Acura's Second Sports-Car Season Produces a Season High in Wins, Impressive Overall Performances
When the green flag dropped on the 2008 American Le Mans Series, there were hints that the Acura sports-car program would make plenty of noise during the season.
The tough 11-event trail has developed into one of the world's most competitive series, with factory-supported teams from Audi, Porsche, Chevrolet, Mazda, and Ferrari - as well as Acura - and highly-touted privateer efforts in all four ALMS classes.
The LMP2 division had proven to be one of the most difficult divisions to win, with the factory Porsche pairing from Penske Racing defending the team's impressive 2007 crown.
But after its inaugural season in 2007, the Acura contingent, along with HPD and Wirth Research, made an all-out assault on the vaunted two-car Penske Porsche attack with a newlydeveloped Acura ARX-01b chassis and an updated 3.4-liter, V-8 engine.
Adding former Indy 500 winner Gil de Ferran's new team to the three existing Acura squads, the manufacturer had prepared wisely and efficiently for the 2008 sports-car campaign.
The Porsche-powered Penske and Dyson teams, as well as a revamped Mazda effort, weren't going to make it easy for the Acura crews, who felt much better prepared for their sophomore seasons in ALMS.
"We felt our Acura cars had the speed and reliability to run with the Porsches this year," said Erik Berkman, president of Honda Performance Development. "Last year  was a learning process and we were pleased to get one win [at Sebring] and two overall poles [at Long Beach and Houston]. But we also knew we needed to raise our game against the Porsches. We came into this season ready to compete for race wins and the class championship."
Porsche continued its run of victories early in 2008, with wins at Sebring and St. Petersburg, but a second-place finish by the Patrón Highcroft team at St. Petersburg showed the potential of the new Acura and a glimpse of the future. David Brabham and Scott Sharp's battle for the runner up position began a series of sensational performances in 2008.
"We believed that the new Acura could run with the Penske Porsches this year," said Duncan Dayton, team principal for the Danbury, Conn.-based Patrón Highcroft organization. "The 2007 Acura had been fast on the street circuits, and we felt the 2008 car was more advanced to race very competitively on all types of tracks. At St. Pete, the potential began to show."
At the next race, on the streets of Long Beach, Brabham made a spectacular pass on Romain Dumas in the Penske Porsche for the LMP2 victory, the first of several come-from-behind finishes for the Patrón Highcroft team in 2008.
"That was a huge win for us," said Brabham, the only American Le Mans Series driver ever to score wins in all four divisions. "It was close to Acura's headquarters and it was a Patrón-sponsored race. So, the victory was big for everyone, including our Highcroft team."
At Round Four, the new de Ferran Motorsports team, with drivers de Ferran and young Simon Pagenaud, introduced its No. 66 Panasonic ELS Surround Acura ARX-01b in dramatic style at Miller Motorsports Park in Utah. De Ferran just missed the overall pole by a tenth of second, and Pagenaud led late in the race before a pit stop dropped the team to third overall.
"I was pleased with our team's debut," said de Ferran, the two-time CART champion and 2003 Indy 500 winner. "Our team was put together quickly and we were learning the car and the series. So, to nearly take the pole and finish third overall is a great start for this young team."
With a six-week layoff to allow some ALMS teams to participate in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June, ALMS competitors regrouped for the final dash toward wins and titles. The four Acura teams made some impressive mid-season adjustments to prepare for the battle with Porsche.
"We tested at Mid-Ohio and learned a lot of things," said Tom Anderson, co-owner of Lowe's Fernandez Racing. "We were able to make gains in chassis and engine development in that time, and that set up the Acura teams for good runs in the second half of the season."
At Lime Rock Park in July, all four Acura operations established themselves as race contenders when Brabham and Pagenaud qualified 1-2 overall on the grid, an Acura racing first.
Then, Brabham made the move of the year with an incredible outside pass of Timo Bernhard in the Penske Porsche during the final two minutes for Acura's first overall American Le Mans Series win.
