The #12 Autocon JeanRichard Lola had a roller coaster ride both in the weeks leading up the 57th running of the 12 Hours of Sebring and in qualifying and the race itself. The end result was a DNF caused by a gear in the throttle motor, but there was so much more to the story that was good.
Due to a last minute rule change during the off-season mandating an entirely new rear wing, the team was unable to compete in the series sponsored winter test in January. Expecting delivery of the new wing in March the team scheduled a test at Road Atlanta the week before Sebring. But even then the wing was late in arriving and was not installed until mid-day of the test. Then mechanical gremlins prohibited even a handful of laps so the test rendered little in learning how the new configuration would perform.
Plan B included participation in the promoter test days on Monday and Tuesday preceding the Sebring event. But once again some rare and isolated mechanical issues intervened and severely limited track time. Thus, when official practice began on Wednesday of race week, the lineup of Chris McMurry, Bryan Willman and Tony Burgess were starting with a blank sheet of paper in their quest for success at the storied and historic 3.7-mile Sebring circuit.
Progress was made in each of three practice sessions on Wednesday and Thursday as all three drivers cycled through the practice sessions, moving the times down from 1:55 to 1:53 before turning the car over to McMurry for the brief 25-minute qualifying session on Friday. Chris did not disappoint and laid down the fastest lap of the week to qualify 9th overall, ahead of multiple prototype entries with a time of 1:51.598. In the process the slippery Lola set the fastest straightaway speed against the factory teams of Audi, Peugot and Acura.
Sun blessed the 100,000 spectators as Saturday's race morning arrived and Autocon was more than ready. The start was very fast and McMurry took advantage of a great start and within three laps was in 6th place overall.
"The start was great fun. Our team has progressed so far in the last couple of years. We know have a car and people combination where we can be competitive. Racing nose-to-tail for the first two stints with other prototypes was the most fun I've had in the car in years, and the team was very excited about everything we accomplished together at Sebring," said McMurry.
McMurry was lapping at or near qualifying times and holding position throughout his first double stint. After cycling through the first round of pit stops, Autocon held onto their top ten position before turning the car over to Burgess.
Burgess held up his assignment very well and quickly got into the 1:52 range and the Autocon entry continued to be a top 10 car throughout his double stint before passing the car along to Willman to complete the driver cycle. Willman obviously liked the car as he set his quickest times of the week, only dropping a position during a pit stop. Nearing the end of his stint he suddenly slowed on track but nursed the wounded car back to the pits. That led to a three hour-plus pit stop removing any opportunity of a quality finish or any points.
But the scrappy Autocon team does not give up. Willman re-entered the race after the long delay and quickly returned to his quickest times of the week in order to validate that the problem had been solved and gain valuable data for future events. He turned the car over to Burgess who validated the speed available in the car, and in himself, by setting the quickest time of the event for the Autocon entry at 1:51.6. After moving up in the overall standings to 20th it was decided they had done all that was possible and the car was withdrawn.
“It is truly a shame we encountered an electrical issue because the car was a rocket today,” said the Lewis, noting that an opportunity to finish in the top 6 had slipped by. “We have such limited time in the car but the Autocon boys make the most of what we had and the car was really excellent. We are going to turn some heads this season.”
Added Willman, “I am still stung a bit from the mechanical issue that put us out. Literally a $1 part failed. It was such a minor thing, just a part of the electronic throttle system that never fails, but it did. It died just as I passed pit-in so I had to do a complete lap at a snails pace, very frustrating. But up until that time the car was excellent and I did my fastest times ever at Sebring so that says a lot. We are testing between now and Long Beach so we should be able to learn a great deal.”
“We were snake bit in our preseason preparations. We were snowed out of most of our testing in California and elected not to test at Sebring due to late delivery of the newly mandated rear wing. Then our Atlanta test was cut short and even our promoter test day was abbreviated. So the performance of the car in both qualifying and the race was warmly received. We accomplished new highs by qualifying up inside the prototype field, and not only holding off attacks during the race, but actually taking the fight to the other prototypes and prevailing.“
“We were looking excellent. The Autocon crew matched the driver’s performance during pit stops. We worked hard over the winter reorganizing our staff and it really paid off right up to when the car broke. Our post repair stint allowed us to prove we fixed the issue and we laid down our quickest lap. We finally got some more time with the car and we will be ready for the rest of the season.”
Autocon will now take a one-race break (and instead will test at Miller Park in Salt Lake City on April 6-7) before returning to action at The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach April 14-16. Watch all the action on the ABC network or follow the race at www.americanlemans.com.