Petit Le Mans 2014: TUSC Caps the Season With a Successful Event
BRASELTON, Ga.—It wasn’t 2010, with lightning-fast Audis exploding silently into view and disappearing almost before the eye could focus. It wasn’t 2011, with even faster Peugeots leading the way. Still, the 17th Petit Le Mans ten-hour endurance race was a really good race.
This was the first Petit Le Mans sanctioned by the Tudor United Sports Car Championship, the somewhat shaky amalgam of the old Rolex and American Le Mans series. Despite the race losing its international flavor, and no longer featuring the fastest sports cars on the planet, TUSC put on a good race.
Sure, sports car fans lamented the loss of the P2 cars (only one entered, and it was taken out by another car just past halfway.) Fans pined even more for the top-tier LMP1 cars, but when it comes down to what actually was on track, those cars, clones though they may be, put on a good show.
True, the TUSC Prototypes are slower, less advanced, less exotic—but in terms of the actual action on track, there was nothing lacking. In simplest terms, TUSC presented the fans with the best it had, and didn’t screw it up. TUSC maximized its strengths and avoided major errors. Fans might dream of more before the race, but once the race is on, reality is all that counts, and TUSC served up a good race.
Considering the blunders made at Daytona and Sebring, the other two iconic North American endurance races this season, TUSC earned a little redemption at Petit. Hopefully this will translate into better attendance at Daytona and Sebring next season; a bad Petit could have crippled the series. A good one merely means TUSC might get a second chance.
The battle between the #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Dallara-Corvette (which eventually won by 11 seconds) and the #5 Action Express Coyote-Corvette, started when the green flag waved and was hard-fought until the checkered flag flew.
WTR’s Ricky and Jordan Taylor and Max Angelelli were chasing hard or being chased hard throughout the ten hours, and they handled the pressure with nary a slip. AXR drivers Joao Barbosa, Christian Fittpaldi, and Sebastien Bourdais turned in equally precise performances, but the totality: the tiniest differences in set-up, in strategy, in handling traffic, in knowing when to rest the tires and when to push, all added up to an incredibly slim edge for the WTR crew.
Third in class and overall was the #01 Ganassi Riley-Ford Ecoboost driven by Memo Rojas, Scott Pruett, and IndyCar champ Scott Dixon. This team, which won Sebring, is usually a contender, but spent most of Petit chasing the right set-up. The #01’s cause wasn’t helped by getting rammed by the #94 Turner Motorsports GTD BMW seven-and-a-half hours into the race.
The other big winner in the prototype class was the DeltaWing. The Elan Motorsports crew rolled out its latest version of the tricycle coupe, and this version really worked, both on the straights where it had always done alright, and through the corners, where it had been lacking.
Drivers Andy Meyrick, Katherine Legge, and Gabby Chaves earned a fourth place finish despite a pair of setbacks. Meyrick was at the wheel in the fifth hour when the DeltaWing came together with the #42 Oak Racing Ligier-Honda halfway through Turn One. The Oak Ligier ended up in tire barrier, while the DeltaWing had to pit for a new nose.
Two hours later the car lost first and second gear, but even with just the top three gears the triangular prototype kept up with the competition.
The GT Le Mans race also worked out well for the Tudor folks, with sentimental favorite Falken Tire slaying the giants for the second year running. Falken has definitely dialed in the perfect compounds for the fast Road Atlanta track; driver Wolf Henzler said after the race that in testing in extreme heat the Falkens were really good, but when it got cold, they got even better, giving Henzler and co-drivers Brian Sellers and Marco Holzer the edge they needed to beat the powerful factory teams.
Outcome might have been different if three of the top contenders hadn’t collided in the pits under caution.
For some reason brand-new (returning) race director Beaux Barfield decided to institute a traffic light at the end of the pits a la WEC. Two-and-a-half hours in, during the fourth caution period, #911 Porsche driver Patrick Pilet plowed into the #62 Risi Ferrari of Pierre Kaffer, who was stopped at pit-out waiting for the light to change. Jan Magnusson in the #3 Corvette Racing C7.R then hit Pilet, who again hit Kaffer. In-car cameras showed that both Pilet and Magnussen were looking down, adjusting their belts, not expecting stopped cars in pit lane.
The Risi Ferrari had to retire; the other two needed major repairs but got running again.
This left the Falken Porsche, the #912 Porsche North America RSR, the #91 SRT Viper, and the #4 Corvette to fight over the class win. They finished in that order: the #912 Porsche, the #91 Viper, and the #4 Corvette followed the Falken car home. The damaged #911 Porsche finished fifth in class, and the #93 Viper of Jonathan Bomarito, Robert Bell, Kuno Wittmer, and Dominik Farnbacher finished sixth with an overheating transmission, but earned enough points to take the GTLM team title.
