In a race often known to be as grueling as the Twelve Hours of Sebring or even the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Level 5 Motorsports heads into the 14th annual Petit Le Mans powered by Mazda, the final round of the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patrón season, as one of the teams best positioned for victory.
The famed 1,000-mile or 10-hour endurance race will see the Scott Tucker-led organization return to a two-car operation with a brace of new Microsoft Office 2010-sponsored HPD ARX-01gs as they take the fight to the top LMP2 teams from Europe which have descended upon the famed Road Atlanta circuit for the penultimate Intercontinental Le Mans Cup race of the season.
Hot on the heels of an impressive fourth place overall finish and P 2 Class win at Laguna Seca in the debut of its new cost-capped prototype and Tucker’s third consecutive SCCA National Championship earned last weekend in Road America, Level 5 enters the Road Atlanta enduro with plenty of momentum from the past two weeks of racing.
Owner/driver Tucker will not only be pulling double-duty in both the ILMC-designated No. 33 HPD and the No. 055 cars on Saturday but will also be tackling five support series races, beginning on Thursday. The now four-time national driving champion will be seeking continued success in the Cooper Tire Prototype Lites double-header, as well as the two rounds of the IMSA GT3 Challenge by Yokohama series in his Kelly Moss Motorsports-prepared Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car.
He’s also scheduled to participate in Friday’s SCCA Pro Racing Trans-Am event with Level 5’s Ferrari 458 Challenge car, making Tucker again the busiest driver in the paddock. While Tucker will have to juggle a packed schedule each day, the ultimate focus will be on delivering success on Saturday as Level 5 seeks to solidify its runner-up position in the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup LMP2 championship standings.
“Our goal at the start of the season was to be fully prepared to give our best performance at the major endurance races,” Tucker said. “The Petit Le Mans is one of those big events and we want to compete at the best of our ability. Our expectations are high as we’re shooting for the podium with both cars. I’m confident the team is prepared to give us what we need.”
Tucker will share the wheel of the No. 33 Microsoft Office 2010-sponsored HPD ARX-01g with longtime co-driver Christophe Bouchut and ILMC season pilot Joao Barbosa. All three have enjoyed multiple podium finishes this season, including wins in the recent Road America and Laguna Seca ALMS rounds for the veteran Frenchman.
“This will only be the second race with the HPD, so we’re still discovering the car a little but we’ve been very happy,” Bouchut said. “The car has been working well. So it’s a really good sign for qualifying and the race. I think for everybody here, the goal is to win. It would be a great way to finish the American Le Mans Series season, especially with the new HPD.”
Barbosa, who makes his return to the championship-winning organization after podium finishes in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and Six Hours of Imola, is also confident for success on race day but realizes the challenge that the combined ALMS/ILMC round could bring, as 53 cars will take the green flag on Saturday.
“Definitely one of the biggest challenges will be traffic,” Barbosa said. “With over 50 cars on the track, it’s going to be very tough. There are not a lot of places that you can overtake, so you’re going to have to be very patient. Having a reliable car will be another key and the Level 5 team has done a good job with that so far. We’re here to win and that’s what we’re going to do our best to accomplish.”
Level 5’s No. 055 Microsoft Office 2010-sponsored HPD ARX-01g, the newest of the two Honda-powered prototypes, features an experienced duo to the HPD family of race cars, as Marino Franchitti and former ALMS LMP2 champion Luis Diaz join Tucker in the second of the team’s cost-capped entries.
Franchitti, who makes his Level 5 debut this weekend, was one of the initial drivers of the ARX-01a in 2007 and most recently steered the ARX-01e to a second-place overall finish in the Twelve Hours of Sebring in March. He also played a pivotal role in the development of 2.8-liter, twin-turbo Honda V6 engine, which powers both of Level 5’s prototypes.
“I have to say that the Level 5 guys have done a fantastic job putting the new car together,” Franchitti said. “We’ve made a lot of gains on the drivability of the car since it first rolled out. The last time I drove a prototype was back when I shook down Level 5’s Le Mans car in April, so it’s fantastic to be back on track again as we go for the win on Saturday.”
Diaz, who shared the HPD’s debut victory at Laguna Seca with Tucker and Bouchut, is equally excited about their fortunes for the race. Having posted a blazing 1:13.291 lap, the quickest time in Monday’s test at Road Atlanta, there’s no doubt plenty of optimism heading into qualifying on Friday and the race one day later.
“We’re going to approach this race with a good set of tools that will enable to fight for the win,” Diaz said. “It will be important to stay out of trouble and attack in the final two hours of the race. Everyone at Level 5 has done a good job with the new car. HPD has continued improving the engine a lot, and the car has become even more drivable. I’m just looking forward to the race.”
Level 5, which is searching for back-to-back Petit Le Mans victories after their LMPC win at Road Atlanta last year, has already locked up this year’s ALMS LMP2 drivers and teams titles to go with their 2010 accolades in LMPC, which included the inaugural drivers championship and Rookie-of-the-Year honors for Tucker.
Adding another win in one of the world’s most famous endurance events would be a significant addition to the already overflowing list of accolades the team has achieved in just two short seasons of prototype competition.
“We feel like we have nothing to lose here, so we’ll be fighting for the win,” said team manager David Stone. “We won this race last year in LMPC and we’d like to repeat that. It’s a long race and it’s a very busy race, so anything can happen. Our guys will just have to be patient, stay out of trouble, take care of the cars and I think we’ll do well.”
Qualifying for the 14th annual Petit Le Mans powered by Mazda is scheduled for 2:35 p.m. ET on Friday, September 30 and will be available in the U.S. on ESPN3 or outside the U.S. on americanlemans.com. The 1,000-mile/10-hour endurance race is set for Saturday, Oct. 1. The race will air on ABC at 4 p.m. ET on Sunday, Oct. 2. Live coverage will be available in the U.S. on ESPN3 or outside the U.S. on americanlemans.com beginning at 11:15 a.m. ET on Saturday, Oct. 1.
The 2011 American Le Mans Series Presented by Tequila Patrón season concludes on Oct. 1 with the 14th annual Petit Le Mans powered by Mazda at Road Atlanta. The race will air on ABC at 4 p.m. ET on Sunday, Oct. 2. Live coverage will be available in the U.S. on ESPN3 or outside the U.S. on americanlemans.com. Rogers Sportnet One in Canada and MotorsTV in Europe will also provide coverage. Ticket and schedule information is available on the ALMS schedule page.