Cause for Concern?

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Cause for Concern?
AIM Autosport has yet to find its championship-winning form in 2013

If one were to look at AIM Autosport’s results in the 2013 Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series, it’s hard to know if one should feel encouraged or discouraged by what has transpired, and what it might mean for the remainder of the season as the Woodbridge, Ontario-based team attempts to repeat as Grand Touring champions.

A case could be made to support both an optimistic and pessimistic perspective, since eight of 12 races have yet to be run and the results through the first four rounds have landed in the vast middle that separates the outstanding from the god-awful.

With that in mind, PRN Ignition will examine both sides of the case.

The Glass is Half-Full

Collectively, the no. 61 R. Ferri Motorsport/AIM and no. 69 AIM/FXDD Racing With Ferrari have (arguably) the most impressive set of drivers of any team in the GT field. The lineup for the no. 61 Ferrari 458 Italia not only features one half of the 2012 championship-winning tandem (Jeff Segal), but it also includes one of the most versatile and experienced road racers in North American motorsports who has excelled in sports cars, Indy cars and NASCAR (Max Papis).

In recent years Segal, 28, has become one of the most successful drivers in Grand-Am. After winning the Grand-Am Continental Tire Series GS championship in 2007 – and becoming the youngest champion (age 22) in series history in the process – he moved up to the Rolex Series, and notched a class victory and a pole position in his first season (2008), scored two class wins in his second (2009) and collected his first GT title in his third (2010).  

Partnering Segal with Papis, the quotable and engaging Italian who has raced in everything from Formula One to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, makes perfect sense as the 43-year-old is fast in just about anything he jumps into. With more than 100 starts in the former Champ Car World Series, where he won three times, and almost 100 combined in NASCAR’s top three touring series, along with numerous sports car races under his belt (including seven in the 24 Hours of Le Mans) there is no one in the Grand-Am paddock with a resume as varied.

Pairing them together in car being prepared by a team coming off of a class championship should then serve to put the rest of the paddock on notice, shouldn’t it?Cause for Concern?
Yes, it should, but it’s taken some time for the no. 61 to post the results most observers have been expecting since the driver combination was confirmed last fall. And while the debut at the Rolex 24 at Daytona last January did not go to plan – 21st in class, 32nd overall, due in part to electrical problems – the results are beginning to trend in the right direction thanks to a fourth-place finish at Barber Motorsports Park and sixth-place effort at Road Atlanta.

“We made the most of the situation and fourth is nothing to be too unhappy about. It’s good points, it sort of gets us in the game, and we know now that when we have a good car, and we execute like we did today, we will be on the podium. That’s where we should be,” Segal said following the Barber round, which marked the best finish for the no. 61 through the first four races.  

Despite having yet to win a race – or even finish on the podium, Segal and Papis rank eighth in the team and driver point standings, and are a mere 20 points out of the lead as of this writing. Given the pace shown in the early rounds and the quality of its drivers, the no. 61 has reason to feel justifiably optimistic as the second half of the season begins.

While the sister car might have more flash when it comes to the driver lineup, the pilots of the no. 69 AIM/FXDD Racing With Ferrari post some impressive credentials of their own.

Emil Assentato, 64, the other half of AIM’s 2012 championship tandem, is a 10-year veteran in Rolex GT and, like his former co-driver Segal, is a multiple race-winner and a two-time class champion. His partner, Anthony Lazzaro, 49, has a career path similar to Papis’, with years spent in the junior open-wheel ranks in North America where he amassed victories and championships in the 1990s before shifting his career focus to various NASCAR and sports car opportunities in the years that followed.
Cause for Concern?
Similar to no. 61, results have been somewhat mixed so far for the no. 69. A spirited performance at Daytona netted a third-place finish, which represents the team’s high-water mark to date. Because they have yet to post a result outside of the top 10 as of this writing, Assentato and Lazzaro sit fifth in the team and driver standings, a mere nine points back of the leaders.

While eighth and ninth-place finishes aren’t going to do much to win another championship, Lazzaro remains encouraged by the speed he’s seeing out of the no. 69.

