BRASELTON, GA, OCT. 12 — The Thetford / Norcold Dyson Racing team returned to form in the American Le Mans Series today, with drivers James Weaver, Butch Leitzinger and Andy Wallace fighting for top positions throughout their run in the season-ending Petit Le Mans.
After breaking the lap record for LMP675 cars on Saturday, Weaver started his #16 MG-Lola EX257 an impressive third on the grid. The race proved that qualifying was no fluke for the Dyson team. Five laps into the race, and the English star was outbreaking Tom Kristensen`s all-conquering Audi for second spot.
“I think I should be given the O.B.E. after that pass,” the irrepressible Weaver joked afterwards. “Really, the car`s fantastic. We are really getting there, and I am pleased with the progress we have made this weekend.”
To the delight of the crew, Weaver held down second position before making an early pit stop for left side tires. He remained in the car for another half-hour and handed the controls to Leitzinger during a full-course caution period at the one-hour mark. The Pennsylvanian was soon scrapping with David Brabham`s Panoz for the overall lead. The battle became fierce, and both Joest Audis joined the fray along with Jim Matthews Riley and Scott mk3C. Unfortunately, the battle would be short-lived, as Leitzinger was forced to pit early when his right-front tire picked up a puncture just before the start / finish line. Leitzinger had to limp around the course to return to the pits, and after a driver swap to Andy Wallace the team found itself two laps down.
“The car is great,” Leitzinger said later. “It is good in traffic, the power delivery was good, and it was great to be fighting with the Audis. It was a shame about that puncture but it happens sometimes, unfortunately.”
Wallace picked up the pieces and embarked on a stellar stint, picking off cars gradually and moving up to fifth overall. He was engaged in a spirited duel with the #2 Audi of Emmanuele Pirro for several laps. The cars ran nose-to-tail through traffic and down through Road Atlanta`s thrilling downhill sweepers.
The exhilarating duel came to a rather sudden halt when the car experienced a small fuel fire that would prove terminal. Wallace had radioed into the pits that he smelled fuel, and soon afterwards the car had burst into flames entering the medium speed Turn 6. The Briton slowed immediately, and just as he backed off for the slower Turn 7 the whole rear end burst into flames. “It was something with the fuel system that caused the fire,” Wallace said. “It was too bad because the car was just so good– this package and the engine are just superb.” To compound the team`s problem, as Wallace slowed the trailing Audi rammed into the back of the car and broke the MG-Lola`s right-rear suspension. Wallace had the presence of mind to quickly bail out of the car and help marshals to extinguish the blaze, which thankfully turned out to be not as bad as originally suspected.
Afterwards, team boss Rob Dyson was proud of his team. “We are very excited about this package,” he said. “We have really only run the car in three races and we are getting closer to where we need to be. It was great to see James and the guys up there scrapping today for the overall lead. I would have loved to have seen us have a good result today– this has become a great event. But they knew that we were here today, and that is important. We are looking forward to the offseason and working with Goodyear, Lola, and Advanced Engine Research, who have done great work so far on this new project . Next year we are adding another car and we are going to keep working hard to stay at the sharp end of the grid. The crew have done an absolutely fantastic job all year and I am very proud of them. We wil be back at this race again next year, for sure.”
The Dyson Racing team`s 2003 American Le Mans Series season starts next March at the 12 Hours of Sebring.