Mosport | Detroit | Petit LeMans 2008

Mosport. Mosport was a wild weekend. The race came down to fuel strategy and never in my career have I been involved in such a sticky situation. A lot of the drivers in the LMP2 class this year have Champ car experience—guys like Adrian Fernandez and Gil de Ferran—and they talk about the heyday of CART in the late ‘90s and how it was all about saving fuel, not only with the engine mapping and onboard controls but also with the driving style. This was a true view of what they have always talked about—what a race! The way the yellow flags fell at Mosport, it was so unbelievably close on whether the LMP cars could make it to the end on fuel. It was just great to be an “interested spectator” and listen on the radio as everything unfolded toward the end of the race.

Earlier, I had started the race and all went well in my stint. Everything went to plan; I got a solid start and kept it clean for the first hour and a half. Mosport is an insanely quick circuit, which makes passing tough in the prototypes. I was able to snooker the De Ferran car on the start and then hold off the quicker LMP1 field cars… all in all, mission accomplished. I turned the controls over to Sascha and then followed the race as closely as I could. During the race we have a closed circuit intercom system that runs between all our #6 guys so we are able to hear one another on an open mike. It’s amazing the communication between the strategist, whether that’s Roger or John Erickson, our team manager, and our key players who are our assistant engineers. They’re the real fuel mileage and number calculation guys— John and Robbie—and they’re the real background support who really do a tremendous number of high stress, lightning fast calculations… talk about pressure! They can tell the strategist what to tell the driver over the radio about how it’s going to play out. And I’m a third factor, a kind of wild card factor, as the driver who’s not in the car, who can relate to what the active driver wants to know, when and how much information over the radio. It’s a great experience for me to be so active in how the race plays out whereas in previous programs I’ve just sort of stepped out of the car and done my best to rehydrate myself and cheer my teammate on. It’s fun to be a different part of the team—certainly I have a very minimal role there, speaking only when spoken to, but it’s great to follow along and be a part of it when needed.

To finish third at Mosport was a great feeling after being off the podium for a couple of races and it came down to the last lap as to whether we were going to make it on fuel. We had calculated it perfectly, so it was a nail-biter but it was a lot of fun. I don’t think there was a liter of fuel left in our tank when we coasted back to the pit, so it was certainly icing on the cake to get it so right.

Detroit. Then, of course, it was back to back weekends from Mosport to Detroit. Detroit is just a great track for so many reasons, the venue and the layout, but street courses are something that I find suits my driving style because they are low grip, high risk circuits and they take a methodical, technical approach rather than a banzai, ‘close your eyes and hold it flat out’ track. I enjoy driving in the rain, driving street circuits and even dirt cars— races where there is a little bit more of a drift to the car. The old days of Formula 5000 and Formula One when you could see the cars without technical assistance and the drivers hanging it out – I love that stuff.

Long and BriscoeThe weekend began very differently in that I had a new teammate just before I arrived. Although it was a new teammate for the season, it was a familiar face in Ryan Briscoe. Ryan and I grew up racing together; we met in Belgium in 1996 as 14-year-old rivals from opposite ends of the world in the Junior Karting World Championship. We became close friends and roommates a couple of years later as teammates in the factory CRG Karting Team, which is kind of the Penske of karting in international caliber racing. Since then we’ve crossed paths in Germany and again when he came stateside in 2005. We raced the Rolex 24 together and we’ve always kept in close contact and, of course, we’ve both raced for Penske the last couple of years. We shared a car at Sebring this season also. We’re sized very similarly and we know how to work together, so it was a pretty seamless transition, but it was bittersweet in that everything that I had done this year was with Sascha and it was a tough adjustment there.

I knew I had to get down to business, that there was minimal track time because street circuit venues always have limited time on the circuit. Both practice sessions were washed out, so we ran minimal laps in the rain, had a good balance in the rain but the weather was changing all day. It peaked into dry weather just before qualifying. Ryan was planning to qualify because of his experience there last year in the RS Spyder and also the sessions were dry for his IRL practice. But at the last moment Roger thought that it would be better if I got in the car to get some dry laps as that would be my only time to learn the track in the dry before the race. To say the least I was somewhat disappointed with fifth on the grid. We had split the setups between the #7 and the #6 based on having no dry running and needing to find a balance for the race.

Unfortunately, our direction was the wrong one but a lot of the lack of pace came from me just having to go out there and learn the track in the RS Spyder. It requires a phenomenally different style from how it’s driven in a GT car. The #7 car was one place ahead of us on the grid, so my objective in the race was to run wingman to him on the start because we had the factory Audis just behind us; they are very quick on the straights but in overall pace if we can get a gap, we can maintain our position ahead of them. The race went pretty straightforward for us for the most part. The #7 car guys had an unfortunate coming together with a GT car but in the end, we also had a suspected puncture at the end of the race at which point we had a late pit stop with Ryan in the car which dropped us from third to fifth in class.

It was not the result I had hoped for with the street course, but it was a great experience driving the Spyder and the venue was second to none. Being in the Motor City and with the Penske-promoted race, there were tons of PR activities all through the weekend. On Thursday night we helicoptered over to the Henry Ford Museum—Ryan, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon and myself—and we attended a charity gala function. It was nice to be at the Henry Ford Museum for the first time and I spent most of the cocktail hour sneaking around the back of the ropes to check out everything that they had there in the historic halls.

Petit Le Mans. Looking toward Petit Le Mans, the pressure has never been so great. The Acuras have closed in the last three races and it is way too close for comfort. In saying that, I think we’ll be good at Petit. We have a well developed car there and I think that where we might lack a little bit of pace we make up with strategy and fast pit stops. Obviously it’s a ten hour race. That means lots more pit stops and strategy will play a role. It’s exciting that we have new additions to the field, especially in the prototype class with the Peugeots and the new Zytek. I think there’ll be a different atmosphere out on the track with the new drivers and teams. Atlanta is always a special event because of the passionate fans and the close following that Porsche has with their North American base being there. I always look forward to the race. It’s a great mix between sprint and endurance and the atmosphere always gives me that extra charge.

Q: What do you think of the new DFI engine?

A: The DFI is something that everybody wants—more horsepower without increased fuel consumption. Not only did we maintain our mileage but we increased it, so that’s a testament to new age technology and all of the work that the engineers at Porsche have done. In today’s world, efficiency is very important in racing where fuel mileage is so crucial, but it also translates into the road cars of today. The current economy and high fuel prices have put a premium on increased fuel efficiency. It’s a great thing to have more performance without a fuel penalty and I think that’s what the ALMS and sports car racing is all about. Not only marketing Porsches and other marques but also developing technology for the road. And that time crossover is shorter and shorter every year. What we develop on the race cars is put into the road cars sometimes within the same calendar year where it once was a four or five year cycle between race track and road. That’s a very interesting process of progress.


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