I have a neighbor who's a car guy, a gearhead in the most positive terms. He has a new Mustang, a late BMW 3 Series, a couple of bikes and he's building his own customframe Hog. His wife drives a late SUV with big wheels and she also has an early VW crew cab in storage awaiting restoration. They follow televised motorsport, the usual NASCAR, Moto GP, some Formula One and a few sports car events when they happen to show up on their flat screen. We chat on weekends, the type of conversation that happens in the driveway when the garage door is open. My neighbor usually asks about where I've traveled to, what I've driven, and which race I'm attending next.
For a change, I turned the tables by asking: "Long Beach is the next round of the ALMS, it's close to home, are you going?" He wasn't sure, what with the depleted field of open-wheelers as the main show and he couldn't care less about the celebrity races, so I asked his thoughts on the American Le Mans Series. "I watched the race from St. Petersberg yesterday," he said. "Why does it have to be so confusing? They talk about four classes and I only see two, prototypes and GT cars. And what's with the Audi?" His reply unfortunately confirmed what many people say about ALMS coverage on the box.
The morning after the 12 Hours of Sebring, I had coffee with Dindo Capello and Allan McNish. The championship duo were reflecting on their years racing in the U.S. as Sebring was to be their final appearance for the season. Audi made the decision to enter the Le Mans Series based in Europe, going head to head with Peugeot and that company's diesel-powered 908 coupe; two major manufacturers in their home markets, taking it to the great circuits of the continent and showing off their technology. All this in addition to The Big One, the 24 Heures du Mans. Audi Sport has retained its number one pairing of McNish and Capello exclusively for combat in Europe, hence the 'farewell to America' conversation.
Capello is the more animated, his broken Italian/English speaking of his first visit to Sebring in 1999 and what it meant. It wasn't the third overall or the first public debut of the Audi R8R that he recalls, it was his two teammates aboard Ingolstadt's new racer that brought out the emotion. Anyone who is Italian and races has an immediate interest in the prancing horse of Maranello. Capello grew up watching the likes of Michele Alboreto and Stefan Johansson hustling about in Formula One as Ferrari drivers. And there he was between the two, not as a fan but an equal in one of the world's major sports car races. And like his ex-Ferrari heroes, Capello went on to become a winner at Le Mans.
McNish is more thoughtful; he prods Capello by exchanging memories. "Remember at Portland, when you got hit by the Porsche 911 and we came back to win?" he says. "Riding Harleys from Salt Lake City to the west coast, the close finishes and the vastness of America?" "So why leave?" I ask. A determined look replaces the Scot's previous jovial air. "I want to take it to the Peugeot. You saw what happened yesterday. We have a lot of work to do and if we're to have a chance at Le Mans, we need the rounds of the LMS to improve the R10 and get more speed."
This translates to the fact that McNish wants to run against cars of the same class the R10 was built for: LMP1. He no longer wants to deal with the limitations put on the Audi in the ALMS to keep the lighter LMP2 mounts (such as the Penske Porsche RS Spyder) competitive. McNish then adds what he finds most obvious and maybe, just maybe, what marketing has missed: "If I'm at home and watching an ALMS race, I would question why the Audi-with a diesel-has to make more pit stops for fuel than a car with a conventional motor. Doesn't diesel get better mileage? What is this saying to the market Audi is trying to convince that diesel is the future? Shouldn't they be concerned about this?"
Exactly. One of the greatest drivers in sports car history has the wisdom to bring up what my neighbor brought up. He doesn't want to hear about parity or fuel equivalency. To him, a diesel should be getting superior mileage. And from what he sees on the box, it isn't.