After surviving a brief battle for the lead in the opening hour of the 2012 Petit Le Mans Rebellion Racing eased to victory with a three lap margin of victory at the end of 394 making up the 1,000 mile race at Road Atlanta.
Their advantage at the end was over the Level 5 Motorsports’ trio of Christophe Bouchut, Luis Diaz and team owner Scott Tucker to win the LMP2 category and take second place after a torrid race for all of the ALMS regulars in the premier class.
From the start of the race Neel Jani, starting from pole for Rebellion and Lucas Luhr of Muscle Milk Pickett Racing broke away from the Dyson Racing pairing who had started from the second row of the grid. As they lapped most the field during their opening sting Jani maintained the lead for the Euopean visitors, but Luhr remained close the gap opening and shutting as the pair weaved through the slower traffic, Luhr noticeably more cautious on occasion, mindful that only a DNF could prevent he and regular co-driver Klaus Graf from clinching the LMP1 title in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS).
Luhr took the lead at the first pitstops, he and Jani both pitting at the end of lap 34. Both the Muscle Milk and Rebellion opting just to refuel the cars, Rebellion beginning a sequence of triple stints on their Michelin tyres.
Unfortunately, Luhr’s stint in the lead would be short, ending with the first swing in fortunes among the ALMS title contenders.
Trying to pass a pair of GTC cars on the climb away from turn one Luhr made contact with Peter Lesaffre’s Green Hornet Racing Porsche, pitching both into spins, Luhr slapping the wall to drivers’ left, damaging the suspension on the HPD ARX-03b. Momentarily the destination of the title hung in the balance, though the uncertainty was eased when the Muscle Milk team diagnosed the issue as a 45 minute fix, returning Graf to the race forty laps behind the relentless Rebellion pace, but still safely within the 70% bracket needed to score title securing points.
Despite a further stop, to tweek the camber settings on the repaired suspension, any nerves at Muscle Milk were eased shortly before the half way point when Guy Smith brought the Dyson Racing #16 to the pits complaining of no fuel pressure in the Lola-Mazda. Initially the team refuelled the car and despatched Smith back onto the track, but the problem was more serious than first it appeared – eventually discovered to be a throttle position motor failure – and the car was pulled back to the team’s paddock awning, dropping down the order to meet their title rivals. Both cars would avoid further serious troubles, both completing the 70% distance to finish 31st (Dyson) and 33rd (Muscle Milk) overall, Graf and Luhr clinching the title.
Relieved of the pressure by Luhr’s off – the early battle should have been the start of thrilling battle for the overall win – Rebellion were allowed to lead the rest of the race unchallenged, Jani, Nicolas Prost and Andrea Belicchi romping to a superb win for the team in the middle of an already successful WEC campaign.
The LMP1 title was not the only championship left until Petit Le Mans to be decided, Level 5 and Conquest Endurance still arguing about the LMP2 teams title, the class bolstered by the addition of teams from the European Le Mans Series (ELMS), Petit Le Mans forming the decisive round of their own championship.
While in LMP1 it was the visitors who dominated home advantage proved more valuable in LMP2, Marino Franchitti, in the #055 for Level 5 getting the jump at the start of race as OAK Racing opted to have Jacques Nicolet – their ‘Am’ driver – start the Morgan-Nissan from pole position.
Marino, sharing the car with brother Dario and Scott Tucker spent most the race swapping the class lead with Conquest Endurance, the only team capable of depriving Bouchut and Tucker of the LMP2 title. The #055’s challenge for the victory came apart in the second half of the race with a pair of penalties, the longer being a 2:26 stop and hold after illegally unlapping themselves during a safety car period that took the race across the 300 lap barrier.
The Conquest crew were the immediate beneficiaries of the penalty, Martin Plowman able to extend his lead. However, a late race off at the chicane at 10a and 10b after a blown tyre, compounded by the pit late speeding penalty handed the class win to Bouchut, Tucker and Diaz, rubber stamping the title for Bouchut and Tucker. Adding insult to injury Conquest were excluded from results after Plowman was deemed to have exceeded the maximum driving time.
