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Le Mans Notes: Corvettes Replace Ferrari On Pole

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, June 11 2010

David Brabham during qualifying at Le Mans on Thursday.

By Jonathan Ingram and John Sturbin | Senior Writers

Le Mans, France – Corvette Racing took the top two spots on the qualifying list in its debut in the GT2 class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Oliver Gavin improved his time in the Thursday night session to 3:59.435 in the No. 64 Corvette C6.R.

The Risi Competizione Ferrari, which had been on the provisional GT2 pole, was subsequently disqualified for a technical infraction due to a problem with its rear wing, promoting Gavin to the top spot in GT2.

The Risi Ferrari will start at the back of the 55-car field, losing 19 positions on the grid. “If you start first or last at this race, it doesn’t really change anything,” said Jaime Melo of Risi. “It’s where you finish that is important.”

Jan Magnussen also posted a quicker lap at 3:59.793 on Thursday night to put the No. 63 Corvette C6.R second in the GT2 category. The two Corvettes and the No. 95 AF Corse Ferrari were the only GT2 cars to qualify under four minutes on the 8.47-mile circuit.

“As always here in qualifying, it was a bit of a banzai run,” said Gavin. “The guys sent me out with great tires and good position on the track. I felt that if only we could get a clean lap and I could get it all together, the time would be there.”

In other classes, David Brabham qualified Highcroft Racing’s Honda Performance Development ARX-01c second in LMP2. Highcroft’s ace posted a lap of 3:34.537 to better his time from Wednesday’s session by almost three seconds in a car featuring the Wirth Research-designed low drag aero kit. Brabham  – driving with Marino Franchitti and Marco Werner – held provisional pole after the first of Thursday’s sessions. Strakka Racing’s Danny Watts, also driving an HPD ARX-01c, set pole time during the second session at 3:33.079.

“We’ve made good progress,” Brabham said. “These sessions were all about focusing on the race setup and giving Marino and Marco time in the car. We’ve made some more improvements and the car is a lot more driveable and moving towards what we need for the race.

“We’ve still got a lot to learn with the new aero package, as it’s affectively a new car. We’re playing catch-up and the race will be unknown territory, so we’ll continue to make changes and fine-tune the car throughout Saturday and Sunday.”

The 2009 outright race-winner and double GT1 champion, Brabham will start Saturday’s race in search of his fourth consecutive Le Mans class title aboard the Malaria No More car. “Starting Highcroft’s first-ever race at Le Mans will be something special,” Brabham said. “It’s always been (team-owner) Duncan Dayton’s goal, and now we are here.”

Meanwhile, Peugeot retained its hold on the top four positions at the head of the 56-car grid, as Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais’ lap of 3:19.711 from Wednesday held up for P1. He is teamed with Pedro Lamy and Simon Pagenaud, who drives with Brabham in the Highcroft LMP entry in the ALMS.

Bourdais was just 0.606-seconds clear of the second-place Peugeot of Alexander Wurz, Marc Gene and Anthony Davidson. That threesome won the ALMS season-opening Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

Quickest of the new Audi R15 Plus diesels was the car of Timo Bernhard, Mike Rockenfeller and Romain Dumas at 3:21.981, set Thursday. But that prototype was still 2.270-seconds behind Bourdais’ Peugeot.

SPEED will broadcast live coverage of the start of the world’s greatest endurance race Saturday beginning at 8:30 a.m., EDT, with flag-to-flag coverage available on radiolemans.com.

Andretti race-ready at Le Mans: Victory at Le Mans remains one of the few items missing from the Family Andretti’s racing resume, a fact Marco Andretti will attempt to address this weekend.

The IZOD IndyCar Series regular has joined Rebellion Racing to wheel a Lola P1 prototype with the team’s Le Mans Series regulars.  Andretti, of Andretti Autosport, will share the cockpit with Neel Jani of Switzerland and Frenchman Nicolas Prost, son of former Formula One World Driving Champion Alain Prost.

“When I was contacted by the Rebellion Racing team I thought, ‘Why not? I love those long stints even at night,’ so I immediately accepted the invitation,” said Andretti, the 23-year-old son of former CART champion Michael Andretti.

Andretti is coming off back-to-back third-place finishes at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway in his No. 26 Team Venom Dallara/Honda. He will be the fourth Andretti to compete at Le Mans, joining grandfather and racing legend Mario Andretti, father Michael and cousin John.

