In the American Le Mans Series, Great Racing is Always on the Menu

“The Double Stint”

Kim Ellis

Reading the entry list of the 12 Hours of Sebring is like reading the menu at a fancy restaurant.

Each dish is different, and has its own list of ingredients which make it unique. This is what sets the Le Mans Series racing apart from almost any other race series. In some ways, American Le Mans Series (ALMS) racing is similar to one of those reality cooking shows on TV where several chefs compete to make the best possible meal within the confines of a set list of ingredients. In ALMS racing, the rules set forth a series of guidelines and specifications that a team must function within, a list of ingredients, if you will, that they are allowed to use; and the challenge is to come up with the best recipe for a winning racecar. You see, teams competing in the American Le Mans Series are free to choose from several different types of fuel, engines, tires, chassis designs and much more as they build some of the most innovative, technically superior and competitive racecars in the world. This fosters the development and use of many new technologies and the enhancement of ones that already exist.

There are several classes of competition occurring on the racetrack simultaneously at an ALMS race. And, just like reading a menu with a dizzying amount of selections, this four-races-in-one format can be very complicated to understand for a relative newcomer. Even ALMS veterans might need a quick refresher course with the rule and class changes introduced in 2011. However, once you grasp the differences between the classes and how to tell them all apart on track, I think that you will agree, when it comes to racing, the American Le Mans Series has the best menu in town.

ALMS racing is broken down into two major categories. Le Mans Prototype (LMP) cars are purpose built racecars, and Grand Touring (GT) cars are production cars which have been highly modified from their street-going siblings into race-ready beasts. Within those two main categories are several different classes – Le Mans Prototype offers the LMP1, LMP2, and LMPC classes respectively; and within Grand Touring we have GTE PRO (frequently referred to simply as GT), GTE AM, and GTC.

At first glance that might seem to be nothing more than alphabet soup to the average reader. One might ask, why are there so many classes? You might think that you will never understand the differences. However, not only is it much less confusing than it initially sounds, it is actually the secret ingredient that sets ALMS racing apart from the rest! The purpose for multiple classes is twofold. One, from a competitor’s standpoint, it allows teams from different financial backgrounds to race competitively at the same event. Second, from a fan or spectator’s standpoint, it makes for an amazing race. ALMS race action is like none other. Because there are so many different classes on track together, you can expect constant passing, unbelievable demonstrations of driver skill and ability, cars that will be tested to and beyond their limits, all tied together with the common thread of strategy-based endurance racing – connecting engineers, crew and drivers into a single well-oiled machine called a team. This kind of action makes ALMS races thrilling from the green flag to the checker regardless of whether the race runs for two hours or for twelve.

Le Mans Prototype (LMP) Cars

This category is broken down into three classes:

  • LMP1 cars are typically run by factory backed teams. These cars are nothing short of breathtaking to watch on track. They have a minimum weight (without driver or fuel) of 1,985 pounds, they produce between 600-700 hp, and have a top speed of over 200 mph. These cars can hit 100 mph in a blistering 3 seconds! And, as they are typically built by teams with practically unlimited budgets, they tend to showcase pure engineering genius.

However, not every team can afford to spend as much money, and thus be competitive with the factory backed teams. As a matter of fact, if LMP1 cars were the only item on the menu, the entry list for Sebring would be a mere 11 car field.

Enter the LMP2 and LMPC classes:

  • LMP2 teams are cost-capped. The car minus the engine cannot cost more than $452,000 (engines must last at least 30 hours without being rebuilt and cannot exceed $98,000 apiece). However, within that cap, LMP2 teams are free to build their car in any way they want that complies with the regulations. This class adds 5 more cars to the grid. Now we are up to a 16 car race. Better, but still not spectacular.
  • LMPC cars are the lowest, cost-capped tier of prototype racing. This class enables the most budget-conscious teams to compete in the prototype category. The LMPC class is the stock class of prototype racing. Rather than spend money on research and development of their own car, LMPC competitors all run the same car. They run the ORECA-Courage FLM09 which sports a fully carbon fiber chassis, houses a 430 hp power-plant, uses carbon brakes, an Xtrack sequential paddle-shift gearbox and Michelin tires. You can expect to see 8 LMPC cars running at Sebring this year, which brings the Le Mans Prototype grid up to a healthy 24 cars. Considering that the entire starting grid of Sebring in 2010 was 34 cars, this is already impressive and we haven’t even tackled GT yet!

