The American Le Mans Series at Monterey offered everything that makes endurance racing worthwhile: multiple battles in multiple classes for the lead and for position, emotional highs and lows, cars wrecking and breaking and getting fixed and returning, and drivers going crazy fast right up to the edge of control (and reason) and pulling off amazing overtaking moves, lap after lap after lap.
After six hours of non-stop, full-throttle action, who won seems almost irrelevant.
For the record, Patrón Highcroft Racing took the overall win, with Simon Pagenaud, David Brabham, and Marino Franchitti teaming up to bring the HPD-ARX-01c home well ahead of the competition.
“It was just a great race through the field, wasn’t it?” said David Brabham on Radio Le Mans. “It was just excitement all the way. Hats off the the Patrón Highcroft racing team because that was one heck of an endurance event—not one thing went wrong. I feel sorry for the Dyson guys because they were really tough today but we’ll take it.”
Teammate Marino Franchitti felt similarly about the Dyson Racing entry: “The Dyson Mazda guys were so fast today. They had the car that was the class of the field."
When asked how he felt beating his former team (Franchitti drove for Dyson last season,) Franchitti replied, “These guys are going to be here all year. They are going to be really hard to beat from here on out. It’s bittersweet, but I am a Patrón Highcroft driver now and I want to win for them.”
Patrón Highcroft packs Monday for Le Mans, a dream of team owner Duncan Dayton for many years. Franchitti was eager for the challenge. “We’ve proved in a longer race again that we’re working well, and we’re only improving” he said.
“Le Mans is going to be a new thing for us but it’s going to be great.”
Yes, Patrón Highcroft won the race. But only knowing that negates the first hour of the race, where Clint Field roared into the lead and kept his underfunded, family-owned Intersport Lola-AER ahead of all the big teams—until a turbo blew ending his day.
Klaus Graf in the Cytosport Porsche added to the early thrills, seizing the lead from Field in traffic only to lose it a few seconds later, to retake the lead a few seconds after that when the Lola blew up.
Meanwhile, the Highcroft car worked its way from the back of the pack, where it had to start because of a clerical error—apparently there was no record of Marino Franchitti being a driver—to challenge the Cytosport car for the lead.
Simon Pagenaud had pushed the Highcroft car all the way through the field and eventually passed the Dyson Lola-Mazda, to lie third, and then second, behind the Cytosport Porsche. Pagenaud took the lead when the Porsche pitted, and kept it for the next hour.
2:20 into the race a spate of action drastically changed the LMP class.
David Ducote started it all by spinning his #89 Oreca LMPC car and bringing out the yellow flag
The LMP leaders pitted; Memo Gidley took over from Klaus Graf in the Cytosport Porsche, Andy Meyrick took over for Chris Dyson in the Dyson Lola-Mazda, and David Brabham replaced Simon Pagenaud in the Highcroft HPD.
On the restart, Memo Gidley spun the Porsche, ending up in the gravel. A few laps later, he had to park the car near Turn Three: some gravel had jammed the shifter. This brought out another yellow. Just before the next restart, the Drayson Lola-Judd came to a stop on track and had to be towed in.
On the next restart, Andy Meyrick had the lead but he ran wide on the first turn, half-spun, and shot across the rack, barely missing David Brabham in the Highcroft HPD and slamming into the Johnny Mowlem’s #52 LMPC, tearing half the nose off the Dyson, and bringing out yet another yellow flag. This gave the overall lead back to Brabham in the Highcroft HPD.
The mechanical problems with the Duson and the Cytosport cars dropped both of them well back. There crews worked desperately to get back on track, while Brabham in the Highcroft car turned in safe and solid laps.
The LMP battle seemed over, but it was not. A few yellow flags and some inspired driving put the Dyson car back into second, right on the Highcroft car’s tail. With just over an hour remaining in the race, Guy Smith powered past Marino Franchitti to put the Dyson Mazda into the lead.
The race was still not over. Both cars had to make final pit stops. The Dyson car stopped first, taking just enough fuel to finish the race, plus four tires, and some additional fluids. The stop took too long, and Smith rejoined the race thirty seconds behind the Franchitti.
Despite Franchitti losing front grip, Highcroft decided not to take tires; just a splash of gas and out, saving thirty second over the Dyson stop, and keeping Franchitti in the lead. But could the Highcroft HPD, which relied on its handling, hold of the Dyson Lola with its greater top speed? Particularly when the Highcroft car was on old tires?
That was the gamble: Dyson Racing decided to risk a long stop and get fresh rubber, Highcroft decided to get back on track in better position.
In the end, the result of the gamble remained unknown: with 24 minutes left in the race, the Dyson car suffered a terminal mechanical failure. It parked on the side of the track, it’s day done. The Highcroft HPD had a comfortable cushion, and finished the final laps knowing that barring mechanical failure, they had the win.
All in all, a lot of action, an emotional rollercoaster as one car, then another seemed unbeatable and then fell aside, and often came back. Several hard-fought battles for the lead, some lasting dozens of laps. A raceful of action, to be sure; and that was just one of four classes, and not even the best.