Entering its 15th year, the American Le Mans Series is just days away from diving head-first into battle at Sebring. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges in sportscar racing, the 12 Hour race is a prime example of the world-class talent the ALMS provides.
It also marks the last time the series will open the season at Sebring International Raceway before officially unifying with Grand-Am Road Racing – something we have covered in-depth in previous issues of PRN Ignition and in the columns on prnmag.com. What comes with the merger is a string of changes – some we have seen, and some we have yet to even imagine – but one thing is sure, this last year of American Le Mans will provide some of the best spectacles we have seen in recent memory.
Sebring has played host to some of the most memorable moments in American sportscar racing history. Starting with the inaugural ALMS race in 1999, Tom Kristensen, JJ Lehto and Jörg Müller set the stage for the event when their Schnitzer BMW V12 LMR beat the Dyson Riley & Scott Mark III on the final lap. The battle between Jamie Melo and Jörg Bergmeister in 2007 continued the trend of memorable Sebring finishes, when Melo literally scratched and scraped his Ferrari past Bergmeister’s Porsche 911 down the final straight for the narrowest of victories. It’s these types of battles sportscar racing lives for.
The 2012 edition aims to provide nothing different. The season is filled with a number of headline race weekends; paired with the likes of IndyCar on April 20 at Long Beach and again on August 31 in Baltimore; Grand-Am at the legendary Road America and Road Atlanta for the season finale; and the series’ first visit to the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, where it will kick off a super-endurance weekend in September, culminating with the World Endurance Championship race on the 22nd. The popular Mid-Ohio race was the only stop missing from the calendar, as it was unable to secure a lucrative television deal. But this season will be anything short of the busiest and most exciting we’ve seen in the series’ history.
As per tradition, the season starter will host a number of top European contenders, including two cream-of-the-crop Audi R18 e-Tron Quattros, led by endurance legends Tom Kristensen and Alan McNish. Joining them will be 2012 WEC privateer champs Rebellion Racing (who also have a full-time ALMS entry), Greaves Motorsports and the factory Aston Martin Racing squad with it’s brand-new Vantage GTE.
As for the full-time ALMS membership, there have been some major changes across the board. Since announcing the new unified class structure for 2014, the P2 teams from last year have been more than reluctant to enlist their squads for 2013. The P2s will be paired with the less-powerful Grand-Am Daytona Prototypes next year, and without detailed plans of exactly how this is going to happen, teams have pulled their programs. Black Swan Racing was forced to cut it’s season short last year after Lola’s financial troubles interrupted the team’s parts supply, so rather than re-sign for ALMS P2, it decided to run a Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3 in the Pirelli World Challenge this season.
Dempsey Racing originally secured funds for it’s P2 program but also made the switch to run two Porsche 911 GT3 Cup Cars in GTC under a new banner with soccer star Alessandro Del Piero after hearing of the 2014 regulations. Even defending P2 champs and 2013 24 Hours of Le Mans participants, Level 5 Motorsports have cited the lack of entries as a reason for not participating. A representative for Conquest Racing said the same thing. Because the finer details have not been completely worked out, P2 teams aren’t ready to invest in a future P2/DP class they know little about.
So while P2 sits empty at the time this was written, there are plenty of other reasons to get excited for the final ALMS season – schedule aside. Firstly, the P1 class grows by two cars, with the Rebellion Lola B12/60 Toyota and the Panoz DeltaWing joining the Dyson Lola B12/60 Mazda and overall champions Muscle Milk Pickett Racing.
Entering it’s first full racing season, the batmobile-shaped DeltaWing will be far from the car that raced last year. Chief architect and previous ALMS series owner Don Panoz has since taken over the project completely, losing engine manufacturer Nissan, as well as Michelin, who supplied the DeltaWing’s unique four-inch-wide front tires. Designer Ben Bowlby and constructor Dan Gurney have also left the program, leaving development and manufacturing up to Panoz’s Elan Motorsport Technologies. The company also confirmed reports that the car is being prepared for a closed-top, coupe version that should appear sometime after Sebring.