The Grand Touring (GT) Cars

This category is also broken down into three classes, however was the most complex to understand with regards to the dividing line between the classes.

GT cars are production based cars. To qualify as a Grand Touring car, a vehicle must meet this standard as set forth by the ACO (Automobile Club l’Ouest, the sanctioning body of the Le Mans Series racing):

‘It is a car having an aptitude for sport with 2 doors, 2 or 2+2 seats, opened or closed, which can be used perfectly legally on the open road and available for sale thanks to the dealer network of a manufacturer recognized by the ACO.’

In the GT class, you will see examples of BMW, Corvette, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Ford, Jaguar, Aston Martin, Panoz and Porsche vehicles all vying for the coveted class title. Each of these cars has been highly modified from its production sibling and re-built for life on a racetrack. GT cars boast top speeds of up to 180 mph, produce between 450 and 500 hp, and have a minimum weight of 2,480 pounds.

The two classes within GT are broken down based on driver classification rather than performance or cost specifications of the cars. The ACO has defined four different classes of driver, Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum, based on their previous experience, skill level, age, and career achievements. (Driver classes are listed here, page 82)

GTE PRO (simply referred to as GT) is a car that complies with all GT regulations and has no driver restrictions. This class is a professional class, and will be contested by 19 cars at Sebring. GT is by far the largest class, and traditionally the hardest fought.

GTE AM is for GT cars at least one year old, and must have a minimum of two drivers per car in the Bronze or Silver class. This is an amateur class and is designed to bring new teams, cars and drivers into the American Le Mans Series. GTE AM brings 5 cars to the Sebring grid.

GTC cars, much like their LMPC cousins, are the stock car of the GT category. The only authorized GTC cars are the 2010 / 2011 model year Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car. Cars in the GTC class have top speeds of up to 150 mph and a minimum weight of 2,655 pounds. There are 9 cars competing in the GTC class.

Overall, there are 24 Le Mans Prototype cars and 33 Grand Touring cars on the entry list for Sebring. This is a total of 57 cars, just two cars shy of the 2002 field, which was the largest turnout ever during the ALMS era of the 12 Hours of Sebring.

I know what you are thinking. Wow, that is complicated enough to read in an article, how on earth can I keep up with of all of that on a racetrack? Well, have no fear. The ALMS is one step ahead of you. There are several ways you can keep tabs on what car belongs to what class and even what cars are leading their respective classes as you watch the race. The color of the Leader Lights (located on the sides of the car and lit to designate 1st, 2nd and 3rd place in class), the car numbers and even the headlights will help you keep track of the racing action.

LMP1 cars have Red Leader Lights and Red Numbers
LMP2 cars have Blue Leader Lights and Blue Numbers
LMPC cars have no Leader Lights and Yellow Numbers
GTE PRO cars have Green Leader Lights and Green Numbers
GTE AM cars have Yellow Leader Lights and Green Numbers
GTC cars have no Leader Lights and Orange Numbers

In addition to this, during hours of darkness, you can tell the difference between LMP and GT cars based on their headlights. GT car’s headlights produce a yellow light while LMP car’s headlights glow white.

So, what do you get when you mix together

  • 57 teams running multiple manufacturers such as Audi, Peugeot, BMW, Jaguar, Porsche, and many more,
  • Fuels ranging from Diesel to Ethanol blends to Isobutanol,
  • Tires from Michelins to Yokohomas, Dunlops to Falkens,
  • Engines ranging from 4 cylinders to 12 – some turbocharged others not,
  • Different chassis manufacture, design and engine placement,
  • Hybrid technology,
  • and much, much more

on one of the most iconic racetracks in North America?

Turn up the heat and bake well for 12 hours, and you have the recipe for one of the greatest races ever held on American soil – the season opening race of the 2011 American Le Mans Series, the 12 Hours of Sebring!

If this has whetted your appetite for some great racing, the first course will be served on March 19th at Sebring International Raceway… Hope to see you there!

Photos courtesy of Eddie LaPine and Colton Ellis

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