Petit Le Mans preview: GT (GT, GTC)

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This weekend marks the end of an era for the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patron.

The last Petit Le Mans to feature the ALMS, before its assets are integrated and merged into the new-for-2014 TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, will take place this Saturday at Road Atlanta.

It will additionally be run with heavy hearts following the loss earlier this week of British rising star Sean Edwards, a Porsche driver killed in a training accident in Australia.

We’ll still take a look through the field in the prototype and GT classes to see who stands the best shot of scoring a win in the ALMS swan song.

GT is wide open after 2012 Petit winners Extreme Speed Motorsports have moved to P2.The 2011 winner was AF Corse, an Italian team that mainly competes in the FIA World Endurance Championship, ahead of Flying Lizard Motorsports’ Porsche RSR. Neither are in GT this year.

GT (11)

  • Corvette Racing: Swan song for the venerable Corvette C6.R, which surprisingly has only one prior Petit win (2010). Rolex DP champion Jordan Taylor joins ALMS points leaders Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen in No. 3 as they seek to close out the title, while Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Richard Westbrook offer ample support in the No. 4.
  • BMW Team RLL: Winless since Lime Rock but you’d expect the Z4 to do better at Road Atlanta, a track where handling plays a greater role than outright power. The car is at a straight line speed disadvantage to some of its rivals. Slightly altered driver lineups with Joey Hand unavailable on DTM duty; the No. 56 of Bill Auberlen, Dirk Mueller and John Edwards is a more likely winner than the sister No. 55 of Maxime Martin, Jorg Mueller and Uwe Alzen.
  • Risi Competizione: Ferrari has this going for it – it’s won Petit two years running – but Risi’s Petit luck has been awful the last three years. A late fuel stop cost them the win and GT title in 2010; in 2011, the team didn’t start due to an accident, and in 2012, they missed the race altogether. The only redemption for Olivier Beretta, Matteo Malucelli and new recruit Robin Liddell will be a win for the No. 62 F458, as they can play spoiler.
  • SRT Motorsports: The factory Vipers made their first significant gains as an organization at Petit a year ago (pictured) and should be considered one of the favorites. Either of the No. 91 (Dominik Farnbacher, Marc Goossens, Ryan Dalziel) or No. 93 (Jonathan Bomarito, Kuno Wittmer, Tommy Kendall). The No. 91 is the pace setter of the two and the No. 93 the sentimental choice, having not yet won a race this year despite two poles from Bomarito.
  • CORE autosport: New to Petit from a GT standpoint but the No. 06 Porsche is a top sleeper in the hands of factory shoe Patrick Long, emerging talent Colin Braun and ALMS debutante/Porsche junior driver Michael Christensen.
  • Team Falken Tire: Resilient squad will run its last race with its 2010-spec Porsche, a new livery, and as solid a lineup as there is in Wolf Henzler, Bryan Sellers and Nick Tandy. Third at Sebring and can achieve a similar result with a bit of luck.
  • Paul Miller Racing: Unlucky Porsche squad of late, but one that always seems to overachieve in the endurance races. A steady lineup with Porsche factory driver Marco Holzer, Bryce Miller and Emmanuel Collard.
  • Team West/AJR/Boardwalk Ferrari: Townsend Bell’s made a handful of miracles on the Yokohama-shod No. 23 F458 and Johnny Mowlem’s as good a shoe to replace him with Bell in Fontana on IndyCar TV duties for NBCSN. Leh Keen and Bill Sweedler are good alongside, but the car will likely need attrition to score a top-six result.

GTC (9)

  • Alex Job Racing: Presumptive favorites in class as Cooper MacNeil seeks another GTC class crown, joined by brothers Jeroen and Sebastiaan Bleekemolen in the No. 22 WeatherTech-sponsored entry.
  • Flying Lizard Motorsports: Spencer Pumpelly seeks a home race victory in the No. 45 with co-drivers Nelson Canache and Madison Snow, while the sister No. 44 is a podium contender in the hands of Dion von Moltke, Seth Neiman and Brett Sandberg.
  • Dempsey Racing: Like Pumpelly, Andy Lally’s an Atlanta-based ace seeking to deliver Patrick Dempsey his first ALMS victory and with Joe Foster back as third driver in the No. 27. Team adds a second car with Charlie Putman, Charles Espenlaub and Darren Law a possible podium finisher in the No. 10.
  • TRG: One car to round out the season but Damien Faulkner, Ben Keating and Craig Stanton seek the third straight win for the No. 66.
  • JDX Racing: A win would be no less than what Jeremy Dale’s No. 11 team deserves for its effort throughout the year, and Jan Heylen, Mike Hedlund and Jon Fogarty are as good a lineup as can be assembled in GTC.
  • NGT Motorsport: Racing with heavy hearts and a revised driver lineup for its two cars. Still, the No. 30 of Henrique Cisneros, Kuba Giermaziak and Mario Farnbacher won its class last year; the No. 31 of Nicolas Armindo, Christina Nielsen and Angel Andres Benitez is an unknown quantity. 

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.