Smith zooms to Mazda Raceway pole
Qualifying for the penultimate round of the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patron saw two Lola-Mazdas sweep the front row. Steven Kane was second in Oryx Dyson Racing’s prototype at 1:14.621 (107.970 mph) at the 2.238-mile, 11-turn track.
“This is a great circuit and one of those places that drivers either love or hate. Fortunately for me, I really enjoy it and it suits my driving style,” said Smith, who will drive Saturday with Chris Dyson and Jay Cochran. “I scored my first ALMS pole here last year and there is no better place to do it with a Mazda engine.”
The two Lola-Mazdas were ahead of two Lola-Aston Martin coupes, led by Adrian Fernandez in Aston Martin Racing’s factory entry. His best lap was a 1:14.827 (107.672 mph) in the car he will share with Harold Primat and Stefan Mucke. Muscle Milk Aston Martin Racing’s Klaus Graf qualified fourth at 1:15.564 (106.622 mph).
Smith and Dyson lead in the LMP1 championship over Muscle Milk Aston Martin Racing’s Klaus Graf by 24 points. Race-winners Saturday earn 25 points, and the season-ending Petit Le Mans powered by Mazda is worth 30 points.
“We know what we need to do for the championship,” Smith said. “The best thing for me is to treat it like another race. If you think about a championship too much then it becomes a distraction. I think if we stay on the track and push hard, that will do the trick and things will take care of themselves.”
Smith and Dyson won earlier this year at Lime Rock Park and were on track for another victory two weeks ago in Baltimore before an engine misfire during the car’s only pit stop cost Smith and Dyson time. Kane and Humaid Al Masaood won the race; they will drive Saturday with Butch Leitzinger.
Smith said the car again experienced a misfire in practice and qualifying. A quick change to the engine map by the Dyson crew did the trick, he said.
“I’m not sure what the issue was,” Smith remarked. “The misfire came as we accelerated. Qualifying time was so limited and I was aware that seconds lost could be costly. But the Dunlop tires came in much quicker than I thought. I was amazed. Certainly today was a lot of fun and gives us a good direction for the race.”
Joey Hand won his third GT pole of the season for BMW Team RLL with an impressive lap of 1:22.226 (97.884 mph) in the BMW M3 GT that he shares with Dirk Müller. Driving at his home track, Hand was 0.898 seconds clear of Corvette Racing’s Oliver Gavin who set a lap of 1:23.124 (96.925 mph).
Hand’s gap back to Gavin’s Corvette C6.R, which he will drive with Jan Magnussen, was a bit surprising considering how close the competition in GT has been throughout the year. Indeed the gap from second to ninth in the qualifying order was just 0.634 seconds.
“I think I know the outskirts of the track better than the paddock because I’ve been around so much,” the American said. “I’ve been fighting a cold all week and it’s been aggravating. I felt like we had a good car and just felt relaxed once I got out there. I’ve learned a lot about how to drive this BMW M3 GT and the Dunlop tires and there is definitely a sweet spot. I have a way to get the car and the tires to that point.”
Hand and Müller own the championship lead in the class and started the season with three straight victories. The pairing leads Gavin and Magnussen by 25 points while BMW has a 26-point advantage over Porsche in the manufacturer standings. BMW Team RLL is 30 points ahead of Corvette Racing in the team classification.
“I’ve had the numbers crunched in my head to see where we need to be to win the championship for awhile,” Hand said. “We want to win and are in the attack mode. I tell a lot of the kids that I coach that the best way to win a championship is to win a race. You want to be strong and attack but you have to stay on the track over the six hours. But it really comes back to the boys in the pits. When I say something about the car – even in the ‘Joey’ language – they know what I mean. They freed the car up from the practice to qualifying and I knew it could be big money around here.”
Christophe Bouchut qualified on the LMP2 pole position for Level 5 Motorsport with a lap of 1:16.668 (105.059 mph). The team is debuting its new HPD ARX 01g chassis at Mazda Raceway following an early-week shakedown at Infineon Raceway. Early on, the reviews are good.
