Introducing the 2015 Competitors

With the completion of the first round of the WEC at the 6 Hours of Silverstone, I figure we should get to know the 2015 Le Mans and WEC competitors.  Up first, the 2014 WEC champions: Toyota and their upgraded TS040.  With a 3.7 litre, normally aspirated petrol engine combined with a 6 megajoule (MJ) hybrid, flywheel system, Toyota looks to become the 2nd Japanese manufacturer to win overall the 24 Heures du Mans since Mazda in 1991.

Toyota TS040

Toyota TS040

Toyota TS040

Toyota TS040

Toyota TS040

Toyota TS040

Not resting on their laurels, Audi has upgraded their 2014 Le Mans winning car.  Running the same 4.0 litre, diesel engine with an upgraded hybrid system from 2MJ to 4MJ, Audi looks to return to the top step of the podium.  Again.

Audi R18

Audi R18

 

Audi R18

Audi R18

Next up, after a fairly successful debut season in 2014, Porsche returns with their upgraded 919 Hybrid.  Using the same – if not fairly unconventional – 2.0 litre turbocharged V4 with an amazing 8MJ in additional boost, driving all 4 wheels, Porsche returns with some wonderfully upgraded liveries.

919 Hybrid

919 Hybrid

919 Hybrid

919 Hybrid

Last, but not least – and certainly the most interesting, the Nissan NISMO GT-R LMP1.

GT-R

GT-R

GT-R

GT-R

GT-R

GT-R

Get a load of this beast.  Sporting a front-mounted, twin turbocharged 3.0 litre V6 with an 8MJ hybrid system producing an estimated 1,200+ horsepower.  All of this power is delivered to the FRONT TIRES.  Talk about turning the establishment on it’s ear.  Nissan pulled out of the opening rounds of the WEC to focus on Le Mans, we’ll have to wait a few more months to see Godzilla competing on-track.

Only two more months to go.

 

 

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F1 and MotoGP

Essentially, I’ve been away for a good 9 months.   To be completely honest with you, my faithful readers, I just haven’t felt like writing for a while.  But on this lazy, snowy Saturday, I have 4 races to get caught up on.  I have a Le Mans project I’m putting the finishing touches on, and I want to get started on my 2014 Le Mans report.  Before I do, I have two races I need to get to: the 2013 United States Grand Prix and the 2014 Red Bull Grand Prix of Americas.  Channeling my best Billy Mays, act now, and I’ll throw in a 2nd report for FREE.  That’s right – this is a two-fer!

2013 United States Grand Prix.

Through my relationship with Grand Prix Tours, I’m working the 2nd United States Grand Prix in Austin.  Having learned a few difficult lessons last year, I’m more prepared to handle my responsibilities.  Unfortunately, many of the details have escaped me over the past year +, but maybe that’s a good thing.  I have my bus assignment at the Austin Hyatt Regency just on the other side of the river, south of downtown Austin.   One morning, I’m standing in the main lobby with my GPT shirt and sign, directing my clients to the bus outside.  Near me is a private driver, a woman, with a sign that reads “Emerson Fittipaldi”.  The two-time F1 World Champion and 1989 Indianapolis 500 winner, I’m a little excited the Emo is in my hotel.  That private driver, keeps looking to her left and right, and has a worried look on her face.  I ask her if she knows who Emerson Fittipaldi is.  Sheepishly, she says no.  I try to describe him the best I can before I offer to help her out.  I’m short a few clients, so I volunteer to head up to the restaurant to look around for our combined clients.  A quick recon trip upstairs, and I don’t find what either of us are looking for.  A little disappointed I couldn’t find Emerson, I head back downstairs, inform the other driver and head to my bus where my missing clients have joined us.  We head out to the track.  The weather is cloudy, but it’s expected the clear up shortly and become another glorious Autumn day.  As we approach the track, it’s eerily quiet.  Turns out the fog is too thick to allow for the medical helicopters so the track is red-flagged.  And from this shot, it’s easy to see why.

Heavy Fog

Heavy Fog

In due time, the fog burns off and we finally get some action on-track.

Massa

Massa

Vettel

Vettel

Ferrari

Ferrari

Aside from the fog, Friday is less that memorable.  In fact, so too is Saturday.  And to be honest, so is Sunday.  One of the best parts was catching up with my good friends from Atlanta Kris and Jim, but otherwise, there’s just not much to write about.  Sure I met some interesting people – including American driver Alexander Rossi and BBC commentator James Allen, but the racing was a glorified parade.  Red Bull and Vettel won, but it was just rather unmemorable.  About the most exciting thing that happened was my wonderful GPT co-host, Cherry, asked if I would be interested in working a tour at Le Mans.  Wood eye!  Does the Pope wear a funny hat?  It took me all of 2 seconds to say yes.  More on that later.  Until that report, here’s a photo dump of my favorite pictures from the race weekend.

