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Peugeot Draws First Blood From Audi At Petit

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 30 2011

Peugeot strike first at Petit Le Mans. (File photo courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Anthony Davidson drove the Peugeot 908 to the pole for Saturday’s Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, where two of the French factory cars will share the first two rows with the cars of Audi Sport Team Joest.

Qualifying on the the front row with Davidson was Timo Bernhard, who posted the second quickest time in the No. 1 Audi R18 TDI, followed by Stephane Sarrazin in the No. 8 Peugeot and Dindo Copello in the No. 2 Audi.

In a race where track position will be important due to the maximum starting field of 53 cars on the 2.52-mile track, the Peugeot Sport team drew first blood during the session on a sunny and warm fall day.

This year’s race is the sixth round of the seven-race Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, where teams compete for the championship, as well as the final round of the American Le Mans Series. Peugeot Sport Total leads Audi Sport Team Joest by eight points with one round remaining in the ILMC in China. Peugeot, which earned one point for the pole, can clinch the title at Road Atlanta under a variety of situations in a system that pays 15 points for victory, 13 for second, etc. But the battle is expected to continue in Zhuhai China.

Davidson wasn’t sure he would make this year’s race, where he arrived as the defending pole sitter. A repeat pole was not in the cards in August when Davidson broke a left collar bone while training on his bicycle. “Seven weeks ago I never dreamed I would be on the pole again at the Petit Le Mans,” he said.

Qualifying was dominated by the ILMC entries, including the Team Oreca Matmut Peugeot 908, a

The No. 1 Audi of Timo Bernhard was second fastest in qualifying. (Photo courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

privateer team owned by Huges de Chaunac that won the Sebring 12-hour in March and took fifth on the grid for the Petit. The top regular LMP1 entries from the ALMS, Team Cytosport and Dyson Racing, were 10th and 11th on the grid, respectively. Dyson clinched the driver and team championships for the ALMS in the previous round at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

The Petit may begin at 11:30 a.m. EDT, but is often decided in the final hour of cool darkness shortly after sunset. In night practice for the 1,000-mile race Thursday evening, the Peugeots also posted the quickest times in far cooler temperatures than the Audi R18 TDI, indicating the turbo diesels from France may be ready to win a third straight Petit Le Mans.

“I think it is significant that we were quickest in the night practice,” said Davidson. “Usually in this race, you jump from safety car period to safety car period at the end. It’s important to be at the front when that starts happening.” Audi’s last victory at the Petit in 2008 resulted from Allan McNish winning a duel with Peugeot’s Christian Klein in the night.

Although the Peugeots have not won the Le Mans 24-hour in the last two years, Peugeot has won the 12 other prototype races it has contested since the beginning of the 2009 season, including two Petits. But racing the R18 in the U.S for the first time, Audi has posted the quickest times in the daytime sessions prior to qualifying and was close to the Peugeot lap times in night practice.

Given the number of surprise endings over the first 13 years of the race, the Petit remains a very unpredictable event. In 2009, McNish spun from the lead while behind the pace car in the rain shortly before the race was red-flagged. Last year, the Audi of McNish, Copello and Tom Kristensen, the all-time leading winner at Le Mans with eight victories, was delayed when Copello had issues with a new helmet and had to make an unscheduled pit stop, which ultimately cost the team a chance at the victory.

The huge entry will present a challenge for prototype drivers, said Sarrazin, who co-drove to victory last year. The disparity in speed is enormous between the GTC Porsches and the front runners. “The race will be decided by driver mistakes or strategy mistakes,” said the Frenchman.

The danger of a big field was apparent in the morning practice Friday. After spinning, the LMPC entry of David Ducote was T-boned by the Ford GT entry of Robertson Racing. Ducote, who was alert and awake when he left the track, was airlifted to a nearby hospital where his condition was not released. The Intersport Racing team said the driver had suffered a concussion.

The ILMC team championship in the GTE class, as GT is known under the French rules, remains hotly contested. Giamaria Bruni, driving for AF Corse in a Ferrari F458 Italia, found some extra speed and left the ALMS regulars in his wake in qualifying. “They told me on the radio, ‘You can find a tenth, we know you can do it,'” said Bruni. “I found one tenth and then I found another.”

The AF Corse team is battling BMW Motorsport for the title and leads by 10 points after the pole by Bruni (1:18.699). The Italian finished almost a one tenth of a second clear of the No. 55 BMW M3 of Dirk Werner run in this race by RLL Racing. Teammate Dirk Mueller was third in the No. 55 BMW. The BMW team clinched the ALMS team and driver’s title (Mueller and Joey Hand) in the penultimate round at Laguna.

The Risi Competizione Ferrari of Jaime Melo took fourth. The Flying Lizard Porsche of Jorg Bergmeister represented the third manufacturer and was fifth on the GTE grid. The two Corvette C6 ZR1’s represented the fourth manufacturer and eighth and ninth GTE cars within a second of the pole time.

In LMP2, Luis Diaz (1:12.335) took the pole on the final lap of the session aboard the HPD ARX-01g of Level 5 Motorsports, which is powered by a Judd engine. He edged Jean-Karl Vernay in the Signatech Nissan.

“It was a matter of having a clean lap,” said Diaz. “The big prototypes do not make life easy for us, so it was a matter of getting a clear lap. We don’t have as much power as the Nissans, so it’s a tribute to the work done by the Level 5 team. We can’t pass as many cars on the straights as the Nissan, so we will have to do our best job in the race.”

Driving a back-up car for Intersport to replace the one destroyed in the morning practice, Kyle Marcelli (1:14.848) won the pole, his third, in LMPC. “It’s so emotional and it feels so good. My hat’s off to the team for all the work they did to get this car ready.” Dane Cameron of Genoa Racing trailed Marcelli by 0.643 seconds.

In the GTC class for Porsche 911 GT3 Cup cars, Jeroen Bleekemolen took the pole for Black Swan Racing,

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 30 2011
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