“We showed we had the fastest car, we set the fastest race lap and we did improve one position over our Barber result, but you can’t really do anything about the bad luck. You just have to move on the next race and do your best,” he said after the Atlanta round, referring to contact suffered by Assentato on the first lap, an incident that would ultimately put them two laps down before they rallied to finish ninth.

Although these results – for the most part – fall short of AIM’s rather lofty expectations, aside from the no. 61’s 21st place finish at Daytona, none can be reasonably considered catastrophic. To date, neither car has failed to finish a race, an outcome that would really hurt in terms of points lost and, while the qualifying efforts haven’t been sterling (no poles to date), both cars have been fast during the race.

The bottom line, if you choose to look at these results optimistically, is that both cars are within striking distance for the driver, team and manufacturers’ championships.

In fact, Ferrari currently holds a slim lead (three points) in the manufacturers’ category, due in large measure to the performance of Scuderia Corse, a team based out of Ferrari Beverly Hills. The single-car team has notched second and third place results in each of the last two rounds.

Cause for Concern? Cause for Concern?

The Glass is Half-Empty

While it isn’t too difficult to feel optimistic about where AIM stands after the first four rounds, it is just as easy to be concerned about the current state of affairs.

The most obvious reason for concern, is the lack of wins and podium finishes (aside from third posted by the no. 69 at Daytona). In 2012, the no. 69 not only won three races, but was also on the podium on five other occasions and never finished lower than eighth in class.

So far in 2013, the team has already registered three results worse than eighth and one (the no. 61’s result at Daytona) that was outside of the top 20. These lower finishes haven’t proven to be catastrophic, but they haven’t helped the team’s efforts to win a championship either. While every team occasionally has a bad race during a long season, with one third of the season gone, AIM has just about used up all of its sub-par results.

Both cars at various times have also been undone by critical mistakes as well. In Austin, both cars lost track position due to problems during a routine pit stop. The wheel nut for the right rear tire couldn’t be fastened in the normal fashion and, in the time it took to correct the problem, the opportunity to win the race vanished. While the no. 69 rallied to finish fifth and the no. 61 came home 10th (after late race contact with an Audi dropped it down further) neither is indicative of how strong the cars were running.

“I was really pleased for the speed that the 61 car had. We were very, very competitive but unfortunately did not capitalize on the speed and the ability that we had. We didn’t bring home a result that does justice for the level of R. Ferri AIM racing,” Papis said afterwards, capturing the sentiment of an opportunity lost.

Barber was another stop where a better result might have been possible for the no. 69 were it not for a critical mistake made by Lazzaro when he left the pit lane speed limiter on after taking over for Assentato. The mistake allowed him to get caught in traffic, which ultimately cost him a better finishing position, as did spinning out later in the race.

Mistakes and miscues aside, the other thing AIM has to be mindful of is the imposing competition in the GT class. If either or both of its cars are going to stay in the championship hunt, it cannot afford to post substandard results while its competitors walk away with the win.

The Camaro-powered Stevenson Motorsports team capitalized on the misfortune of AIM and other competitors at Barber and Road Atlanta to earn victory; and, while the points gap isn’t yet significant, it could be soon if AIM is unable to turn the tables and take advantage of mistakes made by the competition.Cause for Concern?
Looking Forward

Despite the slow start and a string of average finishes, both the no. 61 and no. 69 Ferrari 458 Italias are well-positioned to make a run at the championship in the second half of the season. Its cars are fast and well-prepared and it has championship-calibre drivers that are the envy of most teams in the GT paddock.

With that said, they must start putting together complete race weekends where the speed they unload with on Friday morning is reflected in the race results on Saturday night or Sunday afternoon. Errors in the pits and sub-par qualifying efforts are not always going to be overcome, regardless of who’s driving, so being able to wring the best out of the car is going to be key during the remainder of the season.

Although they haven’t necessarily been at their best so far this season, it’d be a mistake to discount the AIM Ferraris. The boys from Woodbridge have shown they’ve got the right stuff to bring home the hardware.

Story by Lee Bailie | Photography by Grand-Am Road Racing

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