Photo by John Thawley From the green flag to the finish, the Acura Sports Car Challenge of St. Petersburg was quite an adventure for Rinaldo Capello and Allan McNish. But just as they did eight times last season, they found their way to Victory Circle again. The defending LMP1 co-champions scored their first win of 2007 on Saturday as the Audi R10 TDI and diesel power remained unbeaten in the American Le Mans Series.
Capello finished with a 0.426 victory over Emanuele Pirro in the sister Audi. The two R10 TDIs were 25 seconds clear of the third-place Porsche RS Spyder from Penske Motorsports.
"We expected it to be a busy race," McNish said. "I was quite surprised by the pace we had at the beginning of the race. The car was better than it had been and better than predicted."
There was drama from the start. McNish recovered from early-race contact and penalty for passing pole-sitter Romain Dumas before the start line on the opening lap. After dropping back to 10th position, it took him only 15 minutes to regain the lead.
"I knew the best opportunity to overtake was going into Turn 1," McNish said. "He lifted and I was already committed. At that point I had nothing else to do because I was too close to the wall and there was a car behind me."
Capello had a relatively uneventful time of it up until the last 20 laps. Two caution periods kept Pirro within reach and added another dilemma. Capello's car was running tires with a harder compound compared to Pirro on a rapidly cooling track. With 11 of the last 18 laps under yellow, there wasn't much Capello could do to keep his tires warm and full of grip.
"I was really scared to drive the car because there was no grip at all," Capello said. "It was the most difficult three laps I ever did in my life. I lost the car two times in corners that you normally take flat. The car slipped bad but I held on to it."
Sascha Maassen and Ryan Briscoe led a 1-2 finish for Penske in LMP2. The end result marked a bit of a change in fortunes as the team thought the car might be overheating in the race's first 14 minutes. But the issue turned out to be moot as Maassen crossed the line third overall and 0.116 seconds ahead of Timo Bernhard, Dumas' teammate. Third in class was Highcroft Racing's Acura ARX of David Brabham and Stefan Johansson, 7.7 seconds back of the Porsches.
So already the battle has commenced between two of the top manufacturers in the Series for class championship honors. After seeing Acura finish 1-2 at Sebring, Porsche returned the favor Saturday.
"At Sebring it was technical problems that slowed us down," said Maassen, who was eighth in class at Sebring with Briscoe and Emmanuel Collard. "At this race it was other problems. Two penalties and then pitting under green with other problems, I didn't think we would finish where we did."
Neither did Briscoe, who won for the first time in just his second race. After losing time to the overheating issue - debris under the car sent the temperature rising, he said - he also was penalized for contact with the Andretti Green Racing Acura. But he and Maassen ran clean for the rest of the way while the contenders from Acura and other Porsches fell by the wayside.
"I don't know how we did it today. After the problems at the start it didn't look good," Briscoe said. "Apart from that we had a fast car, got some luck and went on to win."
Oliver Gavin and Olivier Beretta won in GT1 for Corvette Racing as the duo captured their second consecutive street race and staked an early claim to their third consecutive class championship. The duo won their second straight race of the season after opening with the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.
The two-time defending class champions stayed out of trouble that seemed to follow others in the field. It was another picture perfect performance for the No. 4 team and crew.
"The street race is hard because you have to be more careful and the walls are quite close," Beretta said. "For the fans it's nice because they get right close to the cars, but for us it makes it harder."
It's even more difficult considering the next two events on the Series schedule are street races. With the two Corvettes going to the 24 Hours of Le Mans following the Salt Lake City round in May, Gavin said the focus was running steady and consistent while remaining clean.
"Our bosses would prefer that we don't bend the car, and it's in our minds to not take any stupid risks," Gavin said. "This course isn't too bumpy. It's quite quick, easy to drive really. Others were just driving crazy today. We wanted to go fast but also take it easy."
In GT2, a new car brought the same result for Jaime Melo and Mika Salo. Risi Competizione's dynamic duo continued its roll in the Ferrari F430 GT as they won their fourth consecutive race together dating back to Portland of last year. The duo took a one-lap victory over the Flying Lizard Porsche of Johannes van Overbeek and Jörg Bergmeister on Saturday. Two weeks ago at Sebring, the two teams finished in the same positions except were separated by a mere 0.202 seconds.
"We knew the Porsches would be better and we had to make improvements," Salo said. "So we tested a lot and improved over the winter, better mileage, more power and more grip. They did a really good job at the factory."
Salo was running second at the two-hour mark to class pole-sitter Tomas Enge of Petersen Motorsports/White Lightning Racing. The lead changed hands though following a vicious accident that saw Enge make heavy contact near Turn 3 and sent the car against the outside concrete track barrier.
Enge was transported to a local hospital for evaluation. He was alert and awake Saturday night in stable condition.
With nine laps remaining following the caution period to clear the wreckage, Salo drove a smooth pace to the finish. After the Flying Lizard Porsche, Bill Auberlen and Joey Hand were third for Panoz Team PTG in a Panoz Esperante GTLM.
"The team had a good strategy, and Mika did a good job when he was in the car," Melo said. "Now we are looking forward to the rest of the season."
The next round of the American Le Mans Series is the Grand Prix of Long Beach. The race will start at 4 p.m. PT on Saturday, April 14. SPEED will provide same-day broadcast coverage from 8 to 10:30 p.m. ET. MotorsTV in Europe, SPEED Latin America and 7TV in Russia will carry the race live. American Le Mans Radio and IMSA's Live Timing & Scoring will be available at americanlemans.com.