Hot and humid was the order of the day for the second round of the '08 ALMS race season. Coming off a 1-2 class showing at Sebring, Corvette Racing returned to Florida expecting to once again dominate its only class rival, the overmatched Bell Motorsports Aston DBR9. The headline item for the team this weekend was its first-ever use of cellulosic E85 ethanol, one of the currently popular "alternative" fuels.
The weekend was a short one for the ALMS contingent, as it shared the dais with the newly consolidated IndyCar Series. While it was good to see the premier open-wheel sanctioning bodies in the U.S. finally bury the hatchet and get back to racing, the newly amalgamated series suffered several schedule casualties as a result. Previously, the ALMS conducted several events in concert with either the IndyCar Series or its former rival, CART. The changes necessitated by combining these two series have kept IMSA, the sanctioning body for ALMS, working tirelessly to keep its schedule intact to the degree possible. Still, some events-such as the Houston race-had to be cancelled, vexing city officials and race fans alike.
For the ALMS cars, the event began with a one-hour session Friday morning, followed by a two-hour practice/qualifying session that afternoon. Corvette Racing's Olivier Beretta grabbed the class pole position in the No. 4 C6.R, just edging out No. 3-car teammate Jan Magnussen. The 1-hour 55-minute race was scheduled for the next day, to be preceded by an early-morning 20-minute warm-up. The tight schedule left little time for the teams to prepare their entries prior to the start, perhaps not surprising, given the abbreviated nature of the race itself.
Race day was characteristically sweltering, with the weather report calling for rain toward the end of the session. The race got off to an inauspicious start when a GT2 Aston lost its gearbox, necessitating a yellow flag. Soon after, the Champion Racing Audi R10s of the LMP1 class resumed their heated duel with the Penske Porsche LMP2 prototype Spyders. The Audis sprinted off to an early lead and had plenty of power to keep the Porsches behind them. However, the tight, 1.8-mile St. Pete street circuit, with its lack of run-off and unforgiving concrete walls, is capable of dealing out severe punishment to anyone who strays from the prescribed line. The resultant shunts precipitated several lengthy, full-course cautions, giving the lithe Spyders a shot at the lead.
Toward the end of the race, Penske driver Romain Dumas was able to gain first position and build a little room between himself and the lead R10. But when a full-course caution bunched up the field just before the finish, Audi pilot Lucas Luhr was able to out-drag Dumas into Turn 1 and regain the top spot. Luhr's R10 swept to the finish ahead of the Porsche by a margin of only 0.8 second. The Corvettes ran a very steady and uneventful pace, with the No. 4 car of Beretta and Oliver Gavin holding on to its lead over the No. 3 car of Magnussen and Johnny O'Connell. The lone GT1 Aston managed to hang with the group until a late-race accident with a GT2 Dodge Viper ended its day (see photo).
Although it had been thought that the switch to E85 would reduce the cars' operating efficiency, the C6.Rs seemed to run well on the new fuel and were able to follow their normal race plan. More importantly, the Corvettes' strong performance allowed team engineers to download more valuable data in preparation for what promises to be another epic battle at Le Mans.
Team Profile: Mike Henney
Mike Henney (right) is a GM engineer who collaborates with Pratt & Miller personnel as part of the Corvette Racing team. One of Henney's duties is to monitor tire pressure while the C6.Rs are pounding around the race track. A telemetry system onboard the cars lets him make real-time assessments of how the tires are performing throughout the course of the race. Measurements are taken by an extremely light tire-pressure monitor mounted on the inside of the wheel and powered by a coin-sized battery.
During the race, Henney constantly scans the data on his computer screen for any unexpected deviation in pressure. These may be caused by a number of factors. When a caution period occurs, the pace is slowed significantly, allowing the tires to cool and lowering their pressure. There may also be fluctuations in pressure due to deflation, which often occurs after an on-track crash leaves debris on the race course. Spotting these problems early on is critical so that the car can pit for repairs, if necessary.
The information Henney observes is constantly conveyed to the P&M engineers in charge of chassis setup. They make all the decisions regarding suspension configurations and tire pressure in an effort to keep the C6.Rs circulating at the quickest possible pace. If the engineers decide to make a change to the cars' cold tire-pressure settings, that information is relayed to the two team members per car charged with prepping the tires for the next pit stop.