroft car is repaired in time to make the grid, it will help sustain a record number of 11 entries in the LMP1 class for the Petit Le Mans. The entry list includes the AIM-powered Oreca 01 entered by Hugues de Chaunac’s French team and the Judd-powered Lola B06/10 of Britain’s Drayson Racing. Both teams have participated in the American Le Mans Series previously, but are making their first appearance in the LMP1 category. The Corsa Motorsports team,  meanwhile, failed to post an entry for its Ginetta-Zytek hybrid.

Notes:

Dario Franchitti, scheduled to co-drive the Highcroft entry, and de Ferran’s third driver Scott Dixon will be in Florida on Friday to test for the IndyCar season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Dixon leads the IndyCar standings by five points over Franchitti and eight over Ryan Briscoe. …RocketSports Racing introduced its new Jaguar XKR at Road Atlanta on Thursday, but the car will not race. A rebuild of the front and rear suspensions following an inspection by the Le Mans rule makers of the Automobile Club de L’Ouest put the project behind. Instead, team owner Paul Gentilozzi will drive an exhibition lap in a car that has now received the ACO’s stamp of approval. …Scott Pruett is anxiously awaiting the Grand-Am Rolex Series schedule for 2010. He will drive the Jaguar for Gentilozzi at all ALMS races when there is no conflict with the Grand-Am, where Pruett drives a Daytona Prototype for Chip Ganassi Racing. Pruett is expected to do most of the winter testing of the new Jag.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 25 2009
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