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Patron Highcroft leads Acura 1-2 sweep

5 April 2009


David Brabham and Scott Sharp gave the new Acura ARX-02a its first overall race victory as the marque aptly swept the board in the Acura Sports Car Challenge of St Petersburg.

Having qualified at the front of its respective classes on Friday, Acura went on to take full advantage of the lack of opposition from Audi and Peugeot - which overcame it at Sebring - to claim victory in both the LMP1 and LMP2 categories as the American Le Mans Series settled into the swing of shorter sprint events that make up the bulk of its schedule.

Brabham's Patron Highcroft ARX-02a finished 32.150secs ahead of the LMP2 entry of Adrian Fernandez and Luis Diaz as Acura took the top two positions overall positions, and was only denied a likely podium sweep by problems for the de Ferran Motorsports ARX-02a that had qualified on pole in the hands of Simon Pagenaud. Fernandez and Diaz won LMP2 for the second race in a row, having taken their Lowe's Fernandez Racing ARX-01b to success at Sebring.

"I can't say enough about the whole job [Honda Performance Development] and Wirth Research have done with this car," Sharp said, "I stepped into the P2 car last year and it was pretty much sorted, but everything on this car is new - and we've come a long way in three or four months. We all feel that this car has tremendous promise and will only get stronger and faster and better."

Sharp ran second to the de Ferran car - and owner/driver Gil de Ferran - for much of his stint but, after an early spin, took massive chunks out of the Brazilian's lead with every lap in the closing minutes of their duel. The former IndyCar winner then pitted under caution - the only one of the day - and handed off to Brabham.

The Australian made short work of the Fernandez car, passing its owner-driver for the lead eight minutes after the restart, and then proceeded to lap without a hitch, while the de Ferran car struggled with electrical and fuel pump issues that eventually sidelined Pagenaud with 15 minutes remaining. With a comfortable margin over Fernandez, Brabham still had to cope with a dangerously greasy first turn every lap, but managed to bring the Highcroft car home.

"Scott had a very strong car and did a very good job of pressuring de Ferran, which I think caused him to pit early," Brabham said, "If you pit early like that, it puts you in danger if a yellow comes out, and that worked in our favour. I had to push, but not push too hard - I went into turn one sliding a few times. It may have looked easy but it really was not."

Acura became the first manufacturer to win both prototype classes in the same race, while Brabham and Sharp took their second overall win together, adding to the first which came at Lime Rock last July, and now have five class victories together, including the four in LMP2 last year.

Fernandez and Diaz were equally comfortable winners of LMP2, coming home a lap clear of Dyson Racing's Guy Smith and Chris Dyson in the first of the team's Mazda-powered Lola B09/86s. The second Dyson entry of Butch Leitzinger and Marino Franchitti placed third after a mid-race stop to replace a right front puncture.

"The team has done a great job preparing this car," Diaz noted, "Everyone wants to win so badly, and we worked very hard to be physically ready for this season. We haven't had any problems, even in practice, and Michelin also gave us great tyres, even with the tough conditions out there."

The Lowe's Fernandez entry never trailed, repeating the model of efficiency it showed at Sebring, where the team didn't miss a beat. Diaz qualified on the class pole to follow Fernandez's top spot at Sebring, but in stark contrast to last season, where everything that could go wrong - more often than not - did.

"This is a race we should have won two years ago," Fernandez reflected, "Luis was leading the race and was trying to lap another car, and then we were penalised. Last year, we had a fantastic race at Sebring, at Laguna Seca, at Road America, at Lime Rock - it was amazing to see how badly things went last year. This proves that we are tough competitors - but we can see the Mazdas getting stronger, and we know Dyson will catch up because they have so much experience."

Intersport Racing's AER-powered Lola B06/10 claimed second in LMP1, finishing ahead of the troubled de Ferran Acura, which finished the race stranded on course with electrical problems.

With no-one contesting the GT1 class in the absence of the works Corvettes, GT2 provided the only alternative to the prototype classes, and Patrick Long and Jorg Bergmeister duly won by two laps in their Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 RSR.

The pairing, class champions together in 2005, gave Porsche its first victory at St Petersburg after wins by Ferrari in 2007 and 2008.

Long drove the opening stint and was one of the last drivers to pit, coming in during the race's lone caution period, caused by Joel Feinberg crashing his Dodge Viper Competition Coupe at the 53-minute mark. The Flying Lizard team had already gained a lap over the rest of the field, and increased that advantage when Long went around the safety car as it picked up overall leader Fernandez prior to the restart.

"We expected more yellows and, when that didn't happen, strategies got a little different," Long admitted, "At one point, when I was behind some slower cars, I called in a question to our strategist Thomas Blam about diving down at one point to avoid being in traffic. He said to stay out, and the call did pay off."

Although it wasn't clearly evident after qualifying - when Long was fourth fastest in class - the Flying Lizard team's tyre choice proved beneficial once the race rolled around. The track was considerably warmer and more slippery on Saturday, ideal conditions for the softer compound from Michelin.

"We were pretty conservative on the tyre choice in qualifying, and that paid off for us in the long runs during the race," Bergmeister said, "I think choosing other compounds gave some of our competitors trouble. As far as I know, we were on the same compound [the entire race] and we were hoping it would stay green because our car is very consistent on long runs."

Dirk Muller and Tommy Milner were second class, as Muller picked up two positions in the final 15 minutes with the best of the BMW Rahal Letterman Racing Team's BMW M3s. The German was more than 15 seconds ahead of Panoz Team PTG's Dominik Farnbacher at the flag, as Farnbacher and Ian James finished third for the second straight race.

Fernandez and Diaz won the prototype category of the Michelin Green Challenge, which goes to the fastest and most energy efficient entry who has the least environmental impact. Hand and Milner were the GT class winners.


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