Marc Gene puts Peugeot on pole at Sebring
The two diesel-powered factory Peugeot 908 HDI FAPs will start from the front row for the opening round of the 2010 American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patr¢n. A victory in Saturday will mean the French manufacturer holds current championships in all three of the world’s endurance classics.
Gene will drive with fellow reigning Le Mans 24 Hours winner Alexander Wurz and Anthony Davidson. Only Davidson has competed in the 12 Hours while the trio of Minassian, Sebastien Bourdais and Pedro Lamy in the sister car have 18 starts between them.
“I was very worried before coming here because I had heard so much about it,” Gene said. “There were the bumps, the fast curves. I tried to play it on video games but I had to play it so much! Then I moved on to videos and Nic helped me a lot. If it weren’t for him, I probably wouldn’t have won pole position.”
The two Peugeots have been utterly dominant this week with the two fastest times in each session. That continued Friday with the 908s locking fellow LMP1 competitors Aston Martin Racing and Drayson Racing out of the front row.
Stefan Mücke qualified third for Aston Martin with a lap of 1:46.079 (125.567 mph). He is driving the Lola B09/60-Aston Martin with Adrian Fernandez and Harold Primat.
Such gaps aren’t lulling the Lions to sleep, however. As Gene can attest – even in his limited experience here – Sebring can bite back in a hard way.
“We have lost speed on the straight due to the rules. For sure the Aston Martin will be very tough,” he said. “There are a couple of very dangerous corners,” he said. “There are no corners like 1 and 17 in Europe. I just came from Bahrain and some of the F1 drivers there would come here and (pull their hair out).”
Marino Franchitti won his second career Sebring LMP2 pole for Patr¢n Highcroft Racing and Honda Performance Development. The popular Scot qualified the Patr¢n Highcroft HPD ARX-01c with a time of 1:47.684 (123.695 mph). He will drive with 2009 Series LMP1 champion – and reigning Le Mans overall winner – David Brabham and Simon Pagenaud.
You could throw a net over the three fastest drivers in class. Franchitti was only 0.054 seconds better than Klaus Graf in the Muscle Milk Team CytoSport Porsche RS Spyder; he will drive with team owner Greg Pickett and Sascha Maassen.
Guy Smith qualified Dyson Racing’s isobutanol-powered Lola B09/86-Mazda at 1:47.882 (123.468 mph). He will team with Chris Dyson and Andy Meyrick.
“It was certainly very close but we thought our competition didn’t show everything they had before qualifying,” said Franchitti, who also claimed the LMP2 pole at Sebring in 2004. “We didn’t have the best setup but it was good enough. I obviously have two talented and terrific teammates in David and Simon. We have a new big sponsor in GE and it’s great to welcome them with a pole. Hopefully we can do that with a win tomorrow.”
The Patr¢n Highcroft entry is an updated version of the ARX-01 lineup that debuted during the 2007 season. Franchitti drove the 01a model for Andretti Green Racing that year and loves the updates the car has received since then.
“There are certainly significant changes that were in the pipeline that didn’t come online when I was with Andretti Green,” he said. “It was nice for me to get back into a car I know and have everything be better. It’s been great. The Highcroft guys have won a lot of races but this is the one race that’s eluded them.”
Gunnar Jeannette will go down in the history books as the first pole-winner in the new Le Mans Prototype Challenge class. He won out in a terrific qualifying battle with a lap of 1:55.279 (115.546 mph) driving the Green Earth Team Gunnar ORECA FLM09. The former Panoz factory pilot outpaced Ryan Hunter-Reay in the first of Level 5 Motorsports’ two FLM09s by just 0.118 seconds.
“It was really exciting,” said Jeannette, who will drive with Christian Zugel and Elton Julian. “It’s an honor to have the first class for a new car in the series. Our G-Oil car was really hooked up. We skipped the morning practice to do race prep. We were comfortable with our qualifying setup.”
The competition between the top three cars in the class has been as tight as any other during the week. The top three qualifiers were within 0.822 seconds; Christophe Bouchut ended the session third in the second Level 5 entry at 1:56.101 (114.728 mph).
Jeannette admitted there is some uncertainly about debuting a new car and new class at America’s most grueling race.
“Even though the basis of the car is an endurance racing machine, there are some bits that aren’t race-tested,” he said. “I think we’re all going to aim to get to the finish. Christian did about a stint-and-a-half at the test so we know Michelin has given us a good multiple tire so we’ll be doing double- and triple-stints hopefully we can keep doing it lap after lap.”
Flying Lizard Motorsports Jörg Bergmeister qualified on pole for GT2. He originally placed second before Dirk Müller’s pole-winning BMW M3 was excluded from qualifying after failing a post-session stall test in technical inspections.
Bergmeister’s best lap was a 2:01.150 (109.946 mph) pass in the Porsche 911 GT3 RSR that he will drive with fellow factory pilots Patrick Long and Marc Lieb.
“We made a really aggressive tire choice today but we were surprised that the competition wasn’t as fast as they were earlier in the week,” Bergmeister said. “We’re pleased to be on the front of the grid but we know it’s a long race.”
Porsches held the top two spots with an impressive performance for Team Falken Tire. Factory driver Wolf Henzler set a lap of 2:01.201 (109.900 mph) in the car he will drive with Bryan Sellers and Porsche works driver Patrick Pilet. The team is competing in its first full season in the Series for 2010.
Risi Competizione’s Jaime Melo qualified third with a lap of 2:01.236 (109.868 mph) in the Ferrari F430 GT that he will drive with Gimmi Bruni and Pierre Kaffer. Risi hasn’t lost an endurance round since Sebring 2008.
The top seven cars were under the 2:01 mark, and eight entries – not counting Müller’s time – broke the class qualifying record.
Alex Job Racing entries swept the top three positions in GT Challenge with Leh Keen turning a best lap of 2:05.959 (105.749 mph) in the Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car he will share with Butch Leitzinger and Juan Gonzalez. Keen, whose only other start was at Petit Le Mans in 2005, bested Patrick Kelly by 1.159 seconds.
Kelly will drive with Ricardo Gonzalez and last year’s LMP2 co-champion Luis Diaz.
“I’ve never done this race before and only have done Petit Le Mans a few years ago,” Keen said. “The class of drivers here is very high. Now that we can run the GTC class, it brings a few more cars in. My laps were pretty clean. Our guys set up the car really well. The car is going to have more of a race setup now. It’s like a 24-hour race squished down into 12.”
AJR is a six-time winner at Sebring in GT classes and obviously knows how to get around at Sebring. But there are some new dynamics such as the new car and new class running 12 hours on such a demanding circuit.
“The one that has the cleanest race will have the best chance,” Keen said. “We were setting up the car and had a little bit of a push early this week. Turn 17 and 1 are pretty bumpy and that’s just the way the track is. Some of the understeer in 14 and 15 was bad. I think we’re close to getting something we’re comfortable with and can drive for the full race.”
Romeo Kapudija qualified the AJR Porsche he will share with Bill Sweedler and Jan Dirk-Lueders third with a lap of 2:07.205 (104.713 mph).
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