The Long Beach race, the second of the 2010 ALMS series, couldn't have been more different than the opening endurance saga at Sebring. Long Beach involves one practice and one qualifying session, a 100-minute race with one (planned) pit stop, and one change of tires. Sebring takes place over five days, with a bunch of test and practice time leading up to 12 hours of racing, 11 planned pit stops, 12-13 sets of tires, and a truckload of fuel. The only time on the LB track afforded the sports cars by their open-wheel brethren of the Indy Car series (with whom they share the event bill) was a two-hour practice from 7 to 9 a.m. and a short practice/qualifying session in the afternoon on Friday. The next time the cars were on the track was to receive a 4:40 p.m. green-flag start to the late afternoon race. It's the shortest race and event of the ALMS season. The importance of exposure in the SoCal market makes the effort rewarding, but jostling through the throngs of over-the-top partying crowds makes one wonder whether any of them really knew a race was going on. As one astute observer opined, "Long Beach is a party that a race just gets in the way of."
Distractions aside, the event is a critical one for a season with just nine races in the schedule, and everybody understands the importance of doing well. Long Beach is also a very tight street circuit offering little room to pass, where concrete walls are constantly poised to punish anyone unlucky enough to get off line. Fortunately the Corvettes have raced here before, and the engineering book contains the data needed to set up the cars to perform well right out of the box. While the weather can be capricious at the waterfront track, this year's event was blessed with 70-degree weather under mostly sunny skies.
The Corvettes qualified well in a 12-car field, with Johnny O'Connell (partnered with Jan Magnussen) placing the No. 3 car third in GT, and Olivier Beretta (with Oliver Gavin) driving No. 4 to a fifth-place spot. The Risi Ferrari 430 took the pole in GT, followed closely by another surprising effort by the Falken Tire Porsche GT3 RSR, piloted by factory driver Wolf Henzler. After qualifying, the GM team began preparing for the race, cleaning up the cars and settling in for the next 24 hours before they were again allowed out of their paddock.
For 2010, the ALMS has revised its classification scheme by establishing four categories of cars to compete at the same time. The LMP1 and LMP2 class cars have been combined into one LMP class, while last year's GT2 class is now called GT. (For three of this year's races-Sebring, Le Mans, and Petit Le Mans-the GT category will revert to the GT2 name, as these races carry "French Le Mans" sanctioning criteria, and that particular body continues to recognize GT2 and GT1 entries separately.) A new LMP Challenge, officially called LMPC, features a spec ORECA-Courage open-cockpit prototype chassis powered by a 430hp Chevy V-8. A fourth class, GT Challenge (GTC), is made up of three iterations of Porsche GT3 Cup cars.
This reshuffled lineup typically delivers 35-36 cars in the starting field and results in a lot of traffic on the track. Because of the varying degrees of horsepower and suspension capability involved, drivers are passing or pushing each other constantly. Of particular note is the interaction between the GT and LMPC classes. The GT cars have nearly the same horsepower as the LMPC prototypes but not the handling prowess. However, many of the GT cars are managed by experienced factory teams, and this expertise shows in the cars' performance. The result is that these two classes, comprising some 20 entries, seem to be mixing it up with increasing frequency. The tight street circuit of Long Beach promised to level the playing field between the two classes, making for some exciting racing and increasing the likelihood of an accident-induced yellow.
With the fall of the green flag, the class-leading cars rushed into Long Beach's unforgiving, 90-degree Turn 1. The first two positions in GT became an all-out struggle between the Falken Tire Porsche and the Risi Ferrari, with O'Connell and the No. 45 Flying Lizard Porsche RSR of Jorg Bergmeister slightly behind.
At 57 minutes into the 100-minute competition, the No. 3 C6.R came in for its first and only service appointment. O'Connell arrived in third position and relinquished his seat to Magnussen, who rejoined the fray in sixth. The refueling was quick, requiring only 10 gallons of cellulosic E85, but the driver change was a bit protracted and resulted in the car being slightly delayed for pit-out.
Despite the lovely weather, a metaphorical black cloud hung over the No. 4 C6.R all day. About 30 minutes after the green flag fell, an abruptly braking Porsche forced Beretta into a tire barrier. While the shunt resulted in significant injury to the side, rear, and front of the C6.R, Beretta was able to soldier on. Unfortunately the damage would force subsequent driver Oliver Gavin to make two additional pit stops before the day was done, providing ample opportunity for the crew to apply tenacious yellow BearBond to the nose of the car.
Meanwhile, Magnussen had moved up to fifth and was in the process of chasing down the remaining competition. With less than 30 minutes to go, the task looked insurmountable. The two BMW M3s had elected not to install fresh rubber during their pit stops, since team tire supplier Dunlop had insisted that the cars could expect a full race out of one set. The strategy paid off initially, pushing the cars up to first and second in class after the pit cycle. However, their rapidly deteriorating rubber would let them down in the long run, allowing Patrick Long in the freshly shod No. 45 Porsche to put both BMW entries behind him. With only minutes left, Magnussen passed the Risi Ferrari and the two BMWs to capture second, a position he would hold through the end of the race. It was a spectacular performance, and real testament to the Dane's driving skills on a very difficult and tight circuit.
The No. 4 car came in a disappointing Ninth in class but did manage to finish the race despite the earlier damage and delay. The Auberlen/Milner BMW M3 took Third. Highcroft Patron Racing's nimble LMP2 prototype battled all race long for dominance before finally executing a last-lap pass of the Aston Martin LMP1 entry to take the overall win.
Corvette Racing immediately turned its attention to the six-hour Laguna Seca enduro, a final tune-up in preparation for the Le Mans 24-hour in June. The race at La Sarthe would be Corvette Racing's first foray into GT2 competition at the historic French track, and with the battle for class supremacy at a fever pitch, expectations are of a knock-down, drag-out fight.
In Detail: Driver's Traffic Alert System
With 36 cars on the track at one time, and more than a dozen cars in the GT class alone, it can be difficult for a driver to keep tabs on where he is in relationship to his competitors and the traffic around them. Corvette Racing has given its drivers an advantage in the form of a small video monitor mounted on the top left side of the dash. The monitor lets the driver know in real time exactly which cars are ahead of and behind him. With four classes of cars on the track at one time, all with significant speed and handling differences, it's an important piece of information to have. The prototype cars can be upon the driver in a flash-one moment there's nothing in the rearview camera, and a split second later, a car is flashing by at warp speed. It's a situation that can easily create an accident and put both cars out of the race. With the traffic alert system running, the C6.R drivers always know what to expect. This is just one more way in which the GM team gives its entries an extra technological advantage.
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