The Pack

The Pack

Turn 15

Turn 15

The Victor

The Victor

One of the cooler moments from the weekend came from the track marshals.  Mark Webber announced he’d be leaving Red Bull racing at the end of the year.  For the driver’s parade on Sunday, the marshals came out with at banner thanking Mark Webber for his time behind the wheel.

Thanks Mark

Thanks Mark

Oh…and per my contract, I’m obligated to include a pic of Jim and Kris at the race.

Jim and Kris

Jim and Kris

2014 Red Bull Grand Prix of the Americas

Again, through my relationship with Grand Prix Tours, I was asked to host some clients to the 2014 MotoGP race in Austin.  Having missed the 2013 race, I jumped at the opportunity.  I’ve never seen MotoGP and I thought it’d be fun.  And it was.  Tickets were quite reasonable, so I grabbed 2 sets and took my best friend Ted with me.   We had a place to crash at my sister’s place and only two GPT clients, so it all worked out.  Those two clients, a father and son from Seattle, provided some comic relief.  I didn’t know if these were two adults or a father and child.  So I packed Avery’s child seat just in case.  Much to my relief, when I picked them up at their hotel, two grown men hopped off the elevator and introduced themselves to me.

As always, it is just a joy to be at the Circuit of the Americas.  I wish I could tell you more about the race action on-track, but again the details escape me and I’m not entirely sure of the racers involved.  But it was incredibly cool watching the 2-wheeled machines fly around the track.

MotoGP

MotoGP

MotoGP

MotoGP

Just look at that lean angle.

MotoGP

MotoGP

MotoGP

MotoGP

MotoGP

MotoGP

MotoGP

MotoGP

MotGP

MotoGP

MotoGP

MotoGP

MotoGP

MotoGP

MotoGP

MotoGP

MotoGP

MotoGP

The Doctor

The Doctor

Turn 11

Turn 11

The Winner: Marc Marquez

The Winner: Marc Marquez

And that’s about it.  We had a great time at the race.  While not as parade-like at the F1 race, Marc Marques led the whole race.  Ted and I had a blast together and our clients were extremely cool.

I’m certainly not going to submit this post to the powers that be in terms of getting my media pass to the next race, but at least I got these done.  Next up, an interview with some passionate Le Mans fans, the 2014 24 Hueres du Mans, and the 2014 Lone Star Le Mans.


Details of the ALMS/Grand-Am Merger

Call it what you want.  Buyout.  Merger.  Collapse.  Future.  Whatever it is, it is the future of American sportscar racing.  Today the ALMS and Grand-AM held a joint press conference at the Daytona International Speedway.  Here’s what we learned:

For 2013, the two series will operate independently.  Starting with the 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona, the series will operate under a unified format.

Jim France of NASCAR/Grand-AM will be director, ALMS founder Dr. Don Panoz will be Vice Chairman, and ALMS President Scott Atherton will be on the board of directors of the new group.

Said Dr. Don Panoz: “I have the Le Mans virus in my blood”.  They will be meeting with the ACO in the coming weeks.

This deal happened over a handshake on the golf course between Jim France and Dr. Don Panoz.  For six months and 14 days this deal was kept under wraps.  They originally made a run at a merger about 5 years ago, but the timing wasn’t right according to Scott Atherton.  They dealt with several of the manufacturers for their input in this future endeavor.  After the initial shock of seeing France and Panoz in the same room together, all the manufacturers were on-board with the proposed merger.

Ed Bennett, President and CEO of Grand-Am racing said overall, between the ALMS and Grand-AM, there are 8 series they govern.  There are still details to be hammered out, but again, they’re all moving forward in the direction of what is best for all parties.

The future class structure is still being defined.  Again, they’re still dealing directly with the manufacturers to come up with what works best for all parties.  Not only are they looking to merge technologies in terms of the competitors, but they’re still working out the best in terms of scheduling.  The 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona will be the initial race, and from there, it’s wide open.  It’ll be a 12 race schedule with the flexibility for the teams to compete at Le Mans.

Dr. Panoz still wants the cars to be able to compete at Le Mans.   There are ideas and issues that are on the table that have yet to be determined.  They’re looking at solutions on giving the ALMS and Grand-AM competitors a common balance.  If Dr. Panoz wants the cars to be able to compete at Le Mans, it looks like to me, that the Grand-AM GT competitors will become GTE competitors.

The merger has been discussed with the ACO.  The ACO expressed interest in working with the new group.

One journalist on the floor questioned the commonalities of the two groups and sees nothing but a “minefield”.  Sponsors, ACO, FIA, NASCAR, broadcasters, manufacturers (tire and auto), competitors…how do they overcome those issues?  Mr. France and Dr. Panoz both said they know of these issues, but they have an open mind and lots of input from all those  aspects and are working to resolve all those issues before the start of the 2014 season.  Mr. Atherton spoke of “cross pollination and synergistic energies” that open up a whole new realm of possibilities that out weigh the issues.