It was close the whole way, as befits what many call the best GT racing on the planet: The #17 Falken Porsche won less than a second, and the #91 Viper, driven by Kuno Wittmer, Marc Goossens and Ryan Hunter-Reay was only eight-tenths behind the #912 Porsche of Michael Christiansen and Patrick Long. Wittmer picked up the GTLM driver’s championship with his third-place finish.
The Prototype Challenge class (which some fans have renamed “Prototype Crash”) unfortunately lived up to its reputation, but even then, did not do so as egregiously as at earlier events. Yes, PC cars were responsible for five of the 13 caution periods (more on that later) but the crashes were generally minor—spins onto the grass rather than into the walls, or worse still, back into traffic.
The best of the PC teams actually put on a really good race. The win went to the #8 Starworks Oreca of Mirco Schultis, Renger van der Zande, and Alex Popow when Sean Rayhall wrecked the #25 8Star car while well in the lead 20 minutes from the finish, but even that late accident didn’t take away from the PC portion of the race or the race as a whole.
There was that classic Rolex-inspired two-lap shootout to end the race, but no one thought it was engineered to put on a show, and no one objected when the track officials took as much time as they needed to extricate the young driver safely from his crumpled car (he was not injured in the crash.)
GTD usually puts on a good show which usually goes unnoticed in shorter races because of the drama up front. With ten hours to watch different classes, fans had plenty of chances to see what these teams can do, and it was worth watching. In the end, Audi grabbed its first win of the season with the #48 Paul Miller Racing R8 LMS, a most surprising outcome from a car which wasn’t quite as fast as the best of the class.
Drivers Matthew Bell, Christopher Haase, and Bryce Miller and the Paul Miller crew won in classic endurance-racing style: run fast if not the fastest, make no mistakes, keep the car clean until the final hour, then push insanely to get the win.
Here the first TUSC Petit Le Mans set a record: 13 caution periods in ten hours. TUSC set another record: most caution periods for cars which drove away without assistance after the yellow flags waved.
About half of the yellows were for single-car spins where the driver recovered and returned to the pits under his own power. Of course, since TUSC has never heard of the “local yellow” each of these “incidents” led to 15 minutes under caution.
TUSC did extend a few of the caution periods to send the sweepers out, and seeing as it takes a quarter of an hour just to get all the different classes into the pits, another five minutes to improve the racing surface was time well spent.
Unlike at its other two marquee endurance races, Daytona and Sebring, Tudor Championship race control made it through Petit Le Mans without dramatically altering the outcome through error or folly. Still some nmention must be made of the fact that no penalties were awarded for the GTLM pit-lane collision. Race Director Beaux Barfield said later that there was no clear evidence of who caused the accident, despite in-car cameras clearly showing Patrick Pilet and Jan Magnussen not looking out their windshields, and Pierre Kaffer in the Risi Ferrari being hit from behind while stationary.
With all the cars carrying in-car and rooftop cameras, there was plenty of footage of what happened, and the video clearly showed the order of events. Pilet in the Porsche hit Kaffer’s Ferrari, then Magnussen hit Pilet, driving him back into the Ferrari.
How can there be “insufficient evidence”? The car which hit the other car is at fault—how is it not “avoidable contact” if a car drives into another car? Even more so when the collision is from behind. There was a red light, so all the drivers were required to stop. Possibly in some situations one could argue that the car in front braked too abruptly, but in this case, where the road ahead was closed, that excuse doesn’t fly.
Add to that that the clear cause of contact was Patrick Pilet not looking where he was going, and it seems ludicrous to claim that blame could not be fairly apportioned.
If Risi, which came back from a season off to face a very tough returns with a lot of very expensive accidents, decides not to come back next season, the lack of a penalty here will be a major factor.
fourth place finish.
Did Tudor Pull Off a Petit Le Mans Worthy of the Name?
In its short 17-year lifetime, Petit Le Mans has gained a reputation as the second-best North American endurance race, second only to Sebring. For many years the event attracted international teams, pitting the best of the world against the best of the American Le Mans Series. Fans were treated to the fastest sports cars on the planet do battle in a serious endurance race on a challenging track in a beautiful setting.
When ALMS and the Rolex Sports car Series merged, many fans expected the worst; not all were disappointed.
Instead of the fastest sports cars on Earth, Tudor offered a cobbled-together top class of the second-best cars (P2) and an expensive update of some antiquated cars (Daytona Prototypes.) Management was never able to balance these two chassis types, and by Petit, the last race of the season, only a single competitive P2 remained.
The new series had no attraction to teams from other series, because it offered those cars no classes in which to run. LMP1 simply doesn’t exist in the Tudor Championship, and P2 has to run spec tires, plus more weight (and in some cases larger restrictors) which means teams running P2s in the series would have to radically change their cars to race—and with practice time cut to the barest minimum in an effort to save money, no team would have time to make the necessary adjustments.
