Former Indy 500 Champ, Young Frenchman Give Penske Porsche A Strong Challenge
TOOELE, Utah - The debut of the No. 66 Panasonic ELS Sound de Ferran Motorsports Acura ARX-01b gave the American Le Mans Series spectators, competitors and media a thrill Sunday in the Utah Grand Prix at the Miller Motorsports Park.
Led by former Indy 500 champion Gil de Ferran, the new Acura racing effort left a strong impression in the highly-competitive North American sports-car campaign with an overall third-place finish as de Ferran and young French star Simon Pagenaud put on a sensational performance.
After qualifying second Saturday, the de Ferran team was forced to the back of the starting grid after exchanging its qualifying tires for new Michelin rubber. De Ferran's spin in qualifying left the tires unusable and the team made the decision to start from the rear of the field.
But de Ferran, in his first competition since October, 12, 2003, when he won an IRL race at Texas, wasted little time carving his way through the field to sixth by the 12th lap. After a first-turn incident that took out Scott Sharp in the No. 9 Patrón Highcroft Acura and Christian Fittipaldi in the No. 26 XM Satellite Radio AGR Acura, de Ferran avoided the mishap to take second behind the No. 15 Lowe's Fernandez Acura of Luis Diaz at Lap 17.
Diaz was spectacular in his stint Sunday, posting a four-second lead overall before handing off his mount to team owner Adrian Fernandez. Fernandez' charge to the front was halted when the No. 16 Dyson Porsche ran into the No. 15 Lowe's Acura on Lap 46. A broken front wing hurt the Mexican's chance for a podium finish. He came back to place fifth overall.
Pagenaud, a past Formula Atlantic champion, drove a sensational race from fifth to the overall lead by Lap 70. A pit stop for fuel and tires on Lap 74 put the de Ferran machine back to fifth with 22 laps remaining. More than a minute behind the leading Penske car, the 24-year-old French driver cut the Penske margin to 26.8 seconds and took third overall in the team's initial ALMS event.
Bryan Herta brought the AGR Acura back to seventh in the LMP2 division in the XM Acura, while Long Beach winner David Brabham finished the No. 9 Patrón Highcroft Acura ninth in LMP2 despite a lengthy repair of the car's rear suspension from the Turn One incident involving Sharp.
The four Acura sports-car operations will now go through a round of tests before the next ALMS event on Saturday, July 12, at Lime Rock Park in Lakeville, Conn. It is the fifth stop on the 11-race tour.
GIL DE FERRAN (#66 Panasonic ELS de Ferran Motorsports Acura ARX-01b): "The Acura car was fantastic today. I ran a little conservatively and watched the traffic pretty closely. It feels great to get back behind the wheel again. I had to run off the racing line several times to pass the slower cars and that was a little different after racing open-wheel cars for so many years. The car was coming back to me in the later stages of my stint. I was able to close up on [Luis] Diaz before my pit stop. I told everyone that Simon was a tremendous driver and he proved it today. He made up great amount of time to close in on the Penske cars at the finish. We got a little unlucky with the yellow flags today. but I felt great. It was my first time in a car in nearly five years and, to finish on the podium is a tremendous feeling."
SIMON PAGENAUD (#66 Panasonic ELS de Ferran Motorsports Acura ARX-01b): "At the beginning of my run, I had the in-car radio come out and fall in my lap. So I tucked it under my seat belts and drove like that. But the Acura was an incredible car today. It was so much fun out there. I had to get through the slower traffic but I was able to get to the lead. That felt great. We knew we had to pit late and I just drove as hard as I could. But this is a great start for the de Ferran team. It was exciting to race with a legend like Gil. I think we have a good starting point and we'll be ready for the next race."
SCOTT SHARP (#9 Patrón Highcroft Racing Acura ARX-01b): "What a shame. We just had a just a great car. We had a little electrical problem at the start of the race. The car wouldn't accelerate properly, especially coming out of the low-speed corners. But we made a few adjustments in the cockpit, changed some switches and we were able to get it running normally. I slid down underneath the Dyson car on the restart. Everything was fine. Then, all of a sudden, ‘snap.' I think I had a little help there. Then Christian [Fittipaldi] came around, and I was hoping he was going to miss me, but he happened to hit me at an angle that just clobbered the rear suspension. It's a real shame. The guys have done an amazing hustle job all week. So, even though we were relegated to just running for points, thanks to their efforts, at least we were be able to score some."
DAVID BRABHAM (#9 Patrón Highcroft Racing Acura ARX-01b): "Obviously, we're all disappointed today, and probably no one more than Scott. Even though we sustained significant damage to the rear suspension, the team burned it up getting us back out there. At the beginning of my run, I had a problem with the rear of the car due to the oil on Turns One and Two. The car just felt odd, so I was very careful. But the team said we had to push more to get to the required 70 per cent of the race distance. The car responded beautifully and just kept getting better and better. We were doing pretty good lap times in the end and achieved our objective - which was to get points."
LUIS DIAZ (#15 Lowe's Fernandez Racing Acura ARX-01b): "I have mixed emotions today. The team gave us a great car but this series can be very tough because you have the mix of the different classes and the traffic. On one side, I am happy because the car was unbelievable - really unbelievable. On the other, I think the team deserved a better result. It was not in our hands today but I am optimistic. I cannot wait until the next race."
ADRIAN FERNANDEZ (#15 Lowe's Fernandez Racing Acura ARX-01b): "I think we had the car to win today. Luis proved it and I was out there running pretty easily. Traffic in this series can be very frustrating - very unpredictable - and you just never know what is going to happen. One of the Dyson cars went off and came back on track and suddenly just turned into the corner in front of me. I never expected it. He was coming very slow and when you are that slow, you don't jump onto the racing line. I was at least 40 miles an hour quicker than him. Once we damaged the dive plane, we had a lot of push in the car. Luis did a tremendous job. We just have to keep doing this and one day we will get our race. It was a frustrating end."
BRYAN HERTA (#26 XM Satellite Radio AGR Acura ARX-01b): "It was tough to start in the back due to changing our qualifying tires, but Christian do a great job driving the car to the front. He got us a good position early in the race. But when the Highcroft car spun, he couldn't avoid it and we got some damage to our XM Acura. We finished the race with some suspension damage but, at least, we finished today. This new Acura has a lot of potential and we'll be in the hunt very soon with the car. We just need a little luck to put the XM car back on the podium."
CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI (#26 XM Satellite Radio AGR Acura ARX-01b): "I got a good start and moved up to fifth in the first ten laps or so. Then, on the restart, I saw Scott [Sharp] spin and I tried to avoid him. But I couldn't dodge all of the action and my car's rear hit his car. We had some damage on the rear end, but I kept racing as best I could today. Bryan did a good job bringing home the car. I feel badly because we have a good car and we just can't get any luck. We can be a contender with this XM Acura."