I’m sure that Monsieur Fillon et al are smiling and sipping their Champagne with quite some joie de vivre after the most recent round of the FIA World Endurance Championship – aptly dubbed the ‘Lone Star Le Mans’ – at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.
A lackluster turnout last year with more fans showing up for the Saturday ALMS race than the main event on the Sunday was cause more than a little consternation and the marketing team at CotA were called into question. There were even reports of the WEC cancelling this year’s race if drastic measures were not taken.
We can all breathe a sigh of relief then that this year they got it right. By moving both the TUSCC race and the WEC race to the Saturday on a tight back-to-back schedule, the fans were really able to get their money’s worth enjoying a full day of racing whilst still making it home in time for tea on Sunday.
But that’s not the reason that the WEC suits will be patting themselves on the back, mind you. No, they have Mother Nature to thank for that. The rains that came on Friday night made for beautiful reflections in the shiny racing surface and the huge plumes of illuminated rooster-tails provided epic photographic opportunities for Tom.
Our associate writer for the weekend, Jason Hay, was ecstatic that he was able to make it in time for night practice due to the delay incurred by the spectacular lightning display having had a long day of travel from Canada himself. We thanked the gods for covered grandstands and appreciated the fact that we weren’t at Sebring!
However, the deluge that seemingly came from nowhere on race day late in the afternoon and which stopped the WEC race for almost an hour saw cars in all classes spinning like tops as they all got caught out on dry tires. Such was the fun for spectators that I imagine just about every TV station in the US and likely all over the world was broadcasting the highlights on the evening news which will have caused the aforementioned merriment for all those in attendance from the WEC boardroom.
Everyone knew that it would be hot in Austin, but as one who is given to the odd drop of perspiration (we Limey’s do not ‘sweat’) I was not prepared for the oppressive humidity that was in store – even as a Florida resident! To say that I have never been as hot in my life as when in the pit lane on Saturday night would be to understate it. Hades might be warmer…but not by much.
As a first timer in the beautifully ‘weird’ city of Austin, I was delighted with the state-of-the-art facilities offered at this world class venue. Making the rounds as always, we took the opportunity to take a behind-the-scenes look into the Audi Sport winning machine with the always outgoing and informative Brad Kettler. Having done this numerous times, and this time for Jason’s benefit (ever see Charlie in Willy Wonka’s factory?) it never ceases to amaze me how NASA-like the Audi garage is. Clinical it may be and engineered to the nth degree, but when you meet the guys who make the cars go and see how passionate they are about the race game and how friendly they are to the fans you can’t help but smile. Even the outwardly Teutonic-poster-boy Dr. Ullrich laughed and smiled with Tom as he shared a humorous anecdote. How teams who were changing engines in the dirt back in the ‘60s ever won races beggars belief. To wit, David ‘Beaky’ Sims – Risi Competizione team manager who worked for Lotus in his early career and was mechanic for Jim Clark, Jochen Rindt and later James Hunt and Niki Lauda remembers only too well and recounted tales of his time with Colin Chapman and Lord Hesketh that would make your eyes water!
The TUSCC race was up first in the short 2hour 45min format. Alex Brundle put the Ligier on pole at its debut on American soil ahead of 51 other entrants. Our Aussie friend James Davison poled the #007 TRG-AMR Vantage again but was foiled once more in his attempt to convert this into a solid result. Luck has not been on TRG’s side this year and 14th was all they could muster for their continued hard work. A good result cannot be far away as the car clearly has the pace of the GTD class.
Meanwhile, the Riley Viper SRT of Jeroen Bleekemolen took that class with a late charge to the front. Michael Christensen, Tudor rookie and rising star took his Porsche RSR to the front in the GTLM class ahead of the Vipers although a late axle issue forced the Dane to retire the car and handed the Vipers a 1-2. A 10-way fight at the top of the GTLM drivers table should make for an exciting finish to the season at Road Atlanta. After some rain and the associated pit stops and strategy changes, overall honors not surprisingly went to the DP Riley of Scott Pruett who managed his fuel better than most although the pole sitting Ligier almost made a fairy tale happen! In PC the win went to the 8Star Oreca of Sean Rayhall.
After making our own pit stops to change lenses, rekit and refill the cooler with water bottles in a vain attempt to stave off dehydration, we took off to visit with some other stars of past and present including none other than Ben Collins of Krohn Racing who is better known to most as The ‘sacked’ Stig from BBC’s irreverent show Top Gear. We met him briefly at Silverstone, but worked hard with his PR agent to get some more face time – super bloke, very funny and willing to answer silly Stiggy questions. He drove in the upcoming Brad Pitt movie, Fury, “…a hyper accurate and highly detailed World War 2 film based on true events. I was driving one of the tanks. I’ll drive anything!”
The Top Gear job came about purely by being in the right place at the right time he told us: “It was quite small back then. I sent in a CV and I didn’t realize that his (then current Stig, Perry McCarthy) time was coming to an end. I had a tryout and did some laps quicker than Perry (“Black Stig”) and that was it. They let him go off the end of an aircraft carrier and I joined in the white suit!” Look for his books The Man in the White Suit and How to Drive for some great reading entertainment.
After what seemed a brief interlude, the concrete pit-lane barriers used in US races (as in ‘over the wall’) were removed – who knows where they wound up – and the pits now resembled a reverse Le Mans for the WEC race. Congratulations on amazing precision time management by the organizers who made this all happen.
The GT battle – the one with the biggest interest for most of us – was a ding dong between the Big Three, seeing Porsche, Ferrari and Aston all dicing for the lead and staying in touch with each other for the duration despite the hour long red-flag delay. Mayhem was abound when the cars caught out in the gravel traps were plucked by the tractors and returned to the pits with some gaining advantage over the cars stopped in queue on the front straight. You can imagine the frantic email exchanges with the organizers this caused among the front runners!
Despite all this, the racing was epic and in the top LMP1 category Audi eked out a win after fierce battles with Porsche and Toyota. No one was happier than five-time Le Mans winner Emanuele Pirro, who was there as Audi Brand Ambassador. I can tell you that you don’t want to see him after an Audi loss!
Astons celebrated their tenth anniversary in fine style (see Jason Hay’s separate article for all the details of Aston’s weekend) with their most senior driver Darren Turner taking the GTE Pro win with Stefan Mücke, while in GTE Am, they took first and second.
I talked to DT after the Champagne and he summed it up perfectly: “The rain was heavy very quickly and I was relieved to keep the car on the track. After the restart we kept the lead but the Porsches were very quick and we dropped to third. As the track dried and we went to slicks, Stefan took over and did a great job keeping the Porsches honest. As the race went on we were getting stronger and stronger and were almost able to double stint a set of tires which is what leapfrogged us ahead of the Porsches. Stefan and I drove hard and fast for every minute of the race. The main thing was how Gimmi Bruni (in the AF Corse Ferrari) was closing in because they were on a different strategy with fresher tires, but we had enough of a buffer at that point to keep him at bay. Considering the disappointment at Le Mans this was good dose of medicine really.”
After a fraught weekend of intense and professional race-going, it was great to relax with friends over a coffee at Lance Armstrong’s bike shop, “Mellow Johnny’s” in Austin on Sunday and relive the Lone Star Le Mans…until next year y’all.
Images via James Edmonds