Speaking of P1/LMP1, Dr. Panoz said that’s outside of what the ALMS/Grand-AM is considering.  That class is for the manufacturers to develop on their own.  There is room for both the Daytona Prototypes and LMP1 classes, but at this moment, it’s outside of their discussion.  I’m sure this is something that’ll happen over the next few months as the new group works with groups like Audi, Toyota, and Porsche with regards to their 2014 prototype projects.

Speaking again of GT racing, Mr. Atherton and Mr. France both said the ALMS GT class is the basis and the Grand-AM GT class better step up to what the ALMS offers.  Again, this sounds to me like the Grand-AM competitors have the next 18 months to update or acquire GT cars that can compete in the ALMS model and ultimately compete at Le Mans.

They’ve asked for patience, they’re all on the same page working towards a common goal – and I’m happy to hear – Le Mans is in that goal.

Following the conclusion of the press conference, we began receiving word from organizers, competitors and manufacturers.

From the current president of the ACO, Pierre Fillon:

The merger of these two championships, which was carried out with the approval of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, has become necessary to enable endurance racing to continue to evolve. In 2014, this branch of the sport will have a bigger calendar and high-quality fields. Everybody will benefit from this unified series: entrants in North America, drivers and fans. This rapprochement proves that Automobile Club de l’Ouest’s assessment of the situation is the right one, and one of its major initiatives is to reinforce the presence of endurance racing on the international scene. The foundation consists of three continental series: the European Le Mans Series, the Asian Le Mans Series and this North-American merger in 2014, which will make the base even stronger together with the FIA World Endurance Championship, while the summit of this pyramid remains the Le Mans 24 Hours. I’m happy to meet up with the new team directing this new series in the near future, and to start working with them on this North-American Championship.

Jamie Allison, Director Ford North America Motorsports

“Today’s announcement is a seismic moment in the sports car racing landscape. This is an event that is natural and will endear itself to all sports car enthusiasts, both in the U.S. and around the world. … We at Ford embrace and support this unification and look forward to working with the organization in the future.”

Mark Reuss, President, GM North America:

“This is an exciting moment in sports car racing. This merger combines the best attributes of GRAND-AM Road Racing and the American Le Mans Series to create a singularly focused series. Congratulations to Jim France and Dr. Don Panoz on having the passion for sports car racing and the vision to take it to the next level. The joining of these two series will provide a foundation for Chevrolet to develop technologies and race cars with tremendous relevancy to the production vehicles we sell today and in the future.”

Porsche Cars North America:

“Porsche Cars North America, Inc., one of the few auto manufacturers which has been involved with both ALMS and Grand-Am from the beginning of both series, is pleased that the primary sanctioning bodies for professional sports car racing in North America are combining resources to produce the best possible series for our customers –sports car racing fans.

“Our fans want to see high performance race cars, big fields filled by the world’s top manufacturers, close racing and entertaining events both on television and the internet, and of course, at the race track.

“With events now possible at all the major road racing tracks – Daytona International Raceway, Road Atlanta, Watkins Glen, Canadian Tire Mosport Park, and Sebring – all formerly owned by either one series or the other – the growing number of fans in our sport will truly have a national championship to follow.

“Our fans want to see us compete against the same cars we compete with in the marketplace, and they want to see us win under the most heated on-track, head-to-head competition. We believe this new racing organization gives us that opportunity.

“We are also excited about the combining of personnel talent as the most skilled and experienced racing and rules managers will spend the next year crafting a series that meets everyone’s basic goals and objectives.”

Scott Sharp, Team Owner, Extreme Speed Motorsports (ALMS/GRAND-AM):

“I’m very excited about the potential merger of ALMS and GRAND-AM.  I think bringing together the potential that both series have when it comes to TV package, scheduling, competitors and tracks, it could be huge. Hopefully, it will turn out that way.

“I think sports car racing needs to become more viable.  It has to become more attractive to advertisers and sponsors.  This potential merger has to be able to increase that opportunity by putting all fronts together pointing in the same direction.  This could be a huge boost for sports cars and probably the biggest step forward in several decades.

“From our sponsor Tequila Patrón’s perspective, this can only be a huge benefit.  If we can go to better tracks with bigger audiences and a more solid television package, it has to be something that Patrón will appreciate from all avenues.  That is certainly the hope.”

Ludwig Willisch, President and CEO, BMW of North America, LLC:

“Racing success has helped to define The Ultimate Driving Machine, and BMW of North America, LLC welcomes today’s announcement. The France family has been an excellent steward of the sport since its earliest days in North America and we are pleased to see that a unified GRAND-AM and ALMS will provide the direction professional sports car racing will take in the future.”

Ricky Taylor, Driver, SunTrust Racing (GRAND-AM):

“I think it’s exciting. I never thought I’d be able to see something like this happen in my lifetime. I’ve been following sports car racing my whole life and look at all the old pictures of my dad racing GTPs and what everybody says are the good ‘ol days.

“Hopefully we can get back there and hopefully have sports car racing be right up there with open-wheel.”

