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Peugeot Big At Petit

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 1 2010

It was a Peugeot day at Road Atlanta on Friday. (Photo courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Braselton, Ga. – If William Sydney Porter ever chose to write about a road racing event, he likely would have picked the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta. The well traveled short story specialist better known as O. Henry was famous for his surprise endings. Stunning finishes have also become the hallmark of the fast and furious 1,000-mile race  over the winding 2.54-mile track in north Georgia.

In the qualifying session for Saturday’s 13th edition, Anthony Davidson took a 908 HDi of Peugeot Sport to the LMP1 class pole with a lap of 1:07.187, beating the Peugeot of teammate Pedro Lamy and both Audi Sport R15 TDI entries. This result was somewhat predictable, because the Peugeots tend to be faster in qualifying and because the preliminary surprises had already taken place in a week when rain alternated with brilliant sunshine.

In the rubber match at Road Atlanta between the French and German endurance racing powerhouses, Audi needed to replace the chassis tub on its No. 7 entry prior to qualifying due to off-course excursions by two of the team’s veteran experts – Tom Kristensen, an eight-time winner at Le Mans who went off in private testing last week, and Dindo Capello, a four-time winner at the Petit who went off in the final minutes of night practice on Thursday.

This year there is even more pressure on both factory-backed teams, because the Petit is now part of the inaugural three-race Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, which started at the Silverstone circuit in England last month and continues next month at the Zhuhai circuit in China.

This year’s Saturday race is the final round of the American Le Mans Series as well. Patron Highcroft Racing team leads the LMP category in the ALMS championship and Flying Lizard Motorsports is the leader in the GT category, where it was eighth in class in qualifying behind the pole-winning Ferrari of Risi Competizione. Both the Highcroft and Flying Lizard teams must complete the 70 percent distance in the 1,000-mile race to claim a championship. Other titles at stake are in the LMP Challenge and GT Challenge classes for spec entry vehicles.

The Porsche 911 GT3 R Hybrid, making its debut in America, will run unclassified in the race with Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas and Mike Rockenfeller on board. The Porsche factory team elected to skip qualifying and will start at the back of the field. Following a clutch problem early in official practice the Porsche Hybrid was within half a second of the quickest GT2 class entry in the final practice. During the rain on Thursday, the all-wheel drive Hybrid, which periodically enjoys an additional 160 horsepower at the front wheels from its regenerative electric power, was second only to the Doran Ford GT-R of Robinson Racing. Officials continue to study the car in an effort to find a way to bring it into competitive alignment with the cars driven by standard engine power.

In addition to the championships at stake, the unique challenges of Road Atlanta, where temperatures and humidity change radically over the course of a race, also add a lot of pressure, not to mention the influences of rain.

“This track changes each day and every hour,” said Wolfgang Ullrich, the director of Audi’s racing. “If you can cope with a car that is well prepared by finding a good average you can do very well. But it’s complicated. There are a lot of extremes. If you don’t get enough practice time, you can get something that surprises you in the race.”

Both of the previous meetings between Peugeot and Audi ended in surprises. Last year, Peugeot won after leader Allan McNish spun his Audi in the rain from behind the pace car just minutes before the race ended early due to heavy downpours. In 2008, Scotsman McNish spun in the morning warm-up, damaging his Audi on the barriers. But after starting at the back, he completed an amazing comeback by his Audi team to beat the runner-up Peugeot of Christian Klein by 4.5 seconds.

Road Atlanta puts a premium on confidence, especially in traffic on a circuit that is just 40 feet wide, the minimum standard. That’s 15 feet more narrow than the recently remodeled Silverstone, where Peugeot was the runaway winner of the ILMC round one after McNish’s leading Audi broke early.

The entry this year was the highest since 47 cars started the Petit in 2002. But the absence of the new Panoz Abruzzi and several crashes have reduced the anticipated number of starters to 42.

Asked if his experience at Road Atlanta was the difference in the duel with Klein, McNish said it was more a matter of knowing how to work the traffic. “I think it depends on who’s in the car,” he said. But knowledge of the track also pays off. When Klein got an opening in traffic in the final minutes, the German ran into the grass on the undulating and dark backstretch. He saved his Peugeot, but lost his confidence and momentum.

If the ever-aggressive McNish, who has won the Petit four times, has a counterpart at Peugeot it is Stephane Sarrazin, who got his first Petit win last year with Franck Montagny. “Allan is very opportunistic in traffic, just like us,” said Sarrazin. “You have to be precise and aggressive in traffic,” he continued. “If you take your time, you do not get the lap times. You have to push.”

The Frenchman cited the corner under the bridge at Turn 11 as the most difficult in traffic. “There is only one line there and if you get behind a slower car, it costs you ten seconds (on a complete lap),” he said.

The changing conditions in at race that begins in morning sunshine and ends well after sunset play havoc even if retirements have thinnned the traffic. In 1999, leader Jorg Mueller spun his BMW V-12 LMR into the gravel trap on his own at Turn 10 with 15 minutes remaining. That handed the victory to the team of track owner Don Panoz and the Panoz LMP1 Spyder of David Brabham, Andy Wallace and Eric Bernhard, who had been trailing by almost an entire lap.

There was nobody named Henry involved, but still… .

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 1 2010
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