“We’re on double secret probation, whatever that is….”
–Hoover, from Animal House
We’ve been here before, I believe. Backs against the wall. Reputation getting dinged. Up and then down and then up again and then down. Doubters around us. Competitors in front of us. Tah dah tah dah tah dah. Been there. Experienced that.
So far, 2011 is proving to be a year of potential and bad breaks. With five races done (Sebring, Lime Rock, Los Angeles, Mid Ohio, Mosport), Risi Competizione was staring at a won-lost chart that was not all that charming: a second (Mosport) and a third (Los Angeles) combined with three DNFs. Looking at it from the optimistic point of view—if we finished we were on the podium.
But 2011 is the first year of ALMS competition for the new Ferrari 458 Italia GT and there are things to be learned. The car has proven to be very fast—despite ALMS restrictor regulation games—and has run at the front of the pack, but heading into Road America, it had yet to close the deal and win. We were right there at Sebring, very close at Mid-Oh and Mosport but still not quite all the way there.
First things first: you must understand this about Risi Competizione. We do not quit. We are not the type. You cannot race professionally without taking your lumps from time to time. It happens. Teams rise and fall, but the true, professional teams continue to challenge, to keep striving to rise up. They take the hits and keep on coming. We remember a time in ALMS, racing the Ferrari 360, when Porsche 911s won over twenty races in a row. We didn’t stop bringing our Ferrari to the track to run. And then the 430 came in, and we started running that and the 430 ended up dominating GT endurance racing for its’ five year production run. Fielding a professional racing team requires a high pain threshold and so we ride out the tough stretches knowing there will be some smooth patches ahead.
Road America (also known as Elkhart Lake) is a genuine American classic in terms of a road racing track. It’s 4.048 miles, the longest track that the ALMS circus will visit this year. It is also one of the fastest. In 2006, young Lucas Luhr laid down a 136.227 MPH qualifying lap in an Audi R8—that got everyone’s attention.
And Road America has history: Phil Hill won the first race held there, in September of 1955, in a Ferrari Monza battle against a D Jaguar driven by Sherwood Johnston. The track is in the same configuration now as it was then and it stays busy, hosting everything from NASCAR races to vintage car and motorcycle events. It’s also a (rumored) favorite test spot for the major Detroit automakers.
The high speeds possible at Road A don’t necessarily favor the Ferrari F458 Italia just as they didn’t favor the F430GT that was its’ Risi Competizione predecessor. This has always been a great track for Corvette and Porsche and recently for BMW, which with Rahal Letterman Racing, has won the last two ALMS races at Road A. All three of these cars have displayed serious straight line speed at Road America in the past and it is straight line speed that is the most important factor at this track, with it’s three major straights.
After Mid-Ohio, where a promising run for the podium was cut short by damage caused from a collision with another car (believe it was the Jaguar, again), the Risi Competizione team carefully examined the car from front to back, with the goal of continuing the development process and working on the details that would improve it in competition.
In addition to the desire to strike first and fast at the and bring home a great result, there was an extra added ingredient to this year’s event: the arrival of many of Ferrari of North America and Ferrari SpA’s top executives, coming into Road A to view the Risi Competizione effort in person. Nothing like a little pressure to clarify the view of what’s required.
The preamble complete, it’s time to get to work, and so on Friday, August 18, 2011 at 9:24AM the green flag was waved and the first official practice session was launched.
As expected the BMWs, Porsches, and Corvettes started out quick, trading quickest GT lap bragging rights faster than a Presidential contender changes his “official position” . Drama showed its first hand at the race meeting at 9:32AM when the No. 12 LMP Lola B06/10 went off and stopped at Turn 11, doing enough damage to require some repairs by the road crew. At 10:01, Rudy Junco, Jr. (No. 52 LMPC Oreca FLM09) made the news when his car went off and then on and then off again, ultimately stopping because fluid was leaking from the car.
