ALMS LMP2: A Tale of Three Cars

Ryan Furst
by Ryan Furst

Successful racing teams don’t normally change drivers mid-season. A switch usually requires a Ricky Bobby type antic, a messy public encounter between pilot and Hawaiian Tropics model, sickness, injury or death. Team owner Roger Penske’s recent decision to shuffle drivers for his LeMans P2 Porsche RS Spyder is the exception that proves the rule. In fact, Penske isn’t punishing anyone for anything; he’s merely stacking the deck against his less-well funded competitors.

At a press briefing last week, Penske announced that he was splitting his two drivers– Sacha Massen and Lucas Luhr– into two identical, identically prepared Porsche RS Spyders. Massen will now be joined by fellow factory driver Timo Bernhard, the man famous for having the highest number of “fastest laps” of any GT2 driver in series history. Luhr buddies-up with Romain Dumas, a race car driver who finished in the top five in his class during every one of his three years in the ALMS series. Given the racing pedigree of the men behind the wheel of both cars, the sub-teams should provide formidable competition.

Of course, they are driving a car that’s the class of the field. Porsche’s factory racing team developed the RS Spyder at the request of Porsche Motorsports North America (PMNA). The chassis was developed by the German automaker’s engineers at their Weissach development center. Its V8 racing engine is an entirely new design that pumps out 500 – 600 horsepower (depending on intake restrictors). Although the car was developed for unnamed privateer teams, Roger Penske inked an exclusive contract to campaign the machine during this, its maiden season.

The car debuted at the ALMS finale at Laguna Seca last year. On its initial outing, the RS Spyder dominated the competition. It's set a blistering pace this year, usually taking the fastest lap in practice. Since then, Penske’s Spyder has traded wins for most of the season. And yet… the Penske boys are five points behind the much smaller and considerably less funded Intersport Racing Team. The main reason: reliability. Despite the owner’s deep pockets and his talented support crew, Penske’s mob hasn’t been able to shake out all the car’s gremlins. Penske chose to skip Le Mans for fear that his car would be stricken by the same mechanical issues that have haunted the car elsewhere.

At Sebring, the number six car was forced to relinquish its lead by pitting just 35 minutes into the race with a bad alternator. The number seven car lead early but was forced to pit due to electrical problems falling back to 29th. They were able to get back into the top three, but ground to a halt trackside in hour seven, sidelined by a broken input shaft. At Houston, the car suffered a terminal drive train problem while commanding the overall lead. Clearly, the Penske Spyder is fast, but it’s not robust enough to string together enough wins to clinch the series. Hence Penske’s calculation that two cars will double his odds of one of them surviving long enough to take the checkered flag.

Not if The Intersport Racing Team has anything to say about it. The current series leader enters the battle heavily out gunned; they’re running a new Lola B05/40 chassis with a four-cylinder, turbocharged AER engine with a recently enlarged intake restrictor. But what Intersport lacks in funding and firepower it makes up for with heart. Their drivers are Clint Field, a fresh-faced 23-year old from the Buckeye state, and Liz Halliday, an expert horse rider with Olympic aspirations. Anyone who saw them persevere at Sebring to take the highest ever LMP2 finish knows they never say die.

Most teams would be discouraged to learn that Roger Penske and Porsche have teamed-up to compete in their class. They would be twice as disheartened to hear that Penske had “doubled-up.” But the Intersport Team has taken the entire saga in stride. Every time the Penske boys have wavered, Intersport has seized the day. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Penske and Intersport are the only LMP2 teams competing full time in the series since the B-K Motorsports rotary-powered Mazda bowed-out earlier this year.

Ironically, the lack of a large field of competitors has made for an exciting season. The race at Portland was particularly thrilling, when the number 6 Penske Spyder surrendered a five lap lead with 15 minutes left in the race, due to a catastrophic engine failure on a routine pit stop. Penske’s efforts to secure the championship by swamping the competition may remove some of this excitement. But we certainly shouldn''t dismiss the never-say-never Intersport team. Time will tell how this drama will unfold: a Cinderella story with a fairly tale ending for Intersport, or a brutally efficient campaign delivering a resounding victory for Roger Penske. Watch this space.

Ryan Furst
Ryan Furst

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  • Gjohnson Gjohnson on Aug 21, 2006

    I find it difficult to accept your contention that the Porsche is the class of the field when it suffers from so many mechanical gremlins and poorly executed pit stops. Intersport, by virtue of their persistence and heart is truely the "class" of the field.

  • Ryan Furst Ryan Furst on Aug 21, 2006

    You are comparing a car to people.

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