John Andretti was part of the three-driver lineup that won America’s premier endurance event, the Rolex 24 at Daytona, in January 1989. Andretti shared a Porsche 962 with Frenchman Bob Wollek and Derek Bell of Great Britain.

Mario, Michael and John Andretti teamed-up to drive a Porsche 962C to a sixth-place finish at Le Mans in June 1988.

“I’m very excited to race at the famous track where my family has been very successful in the past,” Marco said of Le Mans. “Last month, I tested with the team at the Paul Ricard (circuit) in southern France and I quickly adapted. Even in the rain, I did some fast laps. I know we have a slight disadvantage not driving a diesel engine P1 class car like Peugeot and Audi, but a top-five finish is realistic.”

ALMS events added to global schedule: The two premier events of the American Le Mans Series schedule will be part of a new global sports car championship starting in 2011. The Automobile Club de l’Ouest – governing body for the 24 Hours of Le Mans – has confirmed the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring and Petit Le Mans as rounds of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup for next season.

A year ago at Le Mans, the ACO revealed its intention of creating the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup for 2010. Thursday’s announcement completed the full 2011 schedule, featuring races in the ALMS, European-based Le Mans Series and Asian Le Mans Series – as well as Le Mans as a double-points event.

“This is fantastic news for the two highest-profile events on our calendar,” said Scott Atherton, president/CEO of ALMS. “Both the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of  Sebring and Petit Le Mans are firmly established  among the world’s greatest endurance races, and having them both as part of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup will elevate their stature.

“The quantity and quality of the entries in this groundbreaking competition will bring together the best of the best from around the world in all classes. We stand with the ACO and the other Le Mans championships in support of this initiative, which will expand world-class sports car racing on a truly global level.”

Petit Le Mans is one of three events to hold Intercontinental Le Mans Cup status for 2010. It is set for Sept. 29-Oct. 2 at Road Atlanta. Originally conceived for LMP1 manufacturers, the ACO announced in March the inclusion of a championship for GT2 manufacturers and the addition of team championships for all four ACO-sanctioned classes.

The Sebring 12 Hours is among America’s greatest sports car races, and considered by many to be the most demanding endurance event in the world – including Le Mans. Sebring International Raceway, located in central Florida, is a 3.7-mile, 17-turn circuit. It is the oldest road-course in North America, portions of which were originally a WWII B-17 training base.

Petit Le Mans, the annual 1,000-mile/10-hour endurance classic at Road Atlanta, is the cornerstone event of the ALMS schedule. The Road Atlanta facility – a 12-turn, 2.54-mile road-course – has played host to a series-high 14 events. Petit Le Mans is the largest international sporting event in Georgia.

Other venues that will play host to Intercontinental Le Mans Cup events in 2011 include Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, Le Mans, Silverstone in England, Fuji in Japan and a yet-to-be confirmed circuit in China (Asia).

LMP and GT rules set for 2011: The governing Automobile Club de l’Ouest also announced Thursday that prototype cars meeting 2010 regulations will be allowed to compete in all Le Mans-sanctioned races during 2011. In addressing the prototype rules for next season, the ACO called for a reduction in engine displacement and horsepower, putting the emphasis on fuel economy and energy efficiency.

“The ACO’s decision to allow the current generation of LMP cars to compete alongside next-generation prototypes is one we fully endorse,” said Scott Atherton, president/CEO of the American Le Mans Series. “Allowing manufacturers to explore new automotive technologies and innovations in the design, construction and propulsion of sports cars is a cornerstone of both Le Mans and the American Le Mans Series.

“At the same time, we continue to embrace the true backbones of endurance racing – the independent teams that go head-to-head against the factory efforts on a regular basis. I believe this decision by the ACO will be enthusiastically received by all.”

HPD to offer new LMP2 powerplant: Honda Performance Development, Inc. (HPD), the racing arm of American Honda Motor Company, Inc., will offer a new LMP2 engine to customers participating in the 2011 American Le Mans Series, European Le Mans Series, 24 Hours of Le Man and Intercontinental Cup competitions.

The new LMP2 engine, based on Honda’s global V-6 , is a 2.8-liter, twin-turbo variant utilizing HPD’s exclusive engine-control system. The engine is the product of a joint effort between HPD and Honda R&D Americas, Inc. (HRA). Product R&D engineers from HRA’s Raymond, Ohio, center have worked with HPD race engineers to create an engine that will meet the Automobile Club de l’Ouest’s new, lower-price targets for the LMP2 class.