Quietly, the Risi Competizione Ferrari F458 Italia GT, driven by Jaime Melo, was making the rounds, going a bit quicker with each pass. At the end of the first practice session it was Corvette (2:06.422/Gavin/Magnussen) , Porsche (2:07.189/Bergmeister) and Ferrari (2:07.429/Melo). Nice start and yes, we’re in the money.
The next practice session was Green Flagged at 2:00PM and Toni Vilander, in for Melo in the Risi Comp No. 62 Ferrari, put up some very fine numbers, including three laps which were best in class. Near the end of the session the No. 98 Jaguar XKR, with PJ Jones at the wheel, went off the course and Turn 4 and caught on fire.
When the session was flagged to a close, it was BMW (No. 56, Mueller) Corvette (No. 4, Magnussen) and Ferrari (No. 62, Vilander) in the 1-2-3 positions for fastest in GT.
Enough with the practice; on to Q-time, a 15 minute session for the GTs that started at 3:25PM on Friday the 19th and closed out at 3:40. Top three qualifiers were—-surprise—-the same as the top three cars in the last practice session, drivers included. So the grid was BMW, Corvette, and Ferrari, with a mere .240 seconds separating the Pole Sitter from the Ferrari. Throughout the crowd a small mummer arose as it looked like the Ferrari was showing some of the straight line speed that had been missing in previous years at Road America. And, not a moment too soon, as far as the ALMS season is concerned.
Could this be the breakthrough race?
Let’s find out, said the race officials, and promptly at 2:56PM, on Saturday the 20th of August the command was issued from the Road America race officials for the racers to start their engines. The Time Warner Cable Road Race Showcase at Road America (official name) is Green Flagged at 3:02PM in extremely pleasant Mid-Western weather of 83 Degrees, with sunny skies above and soon-to-be-hot-pavement below.
Risi Competizione placed Jaime Melo into the Rosso Corso Ferrari F458 Italia GT to start the race. The first part of the hour was, thankfully, without incident for Risi Comp as Jaime Melo edged up through the pack and with 39 minutes gone, moved into Second, behind the Joey Hand driven BMW No. 56.
Melo was clever with his time management and when the moment arrived—3:51PM to be exact—he pulled in front of Hand’s BMW with 21 laps completed on the 4 mile plus circuit. Hmmmmmmm went the crowd. Unhummmmm went the Ferrari pits.
Ten minutes later, the order of GT leaders had changed, again, with Gavin (No. 4 Corvette), Mueller/Hand (No. 56 BMW) and Melo (No. 62 Ferrari 458 Italia GT) running one-two-three in class. So far so good, as everyone is on the same lap, all within striking distance of each other. And remember, this is a four hour race, not a two hour and 45 minute one.
The entire leadership group pitted at 4:08 PM and the race on the track was transformed into a race in the pits, as Gavin, Hand, and Melo all went in for fuel, tires, and, in the case of Melo, a driver change (Melo out/Vilander in). On the exit from the pits, Hand went out first, with Gavin and Vilander going out side by side; they touched, both went off but while the Ferrari continued, the Corvette had a bit of a tussle with some curbing and was held up.
There was soon some drama when Gavin in the No. 4 Corvette snagged the lead when the No. 56 BMW had to take “evasive action” to avoid a GTC Porsche that had spun while returning to the track. The ever-slick Gavin, passed both cars to the right while the drama was unfolding to the left. That’s racing.
Vilander, meanwhile, was circulating at a good pace and staying as far away as possible from potential on-track contact with his fellow competitors and his patience paid off when at 5:21PM, approximately two hours fifteen into the race, he inherited first place when first Gavin and then Hand went into the pits for fuel and tires and a driver change.
Vilander, riding the now improved fuel efficiency of the Ferrari F458 Italia GT, pushed his lead while he had it and then went in just a few laps later to hand over, again, to Jaime Melo, who would now be expected to bring the Rosso Corsa back home where it belonged, i.e. in First.
Knowing who was sitting in the stands at Road America, Melo put the hammer down and the show was on.
Interim leader Johannes van Overbeek in the No. 01 Extreme Motor Sports Ferrari F458 Italia GT gave up the leading position that he had inherited but regrettably, took a double ding for pitting under the yellow. Very tough break.