True, GTE teams could have crossed the ocean to run at road Atlanta, but even they would have to make BoP adjustments. Given the reduced stature of the race, why bother?
Tudor Championship started badly at Daytona, with horribly unfair Balance of Performance in the top class, and some terrible officiating in the final twenty minutes. The show went even more steeply downhill at Sebring—bad balance of performance in the top class, and worse, inexcusable errors in race control, ruined the race for a lot of fans.
The rest of the season wasn’t as bad. TUSC officials struggled to balance two radically different chassis in the Prototype class, worked to streamline yellow-flag and pit-stop procedures, and managed to put on some fairly decent races—if one likes the old Rolex Series style of passing by hipcheck.
Petit Le Mans, the season finale, was a last chance for the Tudor Championship to show what it had learned from the preceding dozen races. The series couldn’t magically attract international teams, couldn’t create a P1 class, couldn’t magically balance P2 and DP—but Tudor management could put on a solid, honest endurance race.
They did that. By most standards, the 2014 Petit Le Mans was an excellent race, the large number of cautions nonwithstanding. The race was ridiculously close in three of the four classes: the combined margin of victory in P, GTLM, and GTD was 15 seconds, and in PC, ten seconds, which is practically a photo finish in a ten-hour race.
Best of all, none of these outcomes were in any way tainted by officiating for the sake of sensationalism as Daytona and Sebring seem to have been. Yes, there was again a caution period twenty minutes from the finish, but this time it was unquestionable legitimate.
Even a few minutes before the caution, the gaps weren’t big. Wolf Henzler led Michael Christensen by less than ten seconds in GTLM; Michele Rugolo in the #51 Ferrari led Christopher has by seven seconds in GTD. Jordan Taylor had almost a lap on Joao Barbosa, and in PC Sean Rayhall had 30 seconds on Gunnar Jeannette. Had the race finished twenty or thirty minutes sooner it still would have been considered a close, competitive race.
More important than the final margins of victory was the actual on-track action, of which there was plenty.
Sadly the very fact Oak Ligier never got a chance to shine; it started from the back after suffering transmission failure in qualifying, lost time in the pits and then got punted by the DeltaWing. This left a bunch of DPs to fight for the overall lead, and the quickest of these cars were well-matched.
GTLM, despite a few BoP missteps, has been a great class since it was GT2 and GTE. By only minimally messing with GTLM, Tudor officials have preserved a guaranteed attraction—this is still the best GT racing on the planet.
PC and GTD don’t get much TV time, but these classes—GTD in particular—offer some great battles. Seeing a train of six GTD cars snake through the esses or through Turns 10a and 10b is pure race-fan pleasure.
The 2014 Petit Le Mans offered all of that.
Unfortunately the race still felt somewhat unspectacular. It ended up being just another Rolex race, with ALMS’s GTE class stuck in the middle. Not that that’s a bad thing—but it wasn’t quite up to the standards set by the original, ALMS-sponsored Petit Le Mans.
Some parts of that equation simply will not change. TUSC will not be adding a better top class until possibly 2017—and maybe not then. International teams are not likely to come to America seeking glory at Road Atlanta, with TUSC’s non-international classes.
What could change is everything else in the season leading up to the 2015 Petit. TUSC has every chance to learn from its mistakes, fine-tune its package, and present better events at every venue. TUSC can also look at its media package, which has drawn a lot of ire for everything from cutting off the last televised hour of the 2014 Petit, sending fans to their laptops to watch the climax of the race, to sticking the series on a channel which most fans don’t or can’t get (Fox2) with a web service (FoxGo) which even Fox2 subscribers can’t get, to larding the broadcast with more commercials than racing (it is impossible to follow a four-class race in disjointed four-minute segments.)
Tudor has (wisely) opted to hire the excellent Radio Le Mans crew to cover next season’s races. John Hindhaugh and company can make the worst event seem exciting, and the team’s mathematical wizard Paul Trusswell can explain strategy better than anyone else in the business. Still, two minutes of commercials between every four minutes of racing isn’t enough time for even the best storyteller to explain a tale as complex as a four-class sports car race.
Hopefully the hiring of Radio Le Mans is the first in a long series of steps the Tudor folk take to upgrade the series. 2014 was their first year, and though it was rough, it wasn’t hopeless. Most of the fan base seems to be willing to give the series a second chance.
If the Tudor Championship does a decent job of presenting Daytona and Sebring, it will have a fan base for the rest of the season. (If they screw up Daytona and Sebring again, well …) If Tudor makes the most of the rest of the 2015 season, maybe the 18th Petit Le Mans will feel more like the first 16, and this North American sports car tradition will eventually amass a history like Sebring has.