Morning practice got off to a late start due to a non-driver related medical incident. Robert Clarke, CEO of de Ferran Motorsports fell off a golf cart and needed to be tended to at a track crossing, which caused the delay. On-track time was further shortened when the red flag came out for Chris Dyson hitting the wall in the #16-P2 Dyson Mazda on his out lap. The damage was minimal and would be repaired for this afternoon’s race. Ultimately, only 6 cars recorded lap times in morning practice.
Due to the lack of morning practice, many teams would be dealing with unknowns during the race. Without a lot of tire data from practice sessions to go from, several teams were uncertain with their tire choices. The P1 Acuras have no previous experience on this track and in GT2; there are three different tire manufacturers, two of which are working with new tires for this race. While the Michelin runners should be in pretty good shape with plenty of data from previous street courses, both Yokohama and Dunlop are working with new tires for their respective teams.
Additionally, track condition was also shown to be a concern for many drivers. During practice sessions and qualifying drivers noted that the grip level in turn one could be tricky due to the paint on the runway portion of this combined street and airport circuit.
The only change to the starting positions would be that the #44-GT2 Flying Lizard Porsche driven by Seth Neiman, would start from the back after a tire change. The 17-car field took the Green Flag at 1:20 and the first turn was incident-free. By the end of the first lap the #66-P1 XM Acura of Gil de Ferran held a solid 0.825-second lead over Scott Sharp in the #9-P1 Patron car. Lead positions were unchanged in P2 & GT2. In P2, the Lowe’s #15 Acura maintained the lead over the Dyson Mazdas, and Pierre Kaffer’s #62 Ferrari held the lead in GT2. But, the #90 BMW of Bill Auberlen moved into second around Wolf Henzler in the #87 Farnbacher Loles Porsche after an excellent start.
Not too long into the race, Joel Feinberg in the # 11 Viper has a relatively lucky spin in turn 2 while trying to get past the #28 LG Motorsports Corvette of Lou Gigliotti. He touched the wall lightly and was able to continue. However, he would not be so lucky a short time later when he had a tire let go and hit the wall hard in the kink, which would end their day and bring out the only full course caution of the race.
Scott Sharp got caught out by the slippery conditions in turn 1 when he got on the brakes a little late, spinning the car and allowing the Lowe’s P2 Acura to get past him and take second overall.
Henzler had moved into first in GT2 ahead of the #62 Risi Competizione Ferrari, however the strong early runs by both cars came to premature ends when they encountered mechanical issues. The Risi Ferrari came into the pits after Pierre Kaffer complained of possible tire buildup, only to discover a damaged left front suspension, which would cause them to retire the car. The #87 Farnbacher Porsche came to the pits, also with a tire issue and discovered that they had damage to the right rear brake line caused by the tire delaminating and wrapping around the suspension and brake line. They would re-enter the race many laps down after the repair.
After the bad luck of the Ferrari and Farnbacher Porsche, Patrick Long would inherit the GT2 lead, ahead of both of the BMWs. Bill Auberlen would come into the pits for service and a driver a change, only to have the car fail to restart for Joey Hand. This was reminiscent of Sebring, where they had a similar issue with the starter. The car would be retired.
About this time is when the Primetime Viper had its second incident bringing out the full course yellow and bringing all remaining cars to the pits for their service and driver changes. The #66 Acura of Simon Pagenaud had made their stop a few laps earlier giving the lead in P1 to Scott Sharp. Sharp was able to make his stop during the yellow and therefore maintain the lead in P1.
Upon the restart, the Lowes Fernandez P2 Acura would be in the overall lead, chased down by David Brabham now driving the #9 Highcroft Acura. Brabham would be able to pass Fernandez within a few laps and regain the overall lead, which they would never relinquish.
The Lowe’s Fernandez Acura would maintain their second overall position and drive to a relatively unchallenged win in P2, followed in second and third by the #16 and #20 Mazdas respectively.
The #66 Acura was plagued by various issues that required several pit stops to try to diagnose and would never challenge for the lead. Eventually, it would retire, stopped on course due to an apparent electrical or fuel related problem. This would allow the #37 Intersport Lola to move into second in P1 and would relegate the #66 Acura to their third place position on the podium.
The LG Motorsports Corvette with Eric Curran at the wheel would impress as it moved to second in class behind the #45 Flying Lizard Porsche, driven by Jorg Bergmeister. After holding that position for several laps, they would eventually be passed by the #21 Panoz of Dominic Farnbacher and then a lap later by the #92 BMW of Dirk Mueller. Mueller would eventually also pass the Panoz and move into second position. This effectively set the top three finishing positions within GT2.
David Brabham would take the checkered flag and the first win for the new Acura P1 program. Adrian Fernandez would take the P2 victory; the first time the same manufacturer would take victories in the two top classes in the same race. The #45 Flying Lizard Porsche would take another victory in GT2, but the #92 Rahal Letterman BMW would take a second place finish in only its second race, showing great potential for the program in 2009. Panoz would follow up their podium at Sebring with another third place finish, putting three different manufacturers and three different tire manufacturers on the GT2 podium. A great sign for the always competitive GT2 class.
David Brabham would comment on their historic win and the tough turn one conditions, “I had to get past Fernandez and nearly went off at Turn 1 and saw what Scott had been talking about. I didn’t panic and knew the grip would come. I wasn’t sure where Simon was in the other car because the radio failed four laps before Scott came in. I had to push but not push too hard; I went into Turn 1 sliding a few times. It may have looked easy but it really was not.”
“There is paint at Turn 1 in the braking zone. It was just at the point where you turned in and you knew you had no grip. From the beginning to the end of the stint, I think our braking zone must have extended back 100 feet to make sure you got through. It was that difficult. The rest of the track was pretty good. That one corner though was a handful.”
“This championship has proven that you have to be consistent otherwise it makes it very difficult to come back. The guys never missed a beat. It’s great for us in terms of the championship and gives us a cushion, which is important for the rest of the season.”
Jorg Bergmeister would comment on the tough tire issues teams faced during the race, “We were pretty conservative on the tire choice in qualifying, and that paid off for us in the long runs during the race (the cars must start on at least three of its four qualifying tires). I think choosing other compounds gave some of our competitor’s trouble. By the time I got in the car, there was not much to do except keep our car on the track and stay clean. As far as I know, we were on the same compound and we were hoping it would stay green because our car is very consistent on long runs.”
The Series will now move further west and join the IRL again, this time at Long Beach. This always promises to be a great event and, like St. Pete, a huge party atmosphere. Sharing race weekends with the IRL always brings out large crowds and, while the car count will still be smaller than normal, St. Pete proved that you do not need 40 cars to provide exciting and entertaining racing.