“It’s a brand new car and we are really happy so far,” said Bouchut, the fastest P2 qualifier at Long Beach and Road America. “It is running like we expected. In terms of performance, it’s very competitive. This is a race of six hours and it is a good chance to gain some really good information for Petit Le Mans in two weeks.”
Bouchut is driving with team owner Scott Tucker and Luis Diaz. Gaining data and feedback on the new HPD racer will be an added challenge, Bouchut says, because of how the track characteristics can quickly change.
Intersport Racing’s Kyle Marcelli took his second class pole with a lap of 1:18.844 (102.187 mph). The young Canadian – also the fastest class qualifier at Mosport – was just 0.394 seconds clear of CORE autosport’s Gunnar Jeannette and another 0.185 seconds ahead of Genoa Racing’s Eric Lux.
Marcelli, driving with Chapman and David Ducote, already is a two-time winner in LMPC for Intersport.
“Everyone is jelling really well at Intersport,” said Marcelli, who won at Mid-Ohio and Baltimore with Tomy Drissi. “People really know how to make the ORECA work with the Michelin tires. There is a sweet spot that is tough to get back if you’re out of that window. It’s important to arrive at the track near that spot so you can make small changes.”
The class championship has come down to CORE and Genoa with only one point separating Jeannette and teammate Ricardo Gonzalez. In the team standings, CORE leads Genoa by two points.
Intersport is third in the team standings, and Marcelli is fifth in the drivers’ table. Championship hopes are slim but exist nonetheless, Marcelli admitted.
“Racing is racing and things happen. You might go into a race with a strategy and if things go wrong, then they go wrong and you have to adjust,” he said. “This race will be about attrition. You can’t afford to make mistakes like drop wheels off the track. My teammates have been on the pace and the key will be to keep it between the lines.”
Jeroen Bleekemolen captured his second straight pole position and GT Challenge and third of the year with a lap of 1:27.850 (91.711 mph) in Black Swan Racing’s Porsche 911 GT3 Cup. The Dutch driver had a much easier time Friday than two weeks ago in Baltimore when he lost a wheel in qualifying. He retrieved it, put it in the passenger’s seat of his Porsche and returned to pitlane before grabbing pole position two laps later.
In Monterey, the biggest issue for Bleekemolen and Black Swan was a bout of understeer in the practice sessions before the crew made adjustments that fixed the Porsche’s handling.
“We were waiting for something to happen,” joked Bleekemolen, who will drive with brother Sebastiaan and class championship leader Tim Pappas. “It was a good session. I was struggling with the car in practice but the guys solved it and it was great in qualifying. I was able to get a nice gap to second place.”
That gap was 0.302 seconds back to Damien Faulkner in the Green Hornet Racing’s Porsche, which is being prepared by Black Swan. Faulkner will drive with Peter LeSaffre. TRG’s Spencer Pumpelly qualified third at 1:28.386 (91.155 mph) in the Porsche he will share with Duncan Ende and Peter Ludwig.
Those cars and the rest of the GTC field may have a tall order beating Black Swan. Pappas and the Bleekemolen brothers didn’t simply win last year’s race; they never trailed.
“We knew we were going to be strong here from last year’s race,” Jeroen Bleekemolen said. “The competition is quite high because we are running the same car. I think we have four or five cars that can win. Probably in the last hour we will have to really step on it to be out front at the end. It’s so important to keep the car in one piece, and have no brake issues and plenty of fuel to be there after six hours.”
The ModSpace American Le Mans Monterey presented by Patr¢n is set for 1:30 p.m. PT (4:30 p.m. ET) on Saturday. The race will air on ESPN2 from 1 to 3 p.m. ET on Sunday, Sept. 18. Live coverage will be available in the U.S. on ESPN3 or outside the U.S. on americanlemans.com. Rogers Sportsnet in Canada and MotorsTV in Europe also will air live coverage. Ticket and schedule information is available on the ALMS schedule page.
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