October 5, 2011 Laguna Seca and Petit Le Mans

Laguna Seca was our home event with the Lizards being from nearby Sonoma and my hometown being in Southern California, and I always look forward to getting back to that race. It’s gone from a four-hour race to a six-hour race and I think that plays to our strength, but not only has the race length changed over the last couple of years but we’ve gone from being the final round to an early May round and now to the penultimate round. So it’s been a moving target from a weather standpoint. Our goal was to focus on developing a setup that would work with drastic weather changes as it really cools off as the sun goes down and we’d be racing into the night.

We knew we wouldn’t be fighting for a pole; we haven’t been the last couple of years but we’ve still been able to win the last two years. For qualifying I was happy with our car and happy with the way qualifying went and we were still fifth on the grid. In saying that, it was a few positions better than eighth last year where we still able to take the victory—so the optimism remained amongst the team.

I took the start of the race and knew that we had a good car over the complete stint. I saw that the Corvette faded on tire wear and ours stayed strong. Speed-wise we were OK; we didn’t have the ultimate speed against the Risi Ferrari, but we were able to run consistently with them. Right away I could tell that the aggression that some of the drivers had in their willingness to fight over positions in Hour 1 of a six-hour race meant that we were going to have to go against our natural way of fighting hard through the race. We knew we had to be there at the end and after all the attrition and tough breaks we’ve had this year, personally speaking I had a different view on how we were going to get to the top step of the podium. Those who followed the race saw the highlights of the Ferrari running me straight to the pit wall and then knocking Jörg off the track in the corkscrew—a very heated and unjust way of going at things from our standpoint. So we just decided to keep out of it and let others do the fender bending until the last hour and then the gloves would come off.

The way that the yellow flags fell and the strategy unfolded, Jörg ended up in the car. There were some timely yellows that meant it became a fuel strategy race and surprisingly the Ferrari didn’t stop with many of us at the end. With that we knew that the fuel strategies were going to play out at the end of the race and, sure enough, they started to have to save fuel and the car ended up stumbling at the end, which allowed Jörg to sneak by on the last lap. It was an incredibly exciting way to finish. We were all standing up on the pit wall and just couldn’t believe that he had brought the car around in first place. He did such a great job of sneaking by the BMW, and then slipped past Jaime in Turn 4. The emotion was overwhelming for everybody on the team after having such a tough year and such a drought from being victorious in ALMS. It was just a seriously incredible emotion and very relieving and I think it was timely in reminding ourselves that we do have what it takes regardless of balance of performance and the politics of it. We can race our way to the front if need be and it was a great way to get a start on next year.

Petit Le Mans was another long distance race and we took the same mindset that got us to the top of the podium at Laguna Seca. We were happy with the car all during the week and actually we didn’t even utilize all of the track time that was given to us. That’s a very unusual but good place to be with no need to take any risk with the car being on track or put any extra miles on the race engine. With 60 cars all during practice, things went relatively OK but it was very busy on track. There were a few unfortunate incidents but in the grand scheme of the pace of things, it wasn’t too bad and I think everybody did a pretty solid job.

Jörg got every single thing out of the car in qualifying and we ended up fifth, but just to put a barometer on how competitive it was there was a non-championship ILMC Ferrari at the pole and Corvette was eighth and ninth. It was extremely tight. There was an interesting drivers’ briefing and we really debated as a group about the LMP1s and their bright lights and what effect that may have had as a result of some timely close calls and some incidents back at Le Mans. I think the drivers’ meeting went really well regarding the dialogue between prototype and ALMS drivers and I was feeling good that we would have plenty of on-track respect which hasn’t been there all this season. It turned out that way. There were the normal incidents and plenty of yellow flags but I think the race had a good flow on track and a good amount of respect among all the drivers.

The Risi car didn’t make it to the starting grid after an unfortunate accident on the reconnaissance lap so we never got to see how things would play out and if the stewards’ decision to penalize them at Laguna might have calmed the drivers down. I guess we’ll have to wait until Sebring to see how things go there.

The race itself went smoothly and to plan. The car was good. Jörg had a couple of punctures in mid-race which put us at the back of the lead lap but we knew if we could maintain on that lead lap we’d be in for a shot at the end. It ended again in spectacular fashion with us taking first place ALMS points and second on the road in GT. The confusing part there is that the car that won was actually competing for the International Le Mans Cup and was not an ALMS entrant. We understood that and what we were really fighting for was for Michelin to win the tire manufacturers’ award. They hadn’t won it in LMP and we knew that this was their only chance. It felt great to finish up and get a good chunk of points—to charge into that fourth place in drivers’ points, which isn’t where we are used to finishing up, but after being well outside of the top five, it was a great way to surge back forward. In typical Bergmeister fashion he made an excellent move around the outside of the #55 BMW with two laps to go and had us all on the edge of our seats again.

It was a great way to finish up. We’re hungry and can’t wait for Sebring. In the meantime, see you at Rennsport Reunion IV at Laguna next week!

Send your comments and questions to Patrick at askpatrick@pca.org. Although he can’t respond individually, he’ll get to as many as possible in his blog.