Using caution, Panoz triumphs

Tire, driver change under yellow key in Grand Prix

July 22, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - David Brabham was hot, and as he looked in his rearview mirror with a little more than 30 minutes left in the Cadillac Grand Prix, he realized everyone on the racetrack was feeling the tug of exhaustion.

In Brabham's driver's seat, leading the field in his Panoz LMP01 with Tom Kristensen's Audi on his rear bumper - where it had been for nearly an hour - the strain was palpable.

When a full-course caution came out on Lap 93, he radioed the team. Wouldn't it be a good idea to get co-driver Jan Magnussen back in the car with four fresh tires?

It would.

"It was hot enough to drain you out there," Brabham said. "And it was worse for us because our engine is in the front of the car, creating even more heat, burning our feet. I thought I could do my job and hold them off, but I also thought getting Jan ... who had had [an hour's rest], back in the car would make a big difference."

And as it turned out, it may well have been the decision that clinched the American Le Mans Series victory for Brabham, Magnussen and their American-made race car.

After the switch, Magnussen came out of the pits on Lap 96 in third place. On Lap 100, he outmaneuvered Audi's Emanuele Pirro for second and on Lap 106, with about 2:08 gone in the 2-hour, 45-minute race, Magnussen swept into the lead and held it to the finish.

He beat Kristensen to the finish line by 0.756 of a second. The No. 1 Audi of pole-sitter Frank Biela and Pirro finished third, followed by the improving Cadillac of Max Angelelli and Christophe Tinseau.

In the three other races within the race, Ron Fellows and his co-driver Johnny O'Connell finished eighth overall to be the top-finishing GTS car. Jon Field and his son Clint, 12th overall, were best in the LMP 675 class, and Lucas Luhr and Sascha Maassen won the GT class with a 13th-place run.

The victories culminated a day of success for the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, which brought the American Le Mans Series and its companion races to the city. The weekend of racing at the parking lots of RFK Stadium drew about 70,000 fans, according to Chris Lencheski, whose company, National Grand Prix Holdings, promoted the event.

Yesterday, the American Le Mans Series put on one of the best races seen in any racing series this season. From the time the green flag flew, the favored Audi teams and the smaller-budgeted Panoz team battled nose-to-tail, exchanging the lead multiple times until the last of the 140 laps were run.

"It was very close on the circuit," said Biela, who drives the No. 1 Audi R8. "The gaps - the straights - are not long, and it is difficult to build a big gap between cars. But that the Panoz was that strong is a surprise. They were very strong and did a very good job. I think it was good for spectators but, for us, disappointing."

The Audi team has been the powerhouse of the series. It won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for a consecutive third time last month and has dominated the ALMS since joining the circuit three years ago.

Until yesterday, it had lost once in five races this season, and that one loss at Sears Point was to the Panoz team. But since then, Audi has been growing stronger, while Panoz seemed to be losing ground.

All that changed here.

"This is our biggest victory," said Magnussen, who has driven in every ALMS race since its creation four years ago. "We've been so far behind Audi. This shows we are catching up."

Said Brabham: "The Audi organization is massive, and we are just a little American team. We know we are up against someone very hard for us to beat, and, today, it was so close. There were less than three seconds between us all race. It was pressure racing. So close. They'd get beside us and get past us and then we'd get back past them. Oh, that's racing. I had a grin from ear to ear and when the season is over, we, at Panoz, will all have a special smile on our face for this race."

Thirty laps into the race, it looked like the Audis would again dominate. Biela started on the pole and led until the Audi team car of Rinaldo Capello passed him. But at the same moment, Magnussen saw a chance to follow Capello and forced Biela into third.

When entering Turn 1, 11 laps later, Capello was being squeezed by the Audi campaigned by Stefan Johansson. Capello failed to back off. A brief pileup occurred. Magnussen moved around Capello and put the Panoz team in the lead for the first time.

And, for the first time, it became apparent Audi would not have a perfect race. The team was also given a penalty for Capello's part in that pileup on Lap 41. When handed out, that stop-and-go penalty cost Kristensen, who had subbed into the car, about 27 seconds.

Biela and Kristensen say they lost the race because of bad pit timing on the last stop, but after that stop on Lap 96, Kristensen was in the lead and Magnussen, who had just gotten back in the car, was third.

It was then Magnussen used his renewed strength. He regained the lead and never blinked as Kristensen applied all the pressure he could.

"A few times, I came along beside him, but he always had the corner," said Kristensen, who actually rubbed sheet metal while trying to compete the pass on Lap 120 coming out of the third turn. "It was one of the best races in the American Le Mans Series. Panoz deserved the victory because it was a tough race in which we changed the lead many, many times."

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