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2014 After Long Beach
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1 Christian Fittipaldi 98
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42 Pierre Kaffer 1
42 Darren Law 1
Bill Adam: A different challenge at Long Beach

The landscape has changed drastically from Sebring
Tuesday, April 12, 2011

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A factory Corvette on the streets of Long Beach in 2010
Aaron Rommel/AR1.com
The script for the 59th running of the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring presented by Fresh from Florida might have come straight from the creative minds of Hollywood. It featured a non-stop display of intense fighting in every class, and ended up with a storybook overall win where David beat Goliath. The ORECA name is well known to ALMS fans from its dominating championships with the bright red Dodge Vipers, but taking on the corporate might of both Audi and Peugeot factory teams was a challenge of a different magnitude.

The term “dark horse” seemed totally accurate for this team and its chances of a win, as well as for the brand new HPD ARX-01e from Highcroft Racing. Highcroft in fact, had only just finished building their car, and it seemed almost impossible that a new, unproven car like this could even finish this grueling event. Yet after 12 hours of flat out racing, it was these two cars, slashing through the night and finishing scant seconds apart, to soundly defeated both Audi and Peugeot. The tears on the pit stand at ORECA and the excited looks of satisfaction at Highcroft, spoke volumes.

ALMS GT class BMWs give chase on the streets of Long Beach in 2010
Bob Heathcote/AR1.com
The GT battle was no less exciting and indeed might have been even better. With works and factory-backed entries from BMW, Corvette, Porsche and Ferrari - along with a number of excellent independent teams - this was a class war that promoters and fans alike dream of. In the end, BMW Motorsport came through despite an unexpected early pit stop to change a cut tire, battling back with a combination of superb driving and brilliant pit stops, to take the win 1-2 over the Corvette team. But at any given point it was any of a half-dozen cars battling for the lead.

And now … to Long Beach – a race track not only 3,000 miles away but equally as distant in so many respects.

For example, Turn 1 at Sebring has a 125 mph entry into one of the widest corners of any ALMS venue – maybe 100 feet at the start and tapering down to perhaps 40 at the exit. Slide a little wide here and you may only scare yourself as you still have some luxury of a grass verge to bounce along.

Turn 1 at Long Beach is almost a hairpin by contrast – at the end of a 170 mph straight there is only one safe, very narrow line through its 25-foot width, and only at less than 50 mph. With the constant temptation of attempting a late-braking pass at the end of the straight - perhaps the best passing spot on the track - contact here is frequent and often ends up with both vehicles hard against the concrete walls. One inch wrong at Sebring, and it doesn’t matter. One inch wrong at Long Beach and you’re missing a wheel.

Long Beach also puts a whole different challenge on the crews. Yes, Sebring is without question the most physically demanding race in the world, breaking parts that would otherwise last a full season. Accuracy of preparation, however, is a key for Long Beach. Where the crews can arrive at Sebring days in advance and have the luxury of test days to fine tune their cars, Long Beach is a street circuit that can’t be shut down to allow that luxury. Teams have only one day of practice and qualifying and must take extra thought and care to get close to the right setup before the car even rolls out of the trailer so that not one precious session is lost. The team that has only to “fine tune” is the team that has a much better chance of winning.

ALMS on the streets of Long Beach in 2010
Bob Heathcote/AR1.com
Of equal importance is the ability of the drivers to immediately “get with it.” Sessions at Long Beach, as at every street circuit, are always short. And should an incident cut the sessions even shorter, it’s of critical importance that the driver shake off any rust and get valuable setup information back to the crew on just what the car needs to be even better. At Sebring, being at the back of the grid for the start means only that you must exercise extra care winding your way through the field as you’ve got 12 hours to win. At Long Beach, being at the back of your class means your chances of victory go down considerably, and you might be forced into making high-risk passes – not the ideal thing when concrete walls are just waiting for your visit.

One of the things that fans can most appreciate watching at Long Beach is the surgical precision of some drivers. There are certain drivers in the world - Allan McNish comes to mind - who are just flat-out amazing when throwing their cars through the concrete canyons. During the Race of a Thousand Years at Adelaide Australia in 2000 and driving the famous “Crocodile” Audi R8, Allan put on a performance that will forever stay in the memories of those who saw it. The Scot was in serious pain that day, having thrown out his back (with one of his teammates suggesting that it was from getting the sheep out of his hotel room…), but refused to consider not racing.  Literally lifted into the Audi on the grid, he focused through his pain and drove with astonishing skill and intensity to win the final race of the season. Yes, it was one for the ages.

Inches from the wall
Bob Heathcote/AR1.com
On a proper circuit, it takes a true fan to see when the driver is using 100 percent of what a car can give. On a street circuit - when the car exits corners under full power, tires grappling for that last bit of traction, and slides to within fractions of inches of the walls - it’s breathtaking for all of us. Drivers who have this extra little bit of feel, this level of excellence really show it on the streets.

The factory Audi and Peugeot teams won’t be with us at Long Beach but make no mistake, this IS a very special race for everyone. A “home track” for Greg Pickett and his Muscle Milk Aston Martin Racing beauty, he would like nothing more than to watch his two hot-shoes Lucas Luhr and Klaus Graf take victory. But to do that, this team must first beat the very fast Dyson Racing Lola-Mazda, a car that should be blindingly quick on this track … and with its smaller, lighter engine, even more nimble through the twisty bits.

But once again, I think the battle of the day will be within the GT ranks. The “Ultimate Driving Machines” will want to do two in a row, but it may have been only a spin that stood in the way of a Corvette victory and a small electrical problem that kept Ferrari out of Victory Circle. Even Porsche, never far off the pace at Sebring, will now be even closer with their recent 50-pound weight reduction.

Ladies and Gentlemen…let the battles begin!

Bill Adam is a veteran road racer and broadcaster. He is part of the broadcast team for the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patr¢n in 2011 on ABC and ESPN2. Throughout 2011 on americanlemans.com, he will offer his insightful analysis on the happenings both on- and off-track in the ALMS.

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