Mosport preview: ALMS hits the Great White North

Round six of the 2000 American Le Mans Series hits Mosport Raceway in Canada this weekend, with Audi, Panoz and BMW still locked in a closely-fought battle for supremacy in the prototype class

Mosport preview: ALMS hits the Great White North

Allan McNish and Rinaldo Capello won the last round at Sears Point, and with the Audi R8 now working well on tighter circuits, few would bet against a repeat performance. McNish will again have the advantage of circuit knowledge, having raced the Champion team's Porsche 911 GT1 Evo at last year's event. The silver cars seem to have recovered from their blip at the Nurburgring, where they were comprehensively outpaced by Panoz, and now McNish is flying. The Scot was head and shoulders above the field at Sears Point, which in many respects shares similar characteristics with the Canadian track.

Panoz ruled supreme last year, but only in the absence of BMW, who sat out the race after declaring themselves unconvinced by the circuit's safety provisions. Amazingly, the Panoz Roadster's 1999 win was the first time a front-engined sports car had won a race at Mosport. Despite being off the pace at Sears, the thundering Panoz machines may well benefit from visiting the track last year and gaining a measure of track knowledge over their rivals.

The Sears Point race was also the first this year in which Olivier Beretta and Karl Wendlinger did not win the GTS class. Their Viper team-mates David Donohue and Tommy Archer won after Beretta had an off. However, Beretta feels that at Mosport, the competition could come from a different quarter, as the GM Racing Corvette will return to the series, driven by Ron Fellows and Andy Pilgrim.

"First of all, the Corvette will be there, so there will be strong competition I think, because they have been progressing with their programme," insisted the Frenchman.

"The car is very reliable, like we proved in the past at Daytona and Le Mans, and the competition will be hard, but not I think with the second Viper - it will be harder with the Corvette. But I'm very confident, it will be a very interesting race especially because Ron Fellows knows the circuit very well.

"I don't think it will suit the characteristics of one car or the other. These are two competitive cars, and the fight will be hard because they are two good cars. But it is difficult to know whether it will be better for us or for them, but we will go there trying to win, and try to do the best that we can.

"I'm glad the Corvette will be there, because that will make things more interesting for the championship."

Mosport hosted the Canadian Grand Prix in the 1960s and '70s, but since then has come under fire for safety reasons. Don Panoz, who owns the track, made a particular effort this year, in an attempt to avoid teams staying away as they did last year. Walls have been moved further from the track, and gravel traps have been added.

"With the safety, it's true that last year it was a bit limited, but you never know what they can do in one year, because they say they will change some parts of the track... But until I see it I won't know," says Beretta.

Drivers love the undulating contours of the track, but off-camber corners, and hidden apexes make life interesting. The barriers are still close to the track in many areas, despite the remedial work, and this places great importance on avoiding errors, particularly in qualifying.

Mosport is characterised by an abundance of fast sweeps and the ¾ mile long Mario Andretti straight. The track length is 2.459 miles overall.

"It's a very challenging track, especially as you can't see the corner when you turn!" says Beretta. "It's going up and down, and it is quite fast. There are not many places with much run-off, so you have to be surer and tighter when you are doing a qualifying lap. It's a very challenging track, and I'm very happy to race there. It's a Sears Point type of circuit."

Audi should once again be on top: though the team has not visited the track before, they had the same problem at Sears Point, a race they dominated. McNish's previous knowledge will help, and the R8 is unquestionably the class of the field at the moment. Panoz won last year's event, and the massive torque of the Ford-based, Elan Technologies-prepared V8 should help punch the big car up the inclines and out of the corners. There are fewer tight turns than at Sears Point, with just the last corner, turn 9, and the two-part hairpin at 5 likely to challenge the cars turning circle. However, Audi were expected to suffer with turbo lag at Sears, a problem which its engineers seem to have sorted out.

BMW sat out the Mosport round last year, and are likely to miss the circuit knowledge that a prior visit would have afforded. Even so, BMW seems to be determined to wring as much speed out of the year-old V12 LMRs as they can, and nearing the halfway stage, the white cars still lead the points overall. This was a position that few would have expected them to occupy given that Panoz and Audi had built new cars for the new season. Lehto and Muller are a quick partnership who have pulled wins out of the bag when it seemed impossible, and BMW have been on the podium for every race so far.

Panoz should relish the track, where they won last season, admittedly against reduced competition. Even so, the track is likely to suit the characteristics of the Roadster, and Jan Magnussen and David Brabham are possibly the most evenly-matched and competitive driver pairing in the series.

In addition, the Olive Garden Rafanelli Lola will be present, and though the car was disappointing at Sears Point, the team claim to have made progress. The car will have suspension modifications that were too new to show an effect at Sears Point, but after using the last round as a test session, the team should be ready to reap the benefits. Driver Didier de Radigues led the race last year, and his circuit knowledge will pay dividends in terms of finding a set-up to work around the sweeping and undulating track.

In the GTS class, Olivier Beretta and David Donohue both have winning experience in the Chrysler Viper GTS-R, but the victorious partnership of 1999 is split between ORECA's two cars this year. This is likely to make the Beretta/Wendlinger versus Archer/Donohue battle intriguing. However, this battle may have to be forgone in the interests of the team, as the Vipers will face competition from the ever-improving GM Racing Corvette of Ron Fellows and Andy Pilgrim. The V8 Corvette reportedly has more torque on tap than the Viper, though top-end power may be lacking compared to the Chrysler. Even so, this is likely to be less of a handicap at Mosport, and Ron Fellows has extensive knowledge of the track.

The Prototype Technology Group's BMW M3 won on the track at Sears Point in the GT class, though the win was stripped from them and awarded to the Dick Barbour Porsche. However, it appears that the M3 is finally a match for the Porsche 911 GT3, and the inter-marque battle for the rest of the season is shaping up to be very hard-fought indeed.

Mosport will mark the half-way point in the 12-round American Le Mans Series, and the look of the title race is changing rapidly. Finally, Audi appears to have kick started its series challenge after an early season making do with the 1999 R8R, and suffering bad luck at Charlotte and Silverstone. BMW still hangs onto the series lead, but it appears only a matter of time before one of the Audi drivers overtakes Jorg Muller at the top of the standings. On the face of it, the only thing that can hand a title to the BMW partnership of Muller and JJ Lehto will be infighting in the Audi camp - Frank Biela is currently top Audi driver, but McNish has undoubtedly been the fastest in recent races.

Olivier Beretta and Karl Wendlinger lost their 100% record in the GTS class two weeks ago, but are still the strong favourites to take class honours. In GT, though Hans Stuck and the BMW M3 are coming on strong, The Dick Barbour Porsche of Muller and Luhr is probably too far ahead to be caught.

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