Ready for prime time

September 16, 2015

Ready for prime time

September 16, 2015

prime_timeThere comes a time in nearly every race, season or career where a driver’s talent and experience comes together in a magical blend of speed, consistency, discipline and creativity.

Drivers in the zone seem to consistently optimize a car, a situation or their performance. For some that zone is fleeting, while others seem to set up residency.

In a Lone Star Le Mans paddock filled with top factory shoes in both the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship and FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC), virtually every Pro class seat is filled by a young lion, a proven winner or a prime time player.

Dan Binks, crew chief for the 2015 Rolex 24 At Daytona and Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring GTLM class winning No. 3 Corvette calls that special time in a driver’s career, “the sweet spot.”

It is that point, usually in their late 20s to mid-30s, when a driver’s skills, focus and results are at their absolute peak. Poles, wins, fastest race laps and championships are not simply possible, but expected.

Here are some who may be best known to North American fans:

Nick Tandy, a factory driver for Porsche Racing, is the hottest new prime time player. In the past two years, Tandy, now 30, has posted victories at Petit Le Mans, the Rolex 24 At Daytona and the biggest prize, the overall win at the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans.

piletHe was also aboard the LMP2 class winning car at the most recent WEC race at the Nurburgring in Germany.

He and fellow Porsche factory team prime timer Patrick Pilet (33) (pictured right) arrive with three consecutive TUDOR Championship GTLM class wins, taking victories in Canada, at Road America and most recently at VIRginia International Raceway.

Audi’s formidable trio of Andre Lotterer (33), Benoit Treluyer (38) and Marcel Fassler (39) (pictured below) have been the winning combination for three overall victories at Le Mans and a WEC championship.

They currently lead the 2015 WEC championship heading into Circuit of The Americas (COTA).

fasslerCorvette Racing’s Exhibit A is “rock star” Antonio Garcia (35). The quiet but ruthlessly efficient Spaniard now has three Le Mans wins and an American Le Mans Series (ALMS) championship.

He and co-driver Jan Magnussen have posted six TUDOR Championship GTLM class victories in the last 16 races.

Garcia’s Corvette Racing teammate, Tommy Milner (29) (pictured left), is certainly in that prime zone.

Since joining the team in 2011, Milner has a pair of GTE Pro class wins at Le Mans, including this past June when he teamed with veteran Oliver Gavin and young lion Jordan Taylor. Milner and Gavin also claimed the 2012 ALMS GT Championship.

With young drivers, teams look for talent, speed, the ability to learn and periodic flashes of brilliance.

As a driver gains seat time and experience, the expectations are raised. Mistakes are no longer tolerated and the driver is in the car for the most difficult conditions and tactical situations.

webberPorsche has a deep roster of proven winners. Former ALMS and Le Mans champions Romain Dumas (37) and Timo Bernhard (34) have been key players in the Porsche factory line up.

Mark Webber (39) (pictured right) and Brendon Hartley (25) teamed with Bernhard aboard a Porsche 919 Hybrid prototype for the overall win at the Nurburgring. Dumas, Neel Jani (31) and Marc Lieb (35) finished second.

Their Porsche Manthey Racing counterparts in WEC, Richard Lietz (32) and Michael Christensen (25) led a 1-2 finish in the GTE-Pro class at the Nurburgring over teammates Pilet and Frederic Makowiecki (34).

Ferrari’s Gianmaria (Gimmi) Bruni (34) (pictured left) has three GT class wins at Le Mans and the 2013 FIA WEC championship to his credit.

BMW’s Lucas Luhr (36) has  a record 49 career ALMS wins.

Joey Hand (36) is a past winner at Daytona and Sebring and a former ALMS GT champion.
He is currently paired with Scott Pruett in a Chip Ganassi Racing Ford EcoBoost Riley Prototype. The CGR Ford firmament will soon expand as the team gears up to field a total of four Ford GTs with pairs in both the 2016 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and the FIA WEC.

magsAt some point, drivers reach their peak, but some special drivers can remain there for a long time.

Corvette’s Jan Magnussen (pictured left) and Oliver Gavin, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Pruett, BMW’s Bill Auberlen, Risi Competizione Ferrari’s Giancarlo Fisichella and Porsche’s Jörg Bergmeister are virtually ageless, seemingly retaining all of their speed and prowess while ignoring the calendar.

Almost imperceptibly, others gradually lose a tenth of a second or two and get in trouble by forcing situations.

Prime timers are often the hidden leaders in their respective teams as the mechanics, engineers and co-drivers look to them to be the ultimate difference makers in incredibly close competition. For them the look in the eyes of their teammates in victory is the ultimate praise and reward.

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