Mowlem's musings

Autosport.com's sportscar columnist Johnny Mowlem had high hopes going into Petit Le Mans, the final round of the American Le Mans Series, but he was brought back down to earth, quite literally with a bump

Mowlem's musings

The upside to having a good season is that you go to every race with an extra spring in your step knowing that you are in with a shout of winning or at the very least standing on the podium. The downside is that your own expectations are raised, along with those of everyone around you, so that anything less than a win is a bit of a let down.

This all came into sharp focus at last weekend's Petit Le Mans race in Road Atlanta. The White Lightning/Petersen Motorsport team were going into the race in a three-way battle for second place in the GT class team and driver's championship, and expectations were very high. Considering that for one reason or another we had missed three rounds this year, made this fact even more of an achievement and is testament to the preparation abilities and reliability of the team and car.

The Petit Le Mans race has, in just five years, established itself as one of the main sportscar events, and I have to admit it has a lead up to almost match the Le Mans 24 hours itself. Each day of the week I noticed that trackside got busier and busier in terms of spectators, or 'Fans' as Don Panoz likes to refer to them. Having driven on and off in the American Le Mans Series since 1999, I have tended to take for granted the level of enthusiasm and support for all the teams and drivers by the paying public, but this years race seemed even busier than usual, which is a great reflection on the current state of what is arguably the best sportscar series in the world.

Up until race day, everything had gone well, although qualifying had been a bit of a lottery with it starting wet and then slowly drying out. Intermediate tyres were the way to go for the last two minutes, but we unfortunately didn't have any mounted to change to during the session. I was therefore pleasantly surprised that my earlier lap time set on wets, which held pole initially and then second until three minutes from the end, kept us in the top six at the end of qualifying.

I was to start the race, and I knew from looking around me that I was in for a battle. I had Bill Auberlen in the BMW alongside me and the Risi Ferrari of Ralf Kelleners just behind me. The Ferrari in particular was going to be tough to beat, and we needed to do that to finish ahead of them in the championship.

As I'd expected, the start was chaotic, more like a 30-minute Porsche Supercup race than a 10-hour enduro! Unfortunately I had to go with it, otherwise I'd have been last after two laps... I have to admit it was a lot of fun and it soon showed that we were right in the hunt as I managed to get past the leading Alex Job Porsche of Sascha Maassen. Unfortunately I'd made contact with him to pass him, so I didn't feel I could defend too vigorously and allowed him back through three laps later, but we were still right on a front running pace.

Then it all went wrong! At the end of the 35 lap, I had out braked David Murry's Porsche into the chicane before the final, nearly flat out at 130mph, turn 12. I hadn't quite managed to make it stick and so we both ran side by side as we approached the right handed turn 12 with me on the left, ie: the outside. Now it was pretty obvious that this wasn't a good place to be so I backed it off slightly to tuck back in behind David as we turned in for the corner. Now Ralf Kelleners in the 360 Modena had caught us up whilst all this was going on, and saw this as perhaps his one opportunity to pass me. He used his extra momentum to come down the inside of me as I turned in for the corner.

I tried to give him room by running slightly wide, but I knew that if I went any further to the left I would be onto all the dirt and marbles and would slide straight off, so I had to remain committed to the corner. I think he tried to give me some room by running up the kerb on the inside, but he still didn't back out of the move and what finally did me was a tap from his left front to my right rear, which speared me straight off the track and into the concrete wall on the outside.

Now race cars and concrete walls don't mix very well, as anyone who's hit one will tell you. I'm very fortunate that I went in at probably no more than a 45-degree angle, otherwise I'd have been in trouble, but it still hurt I can tell you! Still, it seems I was lucky to get away with just some minor internal bruising where all my insides hit the left side of my chest cavity (nice!), and a stiff neck for several days. It had the team worried initially, because I was so winded I couldn't talk to them on the radio to say I was okay.

I was so disappointed for the whole team, as they deserved better, but as Dale White rightly pointed out, this was just one race, albeit the final one, and on measure the whole year has been a success, with the highlight being our win at the Road America 500.

Now it's a few days recovering and then back in the gym again to get ready for the Le Mans 1000km with Seikel Motorsport. Hopefully Gabrio Rosa, Alex Caffi and myself can finish the year on a high, and not in the wall...

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