Bill Auberlen vaulted to the head of the timesheets just as the chequered flag on the second of two practice sessions for the Grand-Am Rolex Series in Mexico City, giving the #05 Luggage Express Sigalsport a place in the sun for at least a few hours.
Although the team was on form at the season-opener at Daytona last month, Auberlen's lap at 1min 22.458secs at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez surprised many preparing for Saturday's Mexico City 400k. The lap was quicker than the existing Rolex Series track record of 1min 22.732secs - established by current points leader Scott Pruett in qualifying last year - and came after Auberlen, who is sharing the #05 Riley-BMW with Matthew Alhadeff, had hovered just outside the top five throughout the later stages of the session.
The sportscar veteran's last-lap flyer knocked Oswaldo Negri's #60 Michael Shank Racing Riley-Lexus off top spot, despite the session being Auberlen's first at the Mexico City track in a Daytona Prototype. The two-time Rolex Series GT champion drove in the 'junior' class in both previous Rolex Series events at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, and his experience clearly translated to the quirky DP machine.
“We pulled that off with just seconds to spare,” Auberlen confirmed, “We were panicking a little, but the car was there all the time. We were always around the top but, in the first practice session, we had a little gearbox melee. We got the problem resolved, but it cost us a little time in the second session.
"We then evaluated some sway bar settings, tried a new spring and just threw darts at the board. Matt drove first and I took over and we put on some new tyres. I put together two flyers at the end, got baulked on the first one, but the second one got it done. This just shows that this team has the pieces. They give me a lot of freedom to spend their money and let me go out and just buy what we need. I don't think [team owner] Gene [Sigal] likes it so much, but it shows the commitment!”
Negri had himself leapt to the top of the time charts in the final five minutes of the session, claiming P1 with less than two minutes remaining. The Brazilian also led the opening day of practice in Mexico City last year, before a crash in practice prior to qualifying left him and co-driver Mark Patterson behind the eight ball for the remainder of the weekend.
“We are not quite where we want to be yet, but this was a good start for us,” Negri said, “The biggest thing is that Mark did a great job today. He was really quick here last year, but today he was even faster even when he was running with tyres that had a lot of laps on them, so that's very encouraging for the race. Michael Shank Racing has once again prepared a great car and the Lexus guys have been fantastic, so there's no question I'm optimistic about this weekend.”
Third quickest on the day was Jan Magnussen in the #10 SunTrust Riley-Pontiac. Both the Dane and co-driver Max Angelelli were quick in the day's two practice sessions, with Angelelli turning in the fastest time during the opening outing.
“I'm happy with the way today went,” Magnussen said, “I got a lot of laps and time in the car, and did most of that last session. We still have some work to do, but it's a really good place to start.