And then there were two.
The first race at any track is exciting. Adding to the excitement and pressure of the ALMS debut here at Virginia International Raceway is the critical timing of a race with major championship implications.
Just two races remain in the 2012 American Le Mans Series season and the driver, team and manufacturer championships are the big prize in many pairs of eyes.
After eight races, just one 2012 ALMS championship is decided. The defending champion, two-car CORE autosport team from Rock Hill, SC, has ratcheted up six victories and put the PC class team title on ice. Alex Popow, with four wins, leads teammates Jon Bennett and Colin Braun (2) and RSR’s Bruno Junqueira in the PC driver championship tussle.
In the headlining LMP1 class, the California-based Muscle Milk Pickett Racing squad leads the way for the team, driver (Lucas Luhr and Klaus Graf) and manufacturer (Honda) titles as they work to wrest them away from the defending champions, New York’s Dyson Racing and drivers Chris Dyson and Guy Smith and Mazda.
After a five-race win streak earlier in the season, the race has tightened considerably as Muscle Milk has struggled with mechanical issues in each of the last two races. The MMers made a stirring recovery to a narrow second-place finish at Road America, but came home a distant 24th overall and third in class after dominating early at Baltimore.
In the LMP2 class, Wisconsin’s Level 5, Scott Tucker and Christophe Bouchut appeared to have the championship repeat in-hand, but drama is building as Eric Bachelart’s Indianapolis-based Conquest Endurance squad with drivers Martin Plowman and David Heinemeier Hansson have taken a pair of recent wins to tighten the battle.
A big one-two finish at Baltimore for Level 5 extended the gap to a dozen points, but the Conquest team has shown good speed. Also the return of Dempsey Racing, with a pair of podium finishes in its past three races, can certainly take points away from the championship contenders.
The tightest, most competitive class on the global sports car scene, the production-based GT class, has Michigan-based Corvette Racing poised to dethrone Ohio’s BMW Team RLL. Corvette drivers Tommy Milner and Oliver Gavin have three wins, while teammates Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia are second in the championship with four runner-up finishes.
BMW is still very much in the fight, with Dirk MÃ¼ller just two points behind the Garcia/Magnussen duo. The BMW Team RLL squad has taken both cars to victory this season.
Another three points adrift is the Florida-based Extreme Speed Motorsports Ferrari pairing of Scott Sharp and Johannes van Overbeek, who have four podium finishes, including the team’s first win on their 2012 scorecard.
Porsche has been on a recent tear with California’s Flying Lizard Motorsports #45 Porsche of Patrick Long and Joerg Bergmeister and the Indianapolis-based #17 Porsche team of Wolf Henzler and Bryan Sellers each taking a win.
In all, six different cars from five teams, four manufacturers, and three tire makers have taken GT wins in the first eight races.
Going for the Ws
While the championship leaders and pursuers count their good fortune and carefully tally points, the teams and drivers out of the championship look to salvage wins and build their foundations for title runs in 2013.
That is especially true for 2012 newcomers like Dempsey Racing and Alex Job Lotus. Improving performance, developing consistency and building momentum for next season are what matters most. After a mid-season debut, the new factory SRT Viper teams will miss a home race to prepare for the season-ending 10 Hour/1000 Mile, Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, October 20.
For some, the first ALMS race at VIR will bring fond memories of a championship clinched. For others, it will mean disappointment, frustration, even heartbreak. Delivering under pressure is what championships are all about, and racing does not get any better than that.