De Ferran Strikes Early, Wins Big in Utah
By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Correspondent
Tooele, Utah – At 3,500 feet, the long front straight at Miller Motorsports Park is fitting for Utah’s wide open spaces. Its length and breadth was crucial to the outcome of the ALMS race won by the Acura ARX-02a team of de Ferran Motorsports.
After gaining a gap at the start due to scuffling down the long straight as the field headed for Turn One, Gil de Ferran and his team ran away to a 77-second victory over the Acura team of Highcroft Racing, the largest margin in the series in four seasons.
The outcome defied the old saying that a race can’t be won in the first turn. “I wanted to be clean on the start,” said de Ferran. “I then got on the brakes as late as possible in Turn 1. When I saw what was happening behind me, I pushed as hard as I could to build a gap.” Simon Pagenaud, who put the de Ferran car on the pole with a record lap, finished off any challenge from Highcroft.
Highcroft’s day went awry when the AER turbo-charged Lola of John Field blasted down the inside at the start to take second in Turn 1 behind de Ferran. Field hit a cone en route to Turn 1, which got stuck under his Lola, further slowing the aging car in the corners.
“We lost three to four seconds a lap,” said Highcroft starter Scott Sharp, who took four laps to get around Field. “John’s car was very fast on the straight, but then he held us up in the corners.”
It may have been academic, given Pagenaud’s record lap in qualifying, where he dropped the ALMS record for the 15-turn Outer Course at Miller to 1:30.645, beating the old mark of 1:31.590 set by Marco Werner in the Audi R10 a year ago.
“We went the wrong way in practice at first and then I’m happy to say we made three good decisions in a row,” said de Ferran, who made one final change to find more traction after the morning warm-up.
Given his set-up, de Ferran was able to build the gap to 31 seconds prior to the first round of stops. “When you’re that far behind,” said de Ferran of his challenger, “that limits your options on pit strategy because you might get lapped.”
Highcroft’s exchange to David Brabham, who was 0.736 seconds behind in qualifying, went further awry due to a brief stall and then a problem with the shoulder belt, dropping the team nearly a minute behind. “I had to slow right down for half a lap,” said Brabham of the struggle with the belt. “I didn’t want to make another pit stop.”
In its debut, the Ginetta-Zytek hybrid of Corsa Motorsports finished fourth behind Field in the LMP1 category and 13th over-all after unscheduled pit stops for a broken rear suspension pick-up point and a failed battery. The car did not run with its ion battery on board due to homolgation issues and therefore did not use its electric motor.
The donnybrook belonged to LMP2, where a close finish was, quite ironically, also occasioned by Field’s flying start.
En route to the first corner, Field pushed the inside boundaries of the already wide track as the cars went four abreast. But as he hit the cone, the kick-ups at the back of his Lola were launched into the air, scattering and slowing the LMP2 prototypes as they stormed down the long straight.
“The LMP1’s were going for it,” said pole winner Luis Diaz of Fernandez, who fell behind both of the Lola-Mazdas of Dyson Racing. “When you see all that stuff flying you back off a little bit.”
Like Field’s Lola, the Mazda turbos had an advantage because of the track’s altitude versus atmospheric engines. Marino Franchitti turned in an outstanding first stint for Dyson, moving up third behind the LMP1 leaders before stopping for fuel at just 48 minutes. A split strategy fell apart for Dyson, however, when the No. 16 entry developed a misfire, also pitted early and then took an extra stop.
The early stop for the No. 20 Dyson meanwhile, meant one extra late stop for fuel – and one less exhange of tires than the Fernandez Acura . With 12 extra laps on his Michelins, Butch Leitzinger emerged 3.1 seconds behind Fernandez after the final splash of fuel with 20 minutes remaining. Traffic was even more decisive. “It just seemed like I always caught the traffic in the corners right after he got through,” said Leitzinger, who was balked in Turn 1 by two GT2 cars.
“I wanted to push,” said Fernandez. “Then I got some breaks in traffic in the last 10 laps. That gave me a big enough gap.”
That 4.7-second gap was suddenly in jeopardy when Fernandez came upon the lapped Lola of Dyson’s Guy Smith with three laps remaining. Fernandez couldn’t get past Smith, who after one noticeably slow lap was turning comparable times while under instructions from team owner Rob Dyson not to block the leader.
The final margin fell to 0.585 seconds at the finish. “The thing I was really worried about was having a gap coming on the front straight,” said Fernandez. “They were eight or nine miles an hour faster than us on the straight.”
Had the start-finish line not been closer to Turn 15, the outcome might have been different.
In GT2, the Flying Lizard Porsche of pole winner Jorg Bergmeister held off the challenge of the Farnbacher Loles Porsche to win comfortably by almost a full lap. The only other challenger, the Risi Competizione Ferrari, spun at the start in the hands of Pierre Kaffer when it was hit by the BMW M3 of Tom Milner. That forced an early stop for tires and cost one lap. The Ferarri returned to post some quick times, but Flying Lizard co-driver Patrick Long ended up with the fastest lap.
Rahal Letterman Racing’s BMW team, hampered by drag on the straight, had other reasons to bemoan the long strip of asphalt. Bill Auberlen hit Milner’s BMW at the start, putting both M3’s into the pits early.
The Utah-based husband and wife team of Martin and Melanie Snow won the inaugural Challenge event for GT3 Porsches. The ALMS veterans took the victory by more than 30 seconds before the two runners-up were excluded for failing the post-race ride height inspection.