ALMS, Grand Am Finalize Motorsports Merger
The world of American endurance racing reached a major turning point this past weekend, as two of the most successful cars to ever hit the track—the Audi R18 e-tron quattro and Chevy Corvette C6.R—posted winning results in what will likely be their final appearances at the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring—albeit for two very different reasons.
For Audi, the issue is a major reorganization of the U.S. motorsports scene, as ALMS and Grand-Am Road Racing have agreed to merge their efforts into one series that will bring together many of each group’s individual vehicle classes. Unfortunately, however, the emphasis was on “many” and not “all,” and the LMP1 class for Le Mans Prototypes like the Audi R18 e-tron won’t be included.
Corvette Racing, on the other hand, is eagerly looking forward to the launch of the unified racing series, but it’s expected to be campaigning a next-gen racecar built off the platform of the all-new seventh-generation 2014 Chevy Corvette Stingray. As folks may recall, the redesigned Corvette made its public debut in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, with the drop-top dropping in March in Geneva. The production model is scheduled to reach dealerships in the second half of this year.
Uncoincidentally, Audi’s incredible dominance at Le Mans—where it has won the race 11 of the past 14 years—is almost perfectly matched by its run of success at Sebring, where the automaker also has claimed 11 race wins during that same period. As explained by Dr. Wolfgang Ulrich, head of Audi Motorsport: “Sebring was always a fixed date in our motorsport calendar since the beginning of our sports car program in 1999. And justifiably so, as Sebring is a particularly hard racetrack.
“Hard and demanding for driver and machine, whoever survives this 12-hour race without problems is usually well equipped for every other challenge.”
That should bode well for the rest of Audi’s international road-racing season, since the four-rings brand had its way with the LMP1 class at this year’s Sebring event. In finishing 1-2 overall, Audi racers both completed 364 laps around the challenging 3.7-mile circuit, with the third-place finisher some five laps off the pace.
The winning car was driven by Marcel Fässler, Benoît Tréluyer and Oliver Jarvis, and also became the first hybrid racer to win at Sebring.
“Celebrating Audi’s last race here at Sebring with a victory is simply fantastic,” said Fässler. “It was an incredibly close race in which both cars would have deserved to win. In the end, we were the slightly more fortunate ones. The pole position yesterday, victory today, great teammates—things couldn’t be any better today.”
Audi fans here in the United States also should know that, even though the automaker will no longer be allowed to compete in the new ALMS/Grand-Am series with its R18 e-tron quattro, that car will return to this country in the fall for the U.S. leg of the FIA World Endurance Championship, slated to run on the new Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.
Corvette Racing swept the ALMS driver, team and manufacturer championships last year in the GT Class, and that success carried right over into qualifying for the 2013 Sebring event. In fact, racers Tommy Milner and Oliver Gavin—the 2012 ALMS driving champs—partnered with Richard Westbrook to start in second place in the GT Class in the No. 4 Corvette C6.R. But despite getting out of the blocks quickly, electrical issues caused some significant challenges for the team.
“It was clear that we had a good car from the beginning, and then when I had that problem with the dashboard, which put us two laps down—it took a few yellows and some great stints by [Milner and Gavin] to get us back into position on the lead lap,” Westbrook said. “The pit stops and Tommy’s stint was just amazing at the end, and on balance I thought we deserved it, and we did it the hard way.”
Milner’s final turn at the wheel began with the Corvette about a minute behind the leading Ferrari, but he cut the gap in half with an hour to go, passed his rival with just 15 minutes remaining in the race, and then held off a spirited challenge from the Italian car to take the checkered flag.
According to Milner: “Once I got to see [the Ferrari], I thought, ‘Here we go. I’ve got a chance here.’ Once I got close to him, he went wide in one and I knew he was pushing hard and he kept making mistakes, and that was it, that was the moment.”
It also was the 73th ALMS win overall for Corvette Racing, which has captured more victories in the series than any other racecar.
After this year, the country’s two premier road-racing organizations—the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) and Grand Am Road Racing—will join forces as United SportsCar Racing for at least the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Events will continue to be sanctioned by the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA), with the first race scheduled to be the 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona.
“The new name says it all,” said Ed Bennett, president and CEO of Grand-Am Road Racing. “In only six months since we announced the merger, GRAND-AM and the ALMS have taken huge strides to become one organization that will redefine sports car racing in North America. United SportsCar Racing reflects the fundamental spirit of how we are working together toward a common goal.”
Five different vehicle classifications will be used:
In addition, United SportsCar Racing recently confirmed a “strategic alliance” with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, the organization that oversees the annual 24 Hours of Le Mans in France. The new agreement will ensure select United SportsCar teams can run at the international endurance classic by helping to devise a set of common specifications for competitors. (The alliance also will allow the Petit Le Mans race, held annually at Road Atlanta, to retain its name.)
“This strategic alliance will lead to a close collaboration between the ACO and United SportsCar Racing to promote, develop and reinforce endurance racing in North America,” said Pierre Fillon, president of the ACO. “Through this global agreement, I am convinced endurance racing will continue to be in safe hands in North America for many years to come.”