Acura Captures ALMS Victory In St. Pete
St. Petersburg, Fla. – One of the new Acura ARX-02a’s faltered, but Highcroft Racing brought the Japanese manufacturer its first victory in the LMP1 category of the American Le Mans Series at St. Petersburg.
The winners survived a slow opening when Scott Sharp hit the curbs on the fifth lap and fell 13 seconds behind the pole-winning Acura of De Ferran Motorsports. He then fell as far back as 27 seconds behind Gil de Ferran’s torrid pace on a warm, humid day at the circuit beside Tampa Bay.
But by time Sharp pitted the Patron-sponsored car he was able to hand co-driver David Brabham a car in the lead. Brabham clinched the victory without a challenge when pole winner Simon Pagenaud was forced to retire the De Ferran entry due to electrical problems.
Highcoft and the De Ferran team were the only two contenders in the LMP1 category in the sprint race where 17 cars started on the 1.8-mile street course. But after extensive development of the radical prototype from Acura, which features front wheels and tires that are the same size as those on the rear, the Highcroft drivers were happy to celebrate.
“This is a brand new car and not a new iteration like Audi’s R15,” said Sharp, who recorded his first career LMP1 class victory. “We’re doing a lot of development work and I think it’s going to get better and better.”
Sharp had a difficult introduction to sports cars last year, in part because he always drew the short straw of starting races on cold tires for a Highcroft team that liked to set up its cars for long runs. At St. Pete, it appeared Sharp was again suffering from a set-up that took a long time to come in.
Ironically, a golf cart accident that sent Robert Clarke, the former president of Honda Performance Development, to the hospital for stitches to a head wound reduced the morning warm-up to a couple of laps for most teams. Clarke now works for De Ferran Motorsports.
“The first laps of the race were horrifying,” said Sharp, whose team elected to put a medium compound Michelin on the left rear corner. “We expected the track to be loose, so we put the harder compound on the left rear,” said Sharp. “But we didn’t get a chance to really try it in the morning warm-up.
“The longer we went, the better we ran. We were sliding but compared to what other cars were doing ours was more like neutral.”
Leader de Ferran had the opposite experience. His Acura began to loose its grip as his opening stint progressed due to Michelin “street softs” on all four corners. In the span of six laps, he gave up 18 seconds to the oncoming Sharp.
De Ferran set the race’s fastest lap early in the race, but on the 38th circuit when the leader got caught in traffic Sharp took seven seconds off the margin. De Ferran pitted eight minutes later to exchange his worn tires.
Sharp’s biggest problem at this stage was a loss of radio contact. He had to get instructions from his team’s pit board while braking at the end of the long front straight for the treacherous Turn 1, where finding any grip was often a matter of prayer and faith. “I didn’t know what kind of pace (the leader) was running,” said Sharp. “A couple of times I went into Turn 1 and almost lost it trying to read the pit board.”
The longevity of the Highcroft Acura’s tires paid a major dividend when a full-course caution fell for the crash of Joel Feinberg’s Viper. Brabham was able to retain the lead in LMP1 after the driver change and when the trailing No. 66 Acura’s electrics began to fail Brabham had no challengers.
“The car is early in its development,” said Pagenaud. “Up until we had the problem it was working very well.”
The LMP2 category was won by the Acura ARX-01b of Lowes Fernandez Racing’s Luis Diaz and Adrian Fernandez in a race with the No. 16 Dyson Lola-Mazda that was closer than the one-lap margin indicated. The No. 16 Lola of Guy Smith was delayed in the pits by an errant wheel and suffered a 20-second penalty when a fueler did not close his visor. The No. 20 Lola of Butch Leitzinger lost a lap when he had an unscheduled stop for a punctured tire.
”At Sebring,” said Fernandez, “they didn’t have the pace. Here, they were a lot closer.”
In the well-subscribed GT2 category, the Porsche of the Flying Lizards moved up from third after the pole-winning Risi Competizione Ferrari broke its left front suspension in the opening laps and the leading Farnbacher Loles Porsche took a long pit stop to repair a broken brake line.
The caution flag put winners Jorg Bergmeister and Patrick Long in a lap by themselves. They chose a harder compound Michelin to start on, which enabled Long to delay his pit stop until the yellow flew.
The Corvette of LG Motorsports, the Ford GT of Robertson Racing and the Esperante of Panoz Motorsports all held second place before the BMW M3 of Dirk Mueller, started by Tommy Milner, gained the position with 14 minutes remaining in the one hour, 55-minute race.
Dominik Farnbacher gave Panoz Motor Sports its second straight podium finish in third.