POUGHKEEPSIE, NY April 12, 2011 – After finishing the 12 Hours of Sebring second among the American Le Mans Series LMP1 entries (and first in points), we sat down with Chris Dyson to get his thoughts on the team`s performance at Sebring, this weekend`s upcoming Long Beach Grand Prix, and the start of a new season:
We are coming off a solid run at Sebring. How does that affect your confidence for the Long Beach race and for the season?
It makes a huge difference for the season, to be honest. If there`s one lesson we`ve learned from our years in the ALMS, it is that you have to score week in and week out. Sebring is a bonus points event, so it`s critical to have a strong result. The team executed brilliantly all week at Sebring and that really sets the tone for the rest of the year.
Best memory from Sebring?
Midway through the event, I looked at the timing and scoring and we were running fourth overall with a car that was five seconds off the pace. I really chuckled at that, but it was no fluke. The faster cars were smashing into each other and going off into the tires, and our Mazda had just marched up the charts. Obviously, we couldn`t sustain it over the full race, but it did give us all some genuine pride in the quality of the team`s performance and strategy.
How has the car livery evolved from Sebring?
We have incorporated our partners, Modspace and ConstructCorps, into the livery more cohesively and more cleanly. G-OIL still retains the same branding locations and the 16 car is still, unmistakably “green,” but we felt that the livery needed to evolve to make all the partners more visible and I think the graphics team did a good job.
We are entering the third year of our package with this car. How do you find more speed in the car as the team gets more familiar with the car?
This year is an evolution to the rules that we`ve raced under largely since 2009, but familiarity with the Lola-Mazda coupe is probably the biggest ingredient. Certainly, with this year being our second year on the Dunlops, we`re starting every weekend on a stronger footing than we did in 2010. Also, the team at AER has consistently improved the Mazda MZR-R engine, and this year we`re really looking forward to some nice steps from our friends at Lola. If you look back to our first race with this car in 2009 and trace the performance steps we`ve made since then, we`re very encouraged. There`s more to come this year, and that`s why we think we`ll be in a good position for the championship.
You first ran Long Beach in 2005. Your thoughts on your very first lap of the track?
I fell in love with Long Beach right away. It`s a great challenge. Most street circuits don`t really have long straightaways and good rhythm sections, but Long Beach is unique. Also, you really feel like you`re competing on a grand stage. The track is like a cavern slicing though a city, and the crowds are fantastic. The whole time it feels like you`re in a huge stadium. It`s an extra buzz and you find yourself digging deeper every lap.
How much of an adjustment is there in a driver`s style going from the wide-open track at Sebring to the confines of a street race like Long Beach?
You have to treat both tracks with equal respect. Sebring looks wide open but in reality there`s so little runoff, you can have a massive shunt before you even know what happened. Also, it`s the first race of the year and the last thing you want to do is jeopardize the team`s result in an enduro. Long Beach has Jersey barriers lining the track and that keeps you honest. You have to respect the limit at all times because Long Beach is entirely unforgiving. Blow the corner entry and pay the price.
The car ran flawlessly at Sebring. Talk a little bit about the advances that have been done to the Mazda MZR-R engine, the Lola chassis and the Dunlop tires in the off-season.
Engine-wise, the team ended 2010 on a very strong footing. The second half of last season reflected all the hard work and development efforts that AER had put into the Mazda MZR-R engine. It`s the smallest engine on the track, but you`d never know that based on the Mazda turbo`s performance. This offseason, the engine team has concentrated on maximizing the power and torque curves based on the 2011 regulations, which are quite a bit different than last year`s and which were finalized quite late in the day. On the Lola chassis front, over the winter, we focused on starting the season with the narrower, 2011 rear wing and understanding the effects this would have on the balance of the car. There`s less downforce, so this has meant that we have had to reconsider the mechanical setup, including the springs and shock absorbers. We worked very hard in the testing to regain the balance and make the car happy on the tires, which thanks to Dunlop have taken another step forward. We had a pretty short timescale to come up with a race-able package, but as always the DRT engineering team gave us a great car in the race at Sebring. There`s definitely some more to come with the car, but we`ve hit the ground running.
What is the best part of the Long Beach track?
I really like the last section of corners before the Queen`s Hairpin. You come down the back straight and brake as late as you can, but you have to be careful of the bumps in the middle of the braking zone. Get greedy and your day will be over instantly. But if you get the entrance to that corner right, the car flows through the rest of the complex quite nicely. It`s a challenge every lap, and very important for lap time.
Why does Long Beach posses such an iconic standing among street races?
I think it`s mainly the venue itself and the great history of the event. If you look at a transformative event in a city`s history, the LBGP is certainly one of the biggest game-changers for Long Beach. The fact that it has run without interruption for over thirty-five years is a staggering accomplishment for a street race. Most come and go after only a few years. The longevity and the importance of the SoCal market means it`s the “city” race that every team and sponsor wants to win the most.
The importance of qualifying at Long Beach vs. other tracks?
Qualifying is very important at Long Beach, but the nature of the track still allows for passing and this means it`s not the do-all and end-all. The polesitter hasn`t won the race every year we`ve been here, and that says something about the place.
Is Long Beach more of a measured strategy compared to others on the ALMS calendar?
It`s a tough one because it`s an unusual race distance. At two hours, it`s the shortest race on the calendar and it`s the first time we`ve run the race over 90 minutes here. This is going to raise some interesting strategic points because fuel economy will be just as big of a factor as outright performance and arguably more so. Once the flag drops, it`s up to Vince (Wood) and Peter (Weston) to navigate Guy and I to the front!
Last year you were elected to the Road Race Drivers Club at Long Beach. A highlight of the year for you?
It was really cool — an honor — to join the RRDC. I had been pestering my dad for years about joining this “secret society” and he and Bob Leitzinger always used to laugh about that. All joking aside, the highlight of my year was finding out that we were having a baby girl!
What kind of flavor does a race weekend have when we share the track with IndyCar?
It`s enhanced. The turnout is always very good and the same kind of fans who watch IndyCars like ALMS, and vice versa. It`s always great to see our friends from the IndyCars, several of whom have competed in ALMS the past few years. Usually, we share the venues at classic stops on our tours, so the crowds are really into it.
This is a “home race” for Mazda with their corporate headquarters nearby. How does the addition of their enthusiastic fans affect the team and drivers?
The SoCal tuning crowd really has lots of love for Mazda, and the paddock is always mobbed around our cars. It`s amazing how passionate the Mazda owners are about the brand!
A recent Motor Trend article called us the “greenest entry” in the ALMS with our biodegradable oil, G-OIL and bio-fuel isobutanol. How does our green message fit in with your view on the direction of racing and the ALMS series?
It`s a great fit and really a matter of perfect timing that we happened to align ourselves with “green” thinking companies as the ALMS was truly beginning to embrace Green Racing. I couldn`t be prouder of our partners. It’s an honor to be aligned with such a forward-thinking group at G-OIL, who recognize the ALMS as a terrific platform to showcase their wonderful product in the most demanding racing conditions. Likewise Mazda, whose 2.0 liter MZR-R turbo engine is a core engine for their road car platform, has leveraged the value of the ALMS program as a direct connection to the their own, cutting-edge showroom products. And we have been able to give the world debut to the isobutanol fuel, which is revolutionary. How many other racing platforms allow for such a broad array of technological freedom and innovation? Racing needs to be fast, exciting and dramatic. But it can also contribute some genuine good to the world through innovation. The ALMS has given us the opportunity to showcase some incredible technologies and spread our partners` messages in a thrilling environment.