Amongst the four ELMS LMP2 teams it was a war of attrition, Thiriet by TDS Racing classified fourth overall the only team to avoid hold ups during the race. Greaves Motorsport were an early casualty, dropping off the pace with a technical problem, leaving Thiriet, OAK Racing and Murphy Prototypes.
OAK Racing were delayed by the need to replace a starter motor in their Morgan, losing six laps to the class leaders, thinning the European teams at the top of the class to just two, which became one when Warren Hughes went off at turn one with a puncture on the restart after Patrick Dempsey had retired his own LMP2 car from the race following a crash on the exit of turn seven, causing the fifth of seven full course caution periods.
Unfortunately the Murphy Prototypes ORECA 03 accounted for both of the last two yellow periods. Hughes off flew the flags for the sixth time, though he was able to limps the car back around with minimal extra damage. However, Brendon Hartley would later grind to halt exiting turn one, with the electrical problem that would end their race.
The arrears from OAK’s early delay remained constant until the checkered flag. The Thiriet team – the eponymous Pierre Thiriet, Christophe Tinseau and Mathias Beche completing 390 laps – just one off the class lead, OAK – Nicolet, Olivier Pla and Bertand Baguette – finishing seventh overall, seven laps down on their ELMS rivals.
The pair were split in the final standings by the LMPC winners, Alex Popow, Ryan Dalziel and Mark Wilkins completing a championship winning year for Popow and CORE Autosport with an eighth win of the season. They finished one place behind the Nissan DeltaWing (though technically the experimental car ran unclassified) that completed a faultless race in the hands of Gunnar Jeannette and Lucas Ordonez.
Predictably the gaps in the GT class were much smaller than the LMP categories, the class win coming down to the final laps as Toni Vilander exorcised the ghosts of his 2012 last lap loss to deliver victory for Extreme Speed Motorsports – the team’s first victory on the track after a win earlier in the year was decided only be officials after the race.
Vilander, sharing the Ferrari 458 with Johannes van Overbeek and Scott Sharp saved enough fuel to avoid an extra stop that would have handed victory back to the Corvette trio of Antonio Garcia, Jordan Taylor and Jan Magnussen.
Less than an hour before the checkered flag the fight for the win had appeared to be between the Corvette and the #55 BMW of Bill Auberlen. Corvette pitted their charge from the class lead to ensure they could complete the race on fuel, BMW Team RLL making their own stop. However, an over eager twitch by the BMW, raising the car on the air jacks before the refuelling had been completed, drew a penalty from officials and consigned them to a third place finish a lap off the winning Ferrari.
The sister be-chromed 458 enjoyed a les auspicious race. Guy Cosmo’s pole time was expunged from the records following qualifying, dropping the car to the rear of the field of the start of the race. Cosmo’s personal race went little better, the under probation driver given a two minute stop and hold penalty for contact with Matt Griffin in the LMGTE Am ELMS AF Corse Ferrari at turn one. The Irishman was sent spinning into the wall, effectively ending the day for the team and the very battered car, allowing IMSA Performance Matmut – with drivers Raymond Narac, Nicolas Armindo and Anthony Pons – to take the class title unchallenged.
The other Corvette of Tommy Milner and Oliver Gavin, already confirmed as GT champions before the race, and Richard Westbrook fell out of the lead battle with steering issue, Milner pitting with the issue shortly after losing the lead to the sister car.
NGT Motorsport won the GTC class, getting the better of Alex Job Racing in the closing hour, Porsche Supercup driver Jakub Giermaziak taking advantage of Leh Keen’s error in the leading AJR car at turn ten, before fuel pressure for the #22 knocked them out of the race, allowing NGT to make sure of a race victory with a final stop for fuel before finishing 25th overall, five laps clear in class.