Rob Dyson, Team Owner, Dyson Racing (ALMS):

“I’ve won championships in both series and I think it’s good. You have to look at it from the outside in. For fans, now they can follow one sports car series. For the tracks, they can promote one sports car series. Then take a look at the schedule we’re going to have. It’s going to be great race tracks.

“All of a sudden, you have a cohesiveness for the fans and for the tracks. We have to talk about what we are bringing to the tracks and the fans. They have to work at that. Frankly, I think [it should be like] the old IMSA. Bring back GTP. GTP Lites, GTO and GTU. You’ve got people building cars for every one of those.

“The key thing is that the cars have to be fast and they have to be aspirational. Prototypes have to look like fighter jets and GT cars have to represent what people aspire to own.”

In closing, all the parties involved – from the ALMS, Grand-AM, the manufacturers, the ACO and FIA, the competitors – from both the ALMS and Grand-AM – the sponsors, and all the other major decision makers – they’re all saying the right things.  A unified North American road racing championship with direct links to it’s European heritage and, ultimately Le Mans.  There are still mountains of details to be sorted out, rules to be set, venues to be decided upon, and from what I hear, read, and have been told in confidence, they’re all on the same page moving towards a common goal.

Today stands to be an historic day for road racing in North America.  I’m hopeful everyone will stay true to their words and the best decision will be made for all.  Most importantly, the fans.


ALMS/Grand-AM possible merger

Originally, I planned on my next post being my 2012 Le Mans race recap, but sadly a combination of writer’s block and post-race malaise has kept me from going into detail about another amazing race.  Soon, I promise.

Something, however, has presented itself I feel it needs to be addressed.

This weekend, Speed.com’s John Dagys posted this story that has race fans cheering or up in arms – depending on what side of the fence you are.

http://auto-racing.speedtv.com/article/sportscar-alms-grand-am-finalizing-merger

The headline: ALMS, GRAND-AM Finalizing Merger.

Almost immediately, I received several e-mails and texts asking me for my thoughts.  Asking me to explain this.  Telling me this is the end of American sportscar racing as we know it.  Telling me this is one of the signs of the apocalypse.  I’ll explain the best that I can, tell you what I know, and help you step away from the edge.

As of right now, 9:00 on Monday morning, September the 3rd, nothing is finalized.  Through this website, I have “met” several automotive journalists and I got word of something like this in the works about a week or 10 days ago.  Here’s what I know.  But first, I need to give you a little history.

The American Le Mans Series was founded in 1998 by Dr. Don Panoz.  Dr. Panoz and his pharmaceutical team invented the nicotine patch in the late ’60s and early ’70s.  Dr. Panoz partnered up with the ACO – the race organizers of the 24 Hours of Le Mans – in an attempt to bring European style endurance racing to America.

That same year, Audi introduced the R8 race car.  The R8 and it’s successors went on to win 11 Le Mans over the next 13 years.  The timing of the two was serendipitous.  Audi brought the R8, the R10, the R15, and the R18 to compete in various races here in the States as well as in Europe.  The ACO went on to copy the formula and create European and Asian series under the same rules.

Under ACO/ALMS partnership, you can argue, the sport grew faster and greater than either of them expected.  The grids were packed.  The stands were packed.  The ACO and the ALMS fed off each other.

The ALMS, in an attempt to help the fans distinguish class leaders, implemented leader lights on the side of the cars.  3 lights on the side of the cars indicated 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place in class.  An idea so simple the ACO adopted it for the 24 hour race.  The final race of the ALMS season is held at Road Atlanta.  The ALMS coordinated with the ACO so that the class winners from the 10 hour Petit Le Mans would gain automatic entries into the following year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

With the 12 Hours of Sebring starting off the season and the Petit Le Mans closing the season, the ALMS gained international recognition and legitimacy.

Grand-AM was founded a year after the ALMS in 1999; it’s focal race is the 24 Hours of Daytona.  With similar rules to the ALMS, the Rolex 24 at Daytona actually featured ALMS competitors and Le Mans winners for the first few years.  In 2003, Grand-AM introduced their own prototype class, the spec built Daytona Prototypes.  The series was always closely affiliated with NASCAR, it was officially acquired by NASCAR in 2008.  Because of it’s NASCAR relationship, Grand-AM never received the international recognition the ALMS did.  That’s all about to change.

While the ALMS has operated under the ACO rules, the relationship has cooled over the past few years and the ALMS has operated under ACO sanctioning on a year to year basis.  In 2011, the ACO partnered with the FIA to create the World Endurance Championship.  The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile is the sanctioning body behind Formula 1, WRC rally racing, GT1 and GT3 sportscar championship, and dozens more world championships of motor racing.  Through this partnership, the ALMS and it’s races are essentially being squeezed out of international competitors such as Audi and Toyota and other major players are choosing to compete in the WEC and not in North American races.

So now, NASCAR and it’s deep pockets are going after the ALMS.  This can be viewed as NASCAR buying out the competition or NASCAR looking for international legitimacy.  Without knowing all the details, let’s look at the two possible scenarios.

