The Lone Star Le Mans – Circuit of the Americas

Circuit of the Americas

September 18, 2016
Story by James Edmonds,   Photos by Thomas Murray

When businessman Don Panoz had the vision to create the American Le Mans Series at the turn of the century (wow that makes it sound old!), his series sanctioned by governing body IMSA, became the doyen of international sports car racing. It attracted the best cars from around the globe for its two major races: the 12 Hours of Sebring and the original race on which the series was founded, Petit Le Mans held at Road Atlanta. All of the series races had large grids and huge fan participation at the country’s most historic tracks.

Most of these tracks like Lime Rock, Mid Ohio, Road America, VIR, Mosport, Laguna Seca and Portland were circuits that had seen American road racing for decades. I wonder if Panoz ever envisaged his cars running at Circuit of the Americas, a track the likes of which had hitherto never been seen on these shores. By making the controversial yet inevitable move to combine the Rolex Grand Am series with the ALMS, we now get to see the best of both worlds in one super-series.

Conceived by promoter Tavo Hellmund and motorcycle World Champion Kevin Schwantz, Circuit of the Americas was designed by F1 architect Hermann Tilke with 20 turns, many of which were based on driver favorites from circuits around the world. With a four story elevation change running up to turn one and a length of 3.4 miles, the circuit was an instant hit with fans and drivers and has some unique fan features including the COTA tower and a concert amphitheater.

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The observation tower stands 251 feet tall with a observation deck at the top which offers viewers a 360 degree panorama of the circuit as well as a view of downtown Austin. The platform also features a partial glass floor which depending on your psyche, can be either funny, exhilarating or terrifying! The platform can be accessed by the elevator for all but the young, fit or those with masochistic tendencies. The 419 stairs arranged in a helical design around the tower, offer an energy sapping alternative. The array of 18 steel tubes forming a canopy from the top to a fan at the bottom are the tower’s most eye catching and unique feature. They are painted bright red to give the visual impression of race car tail lights speeding past.

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Wide angle view of the track from the tower observation deck looking Northeast

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The #97 Aston Martin V8 Vantage GTE Pro entry of Darren Turner and Fernando Rees photographed from the top of tower in Turn 17

For those who are planning to ascend the tower, take rations and lots of water if you plan on taking the stairs. Also make sure your emergency contacts are easily available on your phone, as whenever we have been there for the Lone Star Le Mans weekend, the ambient temperatures well in to the 90s and 100s make the elevator the only way to travel.

In a word the facility is amazing. For those working, the media center, paddock and pit complex are simply world class.

I managed to procure a couple of Audi hospitality passes for myself and Tom. These are really are a great addition to the event and elevate the entire race weekend experience to another level. Seeking relief from the heat and hustle of the event is a top priority during the hot September event.  With temperatures seemingly hotter than a furnace, the hospitality suite on offer from the Audi Motorsport Experience is a value beyond measure. Take note when you plan to attend the race next year and secure your passes early, they are on offer to the public but the supply is limited.

The perks of this package start with a a swag bag, including sign-up lists for hot pit tours, gourmet meals,  driver meet and greets and the fan favorite hot laps on race morning. Last year I was gifted a memory for a lifetime when thrice Le Mans winner, Dindo Capello gave me a lap of the circuit in an Audi R8 LMS race car. This year however was Tom’s turn for the big thrill and boy did he ever get one! Having grown up around the ALMS and the drivers who have gone from heroes to friends along the way, surely the ultimate ride would be one with nine-time Le Mans winning record holder Tom Kristensen. Yes. Tom got a hot lap – recorded for posterity – with TK in an Audi RS5. So what if it wasn’t a race car? It was TK! Tom’s smile is now like a tattoo: it will never go away I don’t think.

This is where sports car racing in America is unlike any other form of motorsport around the world. Do you think you could get a hospitality pass to an F1 team the equivalent of Audi? Mercedes AMG for instance? Do you think they even sell them? If they did, do you think you’d get a ride around the track on race day with Niki Lauda or Lewis Hamilton? Hard to comprehend isn’t it? How about walking through the paddock or talking to mechanics, team bosses and drivers on the pit walk? Nope. Sit in one of the cars for a selfie? You’re kidding right? For hardcore fans of this sport, even as a casual general admission ticket bearer, the access you are afforded at an IMSA WeatherTech or WEC event (luckily both this weekend) is simply unparalleled!