Rebellion Racing (winners of the WEC P1 privateer and Petit Le Mans trophies last year) will undoubtedly be a strong contender against Dyson and Muscle Milk Pickett Racing for the top spot. Driving the revised HPD ARX-03c, the Pickett Racing team finished Sebring testing with the top times overall.
When asked about joining the ALMS for 2013, Rebellion Team Manager Bart Hayden said, “Last year was the most demanding, but also the most successful season in the history of the Rebellion Racing team. We want to build upon those results and add to our tally of overall race wins. Our first race this year will be one of the toughest we will face all year, but we can't wait to be in Sebring again - particularly as we will be up against some extremely strong rivals.”
The Prototype Challenge class sees most of the 2012 roster return, with a new entry from DragonSpeed Mishumotors fielding at least one car for the season. Core Autosport will be looking to defend their title and added a Porsche 911 GT3 RSR to fight for the heavily-weighted GT class trophy, while BAR1 Motorsports sees the return of Canadian Kyle Marcelli take a lead role in it’s two car lineup. The team also announced the signing of Canadian Chris Cumming, previously of JDX Racing in GTC. Marcelli, who finished ninth out of 36 PC drivers last year, is excited for a strong year in his return with the team.
“Brian (Alder) has built a very nice team and filled it with some great individuals for 2013. I think I speak for everyone at BAR1 in saying that we are very confident about our program and eager to get underway.”
When asked about his pairing with fellow Canadian Cumming, Marcelli said, “Chris showed very well in 2012 in the GTC category. I'm confident he will do a great job this year in prototype. I look forward to working with him. Plus he's Canadian so at least we cheer for the same hockey team!”
The GT class meanwhile, looks to be one of the most challenging in recent memory. Corvette will be defending it’s title in the last iteration of the C6.R before it moves to the C7.R for 2014, but faces steep competition with Ferrari 458 Italias from ESM Tequila Patron, Alex Job/ West Racing and the return of Risi Competizione, winners of the 2006 and 2007 GT class and three class victories at Le Mans. The SRT Vipers will also enter the first full, factory-supported season, anchored by drivers Tommy Kendall and Ryan Dalziel.
For BMW and Team Rahal Letterman Lanigan, the new season was an opportunity to move away from the longstanding M3 GT in place of the new Z4 GTE, which initially caused a stir for it’s restricted, but non-Z4-production V8 engine. While the rules have been bent to allow it’s participation, there’s no doubt the car will turn heads and be an exciting addition to the field.
Adding to the GT mix, TRG announced a new, five-year agreement to be the North American factory team for Aston Martin. Unfortunately due to time constraints, TRG is postponing the program until mid-season.
“It’s a very capable and strong, formidable car. It’s just that getting any program running 10 minutes before 12 is a little arduous,” TRG COO Bob Dickinson said.
Despite the setback, the team is looking forward to a very successful ALMS season and a chance at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where they currently hold a reserve spot.
Rounding out the GT class will be the last year of factory-supported Porsche 911 GT3 RSR Type 997s, run by Core Autosport, Paul Miller Racing and Team Falken Tire. The new Type 991 RSR is currently undergoing development and will race in the unified series next year.
As a result, the popular red and silver livery of Flying Lizard Motorsports moves to GTC in the Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car, along a list of confirmations that includes the Dempsey/ Del Piero team, JDX Racing, Alex Job/ WeatherTech and a single TRG entry to date.
While it marks the beginning of the end of the American Le Mans Series, the season is poised to go out with a bang. Not only is the competition stronger and more dense, but pairing the races with other top-tier motorsport bodies at a long list of impressive venues promises to provide us with more excitement and memories than ever before. And really, that’s what sportscar racing is all about. Let’s just hope that trend continues in 2014.