NASCAR buys the ALMS, merges their competitors and venues and operates under Grand-AM rules.  Daytona Prototypes instead of LMP1/LMP2 cars, but the GT classes remain essentially the same.

Or.

NASCAR buys the ALMS, merges their competitors and venues and operates under ALMS/ACO/FIA rules.  They either eliminate the Daytona Prototypes or get the DP cars homologated by the ACO/FIA and they compete directly with the LMP1/LMP2 cars and the GT classes remain essentially the same.  This scenario makes the most sense.

But I have another scenario to throw out for your consideration.  And one I think makes a lot of sense.

For a minute, let’s ignore the prototype classes and focus on the GT classes.  The ALMS and GA series both allow, Porsche, Ferrari, BMW, and Corvette.  But Grand-AM also allows the Audi R8, the Mazda RX-8, and Camaro.  The FIA under the GT1 and GT3 classification allows the Mercedes SLS, the Audi R8, the Nissan GTR, BMW Z4, and the McLaren MP4-12.  These cars aren’t allowed to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.  I’m not going to lie, I don’t entirely understand why this is, but there you have it.

So let’s talk about money for a second.  Manufacturers and privateers spend a ton of money each year racing.  Because of the slightly different rules from organizer to organizer, they have to make a choice which series to compete in.  ALMS, GA, or FIA?  Sure you can race your Ferrari 458 or Porsche 997 at Daytona, make slight modifications and then go to Sebring, but there are costs involved.  But Mercedes and Audi can’t race their flagship GT cars in either.  Why not?  Well, what if this is all about to end.  What if there’s enough pressure from the manufacturers to get the FIA/ACO/ALMS/GA to create across the board rules to allow these cars to compete in all series?

How much would Audi pay to get the ACO to allow the R8 to compete at Le Mans?  Can you imagine the marketing opportunities of the R18 e-tron wins overall and the R8 wins the GT class?  With the new prototype rules set for 2014 and Porsche already committed to fielding a LMP racer, how about their LMP winning overall at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the 997 winning GT class.  While this scenario has huge implications in European racing, it certainly opens up American road racing to the world.  Take into consideration Porsche sells more cars in California than they do where they’re built in Germany.  America is a HUGE market in terms of sales but almost off the radar in terms of international racing.

The US hasn’t had a F1 race since 2007.  Finally with the Circuit of the Americas being built in Austin, the US will once again be on the world stage for the pinnacle of racing.  But if the merger rumors are true, the 10 year contract for the ALMS to race at COTA, who can and will be there?  If my scenario is correct, think of the possibilities.  What European manufacturer wouldn’t be there?  Whether my thoughts of the ACO to allow FIA GT cars to compete in Le Mans style endurance races are correct or not, let me wrap up this NASCAR/ALMS meger.

Ultimately, I can’t imagine a scenario where NASCAR would acquire the ALMS and thumb their nose at the ACO/FIA and run under current Grand-AM rules.  This would create US sportscar racing versus what the rest of the world is doing.  It doesn’t make sense.  I’ve always enjoyed ALMS racing over GA – I just don’t like the Daytona Prototypes.  They’re spec cars, they don’t allow for innovation, they are the same cars with different engines.  The Audi R18 is different from the Toyota TS030 which is different from the dead Peugeot 908.  Different philosophies all aimed the same goal.  If NASCAR allows for this, and partners with the ACO/FIA, you would see a whole new world of sportscar racing in the States.  And I would love that.


Jaguar Alive Driving Experience

A few weeks ago, Dad calls me and tells me he got an e-mail from Jaguar inviting him to a driving event.  He can’t go because he and Mom are going to be in Florida.  He sends me the e-mail with the registration number to sign up, so I did.  I’m allowed a guest, so I call my frequent GT5/iRacing buddy Smades to see if he wants to join me.  He’s in.  After a morning filled with tire smoke, crushed traffic cones, and racing legends, I’m sorry, but Dad, you should have come home early.

The event is held in the parking lot of the Lone Star Park horse racing facility out in Grand Prairie.  Smades doesn’t live too far from there so I pick him up this morning about 9 AM.  After saying hello to the dogs, Laura and Charlie, we’re off.  “Does this place have coffee?” he asks.  Hell, I don’t know.  “Exit here and get me a Starbucks.”  A slow drip with four sugars and half-and-half we’re on our way to the track.

They’ve set up large, ten-foot tall letters spelling out J A G U A R on the front lawn so we know we’re in the right spot.  Following our nose, we make our way to the hospitality tent where we register and get our lanyards.  After a quick dog-and-pony show, they usher us out the door where a line of XFs, XJs, and XJ-Ls await us.  Climb in, buckle up, and off we go.  There are walkie-talkies in all the cars so the lead driver and the tail-end charlie driver can communicate with each other and us as well.  We take to the streets around Lone Star Park in our personal XJ – not sure if it was a XJL with the long wheel base – but it had a 5 litre supercharged engine that sounded and felt great.  Half-way out, we all pull over to the side of the road and swap drivers.