Speaking of legends, besides the wonderful circuits that are still an integral part of the IMSA WeatherTech series, there are also the drivers who we have come to love over the years and who can often be seen mingling at these events. It was fun to see world famous purveyor of all things race related, Eddie LePine, collecting signatures on a petition to have Dindo Capello inducted into the Sebring Hall of Fame. I think all the drivers and team principals signed but the funniest moment was the expression of recent inductee Tom Kristensen. He scowled and shook his head as if to say, “No way!” as he gladly signed for his ex-team mate and five-time winner of the 12-hour classic.

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This year we were all thrilled to see the new Ford GTs – all four of them. Two were running in the WeatherTech race and two (both pairs numbered 66 and 67) in the WEC main event. Aston Martin were back with TRG bringing a sole V12 Vantage to the IMSA race and the other teams that have become series staples were there too.

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IMSA Lone Star Le Mans

Corvette, Porsche and Ferrari made up the fan-favorite GT classes while the outgoing Daytona Prototypes did battle with the LMP2 cars. The Delta Wing was also there in the twilight of its career, with the 2017 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona marking its final appearance as a current front line racer. It will be interesting to see not only where this car pops up in the future as a historic car, but also to see how it will be remembered. Time will tell.

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The race format this year was the same as previous years with the IMSA race running 2 hours 45 minutes and ahead of the WEC 6 Hour race. This was to be the last time that the IMSA/WEC double header would be held as next year the two races will take place at the same venue but at different times of the year. I’m sure that for the organizers of each event it will make for an easier weekend as with two races in one days it makes for a logistical challenge as both play to slightly different pit rules.

Not only does a pit-lane-length wall have to be removed in short order, but there is also the pre-race grid activity for both as well as post-race scrutineering which has to be done before the WEC race can proceed. Understandably this makes for more than a few frayed nerves but the marshals and officials pull it all off with miraculous aplomb!

The now traditional bright blue liveried TRG #007 Aston has been absent from many of the races this year but arrived with the new driver line-up of Australian David Calvert-Jones and Porsche specialist Ben Barker. Although they qualified at the back of the field due to unfamiliarity with the car, they managed to run a consistently strong race. The team finished up sixth in class despite the hurdles incurred by running a limited program against very strong opposition and with new drivers in the most hotly contested class.

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The Michael Shank Honda HPD Ligier took the overall honors while the Porsche North America 911 took a win in GTLM as did the Turner Motorsports BMW M6 in GTD. Interestingly, the second placed GTD Ferrari Corse entry garnered enough points to basically just show up for Petit Le Mans and take the drivers’ and team titles, making Christina Nielsen the first female driver in US history to win a major national sportscar championship – something they duly went on to do. The gorgeous Ford GTs had a rough time of it with neither car on the podium. They did however, make for some terrific photo’s. It’s a shame for some of us that they don’t bellow past with the glorious song of a 427 but that topic will always be ready for the bar-room debate!

WEC 6 Hours of Circuit of the Americas

The throngs of fans welcomed the LMP1 glitterati in true Texas style. Porsche arrived leading the championship while Toyota were still licking the wounds suffered at the hand of Lady Le Mans. They may never heal. To read more about Toyota and the 2016 Le Mans 24, see the footnote at the base of this story for the link “Truth Stranger Than Fiction”.  Audi came looking to get back to the top, having had strong qualifying results this year but poor race reliability. The front row lock-out looked good and they dominated the first half of the day-into-night race. Thankfully for all drivers, the searing temperatures and high humidity of the day subsided somewhat as the sun went down.audi_r18_2016_cota

It seemed as if Audi was in for another tough race though when at the halfway point, the #8 car of Loic Duval stopped on track with an electrical issue. This is the kind of thing that we see more and more of nowadays due to the hugely complex hybrid systems. Fortunately, the “control+alt+delete” fix from the cockpit seemed to do the trick as the car was soon underway again with no apparent ill effects. The 45 seconds lost though handed the lead to the #7 sister car. Pitting under green, Audi lost the lead to Porsche who made the most of a gifted full course yellow soon after with two hours to go.

