Highcroft takes dramatic Laguna win
23 May 2010
Patrón Highcroft Racing went from last – well, nearly last – to first with a thrilling victory in the American Le Mans Series Monterey presented by Patrón.
The HPD ARX-01c of David Brabham, Simon Pagenaud and Marino Franchitti won an epic six-hour race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, the second straight victory for PHR.
Franchitti took the checkered flag in round 3 of the ALMS season having battled hard with Dyson's Guy Smith for the better part of the final two hours before the Dyson Mazda-powered Lola ground to a halt with 24 minutes remaining. The oil filter blew, which shut off the power to the Mazda engine.
“The whole crew did a great job,” said Pagenaud, who drove from 33rd (third-to-last) to the lead in 78 minutes. “The opening laps were pretty exciting. Starting at the back you have to find motivation and that was getting to the front. The Michelin tires were working really, really good. We went through the traffic very quickly.”
Four cars led overall – Patrón Highcroft, Dyson Racing, Muscle Milk Team CytoSport and Intersport Racing. But the back-and-forth battle between Highcroft and Dyson was the most captivating among the LMP class. The two cars ran first and second for almost 2:30 with the Dyson Lola-Mazda battling back from Andy Meyrick's spin on a restart early. The team had to replace the front nose but that was the extent of the damage.
The deciding moment appeared to be Patrón Highcroft's decision for a fuel-only stop with 45 minutes left. Franchitti rejoined the race and led by about 30 seconds over Smith – who took tyres and fuel on his last stop – before the Lola came to a stop.
“I was definitely hanging on for life; it was a bit like drifting or rally driving,” Franchitti said. “Either way I was going to be happy. I knew I'd still have great tires and new tyres were still really good. It was a perfect call because I could drive like I wanted to. Michelin was a big part of the win today.”
Klaus Graf – who led for two stints in the race – placed second with Memo Gidley and Sascha Maassen in Muscle Milk's Porsche RS Spyder.
Flying Lizard Motorsports scored another dramatic GT victory at Mazda Raceway with Patrick Long winning in class by 0.365 seconds with Jörg Bergmeister over BMW Rahal Letterman Racing Team's Joey Hand. Long passed Hand's BMW M3 GT on the inside of turn eleven just as the green flag flew on the final restart with eight minutes left, a legal move.
“On the restart Joey left a bit of a door and I took it three-wide through eleven,” Long said. “Then it was all about running because I knew Joey wouldn't be happy. We came from P8 and worked our way through a very competitive field.”
The GT battle throughout was as close as expected with eight different cars – three Ferraris, two Corvettes, two BMWs and the Flying Lizard Porsche – leading throughout. At one point, the top seven cars were running within seven seconds midway through the race.
Hand had taken the class lead with 33 minutes left when Long pitted for fuel only. He and Dirk Mueller finished second, just ahead of Corvette Racing's Oliver Gavin and Olivier Beretta.
Last year's race ended with Bergmeister and Corvette's Jan Magnussen running side-by-side to the checkered flag with the Corvette crashing in an emotionally charged finish.
“It was definitely a bit more relaxing for me,” said Bergmeister, who got to watch this year. “I knew Patrick would do a good job because he has been good all week long. There were some who thought it wouldn't work out because the BMW was charging but I knew that Patrick would work it out and pull away.”
Level 5 Motorsports' trio of Christophe Bouchut, Mark Wilkins and Scott Tucker won in the LMP Challenge class, repeating their victory from the opening round at Sebring. Bouchut crossed the finish line 7.105 seconds ahead of Genoa Racing's Tom Sutherland, who drove with Tom Weickardt and Kyle Marcelli.
“It's a nice feeling to win again,” Bouchut said. “It was a great race, and this time we had to fight really hard until the end. The car was working really well. We had no problems at all. I just pushed the car to the maximum to keep our position.”
It was nip-and-tuck the whole way between the Level 5 and Genoa ORECA FLM09s. The Level 5 car led 115 laps and the Genoa entry led 114.
“We had to push really hard to keep up front,” said Wilkins, who has won in both his Series starts. “Christophe drove a great stint, so did Scott to keep the car up there. Level 5 gave us a great car at Sebring and they did here. We knew if we could run to the end we'd be right there.”
The victory also gave Tucker and Bouchut the class championship lead over Green Earth Team Gunnar's Gunnar Jeannette and Elton Julian. They placed third in class with Christian Zugel.
“I don't know if there is a secret,” said team owner Tucker. “I have great co-drivers and a great team. Our manager has a great mind and these guys make it easy for me. They do a great job behind the scenes.”
Black Swan Racing won its first Series race with brothers Jeroen and Sebastiaan Bleekemolen partnering with team owner Tim Pappas for a GT Challenge victory. The entry led all six hours and ended up a lap ahead of TRG's Porsche of Andy Lally, Rene Villeneuve and Henri Richard.
“We had a great start in Long Beach but some things went wrong; today it went really right,” said Jeroen Bleekemolen, who won the class pole and set the class' fastest race lap. “It's great to get the win and hopefully move up in the championship.”
BSR made its 2010 debut at Long Beach but ran into trouble early in the race. It was the first outing for the team since the 2008 season when it ran a Ford GT in the GT2 class. Team owner Pappas couldn't imagine much of a better start to the season.
“This is pretty cool. We came out for Long Beach without much preparation,” he said. “We had a difficult, frustrating race. We went home and worked hard and practiced. All the guys at Black Swan are great. The Bleekemolen brothers come over and it was a great race. We didn't put a tyre off and made zero mistakes in the pits so that turned out to a race win.”