Smades spent this time in the passenger seat messing with the touch screen sat-nav and syncing his iPhone to the car.  Once we’ve swapped, he drops the windows and cranks up the Beastie Boys.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that’s the first time Paul’s Boutique was played in that car.  The Bowers & Wilkins sound system was superb and to quote Ferris Bueller: If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.  Soon enough, we’re back at the main tent where the Jaguar pitchman is trying his hardest to make us laugh, but we’re here for one thing – to drive these cars hard.

Outside, in the massive Lone Star Park parking lot, they have three tents with three different areas of focus – technology, refinement, and performance – or something like that.  We pick the technology tent off to our left first.  There they have an XF waiting with an instructor waiting.  In we go.  He directs me to a skid pad simulating a wet or icy road.  He turns off the traction control and tells me to give it some gas and notice the wheel slip.  Back up, turn on the traction control and feel how the car reacts.  Ok, nothing to write home about – and yet here I am writing about it.  I digest.  He directs me towards a kidney bean-shaped, traffic-cone lined “track” for a few laps.  Over the next three laps, he gradually turns off certain aspects of the car’s control and turns on other aspects of the car’s performance.  On my last lap, in full performance mode, he looks at me and says: “You’ve done this before”.  With a quick handshake and thank you, we’re onto the refinement tent.

Here they have several models lined up begging to be driven.  This isn’t meant to be a fast test.  Hop in any car and take it for a leisurely ride over various obstacles that represent real-world road conditions.  Meh to very-meh.  Next tent: performance.  And here’s where it gets fun.

Saturday morning, while surfing the web and downing my morning coffee, I’m listening to the Ticket.  One of the hosts brings up this Jaguar driving thing he went to yesterday – my ears perk up.  He spoke about the cars, the driving and the instructors – one of which is a former Le Mans winner.  Now my tail is wagging.  Who could it be?  While in the main tent with Smades before our initial presentation, we strike up a conversation with one of the Jaguar representatives.  I mention I heard there is a Le Mans winner here today.  Yes, yes there is, this British gentleman says.  Davy Jones.  No…not the Monkee singer who recently died, but the American driver who won Le Mans in 1996 with Porsche – and to a lesser degree, with Jaguar (but more on that in a moment).  Now I’m really excited.

So, the performance tent is really two tents – one a 0 to 60-or so acceleration test and one a auto-cross road course.  First up, the acceleration test in the XKR-S -the Jaguar super coupé.  Carbon fiber front-end splitter and rear spoiler, 5 litre supercharged V-8 that churns out 540 HP – this thing is mean.

They’re running the group through three XKR-S’, and while we wait, one of the instructors is giving us the finer points of this car.  Soon after we get in line, the three cars line up in front of us and the instructors grab a student and off they go.  Here comes Davy and with a quick stacking of the deck, I move Smades in front of me and tell him I want that guy.  Shortly thereafter, off goes Smades and here comes my car.

Davy Jones was THE next-in-line American driver in the early ’80s.  He finished 3rd behind Ayrton Senna and Martin Brundle in the 1983 British Formula Three Championship.  He drove for the Brabham F1 team – then owned by Bernie Ecclestone. Over the next few years, he gradually shifted from open-wheel racing to sports car racing where he landed a seat with Jaguar driving their XJR-9 and XRJ-12 Le Mans competitors.  He still raced in American open wheel CART – now Indy Car – races, but he made his name on the streets of La Sarthe.

He first took the XJR-9 down the Mulsanne Straight in 1988 back when it was the Mulsanne Straight.  No chicanes.  They could take these 7 litre V-12 machines over 250 MPH.  On a public road.  1988 they finished 16th.  1989 and 1990 in the upgraded XJR-12 they did not finish.  1991 was their year.  But the rules would get in the way.

In 1991, the competitors were given a fuel consumption limit: 2550 litres for the entirety of the race.  As the race went on, the TWR Jaguar team pulled back – to the tune of 10 to 12 seconds a lap to conserve fuel.  In the XKR-S, Davy told me they were convinced the Mazda would have to do the same, alas they did not and last year I was able to enjoy the 1991 winning Mazda 787B scream off towards Tertre Rouge.  That 1991 race featured F1 World Champion Keke Rosburg and some “kid” by the name of Michael Schumacher.

Davy returned to Le Mans in 1996 in a Porsche powered car originally built as a Jaguar that was designed by Ross Brawn and had the roof chopped off.  I’ll explain.

Tom Walkinshaw Racing was a racing team and engineering firm. They designed and built the Jaguar XJR-9, the XJR-12 and it’s successor the XJR-14.  In 1995, Tom Walkinshaw Racing were commissioned by Porsche to produce a car to compete in the 1996 Daytona 24 hour race. The Porsche WSC-95 was based on the TWR’s 1991 Jaguar XJR-14 chassis, with the roof removed and a flat-six Porsche engine fitted.  In 1996, the car was acquired by Joest Racing and were chosen by Porsche to run at Le Mans as backup for Porsche’s own team of works 911 GT1s.  With Davy Jones, Manuel Reuter, and Alexander Wurz behind the wheel, they took the checkered flag Le Mans.

