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Ingram: ALMS Begins Transitional Season

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 18 2010

The Peugeots are back at Sebring for the start of the American Le Mans Series season this weekend. (Photo courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Sebring, Fla. – When Don Panoz launched the American Le Mans Series in 1999, he adopted a familiar motto: Build it and they will come. Is the ALMS in need of some repairs one year into its second decade?

A thin field of prototypes at the season-opening Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring will get thinner when Peugeot Sport and Aston Martin Racing go back to Europe to prepare for the Le Mans 24-hour. Until the LMP1 cars of the factories return for the Petit Le Mans in September,  no major factory team will compete regularly in the premier LMP1 category.

But the series’ health, says ALMS President Scott Atherton, may be more in the eye of the beholder. An extraordinary manufacturer’s battle will take place in the GT class among Porsche, Ferrari, BMW, and Jaguar. The home-built spec series for IMSA Lites and the Patron GT3 Challenge have record entries. And the ALMS has a presenting sponsor for the first time, Tequila Patron.

When it comes to prototypes, which define sports car endurance racing, Atherton points to next season, when new rules for prototypes will be enacted by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, which writes the rules for Le Mans and licenses its rulebook and name to the ALMS.  Atherton predicts new cars and factory teams will return to the ALMS once new programs are in place.

“I’m familiar with several manufacturers who are either building or have built or are seriously considering building cars for 2011,” said Atherton. “I know of two specifically that already have existing equipment ready to go.”

Accoring to a variety of sources, among those with equipment under way for 2011 are Peugeot and Audi, whose new Evo version of the R15 is a stop-gap until next season. Constructor Lola is expected to return with cars for customers, including Aston Martin. And Honda Performance Development is headed for the Le Mans 24-hour this year with Highcroft Racing with an LMP2 car, a possible foreshadowing of a new program for its 3.4-liter V-8 engine. The 3.4-liter V-8 is going to be the maximum displacement under the 2011 rules for a normally aspirated engine and Honda has had this engine under development since 2007.

Porsche is keenly interested in developing a hybrid prototype, but a firm set of rules is not expected until 2012 due to the constantly changing technology for hybrids.

Time will tell whether these manufacturers run full seasons in the ALMS or continue to concentrate on the major enduros at Sebring and Road Atlanta.

This season, the ALMS will rely on Highcroft’s LMP2 class entry with a revised Acura chassis versus the Mazda-powered Lola of Dyson Racing to carry the prototype class. Both Highcroft and Dyson have factory assistance. At Sebring, the LMP2 cars will be off the pace of the LMP1’s, because the ACO wants to distinguish between the two classes.

For the bulk of the ALMS season, the LMP1 and LMP2 rules will be revised to equate them into one prototype class at all events other than Sebring and the season-ending Petit Le Mans(where the ACO’s rules will also be used). The privateer LMP1 class Lola-AER entry of John Field, who suffered a severe crash in testing at Sebring, is expected back at the season’s second round at Long Beach in April.

Will a slender year for prototypes put more emphasis on the GT class?

“GT has always been an important category for us,” said Atherton, “because it has always brought manufacturer involvement, consistently. In the last two or three years it has truly confirmed the series’ ability to deliver a platform where manufacturers can race what they sell and develop product technology that is completely aligned with the showroom.”

In the long term, Atherton believes the ALMS has the prevailing wind of the green revolution at its back.  “We have come up with our own analysis here,” he said. “Short of a war-time situation where technology tends to go at an explosive pace, no pun intended, some of the greatest technical breakthroughs have come during times of war. You can liken open competition in motorsports as an open war, manufacturer versus manufacturer.

“Because of that,” he continued, “technical breakthroughs come out of the environment and the general pace that surrounds a competitive motorsports environment. You can’t go back to the lab and analyse the failure and write a report and source multiple simulations. You gotta have it analysed and put together and be ready to race tomorrow. We all witnessed what happened with Scott Sharp with the Acura last year at the Petit Le Mans. Literally the car was back together and ready to race the next day.”

In the short term, the ALMS has re-built its entry list by creating the LMP Challenge class for spec cars built by ORECA. The entry at Sebring has five LMPC entries, which are roughly ten seconds off the pace of the LMP1 class Peugeots at the 3.7-mile circuit. The drivers of the LMPC’s include some notable veterans. Ryan Hunter-Reay, fresh off podium finishes at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the IRL season opener in Sau Paulo, will drive for Level 5 Motorsports. Andy Wallace, an over-all winner at Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring will drive for Genoa Racing.

The Sebring race will also mark the first full season of the GT Challenge class for Porsche 911 GT3 Cup cars. That will expand the starting field, expected to be 33 cars, by six.

The number of entries for its own classes and series, says Atherton, have the ALMS on better financial footing that its ever been. “When you talk about health of where we are as a company, we’ve got 30 IMSA Lites cars and 38 Patron GT3 cars entered for Sebring, both records. (That’s) largely because both of these series have demonstrated a clear ladder to bigger and better and a tremendous value for participants. TV, part of the big show, autograph sessions, we’re treating these guys like young, up and coming professionals.”

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 18 2010