Melo took over the lead (from Van Overbeek ) at 5:38PM; an hour and twenty minutes (approximately) remained in the race. Thirteen minutes later Melo showed the potential of the F458 Italia GT to the crowd by posting the fastest lap of the race for a GT car: 2:06.285.
When a car runs its strongest in the last stages of a race, that is a very good sign and that was precisely what was happening with the Risi Comp No. 62 Ferrari. Melo was in good form, the car was strong, and the laps were ticking by as the clock ticked down.
At the three hour mark (with one hour left to go) Melo was in front, followed by Mueller’s BMW and then Patrick Long’s Porsche. But—even better—Melo had managed to grind out a one lap lead over the second and third place cars.
Along pit row, the excitement was palpable: the sleek Rosso Corsa Ferrari F458, the “baby” of Amedeo Felisa, the CEO of Ferrari who was sitting on the Risi Competizione timing stand with Giuseppe Risi, was rocketing toward history and its first win in the ALMS series.
But, as anyone who has ever been in competition can tell you, an hour is an eternity in a sporting event, especially in racing, where things can change in a nano-second.
While Melo was pushing forward, the competition was experiencing some of the difficulties that Risi Comp had battled through in the first part of the year. Beretta in the No. 3 Corvette had to rumble through the grass to avoid smacking Gunnar Jeanette in an LMPC Oreca, who was slowly, slowly, moving into the pits with damage to his car. Then Milner, who took over for Beretta, went off and ended up swapping ends and banging the wall with the front and back of the Corvette. The car made it to the puts but ended up behind the wall. One challenger down.
Melo made his last pit stop at 3 hours seventeen minutes into the race; he got fuel and new Michelins, but stayed in the car. It would now be up to Melo, the factory test driver for the 458, to finish the race.
The shadow of Ferrari is drama, and unknown to the fans and the competition was the fact that the F458 Italia from Risi Comp was experiencing some type of clutch disorder. A very sharp ear could hear the engine pitch change unexpectedly, out of sequence—one of the tell tale signs that there is a problem with the clutch.
Although a lot of minds were focused on this nagging problem late in the race, the reality is that it had been there all along with both Toni Vilander and Jaime Melo doing such an excellent job of managing the situation that no one knew but the Risi Comp pits, techs, and engineers.
At 6:32 PM, Melo ran down the leading BMW, the No. 55, driven by the estimable Dirk Werner. There were 28 minutes left in the race.
Lap by lap, Melo did what he does best when in front (and equally well went closing from behind): eek out an extra tenth of a second here, a third there, pushing his lead out to approximately 3.0 seconds over Werner with twenty minutes to go.
Twenty minutes is a long time to hold your breath but that appeared to be what was happening in the Risi Competizione pits. Melo hung tough and extended his lead to 9.061 seconds over Werner when the checkered flag fell. Werner’s BMW team mate Mueller brought in the No. 56 BMW M3 GT in third. On the podium it was Ferrari-BMW-BMW.
A collective sigh of relief gathered in the Risi Competizione pits as the team had captured its’ first ALMS race with the F458 Italia GT. Fittingly enough for a team that prides itself on being good in the clutch (double secret probation ) and even better in the longer races, the win had come in a four hour event at a track that had proved problematical in the past for the 430.
In the post race press conference, both Melo and Vilander were enthusiastic about the win and even more enthusiastic about the work in the pits that day.
On every pit stop, the team had been flawless, the fueling and tire changing and driver ins and outs executed efficiently and fluently. Picking up a second or two in the pits gives the drivers a real boost on the track. It was, truly, a team victory.
The win could not have come at a better time for Risi Competizione and one is hopeful that it sets the table for high placing performances at the final three races of the season:a street course blast in Baltimore (although Hurricane Irene is taking aim on Baltimore and that could cause problems), and two long races, one at Laguna Seca (six hours, start in daylight, finish in darkness) and the legendary Petit Le Mans (ten hours give or take).
Next up: a street fight in Baltimore. Stay tuned.