Davy would not get a chance to defend his Le Mans victory.  Davy was seriously injured in January 1997 while testing an IRL car in Florida.  Joest Racing replaced Davy with a young driver with a promising future: Tom Kristensen.  That car went onto win, giving TK the first of his eight Le Mans victories.

So, I get in the XKR-S with Davy and tell him I went to Le Mans last year and I’m going back in three weeks.  “Oh yea?” he replys, “Le Mans is a magical place”.   We’re doing the XKR-S acceleration test and we have to go to the end of the parking lot where the  J A G U A R letters are.  I’m moving particularly slow and we’re talking Le Mans the whole way.  His experiences, my experiences, what it was like racing there with and without the chicanes.  He tells me that once they put in the chicanes on the Mulsanne Straight, that changed the aerodynamic set ups on the car.  Because they could no longer blast off towards Mulsanne at 240 MPH, they could add a little more downforce.  That minor change at the front of the track, affected the back of the track.  The Porsche Curves were no longer a challenge.  Davy said with the old minimal wings, the Porsche Curves were a challenge to go fast – you were right on the edge.  Now with the added downforce, you could take the Curves without blinking.

Now we’re at the start of the straight away.  I’m sure Davy was to spend that time going over all the bells and whistles and engineering black magic of the XKR-S and what makes it fast, but we were talking Le Mans.  He points down towards a pair of cones and says “punch it.”  580 HP come alive and before I know it we’re at the cones, slowing down and heading back.  All the while, we’re talking Le Mans.  We get back to the tent and I tell him what a pleasure it was meeting him.  He shakes my hand and tells me to enjoy myself.

I walk off a little star stuck and the instructor we were talking to earlier asks if I wanted my picture taken with him.  D’OH – that’s a great idea.  But he’s already grabbed another gentleman and it off for another drag race.  I’ll get him later.

Smades and I make our way to the final performance tent where our instructor, Roberto, is giving some finer points about corner entry, exit, acceleration and braking.  I probably should have paid more attention to the braking part a little more, but I’ll get to that in a minute.  We get three laps, the first two are practice, the third is timed.  The fast lap for my group is a 30.3.

They have two XF-R’s and two XK-R’s for us to choose.  Dave hops in a XK-R and I’m up next.  Here comes a grey XK-R and the instructor introduces himself – James Gue.  He’s a former ALMS and GRANDAM competitor who’s currently partnered with McDreamy himself, Patrick Dempsey and his racing team.  He asks me my driving/racing experience and says we’re good to go.  Pull up to the starting cone and he’s going to bark out corners like a rally co-driver.

First corner a fast, sweeping left-hander, lift off the throttle followed by a left-hander hard on the brakes.  A quick right-left-right chicane and then hard on the brakes for a left-hand hairpin.  The final two corners are a double right-hand corner across the finish.  First lap, not too bad.  Harder here, softer here, and I’m good to go.  Next lap.  Even better, James tells me to be smoother on the throttle and earlier on the brakes.  Gotcha.  Final lap – it’s go time.  He says he did ran a 29.5 this morning and tells me I’ve got the 30.3 in my sights.  Go.  And like that it’s done.  He says he thinks I got it.  Nope.  The instructor in the timing tent says there’s a problem with the electronic/laser stop watch.  Go again.  Ok.  Another good lap.  Nope, the timing still isn’t working.  James gives me a few more tips.  Ok, we’re all set.  GO!  First corner, nailed it.  Second corner, nailed it.  Through the chicane and into the hard left hand hairpin…I was five feet late on the brakes and I took out a few cones.  Crap.

We pull in and Smades holds up his iPhone.  “42 seconds?!?  What went wrong?” as he chuckles.   James pats me on the shoulder and tells me he thinks I would have beat the 30.3.  That’s not much of a consolation prize and Smades’ chuckling isn’t helping much.  We walk off and back towards the first performance tent to look for Davy.  A quick scan and here he comes walking over.  I ask for a quick photo and he graciously obliges.

We head back into the main tent where we check out another XKR-S – in French Racing Blue of all colors – and an old E-type 2+2 coupé.  We complete a quick Jaguar survey on an iPad, receive our gift bag with all sorts of Jag swag and we’re back on 30 heading back to Smades’ place.

All in all, it was a great day.  Jaguar really makes some fantastic vehicles.  I’ve had plenty of time in German and Japanese cars, but this is my first real experience in British built machinery that Jeremy Clarkson is always rambling on about.  It was a great time with a good friend and meeting a Le Mans winner made it that much sweeter.

Three weeks from today I’ll be in a plane to France and back to La Sarthe.  I’m just counting down the days.