"Our Patrón Highcroft team had some great strategy and I caught Timo in some traffic," recalls Brabham, voted the Series' "Most Popular Driver" at the conclusion of the season. "As we came down the hill for the front straightaway, I knew I needed to go outside to pass him. I braked late and made the pass. Then, I had to save fuel for the final lap. But that win was exciting."
The Lime Rock overall triumph established Acura as a real contender for the series championship.
Gil de Ferran's overall pole position highlighted the Acura Sports Car Challenge at Mid-Ohio. Brabham and Sharp finished second in the race, with Adrian Fernandez and Luis Diaz third in the Lowe's Acura.
At Road America, Andretti Green Racing's new drivers, Franck Montagny and James
Rossiter, showed great speed in the XM Satellite Radio Acura, with Montagny
taking the LMP2 pole and nearly winning the race. A late-race incident kept
the AGR pair from Victory Lane, but
Brabham and Sharp scored their third win of the 2008 ALMS season.
"Our team's strategy was outstanding again," said Sharp, the IndyCar veteran competing in his rookie ALMS campaign. "Rob Hill [team manager] and Duncan [Dayton, team owner] made the right pit-stop calls and David drove his usual charging style for the win at the end."
The Patrón Highcroft team continued its winning record with a victory on the lightning-fast Mosport International Raceway, east of Toronto. It was the first Acura 1-2 finish in LMP2 competition, with Fernandez and Diaz taking runner-up honors. But the story of the race was de Ferran's run with Pagenaud. The former Indy 500 winner led until the final lap, only to have his car run out of fuel on the back straight.
"That was a tough race for our young team," said de Ferran. "We played the fuel strategy right to the last lap. Unfortunately, the leader overall, the Audi, forced an extra lap by just one second in the two-hour, 45-minute race. And that cost us the win. But I am proud of our team."
More Acura history was made on the streets of Belle Isle in Detroit when the three Acura teams swept the podium overall with a stunning 1-2-3 finish. This time, it was Montagny and Rossiter winning overall on the tight, 2.09-mile circuit in the XM Acura, followed by Brabham and Sharp in Patrón Highcroft Acura and de Ferran and Pagenaud in the Panasonic Acura.
Brabham and Pagenaud qualified 1-2 for Acura, and Acura cars led all 104 laps during the contest, with Sharp, Pagenaud and Montagny holding the top spot.
"That was a tremendous finish for Acura," said John Mendel, executive vice president, auto operations for American Honda. "In just our second season of American Le Mans Series competition, it was quite an accomplishment to sweep the podium overall. And to do it in Detroit, that was very special for all of the teams, Acura and HPD associates."
After a tough race in the 1,000-mile Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta that saw only one Acura [de Ferran Motorsports] finish the race, the season finale at Laguna Seca was the setting for another sensational Acura performance.
Qualifying at the famed Northern California-course led off the stellar weekend, with four of the top five overall starting positions going to Acura ARX-01b machines. Brabham and Diaz shared the front row, with de Ferran fourth and Tony Kanaan fifth in the XM Acura.
During the four-hour race, the final hour of action proved to be a classic. In one of the greatest duels in the 50- year history of the famed Laguna Seca track, Kanaan - teaming with Montagny - and Pagenaud, partnered with de Ferran, battled wheel-to-wheel and made several passes of one another before Kanaan finally held off the young Frenchman by .054 seconds.
"I love racing at Laguna Seca," said Kanaan. "And this race is one of the best in my career. The battle with Simon was incredible. He raced clean and it was a real duel out there. This battle was better than anything I have driven in my Indy Car career. It is so much fun to drive these Acura prototype cars."
The Laguna Seca win gave Acura the most LMP2 class wins in 2008 with six, including two overall triumphs. Adding four overall pole positions this year, Acura enjoyed a spectacular second season, making plenty of noise, as had been predicted.