There were new goals established for the Acura Motorsports program in the 2008 American Le Mans Series.
After the inaugural campaign for the Acura ARX-01a prototype sports car produced one class victory and two overall pole positions, the Acura teams and HPD (Honda Performance Development) personnel established new parameters for the 11-event North American endurance racing tour.
Competing in the highly-technical, very competitive LMP2 class against the likes of Porsche and Mazda, as well as against the powerful LMP1 Audi cars, the Acura contingent implemented new designs from the HPD staff and its chassis partner, Wirth Research in England, in an effort to better its 2007 results.
Among the new goals for 2008 were a season point championship, and more victories and pole positions. An overall event triumph was another attainable prospect, given solid driver lineups for the Andretti Green Racing, Lowe's Fernandez Racing, Patrón Highcroft Racing and newly-formed de Ferran Motorsports organizations.
"After our initial year in the American Le Mans Series in 2007, we worked hard in the off-season to contend for the 2008 season title and win more races and poles," said Erik Berkman, new president of HPD. "The development of the Acura ARX-01b chassis was important for our teams to be competitive. Unlike the 2007 season, all four Acura teams are running the new chassis, and we continue to update the car with new parts and pieces. We have very professional teams running for Acura, and we expect those operations to race consistently at the front of the ALMS field."
Berkman's projections came to fruition immediately for the Acura teams, beginning with the American Le Mans Series season opener, the grueling 12 Hours of Sebring, where the Lowe's Fernandez team battled for the overall victory against the potent Penske Porsches.
By the third race of the year, on the famed streets of Long Beach, Calif., the new Acura's potential was realized with a sterling come-from-behind class win for the Patrón Highcroft Racing team. David Brabham's late-race pass of Romain Dumas' Porsche gave Acura its first win since the impressive Sebring debut in 2007, when the XM Satellite Radio Acura from Andretti Green Racing took the LMP2 victory.
The win by Brabham and his driving partner, Scott Sharp, opened many eyes around the ALMS paddock as to what lie ahead.
The Penske program's domination, which saw the yellow Porsches score 11 consecutive LMP2 class wins in 2007, as well as numerous overall victories, finally has a serious challenger for the 2008 season.
"The Long Beach race was big for our team, our sponsor, Patrón and, of course, Acura," said Brabham, whose win made ALMS history by making him the firstever American Le Mans Series driver to take top honors in each of the four ALMS racing divisions. "Sure, it was
nice for me as a driver, but the immediate elation for the Highcroft team after our struggle last year as a new [LMP2] team was great. And to win in Acura's backyard was huge, as was it for Patrón in a big Los Angeles market. That gave everyone a lot of confidence for the rest of the season."
Coming off the Long Beach victory, the Acura teams made a four-car assault on Miller Motorsports Park in Utah with the debut of the new de Ferran Motorsports program.
With former Indy 500 winner and CART champion Gil de Ferran and young French star Simon Pagenaud at the controls, the new Panasonic ELS Surround Acura ARX-01b machine was instantly a contender, with de Ferran just missing the overall pole. In the race, Pagenaud drove through the field to lead before a late-race pit stop relegated the new team to a third-place finish overall. It was a brilliant debut for the new Indiana-based squad.
"Our team had so many things to catch up with in the early portion of the year," said de Ferran, the Sporting Director for Honda's Formula One team for three years before starting his own racing operation at the end of 2007. "Our first test was just a month before the Utah race, so it was very hectic getting up to speed on everything that goes into building a team. It was thrilling watching the team come together as a unit. Then, nearly winning the pole and the race was another great thrill for me and our team."
Following a six-week hiatus due to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June, the American Le Mans Series returned to action in the picturesque but tight confines of Lime Rock Park in northwest Connecticut.
The event was particularly important for the Patrón Highcroft organization, since the team's headquarters are just 45 minutes away from the 1.52-mile, nine-turn road course. With huge local support, the Patrón team was hoping for a strong performance, especially following its dramatic Long Beach win.
Brabham didn't disappoint the locals with a sensational overall pole run in the Patrón Acura, barely bettering Pagenaud in the Panasonic ELS Acura. The 1-2 qualifying performance marked the first time for an all-Acura front row in the American Le Mans Series. The Lime Rock race proved to be a little different for the four Acura teams.
The event took a different turn right from the first lap, as Pagenaud got pushed into the grass outside of Turn One, and Sharp got knocked to the side by one of the Audis. By Lap Five, all of the Acuras were in comeback mode, including Marco Andretti, who started last and diced his way through the GT field before challenging the prototype cars.
By the halfway mark, the Porsches were racing up front and the Acuras were chasing them. But Brabham's performance turned from chaser to classic, as the Aussie driver carved his way toward the front.
With 10 minutes remaining, Brabham's Patrón Acura was five seconds behind the Penske Porsche of Timo Bernhard, but traffic and fuel economy proved to be keys. Brabham closed to within a second with five minutes to go and the spectators were on their feet screaming for the bright green and blue No. 9.
While Brabham was eyeing his fuel gauge, he continued his charge toward the leader. Fighting slower traffic and tight corners, he finally trained his sights on the leading Porsche. He made a daring outside pass of Bernhard in Turn One to take the lead with but a single lap left, then conserved fuel to bring home Acura's first overall victory.
It was spectacular finish and a bigger party for the Patrón Highcroft team.
An overall pole, the first all-Acura front row and an initial overall win made Acura's showing at Lime Rock one to remember.
The following week at the famed Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, de Ferran claimed another overall pole for Acura and led impressively into the middle of the race. A pit incident ended the de Ferran team's chance for its first win, but Brabham again made a great come-from-behind drive in the Patrón Acura.
Unfortunately, Brabham's run came up just short. He was second at the checkered flag, while the Lowe's Fernandez duo of Adrian Fernandez and Luis Diaz took third and a spot on the podium.
"I think our hard work in the offseason has paid off so far this year," said Berkman, who replaced Robert Clarke as HPD president in January. "The Porsches were so dominant last year, but now our Acura teams have closed the gap. I believe we'll have a chance to win more races and poles this year. We're not done yet. We have had some exciting moments so far, but we have more to come."