“With the collective racing spirit of our associates at HPD and HRA, we have come up with an attractive product to align with the new direction set by the ACO,” said Erik Berkman, president of HPD. “We are pleased to offer another race product which features the traditional Honda values of performance, efficiency and reliability.”

HPD has provided engines to prototype-class teams in the American Le Mans Series since 2007.HPD was the first manufacturer to score ALMS class wins in both LMP1 and LMP2 on the same weekend at St. Petersburg, Fla., in 2009. HPD went on to win LMP1 and LMP2 Manufacturers’ Championships for Acura in 2009 – the first ALMS manufacturer to do so.  This year, HPD began providing engines and support for sports car competition in both America and Europe.

HPD’s engines are renowned not only for their performance, but also for their reliability. In four years of prototype sports car racing encompassing over 90 starts, HPD engines have failed only once. In HPD’s role as single-engine supplier to the IZOD IndyCar Series, a total of 40 drivers and teams completed 202,210 miles of practice, qualifying and racing with only a single in-race engine failure in 2009.

Honda Performance Development is Honda’s racing arm within North America. Founded in 1993, and located in Santa Clarita, Calif., HPD is the technical operations center for American Honda high-performance racing cars and engines.

Cheever to go endurance racing: Former Indianapolis 500 champion Eddie Cheever will contest the Spa 24 Hours endurance GT sports car race at the wheel of an Audi R8 LMS coupe for United Autosports later this summer.

Cheever is scheduled to make a one-off return behind the wheel for the American-owned, British operated “official customer” Audi GT3 team during the twice-around-the-clock Belgian race July 31-Aug. 1.

Cheever will join fellow-former Grand Prix driver Mark Blundell of Great Britain, as well as United Autosports co-owners Zak Brown of the United States and Richard Dean of Great Britain. The Audi of Blundell/Brown/Cheever/Dean will be bidding for GT3 class honors. A sister R8 LMS entered for Stefan Johansson, Alain Li  and Mark Patterson will add a fourth driver in coming weeks.

Cheever, 52, won the 1998 Indy 500 as an IndyCar Series owner/driver. He also spent seven seasons in the CART World Series following an 11-year Formula One career.

“Having spent a number of years of my career racing sports cars, I am very interested to drive a latest GT3 machine,” Cheever said. “And being given the opportunity by my good friend Zak [Brown] to drive an Audi at Spa doesn’t get much better.

“The Belgian track is one of my favorite circuits, arguably the best grand prix venue I ever raced on. I still vividly remember qualifying in the wet with the Renault Turbo [1983]. I’m really excited about going back to race there for the first time since 1989.”

Cheever made 14 starts at Indianapolis Motor Speedway between 1990 and 2006, highlighted by his victory in 1998 after qualifying 17th in the No. 51 Rachel’s Potato Chips Dallara/Oldsmobile Aurora. He led six times and 76 of the 200 laps around the 2.5-mile oval. More recently, Cheever served as an expert analyst during ABC-TVs coverage of the 94th running of the Indy 500 last month.

Cheever drove for Theodore, Hesketh, Osella, Tyrrell, Ligier, Renault, Alfa Romeo, Haas-Lola and Arrows in F1. He scored a personal best third-place finish at Spa in the 1983 F1 race but also netted top-six results there in sports cars.

“I always considered the 24 Hours of Le Mans to be the most dangerous race I did every year when the Mulsanne Straight had no chicanes,” Cheever said. “The only other 24-hour event I raced in has been at Daytona, the last time being three years ago, which was actually my last race. But the lure of racing at Spa again, in a 24-hour race, with Zak and in an Audi was too much of a good thing to turn down. I’m really looking forward to the experience.”

The Spa 24 Hours was first run in 1924. Only one American has won the race – Italian-born Luigi Chinetti, who emigrated to the United States and became an American citizen.

Johansson and Cheever logged their first runs in the Audi at Snetterton, England, on Tuesday, with Blundell posting a second stint after an initial test on Silverstone’s Stowe circuit on May 4.

“The lineup looks fantastic,” Dean said. “Eddie is a pure racer. He has started more F1 races than any other American. Having Eddie on the team will be a real boost, and I’m sure there will be plenty of fans turn out to see him back.”

Based in Yorkshire, England, United Autosports is contesting the entire FIA GT3 European Championship title with a brace of Audi R8 LMS cars.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com/Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, June 11 2010
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