UPDATE: I just got this from Jaguar.  Click here for my video with Davy Jones


6 Hours of Spa

This weekend was the running of the WEC 6 Hours of Spa.  This was the racing debut for Audi’s two newest Le Mans competitors: the R18 Ultra and the R18 e-tron quatro.  But before I get to Audi and the race let’s look at who wasn’t there.

Don’t let the poster fool you, Toyota was not there with their TS030 – at least not competing thanks to an unfortunate shunt at Paul Ricard while testing last month.  Toyota brought their gasoline hybrid endurance competitor for promotional purposes only.  From these photos, you can see Toyota has made several modifications to the car.

In addition to updating the headlamps, which I’m sure is for improved night-time visibility, they’ve made several aerodynamic changes.  The front fenders are more upright, the endplates are now more similar to the Audi’s, as well as a redesigned nose with integrated air intakes probably for brake cooling.  This is not the same car they rolled out two months ago, and I’m willing to bet this isn’t the same car that will take to the grid in Le Mans next month.  Now, onto the race.

As I said earlier, Audi debuted their newest Le Mans racers: the R18 Ultra and the R18 e-tron quattro.  Two of each for four Audi racers.  The R18 Ultra is an improved version of the 2011 Le Mans winning R18 – slight modifications in aerodynamics as well as a modified monocoque for improved driver visibility.  The R18 e-tron quattro is an all-wheel drive version that has two electric motors driving the front wheels creating a diesel/electric hybrid.

Audi DOMINATED qualifying.  The two e-tron quattros took the front row and the two Ultras took the second row.  There was a considerable gap from the e-tron quattros to the Ultras and then onto the rest of the pack.  The fastest e-tron quattro won pole position with a 2:22.121, the fastest Ultra in 3rd was more than 6 seconds back with a 2:28.422 and the next fastest LMP1 competitor was a more than a second slower in 5th.  These cars are blistering fast.

Being fast over a few laps is one thing; being fast, reliable, consistent, and safe over a 6 hour time frame is an entirely different thing.  Mix in the weather, and “the great equalizer” changes everything.  My friend from Le Mans, Walter, was at the race and provides us with this photo of the #1 Audi on pole.

To see more of Walter’s work, click here.

Practice and qualifying were held in the dry, but the weather in the Ardennes Forest is unpredictable.  Rain moved in overnight, throwing engineers, drivers, and mechanics into scramble mode to prepare the cars for their wet-weather setups.  Strategies, tire and fuel management, and goals all had to be adjusted.  The e-tron quatro is fast in dry weather, but how would it handle Eau Rouge in the wet?

At the drop of the flag, the e-tron quatros and Ultras maintained first through fourth and stayed that way through the first half of the race.  As the track dried, however, Marc Gene in the #3 R18 Ultra came in for slicks.  The gamble paid off.  He and his co-drivers Romain Dumas and Loic Duval held off the e-tron quattro piloted by last year’s Le Mans winning team of Benoit Treluyer, Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer to win the 6 Hours of Spa.

Here’s a great video from Michelin from the race.  Check out the R18 LED headlight with the colored accent lights.

While Toyota didn’t compete in this race, they say testing will more than make up for the lack of competitive racing when it comes time for Le Mans.  I can’t say I 100% agree with this line of thinking.  In terms of logistics, Toyota wasn’t ready for this race.  Does that mean they’ll be ready for La Sarthe?  I don’t think so.  Audi’s been to Le Mans every year since 1999.  They’ve won it 10 out of the last 12 years.  You can argue 11 out of 12 with the Bentley Speed 8 – which was basically an Audi R8 in a different shirt – these guys know how to win.  And when you consider Audi is fielding 4 competitors at Le Mans, it should be an all Audi first two rows and an all Audi podium.  Does Toyota have a rabbit up it’s sleeve?  We’ll know in 5 weeks.


Again, the virtual world meets the real world

Last year, I wrote about GT5 Academy winner, Lucas Ordonez, securing a seat with Signatech Nissan to compete at Le Mans.  I just found this several months old video and it again speaks to the crossover of the virtual and real worlds of racing.  Filmed during Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, FastLaneDaily interviews Allan McNish.

There are several things I find interesting what Allan McNish has to say:

1: With the durability/reliability of today’s cars, the endurance races are treated more like sprint races: full out, all the time.

2: He’s always aggressive, all the time.  Considering his shunt at Le Mans last year, you’d think he would have dialed down his driving style.  No, in the words of Ayrton Senna: “if you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver, because we are competing, we are competing to win.”.

3: The virtual world will, can, and does contribute to driving/racing in the real world.  I’m a GT5 and iRacing fan – there’s without a doubt, my “video game” racing has made me a better driver.   The simulators/games are getting so good, they use them as training tools.

4: The two – sim racing and real racing are crossing over.  They are creating a better product for each other.

UPDATE: Thanks to my weekly YouTube subscription update, I received a notice about these videos.  Again, virtual world directly impacting the real world in terms of racing.