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With Audi pilot Benoit Treluyer making chase, he was hit by one of the Ford GT’s. The resulting crash into the barriers cost the team six laps in the garage and any real shot at victory. Di Grassi in the #8 Audi fought back valiantly to regain second place but crossed the line 23 seconds behind the Porsche of Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhardt.

This made five out of six wins for Porsche this year who extended their championship lead and left the rumors swirling around Audi’s 2018 withdrawal from the WEC seem all the more tangible. This writer for one will be heartbroken if that happens as Audi raised the bar with the R8 which made for the exciting “sprint” type of endurance racing that we are now used to possible. Let’s hope the “silly season” rumors are just that.

The British driver lineup in the Ford GT from the UK based arm of the Chip Ganassi team came home fourth in GTE Pro after their troubled run and in a surprise move after the race, Ford announced that Marino Franchitti, who had been paired with Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell would not be driving for the remaining three races of the season. No explanation was given…

podium-lmgte_pro_car-95_nicki-thiim-marco-sorensen-am-vantage-v8Aston Martin on the other hand have been having a terrific year in GTE Pro and Am. The #95 Vantage GTE of Nicki Thiim and Marco Sorensen dominated the race only losing the lead briefly during the early round of pit stops. This with a BoP penalty after the sister car #97 win at the recent previous race in Mexico City. The win marked Thiim’s first since 2014 and his first in the top GTE Pro class extending the team lead in the WEC standings.

After the race Nicki Thiim was exhausted but obviously ecstatic with the win, “Fantastic! The whole team has been amazing all week. We had people collapsing (from the heat) so everyone was on the limit but we still managed to do it. At (the season opener) Silverstone we were nowhere, but now we are competing on the same level as Ford and Ferrari, so it’s quite impressive. We will just keep working and doing a good job but it’s about time we got the win!”

Teammate Marco Sorensen was equally pleased as he spoke, still soaked in champagne. “It’s our first win in the GT Pro, but I’m sure it’d not going tom be the last one. We are going to keep on pushing for the end of the season because we are taking a run at the championship.”

Unfortunately, crowd favorite Darren Turner lost the points lead by coming home fifth due in large part due to bad luck in pit stop timing and also with a faulty rear wheel speed sensor. This caused traction control issues which meant that the drivers were unable to push 100%.

In GTE Am, the team also took a dominant victory, despite losing the lead in a first lap melee. The #98 V8 Vantage GTE of Pedro Lamy, Mathias Lauda and Paul Dalla Lana claimed pole position and longtime Aston driver Lamy soon fought back to regain the lead. Following the move from Lamy, the trio never looked back as they went on to a win and closed in on the championship leaders Ferrari.

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Paul Dalla Lana has had his fair share of heartache over the last couple of seasons with crashes and failures often right at the end of a race, so this victory was especially sweet for this “amateur” driver. “In those conditions a second stint was particularly tough, so I was really happy to make no mistakes. Over a long run the car was really good and we’d set it up for that. That was the key – just being patient. Being up there with the pro’s and staying ahead was nice to do at a tough track like this in tough conditions so for me that was a great accomplishment.”

Mathias Lauda took the flag in the #98 car and is looking forward to catching the AF Corse Ferrari team for the manufacturers title. “It’s tough to be honest. In the last race we had the pace to win but had a little bit of bad luck and lost some points. Today Paul and Pedro made it really easy for me and every time I went in the car we had a really big lead. In the last stint I just didn’t make any mistakes and was really careful with the cars behind and just bring it home. It’s great to win. Unfortunately, at Le Mans and Mexico we had two zeroes and lost a lot of points, but we don’t give up. We try to win the last few races and hopefully we will with a bit of luck!”

Shooting photo’s in the pits at COTA gave us a very small taste of the heat the drivers have to put up with, as we have to wear fire suits and a helmet. I am careful to say a very small taste with the knowledge that these guys are some of the best athletes in the world and have a lot more to cope with than us, but certainly you get an appreciation.

So after the collapse of a hard days running around in the sun we look back fondly again at this race which has become a staple of the WEC and hope that it survives along with our other favorites like Sebring and Road Atlanta. Don Panoz may not have been directly involved with the World Endurance Championship, but without doubt it was he who ensured that these spectacular modern marvels made it here in the first place.


Follow up & Footnotes:

Click here  to read our story on the 2016 Le Mans 24 “Truth Stranger Than Fiction”


 

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